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Last month in my post “Bad News About Dyslexia,” I addressed some scammy or misguided quick-fix “diagnoses” and “cures” that are being marketed to parents of struggling readers. Next on my list is the idea of vision therapy as a fix for dyslexia.
I’ll be up front. Here’s the problem some will find with my post: I’m not going to say something absolute like “IGNORE ANYONE WHO RECOMMENDS VISION THERAPY FOR DYSLEXIA!”
Is it possible that some readers struggle due to vision problems? Yes.
Is it possible that some young children who couldn’t see well until vision intervention were mislabeled as learning disabled or dyslexic? Yup.
Is it possible that those same children received vision therapy and their reading got better? Sure.
And finally, could some kids have two kinds of problems (a vision one and a reading one) at the same time? Of course.
But I can say: If vision therapy fixes your child’s reading problem, it was not dyslexia, not ever.
According to the International Dyslexia Association, “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”
Readers with dyslexia can find reading very uncomfortable, even exhausting! Children with dyslexia may complain of headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, or other physical symptoms. That doesn’t mean that dyslexia is a stomach problem, or a vision problem. These physical symptoms often speak to the enormous stress children experience when their needs for instruction and accommodations are not being met.
Children with dyslexia might also have behavioral problems, including defiance, off-task behavior, or fooling around when faced with tasks they can’t do. That doesn’t mean dyslexia is a behavioral disorder!
Do you see what I’m getting at? The effects might present differently for different students at different times, but dyslexia is a reading problem, and the right intervention is appropriate reading instruction. It’s not a vision problem, so there is no effective vision therapy for dyslexia.
Is it dyslexia or a vision problem?
If you have concerns about your child’s reading or their performance in school, the first step is to get a thorough evaluation. If your child is school-aged in the U.S., you can request an evaluation at no cost from your local public school. They may or may not use the term dyslexia, depending on the qualifications and knowledge of the school-based team. Schools often identify a “specific learning disability in the area of reading” without specifically naming dyslexia. Evaluation is also available through educational psychologists or neuropsychologists.
If an academic evaluation doesn’t resolve the questions about why your child struggles to read, further evaluation by an ophthalmologist may be one possible route. Vision therapy, which includes exercises with a therapist and at home to improve eye tracking abilities, may be prescribed. However, a 2010 policy statement from the College of Optometrists in Vision Development, the American Optometric Association, and the American Academy of Optometry clarifies that this therapy does not directly address dyslexia or other learning disabilities. I know some families that have found this type of therapy beneficial, but it is often costly and may not be covered by insurance.
Another type of vision therapy for dyslexia that is often recommended, but has little scientific evidence, is colored lenses or colored overlays. A set of symptoms called Irlen Syndrome is often used as the basis for prescribing colored overlays or filters, but the data on the existence of Irlen Syndrome is, well, not great.
According to Helen Irlen’s website, this syndrome can impact reading accuracy, math calculation, concentration, behavior, motivation and sports performance. While some people find relief from using colored overlays on white printed material, there is little evidence that there is a “best” color for readers, or even that one color is “better” for a particular reader.
The right teaching
If colored lenses and vision therapy cannot help dyslexia, what does a child with dyslexia need to read better?
They need good reading instruction. A structured literacy program, such as Orton-Gillingham, which is prescriptive and diagnostic, and addresses all the main components of reading, is needed for struggling readers to make progress.
Instruction should be based on assessments and include explicit instruction in phonemic awareness (the sounds heard in words), phonics (the way those sounds are represented in print), vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension, depending on the student’s needs.
Depending on how far behind the student is, and how severe their dyslexia is, teaching these skills can take several years of hard work on the part of the student and their teachers.
The right accommodations
While students work through the process of learning how to read and write efficiently, life marches on. They will move from grade to grade and be expected to learn and express more and more complex ideas. Having the right accommodations in place can make it possible for dyslexic students to more easily keep up with the curriculum and demonstrate their learning alongside their peers who read more easily.
Effective accommodations for reading and writing are essential. While their reading skills grow, students need access to age-appropriate texts through audiobooks, read alouds, and other technological options to continue to grow their comprehension, vocabulary and knowledge. They may need additional time to complete assignments, tools for writing like speech-to-text, copies of class notes, or other accommodations to help them work more efficiently.
Social-emotional support is also incredibly important. Dyslexia is a lifelong condition. Students can make great strides in improving their skills and becoming more accurate and fluent readers, but they may always find some tasks more challenging than their peers do. Students need to be supported in their areas of weakness and celebrated in their areas of strength.
Don’t buy in to quick fixes like vision therapy for dyslexia
Parenting a child whose needs are not being met at school due to a learning disability is incredibly difficult. Parents who aren’t educators or experts in reading get a crash course in the human brain, curriculum and special education law all at once, whether they want it or not.
It’s easy to feel like “nothing is working” when your child is struggling to read. We get tempted by “out-of-the-box” solutions like vision therapy, colored filters, or other non-reading interventions because they make a kind of superficial sense and because there are often glowing testimonials from people who found success when they were struggling, too.
Make sure that the therapies and interventions you are investing your family’s time and money in are well-regarded and evidence-based. Get multiple opinions from trusted sources, including people both in and out of your child’s school system. Whatever other approaches you try, remember that explicit, systematic reading instruction is the chief recommendation for teaching students with dyslexia. Trading that out for anything else is not worth the risk.
If your child needs structured literacy tutoring, using Orton-Gillingham, to make progress in reading, contact us today to learn how we can help.