Dr. Harold Solan received the Skeffington Award in 1990. At that point, his body of work was quite impressive. But he was only getting started! He continued his research, writing and scholarship for many more years. In many ways, his post-Skeffington Award work was even more influential. It is very difficult to choose one “topic” or article to highlight his contributions to developmental optometry. I suppose I shall have to write more about Dr. Solan’s work.
Attention is often defined as the ability to focus on relevant stimuli as well as a decrease in responsiveness to irrelevant information. In reading, visual attention increases the ability to read efficiently across a line of text. Readers must learn to use the oculo-motor system to move their eyes accurately. First they must focus on the first word on the line, then they must shift their attention to the right as they prepare to move their eyes to the next fixation point, then they must sustain their attention in order to allow for processing of the text. These three principal elements of attention–focus, shift and sustain—are the link between perception and cognition. Perception makes the visual information available but not necessarily recognizable. Cognitive processes allow the reader to use the visual information in order to gain meaning. In other words, reading comprehension is dependent upon visual attention as expressed by accurate oculo-motor control. Therefore, vision therapy that is directed at improving focus on relevant stimuli, shifting attentional focus within a complex visual environment, and sustaining attention for an appreciable interval might be expected to improve reading comprehension.
Dr. Solan and colleagues investigated this relationship in a group of 6th graders with moderate reading disabilities. These students attended public school in New York City. On a standardized reading test, their reading comprehension scores averaged 2.2 years below their grade level. The students’ attention skills were assessed using a standardized testing battery. Then they received 12 one-hour sessions of vision therapy. The therapy consisted of specific procedures which were aimed at improving or enhancing focusing, shifting and sustaining visual attention during oculo-motor (eye movement) activities. After completing the 12 hour therapy program, the students were retested with both the standardized reading and attention tests. Their scores improved significantly on both measures. After 12 hours of vision therapy over 5 months, their average reading scores jumped an entire grade level, from the 4th to 5th grade level. This is in sharp contrast to the first 5 years of schooling, when their reading scores improved from a 1st grade to a 4th grade level.
Dr. Solan’s research supports the notion “that a link exists between visual attention, oculomotor readiness, and reading comprehension…” He acknowledged that uncertainties still exist. For example, the therapy also incorporated memory, speed of processing and executive functions. How does the engagement of this triad influence cognitive performance and reading comprehension? Dr. Solan’s research always answered BIG questions but at the same time, left more questions to consider. That way, he never ran out of ideas for his next research project. Now, he has left these unanswered questions for others to consider.
Read more about eye movements here.