This is a ghost post. A collegue of my, Frank Lane, shared with me and some other teachers about a little experiment he did. He gave two groups of students the same test. One test had reading sections before questions that related to the reading. The second test had the same questions but no reading passages. Students didn’t know it was the same test. The students who took the second test did 50% better than the students with the passages.

What does this mean? Could mean several things, 1. Students intuition is better than they think. 2. Student are over-reading or over-thinking the text and questions. 3. Students are not think, instead they are searching for answers. The list goes on in my head.

Anyway, here is Frank’s thoughts on reading comprehension and testing. Powerful stuff.

The single biggest factor in reading with comprehension is reading speed.  Blatantly, this strikes at the very core of all reading instruction.  However, the science is clear. The question that arises is how to make readers improve cognition.  Included is a great deal of research in this summary.  The remarkable conclusions are that we have been totally wrong in how we teach people to read.

Basically, eye movements are a behavior that can be measured and their measurement provides a sensitive means of learning about cognitive and visual processing. Although eye movements have been examined for some time, it has only been in the last few decades that their measurement has led to important discoveries about psychological processes that occur during such tasks as reading, visual search, and scene perception.  Additionally educators have seen research showing which regions of the brain are involved in reading. Some research explains that if the wrong parts are involved, or the right parts just are not dominate enough, then reading problems can occur.  “One of the most interesting studies is one that was published in the November 2001 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. Debra Long from the University of California- Davis and Jennifer Chong from Johns Hopkins University were the co-authors of the study. They looked at comprehension problems among students. They hypothesized that a person who struggles comprehending the story, actually has problems with memory storage and retrieval.” (Nunnally) Another important characteristic of eye movements while reading is that about 10-15% of the time readers move their eyes (regress) back to previously read material in the text. These regressions, as they are called, tend to depend on the difficulty of the text.  As would be expected, saccade size and fixation duration are also both modulated by text difficulty: as the text becomes more difficult, saccade size decreases, fixation durations increase, and regressions increase.  From these measures alone, it is very clear that global properties of the text influence eye movements greatly. In addition, these three main global measures (saccade size, fixation duration and number of regressions) are also influenced by the type of material being read and the reader’s goals in reading (Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989). For instance, reading a text for understanding produces a very different pattern of eye movement measures when compared to skimming a text while proofreading.

A very important issue in reading is how much information is the reader able to process and use during a single fixation. This measure is referred to as the perceptual span (also called the functional field of view or, to a lesser degree, the region of effective vision). Although most people have the impression that readers can see an entire line of text or even an entire page of text, this is an illusion. This fact has been clearly demonstrated in a number of studies over the years that use a “gaze-contingent moving window paradigm”, introduced by McConkie and Rayner (1975; Rayner & Bertera, 1979). Studies have demonstrated that English readers acquire useful information from an asymmetrical region around the fixation point (extending 3-4 character spaces to the left of fixation and about 14-15 character spaces to the right). Research has also found that readers do not utilize information from the words on the line below the currently fixated line (Pollatsek, Raney, LaGasse, & Rayner, 1993).

To comprehend whether a story makes sense, the reader has to remember previous information from the story, keep it stored and accessible, so that new information can be compared and integrated into previous information – that’s what makes the story.  What would happen if there was a limit as to how often (or if ever) you accessed previous information? Long and Chong thought that was what was causing poor comprehension and set out to prove it. They took “poor” readers with very low retention and comprehension and compared them to “good” readers with significant retention and comprehension.  In the study the groups were required to read stories, one sentence at a time. They timed their reading speed of each sentence.  In the first story a character named Mary was described as a strict vegetarian. Several passages later, the story described Mary going into a restaurant with a friend and ordering a cheeseburger and fries.  In the students with good reading comprehension, their reading speed slowed down considerably when they read the sentence about Mary ordering a cheeseburger, indicating a conflict and confusion over what they had been previously led to believe about Mary. This would require that they remembered the information in the earlier passages and were comparing new information to this old information.

The poor readers did not identify this conflict because they read through the sentence about Mary ordering a cheeseburger, at the same rate they’d been reading all along. This indicates that they were not comparing this new information to the previous information as they read. Perhaps they just did not understand.  In a second test, they presented the same basic story in the same manner. But now, they separated the original information from the conflicting information by only one sentence, a reading time of just a couple of seconds. In this second test, the poor readers slowed down their reading to below average speeds because they could not justify the context.  Apparently poor readers will not access this stored information while reading. They will make comparisons if the information is in their working memory, but apparently do not make the continuing access to long term memory that good readers do automatically.

