Reading Quick Fixes: Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware)

Girl on trampoline

Scientific evidence showing that kinesthetic therapies like jumping on a trampoline can improve reading ability is lacking. 

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Posted on: March 21, 2016

When a child or student is having difficulty reading, it is tempting to be lured by promises of an easy solution. As a teacher and active researcher in classrooms, I believe that there is a born reader hidden somewhere in even my most struggling students. I want to think that uncovering that or getting my students to proficiency could be quick and painless—something as easy as putting on a magic pair of glasses or performing helicopter spins.

Unfortunately, learning to read involves skills and cognitive processes for which few shortcuts exist. Rather than speeding up the time to proficiency, some of the advertised approaches actually could squander precious intervention time and resources. In addition, they might make us less vigilant about monitoring the warning signs of students’ insufficient reading progress. Because products tend to have cycles of popularity, it is worth revisiting them occasionally and inspecting the current state of the research on them. This blog will address two: vision therapy and kinesthetic therapies.

Vision Therapy or Visual Training

What is it? Advocates believe that problems with the way a student processes visual information, such as print, can cause reading difficulties. Visual therapist or optometrists believe that students’ reading can be improved by having them look through prisms, complete letter-finding puzzles, practice eye-hand coordination tasks, wear colored lenses, or use colored overlays.

Is there research to support it? The American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Academy of Pediatrics have reviewed the available literature on behavioral vision therapy and visual training. They found a lack of scientific evidence to support these practices. Furthermore, the therapy is not covered by health insurance and may drain resources away from reading interventions with stronger evidence of effectiveness. Those with reading difficulties have a problem making the sound-symbol connections to decode words and/or a problem with the skills necessary to comprehend the words and ideas. Therefore, working on the way a student sees the words is not likely to improve their abilities. Corrective lenses may be necessary, but any problems solved by wearing glasses are not associated with legitimate reading difficulties such as dyslexia.

Kinesthetic Therapy, Perceptual-Motor or Sensory Integration Training

What is it? In some ways, kinesthetic therapies are extensions of visual therapies in that they also involve eye-hand coordination activities in addition to other body movement exercises. These approaches are often termed “brain-based” because advocates tend to draw upon neuroscience research that have connected physical and learning centers in the brain. They believe that learning problems, including reading difficulties, are the result of the brain not integrating different processes. To “balance” the brain, children complete activities on balance beams, tilt boards, trampolines, rolling pins, and monkey bars. They also may work their eye muscles and reflexes with patterns, puzzles, and floor exercises. Some advocates believe the right and left hemispheres of the brain need to be integrated by having students make movements that cross the “midline” of their bodies such as by using their right hands to raise their left knees or making large figure 8 patterns with their arms in the air.

Is there research to support it? Brain researchers (neuroscientists) and special education researchers have found no scientific evidence to substantiate using kinesthetic or sensory integration treatments to address reading or learning problems. Reviews of over 180 studies have found this training to be ineffective (Hyatt, 2007; Kavale & Mattson, 1983). They also have been described as being questionably feasible—in no small part due to the large investment necessary in equipment and the physical space required to house it. Neuroscientists warn that “brain-based learning” programs are premature at best (Goswami, 2006; Howard-Jones, 2014). A recent lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission has highlighted some deceptive claims made by “brain training” programs, so the adage caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) remains important advice to schools as well as parents.

The types of approaches described above have been referred to as “pseudo-science” in that the developers use science-like terms to describe a phenomenon they claim happens when using the program. However, actual scientific research does not support the practices. Currently, the only ways to improve reading abilities are to teach students to read and have them practice their reading skills with lots of printed texts. If they like doing that while wearing colored glasses or gently bouncing on a trampoline, that is fine. But it is the act of reading—not the fun props—that will make the difference.  

For Further Reading

Vision Therapy or Visual Training

American Academy of Ophthalmology’s report: http://www.aapos.org/client_data/files/2011/331_aaocomplementarytxassessmentvtforld.pdf

American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/124/2/837  

Kinesthetic Therapy, Perpeptual-Motor or Sensory Integration Training

Goswami, U. (2006). Neuroscience and education: From research to practice? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7, 406-413. doi: 10.1038/nrn1907

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: Myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 1-8. doi:10.1038/nrn3817. Retrieved from http://www.educationalneuroscience.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Howard-Jones-Neuromyth-nature14.pdf

Hyatt, K. J. (2007). Brain Gym®: Building stronger brains or wishful thinking? Remedial and Special Education, 28, 117-124. doi: 10.1177/07419325070280020201

Kavale, K., & Mattson, P. D. (1983). “One jumped off the balance beam”: Meta-analysis of perceptual-motor training. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 16, 165-173. doi: 10.1177/002221948301600307  


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