Eye-tracking studies about to provide new insights into reading process

iStock_000006625549XSmallAs readers, we imagine that our eyes scan smoothly across the rows of words on the page.  In fact, eye-tracking research tells us that our eyes make jerky movements as we read, fixating on a few characters for a few milliseconds before jumping to the next area of fixation, a movement known as a saccade.

Educators are most familiar with eye-tracking research on dyslexia, which found that students with learning problems have abnormal patterns of eye movement. But, eye-tracking research is about to help teachers better understand the process of reading development for all children. It could help teachers better target reading interventions based on individual differences and even help in the development of assessment items, according to new research published in School Psychology Review.

Recent improvements in eye-tracking technology now make it possible to measure eye movements in young readers and people who wear glasses, groups that were once not suitable for eye-tracking research. With earlier technology, subjects had to keep a stable head position because any movement at all was interpreted as an eye movement. This resulted in most tracking research being conducted with adults and university students. Now the use of video technology makes it possible to track eye movements in young subjects who have trouble remaining still.

“The emergence of this research tool as a vehicle to examine individual and developmental differences promises new insights into reading development,” say researchers Brett Miller and Carol O’Donnell.

This special issue of School Psychology Review reports on recent eye-tracking research on repeated reading, phonemic awareness, prosody and word frequency effects in children’s sentence reading.

Here is a sample of some of the findings from these studies:

  • Second-grade students continue to focus on word-level reading rather than passage-level reading during repeated reading. Repeated reading still helps improve fluency for beginning readers, but it does so by decreasing the amount of time they spend processing individual words.
  • Children show significantly longer gaze durations to low- than high-frequency words, demonstrating that linguistic characteristics of text drive children’s eye movements as they read.
  • 5th graders have more difficulty processing adversative conjunctions (but, although) than causal conjunctions (because, since).

The focus in eye-tracking research is on the duration and locations of eye fixations. Readers acquire information about the text only during fixations and they are limited in how much information they can process during a fixation. In English, skilled adult readers can only process information 14-15 characters to the right of fixation and 3-4 characters to the left. The perceptual span is smaller for challenging text. It is also smaller for children, about 11 characters to the right of fixation.

Young readers make many short saccades, sometimes only a few characters away. Eye movement studies not only provide information about which words a reader fixates, but allow us to consider what cognitive processing occurs during fixations.

“Children tend to fixate for longer durations, skip fewer words, complete shorter saccades, and make more frequent regressive eye movements,” the researchers write.

During the 1970s and 1980s, there was significant debate about whether atypical eye movements caused dyslexia. Many students received eye movement training to correct the condition, but now researchers are putting the focus on treating the underlying processing difficulties that are the source of atypical eye movements, according to School Psychology Review.

“Arguably the main advantage of measuring eye movements as a methodology is its online nature—that is, it provides a millisecond-by-millisecond record of the reading process, as it happens in real time,” say the authors of a study on word frequency effects on eye movements.

“Underlying Changes in Repeated Reading: An Eye Movement Study,” by Tori Foster et al., School Psychology Review, 2013, Volume 42, No. 2, pp. 140-156.

“Opening a Window Into Reading Development: Eye Movements’ Role Within a Broader Literacy Research Framewor,” by Brett Miller and Carol O’Donnell, School Psychology Review, 2013, Volume 42, No. 2, pp. 123-139.

“Monitoring Local Comprehension Monitoring in Sentence Reading,” by Christian Vorstius et al., School Psychology Review, 2013, Volume 42, No. 2, pp. 191-206.

“Using Eye Movements to Investigate Word Frequency Effects in Children’s Sentence Reading,” by Holly Joseph et. Al, School Psychology Review, 2013, Volume 42, No. 2, pp. 207-222.

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