Preventing Visual Confusion
Reading has a component of muscle memory. The eyes are muscles which must learn to track together in the direction of reading and writing. In the case of English, the direction is from left to right, top to bottom. Children vary in their eye muscle development, and the speed at which they internalize this pattern. This is completely separate from intelligence.
Unfortunately, many of our current reading methods and classroom practices undermine the development of visual muscle memory.
Many students struggle to learn to read because their eyes do not have the pattern of reading memorized. Their eyes easily stray around the page, especially when pictures or other objects are on the page. Sadly, many of these students are then scolded for their lack of attention, for it appears that they cannot focus on the text. In reality the pages are graphically designed to draw the eyes to the pictures. Good graphic designers use the way that the human eye looks at a page to design a page with a focal point. Small words on the page are not the focal point when the page contains pictures. Many students find their eyes wandering to the images that are the most visually grabbing. Some students do not have the visual muscles to control this.
A simple solution is to allow students to look at the images on the page and then cover them with a piece of blank paper. Students who struggle with visual muscle memory will find great relief in the images being covered.
Students can also use a tracking card to aid themselves in reading. Many emerging readers struggle with tracking from line to line. A blank index card can be used to cover the lines below the line being read. When the student comes to the end of the line, she moves the card down. For students with the greatest difficulty a card may also cover the text above, leaving only one line of text exposed.
In efforts to be more relational, many classrooms now have students push their desks together so that they face one another. In addition, many students study at home at the kitchen table across from siblings. However, when students sits across from another student, they are seeing print upside down. For students without strong visual muscle memory this is creating additional confusion.
To prevent visual confusion
Classrooms should be arranged in a traditional fashion, with students facing the teacher. This is also true in one-on-one tutor settings. Teachers should be directly in front of all the students.
Students should not sit at a 90 degree angle to the board. For many students, translating even 90 degrees creates confusion. Even adults with dyslexia report greater ease of learning when directly facing the teacher.
Teachers should always stand to the left of the board. Students' eyes naturally go to the teacher first and then to the content on the board. This reinforces the muscle development for the direction of reading and writing.
Teachers should do everything in the direction of reading and writing. Cross T's from left to right, erase the board from left to right. Students' eyes will unconsciously follow these patterns.
Use a board with lines when writing words. The lines aid students in discerning the precise shapes.
Cover pictures in beginning readers for students who struggle with directionality. Many students' eyes will wander to the pictures on the page, rather than focusing on the text. Often this is not an issue of attention, but rather it is a problem with developing visual muscle memory. The pictures are designed to draw the eye. It takes visual effort to keep the eyes from going to the most prominent areas of the page. Direct students to look at the pictures, then cover them with a blank sheet of paper before reading the text.
Follow the words with your finger while reading to young students. Children's eyes will naturally follow your finger for a short time, providing additional muscle practice.
Students should not sit across from one another. Facing another student can create confusion for children who do not have visual orientation firmly established.
Students should not be asked to do copywork before they can read at a second grade level or higher. Students who do not understand the words they are writing are not gaining language skills from the activity. It is more akin to art and copying patterns. Students with visual confusion will tend to write letters backwards and not establish a good foundation for handwriting.
Students should not be taught "Reading Strategies" as a method to unlock a word. With "Reading Strategies," when students encounter an unknown word they are instructed to 1) look at the first and last letters of the word, 2) reread the sentence, 3) reread the paragraph, 4) look at any pictures on the page, and 5) if they still do not know, continue on and try to construe meaning. "Reading Strategies" assume the student is unable to decode the sounds of the word in sequence from left to right. These strategies reinforce poor eye muscle memory by asking the student's eyes to go back and forth and jump around the page. Emerging and struggling readers should rather be taught all the information necessary to decode a word by looking at the word itself.
Students should be taught through clear spoken instructions how to form each letter. The teacher should speak about what she is doing, while demonstrating, then ask the student to describe the movements while she makes them. This is essential to aiding students who struggle with reversals.
Teach cursive handwriting first, or for remedial students switch them to cursive handwriting.
Use the expression, "Go in the direction we read and write," to refer to movement from left to right.