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Reconciling the Research Conflict

By Rodney Everson • Updated Aug 29th, 2023

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By the year 2000 I had almost completely accepted the standard line of thought regarding what was causing the vast number of poor readers in our schools. Nearly all of the research being published at the time, and for years preceding, claimed to show that poor readers suffered from some combination of poor phonics knowledge and insufficient auditory skills. That is, they couldn’t match the sounds of English words up with the code we use to represent those sounds because a) they had trouble dealing with the sounds themselves due to auditory issues, or b) they didn’t know the phonics information, or c) some combination of the two.

You can read study after study about reading problems and about dyslexia and never run across a mention of vision problems underlying reading problems. In fact, if a study did mention vision issues, it usually concluded that they were of little consequence.

Therefore, when Diane McGuinness cited research that convinced her that vision problems are not a cause of either reading problems or dyslexia, I was inclined to accept her judgment. She cited the study of 2,590 Norwegian children on page 147 of Why Our Children Can’t Read and pointed out that the study’s authors state:

"Dyslexic children did not differ from other children with regard to eye characteristics. Most children with eye problems do not have dyslexia. In general, there appears to be no particular causal relationship between eye characteristics and reading and spelling difficulties."

Questioning the Research

After my experience with David and with several other clients whose visual symptoms were more subtle than David's, I gradually came to question the consensus of the reading research. Because I have a lot of respect for her opinion, I located the study cited by Diane McGuinness as the one which convinced her that vision skills were not a dominant issue. It’s in the form of a bound book and was hard to get, but eventually it arrived and I read it. All of the 2,590 children were given thorough eye examinations by the usual standards. What I found though is that the “usual standards” are not sufficient to diagnose the vision problems experienced by poor readers.

Granted, your family optometrist will test for convergence ability, to take one important example. The problem is, the test will not be long enough. A child like David could read comfortably for a page or so because he could hold his eyes together for the time it took to read a paragraph. And he could also hold them together long enough to pass a standard convergence test that any competent optometrist would perform. But he could not sustain the effort. This is why his reading would deteriorate after a page or so.

If you ask developmental optometrists to evaluate the testing done in the massive study cited by Diane McGuinness, they will tell you that the tests weren’t sufficient to diagnose a child’s ability to sustain the effort. The problem is that most poor readers can pass a standard optometric eye exam. That is one reason developmental vision examinations take longer to complete. Time has to be expended to see if the child can sustain the effort. The testing done in the study cited by Diane McGuinness failed in that regard.

Incidentally, Ms. McGuinness on pages 145 and 146 directly acknowledges the existence of the sort of vision problems that concern me and does say “visual training alone improved reading test scores for these children.” But she felt at the time that only about one percent of children suffered from such problems.

Ignoring Vision

Summing up the state of the research world in about the year 2000, most research done by those in the field of educational research had concentrated on showing that training in phonics and auditory skills was the way to address a reading problem. Some, like Diane McGuinness, claimed that most cases of dyslexia were simply cases where reading had not been properly taught. To the extent that vision issues were acknowledged at all, they were felt to affect only about one percent of the children of school age, whereas the percentage of children struggling to learn to read was considered to be on the order of ten to twenty percent of all children.

Once I had satisfied myself that the study upon which Diane McGuinness based her conclusions about vision problems was not properly structured, I began a deeper investigation of vision therapy and the sorts of vision problems it addresses. I also began to take a much closer look at each of my clients to see if they were exhibiting symptoms of vision problems.

As this process evolved I eventually reached my present position which is that all children, whether formally diagnosed with dyslexia or not, should see a developmental optometrist if they are still struggling with reading even after being provided quality phonics instruction.

And then I decided to share my experiences with you in the hope that you find some answers for your child’s reading problems. This concludes The Ontrack Reading Story.

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