Visual Discrimination

The Visual Processing System: How Does it Impact Learning?

Visual processing often means how well you discriminate between one letter and another or one word and another. This is prominent with kids who confuse letters, also known as letter reversals. Below are some examples of letters and words that kids mix up:

  • b and d
  • p and q
  • was and saw
  • felt and fell
  • bad and dab

Just scanning the letters and words above, it is understandable how it can be easy for kids to mix the letters and words up. The shapes are not that different from each other. When we work on our brain’s visual discrimination abilities, we fine-tune our ability to see the differences in shapes of letters and words.

After-School Reading Program with Spelling and Phonics

More Than Just Seeing Differences

There is more to visual processing than just seeing the differences in shapes of words and letters. Visual processing directly impacts your ability to learn, read, and retain information. Learning in school is typically directed at visual processing 75% of the time. So, to do well in school and in life, developing your visual system is critical. One of the great things about visual processing and its 9 sub-categories is that the skills involved with visual processing are learned skills and they can and do improve when you do specific visual activities.

Visual processing is the process of how your eyes receive information and the steps involved to process and understand that information. This involves eye-hand coordination, discrimination, your ability to combine shapes and letters to form objects or words. This also involves your ability to visually remember seeing something, move your eyes from left to right efficiently, and more.

The Visual Processing System Explained

Visual Processing

Let’s take a step back to understand this a bit more. One thing is very clear. We all receive information through our five senses: smell, taste, hearing, seeing, and doing. Within each of those senses, there are subcategories. The sense of smell can sense sweet, pungent, savory, floral, etc. The sense of taste can break down foods into salty, sweet, bitter, or sour. Within hearing (auditory processing), seeing (visual processing), and doing (tactile/kinesthetic processing), there are 9 sub-categories each. And, when you want to optimize learning, pay attention to what you are doing signals to address each of these auditory, visual, and tactile/kinesthetic systems.

Visual Processing and Brain-Based Learning

There is a compelling argument to include a variety of visual activities to improve reading and overall learning skills. According to the research from Early Choice Pediatric Therapy, once a child enters school, about 75% of the classroom activities are directed through visual processing pathways. Additionally, when we think about the human brain, about 40% of the brain is involved in one form or another with visual processing. (National Vision Research Institute of Australia)

Let me explain… Upon visual input, visual signals leave the eye and follow a path into the superior colliculus in the brainstem. This is where the electrical impulses react and control all eye movements. These eye movements include blinking, dilating pupils, and tracking objects that are moving or tracking a line of words. The optic nerve then forms synapses and sends neurons to the occipital lobe of the cerebral cortex. This pathway is responsible for experiencing and controlling visual perception. The input comes from both eyes. The right cortex receives impulses from the left orbit. The left cortex receives input from the right orbit. Once these visual signals are sent to the cerebral cortex, the cortex processes them and makes sense of them.

Research Behind Visual Processing

Research on eye movements has been going on for many years. The 2009 eye movement study by Levy, Bickness, Slattery, and Raynor shows that eye movements are based on the visual perceptual input. This input is combined with grammatical language input (the word order within a sentence). Every reader combines the perceptual input with sentence structure to guide the saccadic movement of their eyes.  Saccades are the rapid movements of the eyes.

For example, the word flour is reread more often in sentence 1a than in sentence 1b or than the word wheat in sentence 1c):

1a. He swept the flour that he spilled.

1b. The baker needed more flour for the special bread.

1c. He swept the wheat that he spilled.

Reading involves saccades, rapid eye movements.

These rapid eye movements and tracking movements are separated by fixations when the eyes are relatively still. Saccade movements typically travel about 6 to 9 letter spaces. They are not impacted by the size of print. The complete perceptual span typically extends to 14 or 15 letter spaces to the right and 3 to 4 spaces to the left. It is the saccade movement to the left combined with the perceptual span length that assures that every letter of every word enters the visual field.

Can you read this whole sentence quickly?

About 10-15% of the time, readers also shift back (known as regression) to look back at the material that has already been read. And as the text becomes more difficult, saccade length tends to decrease and regression frequency increases. It is important to note that the space between words does facilitate fluent reading. When the spacing between words varies or is not available, reading is slowed by as much as 50%. The research further notes that efficient eye movement is more critical than generating predictions of upcoming words. Readers systematically move their eyes from left to right across the text. Then, they fixate on most of the content words. The processing associated with each word is very rapid, and the link between the eyes and the mind is very tight. Rayner, K. (1997) Scientific Studies of Reading, 1(4) pages 317-339.

After-School Reading Program with Spelling and Phonics

After-School Reading Program incorporates the 9 Areas of Visual Processing

Scholar Within’s Summer Reading Program uses proven methods that improve your visual processing system:

  1. Reading fluency training
  2. Rapid naming activities
  3. Visual memory activities
  4. Visual discrimination activities
  5. Eye-aiming activities

Learn More about After-School Reading Program

Who is Bonnie Terry?

Bonnie Terry, M.Ed., BCET is the author of Five Minutes To Better Reading Skills, Ten Minutes To Better Study Skills, and numerous other books, reading games, and guides. She is a Board Certified Educational Therapist and internationally recognized as America’s Leading Learning Specialist and the founder of Scholar Within, Inc. Terry is an expert in identifying students’ learning disabilities. Ms. Terry coaches teachers and parents so they can give their child a 2 to 4-year learning advantage in just 45-60 minutes a day. She is a frequent media guest and speaker.

5 thoughts on “The Visual Processing System: How Does it Impact Learning?


    1. Hi Meryleen,

      We will have a program available this fall that will help all of your students. It includes reading fluency, phonics, spelling, comprehension, brain-body connection, and executive function.
      Hope this helps. If you need more direction, email us at hello@scholarwithin.com.

      Bonnie Terry, M. Ed., BCET

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