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Could vision problems be the cause of poor reading skills for some kids in disadvantaged communities? A Johns Hopkins team aims to find out.
Illustration by Agata Endo Nowicka
"Kids who fall behind in reading fall behind in life, but there has never been a study that separates the kids who truly can't read from those who are simply struggling to see clearly."
-David Friedman, Director,
Dana Center for Preventative Ophthalmology
Surprising as it may seem, of all the possible interventions to help low-income children read better, the one that may be the most obviously beneficial — testing kids’ eyesight and giving them glasses — is the one no one has tried, at least not in any scientific vein.
“We couldn’t find another study like ours,” says Michael Repka, a pediatric ophthalmologist at the Wilmer Eye Institute who is one of three Johns Hopkins faculty members leading a promising and first-of-its-kind new study.
The team will test the eyesight and reading skills of children in Baltimore City Public Schools, fit those who need them with glasses, and return in the spring to retest reading skills to see if the kids’ scores improve. For as many as eight in 10 elementary school students who live in poverty across the U.S., reading is a challenge and roadblock to their future success.
“No one knows if there is a fundamental problem, such as dyslexia, or something simpler, more basic, at work — problems that we might easily correct with early screening and intervention,” Repka says.
The study will be directed by Repka and David S. Friedman, who heads the Dana Center for Preventive Ophthalmology, as well as Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.
Together, the team believes that vision problems, such as refraction difficulties, eye misalignment and so forth — and not a fundamental inability to read — are the core problem for some of the struggling readers in poorer communities. These challenges are relatively easy to overcome and, in so doing, the goal is to improve reading scores and the long-term prospects for these kids.
“Kids who fall behind in reading fall behind in life, but there has never been a study that separates the kids who truly can’t read from those who are simply struggling to see clearly,” says Friedman.
The researchers began by identifying schools in preparation for administering reading tests to several hundred second graders in Baltimore. Those with reading problems will be given additional vision and eye testing to single out those with eye problems. Next will follow corrective interventions, including providing glasses and other treatments to the kids, who will continue their school year as expected. In the spring, the Johns Hopkins researchers will return and test reading scores, then compare the kids’ performance against national averages to gauge success.
“We’ve been meeting with educators, and they’re very excited and understand our goals exactly. They’re hopeful about this study. Everyone, almost without exception, has a story about a kid they know who just needed a pair of glasses,” Slavin says.
“This is a pretty aggressive time frame. We want to do all this in the course of single year. If it works, we can gear up a wider campaign quickly the following year,” Repka says.
The next big step will be to create a system for schools to manage vision problems as a normal part of their reading program nationwide. The potential for impact is great: Correctable vision problems are thought to affect as many as 10 percent of poor children across the country.
“Nationally, you’re talking about millions of kids, possibly. This study could have a real effect on a lot of lives,” Repka says.