Curriculum Modifications: A Brain-Based Perspective

06/26/2015  |  By Sylvia R. Cadena Smith, Ed.D.
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Have you ever felt that your child is capable, yet he struggles to succeed in academic and/or social situations? You have tried a number of different approaches but your child’s learning challenges are difficult to identify or seem to be “hidden” beneath his personality.

At times, you may even feel that your child is performing below his intellectual capabilities and you might think he is an underachiever, lazy, or even not very smart. Well, you are not alone, and the good news is that there just might be brain-based reasons for his actions.

Brain-based Research

Recent research in cognitive processing has identified a group of learners that have difficulty visually processing information delivered via conventional methods. These hidden learners often look and sound the same as other students, but find learning in a traditional manner difficult. Learners who struggle in academic/social situations frequently find that they also have difficulty interpreting and processing complex visual or auditory information. If information is not cognitively processed in a logical and organized manner the brain will receive mixed messages, causing confusion and frustration.

Asking a learner to complete assignments using cognitively unprocessed information inadvertently sets them up for failure. These students are frequently mislabeled as being hyperactive, unwilling, or incapable of learning when, in fact, they can learn, but are “unconventional” in how they cognitively process visually information. This can occur in either gender or any age group.

Identifying unconventional learners™ — learners who have diverse processing styles — has been challenging until recently because little was known about how the brain processes information. In the last 15 to 20 years, brain research has revealed that the ability to “visually process” information is critical to learning and is much more than just having 20/20 vision. It is now understood that the act of “visual processing” is primarily a physiological issue that is not necessarily related to an individual’s intelligence or ability to learn. When learners’ visual or auditory processing is weak, their overall ability to cognitively process information is negatively affected. This is largely due to a disconnect in how information was originally received, and then processed, by the brain.

Impact of Visual
Processing on Reading

All humans have a normal function called a saccade (suh-kahd), which is rapid involuntary eye movement that is part of the brain’s locator mechanism. As a reader attempts to move along a line of text, the brain executes a series of rapid saccadic eye movements and, at key intervals, pauses or fixates the eyes on data to visually process, interpret, and organize the information. Readers who struggle with moving their eyes smoothly from point to point are experiencing what might be termed “overactive” or “irregular” saccades. In these cases, erratic, large amplitude eye movements instead of controlled, small amplitude movements occur.This causes readers’ eyes to jump around the page, causing word or line-skipping and pattern glare —words appear to move on the page.

If clear patterns are not recognized during the fixation or are disrupted due to overactive saccades (e.g., skipped words and lines), then the brain has difficulty interpreting and organizing input into usable information and subsequently into learning. Poor fluency — speed and accuracy when reading with expression — in this case impacted by overactive saccades, typically translates into poor comprehension.

A Step in the Right Direction

Students who do not respond well to conventional learning methods tend to become frustrated, frequently due to problems with reading fluency and comprehension. They know they can learn, but struggle to demonstrate it in a traditional setting since their reading is impacted by visual/cognitive processing anomalies. As a result, too often many of these unconventional learners™ drop out from learning and may exhibit negative social behaviors, creating a downward learning and social spiral.

Some behaviors that teachers and parents should look for if they suspect that a child is having difficulty processing visual information are:

  1. Is the child comfortable reading aloud, individually or in a group?
  2. When the child reads aloud, does he/she frequently substitute, skip, re-read words or full lines in the text?
  3. Does the child get tired easily when reading or doing near-point visual work?
  4. Does the child read slowly, tend to read word-by-word and/or give up easily?
  5. Is the child’s verbal vocabulary and communication skills average or above average?

Integrating brain-based visual processing modifications into your home or school curriculum can include simple actions such as providing visual support reading intervention tools to reinforce smooth left-to-right and right-to-left — reverse “sweep” — eye movement as they read, to more involved steps that may include vision therapy.

If your child has any of these characteristics, helping him/her to recognize and adjust to their own unique visual processing styles will empower them to embrace an “I can” and not “I can’t” attitude as they learn.

A free Visual Processing Checklist entitled “Struggling Readers and Involuntary Eye Movement and Visual Processing Checklist” can be downloaded at under the “Articles” tab. This checklist can help you to informally assess if your child is academically lagging due to visual processing issues.

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