The relationship of vision and learning

Opinions differ about the relationship between vision and learning. It seem to be common sense to most that vision is a crucial part of learning.

Asked the question, “What is good vision?” the typical answer is, “Having 20/20 vision.” What most people don’t understand is that 20/20 vision – the ability to see clearly from a distance of 20 feet – is only one small measure of visual acuity. Children with vision-related learning problems typically experience difficulties reading, using a computer or doing work at their desks. In fact, most children with vision-related learning problems actually have 20/20 visual acuity.

When I assess a child who is having academic difficulties, I look for problems in two major areas: visual efficiency and visual information processing.

Visual efficiency is the ability to gather information through sight. Can the child see clearly? Do the eyes team together appropriately? Can the child track and move his or her eyes along a page when reading or performing other tasks? Can the child change visual focus accurately and quickly from one distance to another?

Visual information processing is the ability to mentally integrate what the eyes see and be able to use that information. Can the child remember what he or she sees and interpret this information?

Children may have excellent visual acuity and normal eye tracking or teaming, yet still experience difficulties with visual processing. These children may have poor recall of visually presented material, an inability to visualize what is read or difficulty with multistep tasks because they are unable to see the sequence in their “mind’s eye.”

When presented with the problem 3 plus 2, young children who visualize a picture with three blocks and add two more blocks to mentally see a total of five blocks are on their way to understanding mathematical concepts.

Children with excellent visual memories tend to be the best spellers; the ability to mentally see a word makes the task of spelling much simpler.

What should you look for if you suspect a child has vision-related learning problems? A child who has difficulties with visual efficiency – eye teaming, focusing or tracking – may do the following:

• Cover or close one eye when reading.

• Rub eyes frequently.

• Complain of eye strain or headaches.

• Complain of double vision or words moving on the page.

• Hold things very close.

• Frequently lose place on the page.

• Need a finger or guide to maintain place.

• Skip lines and words often.

• Have poor reading comprehension.

• Have a short attention span.

A child who has difficulties with visual processing may present these symptoms:

• Difficulty learning left from right.

• Frequent reversal of letters or numbers.

• Mistakes words with similar beginnings.

• Unable to recognize the same word when it is repeated on a page.

• Trouble learning basic math concepts of size and magnitude.

• Poor reading comprehension.

• Poor recall of visually presented material.

• Trouble with spelling and sight vocabulary.

• Sloppy writing.

• Trouble copying from the board to a paper.

• Ability to answer questions orally, but not in writing.

• Appears to know the material, but does poorly on written tests.

A quick vision screening by the school nurse or during a well-child visit at the pediatrician’s office, or even a routine eye examination, typically won’t detect problems with visual efficiency or visual information processing. Children exhibiting the symptoms listed above should be seen by a behavioral optometrist. These specially trained eye care professionals provide testing and therapy for children and adults who are struggling with reading, learning and other neurological disorders.

For more information about Merrimack Vision Care, call 424-0404 or visit