Eye tracking problems can lead to poor comprehension

I worked with a third grader recently whose Iowa scores indicate she is low for reading comprehension.

While she read for me, she skipped little words, like “a” or “in.” She also changed the pronunciation of some small words, saying “shine” when the text said “shin.”

girl in chair reading

Most importantly, she would skip whole lines of text without realizing she had done so. As the lesson continued, she skipped more and more lines of text until she was skipping almost every other line.

What gives?

This child is showing weak eye tracking, sometimes called jumpy eyes. Eye tracking is the ability of both eyes to work together, almost like a single eye, as they read across a line of text.

One symptom of weak eye tracking is skipping over tiny words, especially high frequency words such as articles (a, an, the) and prepositions (in, on, of, for). This does not usually interfere with comprehension. After all, some Asian languages lack articles completely, and the meaning of many prepositions can be inferred from the rest of the phrase. Shorter words and predictable words are likely to be skipped. Longer words, or words that are not high frequency words, are more likely to be read.

Another symptom of weak eye tracking is reading the first few letters of a word correctly, and then guessing at the ending. This impacts comprehension more. If a child reads “read” and then guesses at the rest of the word, she might say “reading” or “ready,” words with different meanings.

But skipping whole lines of text is a serious concern and impacts reading comprehension the most. We all skip lines from time to time, but when we realize that what we are reading makes no sense, we go back and pick up the missing line. Poor readers who are not picking up meaning from the words don’t notice that they have skipped a line. If the paragraphs are long, or the type face is small, this tendency to skip lines increases.

Sometimes eye tracking problems manifest themselves as blurry or shadowy text. It can be hard for the child to “see” the word within the blur. Or sometimes the first letter of one word can seem to be connected to the last letter of the word before, such as, “Th elittl egir lslep t.

Some other signs of eye tracking problems include

  • An aversion to reading
  • Losing your place while reading
  • Guessing at words, especially longer words
  • Poor fluency
  • Tiring after a few minutes of reading

What can you do to help your child with eye tracking problems?

  • First, have his eyes checked to be sure he can see properly.
  • Check with your school district to see if there is a specialist in eye tracking who can test your child and work with him.
  • When he reads for you, instruct him to move his finger under every single word as he reads. Stop him if he skips any words or mispronounces them.
  • If the child is somewhat hyperactive or easily distracted, you might create a book mark with a cut out the size of a line of type. The book mark will block the distracting words while helping the child to focus on the single line of text he is reading.
  • Frequently stop the child to ask what the words mean. If he can’t explain, go back and read again, perhaps slower, and ask after each sentence what that sentence means.

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