Michael Cole, OD, Child and Family EyeCare Center

When you have a bright child, who doesn’t achieve to his or her potential, we often affectionately call them “underachievers” because we know they are capable of achieving so much more. While they may be able to slide by with what they learn by listening, reading can be a nightmare.

Over the years, I have found that bright “underachievers” often have vision problems that make reading difficult. Sometimes they are described as auditory learners because they can remember things they have heard much faster and easier than anything they read. A clear sign that a vision problem may be at the root of a child’s difficulties is poor performance on written or standardized tests.

It may surprise you to learn that many children who have vision problems interfering with learning actually have 20/20 eye sight (with or without glasses). That’s because 20/20 eyesight merely means you can see a certain size letter at a distance of 20 feet, whereas vision is a complex process that involves 17 visual skills that are critical to academic success. Seeing 20/20 is just one of those visual skills.

More than 60 percent of children who struggle with reading and learning have vision problems that are typically 100 percent correctable, yet when undetected, these children continue to struggle, don’t reach their potential, and perform poorly on standardized tests.

Undiagnosed vision problems can make it difficult for a child to make sense out of what they are reading, causing poor performance on written tests. Often a child with a vision problem that interferes with learning has excellent verbal skills, causing parents and educators to think the child must be “lazy,” “not trying hard enough,” “an underachiever,” “ADHD,” “learning disabled,” etc.

If your child struggles with reading, please ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Do they omit or substitute small words (like “of” for “for”, or “if” for “of,” etc.)?
  • Do they get frustrated trying to read or do homework?
  • Does it take much longer for him or her to do their homework than it should?
  • Do they have trouble making out words?
  • Do they slow down when copying, or make lots of errors?
  • Do they find it harder to read at the end of the day than in the morning?
  • Do they skip words or repeat lines when reading aloud?
  • Do they reverse letters like b’s into d’s when reading?
  • Do they have a short attention span with schoolwork?

Even one of these symptoms could signal a possible vision problem. Will a standard eye exam uncover whether your child has a vision problem that could be interfering with academic performance? Probably not, since standard eye exams typically evaluate only eye health, acuity (how clearly you can see the eye chart), and the need for glasses or contacts.

In order to determine if your child has a vision problem that is interfering with reading, learning, and even performance on standardized tests, a Developmental Vision Evaluation is needed to evaluate all visual skills required for academic performance: eye movement control, focusing near to far, sustaining clear focus, eye teaming ability, depth perception, visual motor integration, form perception, visual memory, and visual perceptual skills. Developmental Vision Evaluations are typically performed by developmental optometrists.

The good news is that the majority of vision problems that interfere with reading and learning can be corrected. To find a developmental optometrist near you, visit covd.org.