Sight vs. Visual Processing – Knowing the Difference

Presented by Dr. Neil W. Margolis, O.D., F.C.O.V.D
Presented in collaboration with Walder Education of Torah Umesorah

ATT in collaboration with Walder Education offered a very informative and most useful professional development session on Visual Processing, presented by Dr. Neil W. Margolis, O.D., F.C.O.V.D., a board-certified developmental optometrist.  Dr. Margolis defined and described the different visual processing skills and their application to learning. Whereas sight refers to seeing clearly, visual processing refers to the brain’s ability to use and interpret visual information. Students whose academic performance does not meet aptitude predictions may have visual processing weaknesses.

Eyesight of 20/20 has little to do with how the information is processed or understood. Vision is the understanding and interpretation of what is seen. A person’s vision cannot be measured like eyesight because vision itself is cortical, utilizing the whole brain. When efficient, vision is thought to account for up to 80% of learning and when inefficient, it interferes with learning.

Dr. Margolis stressed that adequate visual processing skills are required for:

  • Learning to read
  • Reading to learn
  • Copying accurately

And he provided specific examples of visual processing skills such as:

  • Recognizing known words correctly when reading
  • Navigating the page accurately when tracking
  • Checking copying accuracy
  • Judging spacing and layout
  • Remembering and visualizing what one sees

Poor tracking causes a student to lose his/her place, skip words when reading, and misread known words. Teachers should observe a child’s posture, horizontal head turn, vertical head tilt, and blinking/winking. Visual spatial skills affect the navigation aspect of tracking, organizing spacing when copying, direction of letters and words, and lining up columns. This will affect a student who is struggling with this skill in the following ways:

  • Determining where to go next on the page
  • Spacing between letters and words and size of letters and words
  • Finding correct spot when looking back and forth
  • Discriminating between b/d, was/saw, 13/31
  • Understanding math diagrams & graphs

Puzzles and games can help students strengthen their visual spatial skills.

As students self-regulate their learning, they need visual discrimination. This includes:

  • Noticing differences between similar words/letters
  • Noticing errors of copying
  • Checking one’s work
  • Noticing directional differences
  • Reading accuracy – misreading similar looking words

Visual discrimination requires noticing differences based on size, color, shape, internal detail, orientation, pattern, internal or external features. Ways to improve visual discrimination include:

  • Matching objects based on criteria of color, shape, size, etc., especially helpful for younger children
  • Using multiple criteria
  • Picture matching/pattern matching/word matching/word search
  • Spotting the difference/error correction
  • Sorting objects/coins
  • Listing words having the same beginning/different endings and visa/versa

A teacher can help by circling differences not noticed in copying and highlighting the beginning or ending of words before reading. Other ways to compensate for students with difficulties in visual discrimination are:

  • Use highlighters
  • Use different colors
  • Increase white space on the page – larger spacing between lines
  • Cover non-relevant components
  • Put less on the page
  • Use bigger print
  • Stand against plain background
  • Read slower
  • Use text to speech software
  • Specifically point at a figure/word – child uses finger on the page

Visual memory also influences learning. This type of memory includes working memory (both short and long-term) affecting recall and recognition of letters/words/sight word vocabulary. Often there is visualization through verbalization. This helps a child visualize objects, words, sentences, and paragraphs of information. Visual memory is necessary for recall and comprehension.

Dr. Margolis stressed the importance of the above appropriate classroom accommodations that can be used to support students having visual processing difficulties. Because visual processing affects classroom performance, it is important to address correctable visual skills. One way to do this is to help students notice what is relevant to the task or situation. This will ultimately build student self-esteem and confidence as the child uses effective effort and practice to achieve better outcomes in learning.

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