Spacing out helps struggling readers
By: Mia Daucourt
According to dictionary.com the fovea is “a small depression in the retina of the eye where visual acuity is highest.” It is located in the center of each eye, which is also the center of each retina, and it is the region of each eye where our vision is sharpest. So, when we need to take in visual details, like processing the letters on a page in order to read them, the fovea is absolutely essential. On the flip side, objects and things outside the fovea’s range tend to be less sharp. I’m sure you have noticed that things you don’t have your eyes directly focused on tend to be, well, out of focus. They are blurrier, and we notice less of their details.
The difference between how we are able to see objects within the fovea’s range in relation to things outside of the fovea’s range is actually quite variable between individuals. Let’s take reading as an example. Some people are able to read fluently. They are simultaneously able to focus on one word or a couple of words in their foveal range, while taking in enough detail from letters outside the fovea to start processing words that are not directly within focus. This allows them to read quickly. Letters and words do not have to be right in the range of their fovea these individuals to process them, and letters and words outside of their fovea’s range do not hinder their ability to focus on the words or letters within their fovea’s range. This isn’t true for others, though. For example, when individuals with dyslexia are reading, they struggle to decipher details within their foveal range due to being impeded by letters outside of their foveal focus. They experience something called visual crowding, in which the objects—in this case, words—surrounding the words they are currently trying to focus on make it harder for them to focus at all. The closer surrounding words are to the word their fovea is focused on, the harder time they have processing visual details, making it so they can’t focus enough to read the word they are trying to read. They are unable to hone in on visual details because other things in the surrounding area are throwing off their focus, which interrupts their reading process, making them read slowly. Some researchers argue that rather than having actual mechanical problems with focus, that individuals that experience visual crowding deficits actually have problems with visual attention. They can’t physically focus because they can’t mentally focus. So what is really going on?
A group of researchers at the University of Washington recently conducted a study with 39 adults, 74% of which reported having dyslexia or reading difficulties, to figure out whether visual crowding was to blame for some people’s poor reading performance. They measured reading speed and accuracy using a standardized reading test, called the Test of Word Reading Efficiency (TOWRE). Then, they measured visual crowding levels using groups of circles presented on a computer screen. Specifically, the participants were asked to distinguish whether a target circle, which was crowded by other whole circles at different degrees of spacing, had an upward or downward facing gap. If the participants could accurately distinguish whether the target circle’s gap was facing up or down, no matter how close the other circles were (i.e., how crowded the circles were), the participant was deemed to have low visual crowding. If the participant had a harder time when the circles were more crowded and couldn’t accurately report the direction of the gap, the participant was deemed to have high visual crowding. Overall, the researchers found that visual crowding really did inhibit reading. The participants that had issues as the circles got more crowded were also worse readers. Just to make sure that their results also applied to the general public, the researchers conducted the same experiment with children and found the same pattern of results. Visual crowding was getting in the way of people’s ability to read with ease.
Then, the researchers tested the whether the visual crowding problems in dyslexic readers could be alleviated when words, letters, or lines of text were more spaced out rather than closer together. If this was the case, the researchers expected to find that struggling readers had an easier time and took less time to read when text was less scrunched together than they would with more crowded text. To test this out, Sung Jun Joo and his colleagues (2018) showed the participants short paragraphs with different levels of spacing between the letters, words, and lines of texts, and compared their visual processing performance to reading scores on the TOWRE. To rule out any alternative explanations, the researchers also tested the participants’ visual attention abilities. That way, they could make sure that reading problems weren’t actually just a result of some people having a hard time focusing on one letter, word, or line of text at a time when the letters, words, or lines of text were closer together because they had to try harder to block them out. However, the researchers found that visual attention wasn’t related to text spacing, so no matter how close together or far apart the text was, visual attention stayed the same.
Overall, the results showed that when text was more spaced out, only poor readers (TOWRE score < 95) benefitted. The more space between letters, words, and lines of text, the faster poor readers read. This does not mean that all of the reading struggles experienced by dyslexic readers can be attributed to visual crowding problems and that all dyslexic readers experience visual crowding. It just means that average readers do not have the same issues with their visual processing ability as struggling readers, so struggling readers may need some extra help to ease their visual difficulties. Based on Jun Joo and colleagues’ results, an easy way we can help struggling readers is by simply spacing out the text they need to read, in order to alleviate visual crowding and help minimize their visual processing deficits. Given that it’s so easy nowadays to change the spacing up on a text passage using the computer, this is a very easy, useful tool to help with kids and adults that want to be able to read faster.
Jun Joo, S., White, A. L., Strodtman, D. J., & Yeatman, J. D. (2018). Optimizing text for an individuals’ visual system: The contribution of visual crowding to reading difficulties. Cortex, 103