Vision plays an important role in learning. Studies have demonstrated that up to 80 percent of what students learn in school is through the visual system. Blurred sight, double vision, eyestrain, slow focusing, and poor visual processing skills can interfere with learning. Students may compensate by holding their reading materials close to their eyes to magnify the print, using their finger to help them maintain their place when reading, and by squinting or covering one eye. Others will avoid using their vision and ask their classmates for help, avoid doing their assignments, and use their verbal skills rather than to write their ideas on paper. These are the children who are often smart in everything but school.
The American Optometric Association recommends that children have their vision examined by the age of 2 years. This is very important because the first 3 years of life are critical in the normal development of vision. The early diagnosis and treatment of vision problems greatly improves the prognosis of correcting the vision problem. Unfortunately, many children have their first eye-screening test performed when they enter kindergarten and are asked to read letters from the Snellen eye chart. This screening test only measures how well students are able to read letters from 20 feet and it does not measure the visual skills used for learning.
There are many visual skills used in the process of reading, writing, and learning. Eye muscle control, peripheral vision, color vision, and visual processing are just a few that are not tested by the 20/20 Snellen eye chart. Children will benefit from having a comprehensive developmental vision assessment to make certain that they have the visual skills needed for learning before they are asked to perform reading and writing tasks in the classroom. There are three basic components of vision that should be evaluated. First, the tissues and structures of the eyes must be inspected to make sure that the eyes are healthy. Next, visual intake skills must be looked at to determine how efficiently the eyes are able to focus on words, letters, and images. Finally, visual perception skills should be assessed to determine how well the brain processes and interprets the information sent by the eyes to the brain.
The internal and external structures of the eyes must be examined thoroughly. This involves the use of eye drops to dilate the pupils of the eyes to allow doctors to inspect the internal structures of the eyes. Cataracts, glaucoma, retinopathy of prematurity, and other eye conditions can be detected and treated to maximize the development of vision. Children with blurred sight due to eye disease can benefit from low vision aids and specialized glasses. These children should be fit with such devices as soon as possible to allow the brain to interpret visual information with the low vision aid.
Visual intake testing involves a variety of tests to determine how well the eyes take in information and send it to the brain. Poor visual intake skills can cause blurred sight, double vision, headaches, eyestrain, and may cause words to appear to jump or move while reading. First, clarity of sight must be tested at distance and near to make certain that students are able to see words on the chalkboard clearly as well as their books and handouts. Near to far and far to near focusing skills must be examined to make sure that students are able to shift their eyes from the chalkboard to their paper and back to the board for extended periods of time. Students with poor near focusing skills may become tired after performing close work for ten to twenty minutes and their performance may worsen with time. Assessment of eye teaming skills, left to right tracking, eye alignment, and muscle coordination must be performed to make sure that students have the ability to point the eyes in a left to right reading pattern. Students with eye coordination problems frequently have difficulty keeping their place while reading or they may skip or omit words. They may compensate by using their finger to keep their place or they may cover one eye or tilt their head while reading and writing. ,. Other visual intake skills assessed include peripheral vision, color vision, contrast vision, glare sensitivity, and the need for glasses to correct farsightedness, nearsightedness, and astigmatism.
Vision perception testing is the third component of the developmental vision assessment and may be extremely helpful for students who are having academic difficulties. Vision perception is the brain’s ability to interpret or process information received by the eyes. There are many different visual perception skills such as visual discrimination, visual memory, visual spatial relations, and visual motor integration to name a few. Each of these skills are processed at different regions of the brain and play important roles in various aspects of learning. Visual discrimination is the ability to perceive similarities and differences between images that appear similar. Students with poor visual discrimination skills may have problems learning letters and they may confuse letters and numbers that appear similar. Visual memory is the ability to remember what has been seen and weaknesses in this area can cause students to have difficulty reading words that are not spelled phonetically and may force them to sound out each word that they read. Visual motor integration is the ability of the brain to control the hands when copying numbers, letters and images. Students with poor visual motor skills frequently have difficulty-writing notes, copying from the chalkboard, and they may write letters and numbers backwards. Students with visual spatial perception problems frequently have problems reading maps and diagrams as well as difficulties in subjects such as physics, chemistry, and geometry.
After the developmental vision assessment has been completed, the data will be interpreted and specific recommendations and accommodations will be made. Glasses, contact lenses, low vision aids, eye muscle surgery, medications, and vision therapy may be recommended to address the specific visual weakness. The doctors will also provide written reports to be distributed to teachers, parents, and therapists of students to help them to understand the best way of helping these students. Because vision is a learned and developed skill, many of the visual weaknesses will improve with treatment and these students may not require the special accommodations initially prescribed. In all cases, it is important to select the best teaching technique to match the learning style for each student. Students who are totally blind may not be able to perform up to their maximal potential until they develop the Braille skills to access print and write. Similarly, students with poor visual perception skills may perform much better in a classroom that has a stronger focus on verbal learning. Students should be reminded that each person learns best in a different manner. Some are visually; others are auditory or kinesthetic.
Interesting Facts About Vision and Learning
- One of every five children has an undetected vision problem that may interfere with learning.
- Most children are farsighted and will pass the Snellen eye chart test. This test only detects 18% of children who have vision problems.
- Students with farsightedness must exert more effort and work harder to focus on their reading materials.
- Boys are 8 to 10 times more likely to have color vision problems, which can interfere with learning that incorporates color-coding.
- Holding books too close to the eyes and reading in the dark do not cause physical damage to the eyes. These behaviors force the eyes to work harder to focus and may cause eye fatigue.
- Medications such as Ritalin, Cylert, and anti-seizure medications can affect the focusing ability of the eye and cause eye fatigue when reading.
- Sitting too close to a television will not damage the eyes but can cause focusing problems. Keep a lamp on and sit at least 6 feet away.
- Computer games do not improve eye hand coordination and can promote the development of nearsightedness.
- The “darkness” of sunglasses has no relation with protection against ultraviolet radiation.
- Racquet sports are the leading cause of sports related blindness.
- Soft contact lenses can increase nearsightedness in children.
- Law and medical students and those who perform lots or reading and close work tend to become more nearsighted. Gas permeable lenses and reading spectacles can reduce the progression of nearsightedness.