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The Eyes Have it: Vision & Reading Disabilities

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

As a literacy specialist, school administrator, and college professor, I read a lot. And I mean A LOT. Not only do I read academic research and articles, but I am on several listserves centered on literacy. A few weeks ago, a topic was posted about vision issues and reading and the moderator of this group aggressively stated that there is no connection between dyslexia (and other language-based learning differences) and vision difficulties. Except there is.

I currently serve as an administrator at a school for dyslexia on the west coast and have worked with hundreds and hundreds of children over the past twenty years who failed to learn to read within the normal window even with copious amounts of intervention. Years ago, I had the privilege of collaborating with a developmental optometrist from Western University who taught me about all of the vision skills required to read fluidly and automatically, including teaming, tracking, convergence, binocularity, fusion, perception, form constancy, visual closure, and accommodation. As a result of a traumatic brain injury I sustained in May of 2019, I also learned that changes in neurotransmitters can also impact the amount of information processed from the retina to the visual cortex.

Nearly every child I have worked with who has a profound reading difficulty has some developmental vision problem. Logically, it makes sense, doesn’t it? In order to read a page of text, your eyes have to fluidly track across the page back and forth, stay on the correct line, capture the images, and communicate those to the visual cortex where a whole other level of work is done neurologically. In the majority of children I have assessed, they are not able to fluidly track an object from side-to-side and up and down. Why does this matter? When children have occular-motor difficulties, their eyes do not follow lines of text accurately. They may jump letters or words, drop lines, and lose their place. They may guess at words or have to read and re-read to make meaning.

Your eye movements are controlled by a number of factors including a fine balance of neurotransmitters and the fine muscles which surround them. These fine motor movements are developed during specific developmental stages including the crawling stage. If the gross motor skills are not fully developed, neither will the fine motor skills. This may result in not only ocular-motor (eye movement) challenges, but speech and writing, as well as the tongue and fingers, are also fine motor movements. Ocular-motor skills are not assessed in school or by most optometrists who assess acuity, a different visual skill.

Indicators of ocular-motor deficits may include skipping lines, re-reading, resting the head on the arm while reading, rubbing their eyes after reading, watery eyes, and feeling sleepy while reading. Difficulties sitting and attending may be an indicator as well because looking at print may cause the child distress so they may find ways to avoid it.

If you suspect your child might have a problem with their visual skills that is impeding their reading, locate a developmental optometrist and seek an assessment of their visual skills. In some states, insurance will cover this. It is treatable through vision therapy and might change your child’s life.

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