What can teachers do with this information? How can teachers best help the struggling reader with comprehension? Can poor readers be trained to access stored information better? Teachers can do much to help poor readers at all grade levels. It is important to remember that poor reading is not the result of low IQ. In fact, intelligence and reading ability have never correlated. Even the most brilliant child may have difficulty reading. The easiest and most accessible tool to reduce the number of regressions is to require readers to underline the sentences with their index finger, at a constant speed and encourage the students to just focus on the point of the finger.  As the research indicates, many areas of the brain are engaged in the reading process, as the brain desperately seeks context.  By utilizing the physical touching of the page; by engaging visual acuity (by reducing regressions), and by engaging the internal cognitive “voice”, a reader will activate multiple areas of synaptic activity, thus improving retention, memory, comprehension.  Never let a child think his or her struggles with reading are a reflection of overall ability or intelligence. There is a reader in every child.  Subsequently, it is vital that encouraging “instinctive” retention (accessing stored memory) will enhance reading comprehension.  If students do not fear that they misread, and instead apply no judgment, they will recall greater material, and will retain that information for longer periods of time.  Exact reading of questions before reading the passage will in essence program increased regressions to find that specific concept or term. The increased regressions will inhibit comprehension, and will put undue emphasis on the “previewed” words or concepts.

Here is a brief summary of the actual science:

Although we have the impression that we can process the entire visual field in a single fixation, in reality we would be unable to fully process the information outside of foveal vision if we were unable to move our eyes (Rayner, 1978, 1998).

Because of acuity limitations in the retina, eye movements are necessary for processing the details of the array. Our ability to discriminate fine detail drops off markedly outside of the fovea in the parafovea (extending out to about 5 degrees on either side of fixation) and in the periphery (everything beyond the parafovea). (See Figure1).

While we are reading or searching a visual array for a target or simply looking at a new scene, our eyes move every 200-350 ms. These eye movements serve to move the fovea (the high resolution part of the retina encompassing 2 degrees at the center of the visual field) to an area of interest in order to process it in greater detail.

During the actual eye movement (or saccade), vision is suppressed and new information is acquired only during the fixation (the period of time when the eyes remain relatively still).

While it is true that we can move our attention independently of where the eyes are fixated, it does not seem to be the case in everyday viewing. The separation between attention and fixation is often attained in very simple tasks (Posner, 1980); however, in tasks like reading, visual search, and scene perception, covert attention and overt attention (the exact eye location) are tightly linked.

Because eye movements are essentially motor movements, it takes time to plan and execute a saccade. In addition, the end-point is pre-selected before the beginning of the movement.

While it has generally been assumed that the two eyes move in synchrony and that they fixate the same point in space, recent research clearly demonstrates that this is not the case and the two eyes are frequently deviated from each other (Liversedge, Rayner, White, Findlay, & McSorley, 2006; Liversedge, White, Findlay, & Rayner, 2006).

There is considerable evidence that the nature of the task influences eye movements. A summary of the average amount of time spent on each fixation and the average distance the eyes move in reading, visual search, and scene perception are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Eye movement characteristics in reading, scene perception, and visual search.
Task Typical mean fixation duration (ms) Mean Saccade Size (degrees)
Silent Reading 225-250 2 (8-9 letter spaces)
Oral Reading 275-325 1.5 (6-7 letter spaces)
Scene Perception 260-330 4
Visual Search 180-275 3

From this table, it is immediately apparent that while the values presented in the table are quite representative of the different tasks, they show a range of average fixation durations and for each of the tasks there is considerable variability both in terms of fixation durations and saccade lengths.



Kathie F. Nunley is an educational psychologist, author, researcher and speaker living in southern New Hampshire. Developer of the Layered Curriculum™ method of instruction, Dr. Nunley has authored several books and articles on teaching in mixed-ability classrooms and other problems facing today’s teachers. Full references and additional teaching and parental tips are available at: Email her:
Kathie (at)

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About 2footgiraffe

High School Science Teacher Dickson, TN
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