“The Decline of Comprehension-Based Silent Reading Efficiency in the United States: A Comparison of Current Data with Performance in 1960” appeared in Reading Research Quarterly in 2016. While there are endless debates about reading pedagogy, there is consensus that the best way to assess silent reading efficiency is by measuring eye movements. The original norms for eye movements in reading were obtained by testing 12,000 children from first grade through college and were published by S. E. Taylor in 1960. The research for the current study was done in 2010 – 2011 and with small variations, the norms are essentially unchanged. The biggest difference is that new technology has made it easier to track and record eye movements and to demonstrate improvement due to therapy to develop ocular motor skills.
Reading is complex and learning to read requires the precisely timed coordination of many functions which have developed to enable reading. Focused rehearsal over thousands of hours and many years are necessary before reading becomes proficient. Many people have more difficulty learning to read than would be expected based on their intelligence, educational experience, and effort. Attention to the long-range goals of reading can be displaced due to the emphasis on the foundational skills that must be acquired and integrated. We hope that children develop the following, not just move on to the next reading level:
- Become lifelong readers for information and pleasure;
- Absorb and retain the intent of the author (if they have familiarity with the subject and the necessary vocabulary);
- Read efficiently for prolonged periods of time without visual fatigue.
Children who are having difficulty mastering reading are often reading at their frustration level in which there are too many unknown words. Marilyn Jager Adams, in Beginning to Read, does not describe this as reading but calls it “gagging on words”. It is not surprising that children do not find this to be fun or interesting and do not read on their own. They do not recognize a word that they have decoded in a previous sentence because they can’t learn 5 to 10 new words in each reading session. If they could do that, it is unlikely that they would have a reading problem.
Decoding too many words during reading not only interrupts reading, it also causes more visual fatigue as children stare to sound out the words not immediately retrievable from their sight vocabulary. It also does not enable rehearsal of the eye movements which are prerequisite for efficient reading.
Continuing to read orally, so what children are reading can be heard by others to assess their accuracy and fluency, requires the reader to be looking a few words ahead of the word that they are vocalizing. It emphasizes the ability to say words, which is the goal of the earliest stage of learning to read, but when prolonged, may interfere with the transition to reading for content. When children start to read “silently”, they are still saying all the words, they are just not saying them out loud and don’t have to divide their attention between the word that they are recognizing during that fixation and the word that they are saying. As reading becomes more efficient, not only do eye movements become more accurate, more and more words are understood without being subvocalized. The speech area of the brain is now by-passed, allowing the brain to be more efficient as happens when learned skills become automatic. This is analogous to the difference between a neophyte playing notes and a musician playing music. The musician still plays notes, but they are the vehicle to produce music, not the goal.
It is accepted that measuring eye movements is the best way to assess reading efficiency, but does poor reading cause inaccurate eye movements or do inaccurate eye movements cause poor reading? The answer is either or both. Testing a child with material that is too difficult for them to understand with too many unknown words will cause inefficient eye movements. Testing a child with undeveloped ocular motor skills on material that should be easy for them, will also demonstrate disorganized eye movements. The problems of some of these children are not recognized because they are able to derive information from the print despite their scrambled input and the prolonged concentration required, but it should be easier and faster for them. Inaccurate eye movements will also be caused by print that is too small and crowded for that individual’s visual skills.
Basic information about eye movements and visual processing is not part of teacher education, even for those who obtain a masters in reading. While this information has evolved, it is not new. It appeared in textbooks for teachers over 50 years ago (Reading in the Elementary School). Most teachers who know about vision have learned by watching students struggle in their classroom who show signs of visual problems and from communication with their students’ optometrists.
The authors state: Although comprehension-based silent reading provides a useful measure of reading efficiency, more detailed and valuable insights can be gained by recording eye movement activity during reading. The observable behavior associated with continuous reading includes a well-coordinated pattern of fast eye movements (referred to as saccades) that are interrupted by fixations (periods of relative stability) during with visual information is acquired.
The grade-level norms for saccades, fixations, and regressions per 100 words are listed in the table below.
As the norms confirm, the average student takes years to develop the ability to read efficiently. Everyone knows that this is dependent on increased vocabulary, background knowledge and sight vocabulary. It is also dependent on efficient visual input which requires rapid, accurate, sustainable eye movements, two eyes aimed and focused on the precise location in a word to derive the most information, and rapid visual recognition and processing.
As stated above, visuomotor behavior reflects the mental workload which is a top-down influence. Eye movement proficiency is a bottom-up influence. Having to exert conscious attention to focusing, eye alignment, and tracking can be exhausting. Since attention is a limited resource, poor eye movements will also interfere with comprehension. This has become even more obvious as we work with patients who have sustained head injuries whose eye movements have suddenly lost their automatic efficiency causing an inability to read in addition to many other problems. Measuring silent reading speed and comprehension is generally an adequate measure of visual efficiency when the student is reading as is expected of them based on their grade level and other related factors. But the causes of inefficiency in reading cannot be assessed without assessing focusing, eye teaming, and eye movements.
Reading slowly requires more time, visual resilience, and persistence. It also makes it more difficult to stay engaged if there is a mismatch between your speed of understanding the material and how quickly you can read it. This is easily misdiagnosed as a primary problem with attention, not poor attention due to visual problems.
The eye-brain connections developed by reading continue to develop proficiency into adult years for many people. Note the original data obtained by Taylor. Improved ocular motor skills and visual processing are a necessary facet of increased silent reading efficiency.
As mentioned above, orthography is important. Text that is too small and crowded impairs everyone’s visual efficiency to varying degrees. Crowding makes reading conscious and effortful. Varying the print size and spacing is another way to tease out the ocular motor component of reading disabilities.
Children are curious and most want to learn to read, at least until it becomes too difficult. Those who do not learn to read well have a significant handicap in our society. Many of them have visual problems that can be improved through lenses and optometric vision therapy.