Visual Tracking – The hidden cause of poor reading skills - Finchley's Multi-Award Winning Opticians Practice

Visual Tracking – The hidden cause of poor reading skills

Has your child ever had difficulties with reading or comprehension in school, not just in literacy or English lessons, but also in maths and other subjects? Comprehension problems due to poor visual-tracking skills can affect all school subjects, so it’s worth learning more if your child seems to struggle in school.

There is so much conflicting information and advice out there for parents that most don’t know where to begin. It can be a big source of worry and stress, so I thought I'd clarify the situation to make it easier to identify and understand the differences between the various treatment methods and different ways of assessing to make sure you get it right for your child.

At Central Vision Opticians we’ve helped over 500 kids with difficulties over the last 10 years. I have experienced first-hand the development and use of assessment and treatment technology. As co-founder of Okimo, I’ve been involved in research on visual tracking and helped develop new testing tools and techniques. 

I'll be addressing the following questions:

What is visual tracking?

Let’s start with a basic definition that will help us differentiate between visual tracking issues and other problems relating to child development. In simple terms, visual tracking is the ability to control where we aim our eyes. This is important not only in the classroom, where children are learning to read and write, but also for other activities such as sports and playing.

If a child has good visual tracking skills, they will be able to accurately hit the ball in rounders or follow a line of print without losing their place. However, weaker tracking skills mean that reading and comprehension may suffer as their eye movements are not well coordinated so words and numbers may seem to jump around and meanings may become muddled, possibly affecting your child’s overall development and learning.

How do we tell if a child has difficulty with visual tracking?

Well, a few of the easiest signs to look out for are as simple as noticing if they move their head when they're reading, or if they're skipping over small words or even entire lines. They might find it hard to align vertical and horizontal numbers in maths problems. Some might struggle to catch a ball because they can't get the timing quite right.

Other signs could be that they fail to maintain eye contact with their eyes fixed for a long time. In the classroom, they might lose their place when looking up at the board from their work as their eyes struggle to keep up with the shifting focus.

Since there are many different symptoms, some of which crossover with dyslexia or ADHD and other learning difficulties, it’s important to get properly evaluated by a behavioural optometrist.

What causes visual tracking difficulties?

It’s usually a problem with fine eye movements, and you’ll often find that a child may struggle with focusing and using both eyes together. Eye movements are motor skills which means that the child may have other difficulties with motor skills such as fine hand movements, pincer grips, handwriting and sometimes coordination may also be present. If eye movements and muscles are affected there could be a visual complications where the brain switches off and the information is not absorbed; children may have difficulty processing visual information if they cannot move their eyes accurately.

A child may have difficulties with their working or visual-spatial memory which means they may forget their position when reading or doing other activities. Other causes are a poor use of peripheral vision and visual processing difficulties.

the eyes cannot track words on the page accurately

Figure 1: The lines show where the eyes are pointing when reading. Note the irregular patterns

There are three types of eye movements: fixation (the ability to hold eyes steady on a target), saccades (the ability of eyes to make accurate jumps as we change targets) and pursuits (the ability of eyes to follow moving targets). All of these are crucial to many different activities that children do and we can identify which types your child struggles with to try and tackle the problem.

When should/can we detect a visual tracking problem?

Typically, a child develops the ability to process things visually and track moving objects around the age of 5 to 6. Since it is around this time that children are learning to read and write in school, their visual tracking skills are being developed too.

If you notice that your child has difficulties with learning when they reach the age of 7 to 8, they may have a visual tracking problem as it can affect the child’s attention span and comprehension. Teachers and parents should keep a look out for the tell-tale signs. We usually assess children from the age of 7 to 8.

How do we test for visual tracking difficulties?

One of the simplest ways to examine this is getting the child to follow a moving target and monitoring how many head movements they make as well as the quality of their eye movements. Another test consists of using your child’s DEM (Developmental Eye Movement) test scores. In the past, goggles were used to test this but we now use Okimo, the most up-to-date and advanced technology for analysing eye movements when children read.  

Okimo uses a special, non-invasive sensor mounted to a laptop or computer monitor to track a child's (or an adult's) eye movements as they read text or follow targets on a screen. It’s fast, simple to use and provides accurate information to identify children who have difficulties with their eye movements.

What can we do about difficulties with visual tracking?

Physical exercises is an important factor in improving eye movements and motor skills. We’ll work together to ensure eye movements are accurate and that the muscles have enough stamina when performing a task such as reading a chapter of a book. We can also look at how the brain processes visual information when the eyes move, and then carry out a series of exercises to simulate the way that information is taken in. We also need to make sure we're getting the right information which improves our visual spatial awareness so that we know exactly where to be pointing our eyes at the right time and how to make sure the movement is performed in a controlled way. Then we just keep repeating these exercises again and again until it becomes automatic. Visual-spatial memory can also be improved in this way.

About the Author Bhavin Shah

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