A non-reader’s story as told by his mother…to a local Kamloops, B.C., Canada newspaper…
Marla Ronquist was crying when she phoned Alice Ross at the Vantage Reading Center in Kamloops. Her son Cody, then in Grade 4, was stuck at a Grade 2 reading level and falling further behind his classmates with each passing month. He was virtually a non-reader. She knew he faced a desperate future if he couldn’t read properly.
“When I called I was in tears,” Ronquist says. “I couldn’t get help for him. I had him tested at school and they told me his intelligence level was fine, but they couldn’t quite figure out what his problem was. Nobody could tell me what was wrong. Nobody could tell me where to go.
“Alice just said, ‘Calm down. It’ll be OK.’ And it was.” Cody showed such rapid improvement in his reading ability under Ross’ direction that Ronquist didn’t hesitate when her youngest son Taylor also developed trouble reading. She went straight back to Ross. “I saw instant results with him. He’s avoided all the problems my oldest son ran into. It was a real turnaround for him. He’s actually reading above his class level now.”
Ross, who began her singular approach to helping children read in 1964, has met thousands of children like Cody and Taylor and their stories follow a similar pattern. A child develops as expected in his early years, walking and talking more or less on schedule, filling his parents with pride and hope. “He’s a nice, normal little kid – until he hits kindergarten. Then, for some reason, he doesn’t remember his letters.”
In Grade 1 the child eventually learns to recognize letters, but now he can’t remember words. He sees a word, cat, and sounds it out: c-a-t, c-a-t, c-a-t. According to Ross, the boy stores the word in his auditory system. He sees with his eyes but “closes” on the word with his auditory system. “He’ll never see the word and read it. He goes c-a-t,c-a-t, sounding it out. The next time he sees it he does the same thing and the next time he sees it he does the same thing and the next time he does the same thing and he never stores it visually.” It’s a poor way to read and the child can’t keep pace in class. His parents fret, his teachers worry and the boy himself starts thinking of himself as stupid.
“The general population everywhere equate reading and writing with smart and dumb. Not true. Not true. I had a adult I worked with had an IQ of 169 and he couldn’t read a darn word.”
By Grade 3 or 4, the problem has become acute. “Now he has three ways to go. ‘I don’t exist, teacher’. Or he can be the class clown and that makes him pretty popular with the other kids. Or he can be the class disturber and he can be emotionally upset.”
Ross says roughly 10 per cent of the children who can’t read have poor vision skills. Not poor eyesight: poor vision skills. A child may be able to see letters at a distance during an eye exam, but that doesn’t indicate whether her eyes work together to read words close up or track sentences properly from left to right.
“Twenty/twenty isn’t enough,” says Ross. “Equally important is vision skills. Equally important.” At fault could be some of the muscles that pull eyes toward the nose, out to the ears, up and down, around in circles. Your eyes should work like two TV cameras. If one of them pulls too fast, the image changes and they lose the signal. If one of them is moving at a different pace than the other one, it causes a reading difficulty.” Or a child may have what Ross calls a convergence or “triangulate” on this point, which could be likened to the peak of an inverted triangle with your eyes as the corners. With some people, however, one eye rolls out when they try to converge so their vision blurs. Ross writes the word “the” on a piece of paper, then writes the word again, drawing over the first “the” so the two words overlap imperfectly.
“People never them the right questions. I’ll say ‘Do you ever see “the” looking like that? And they’ll say, ‘Yeah.” And the parents will say, ‘You never told me that!’ You know why? Because (the child) thinks everybody sees like that.” One clue to watch for: children with a convergence insufficiency often turn their heads while reading so their noses occlude on eye. Using just one eye prevents blurred vision.
A third problem Ross calls “lack of saccade function”. Saccades are brief, rapid movements of the eyes between fixed stopping points. “The fixation is how you read. Stop. Stop, stop, stop. And every time you stop, you store a package. In the kids who have some of these things wrong, it wobbles. The saccades don’t stop and that’s why they can’t read. They don’t store with their eyes. They do store to a degree, but they don’t store properly.”
Ross says optometrists in Kamloops who test vision skills often refer people with a disability to her, as do some teaching assistants. “Then I fix it. In six weeks. That’s what I do,” she says. “If this (vision skill disability) is all that’s wrong with them, it’s easy to fix.” Ross claims a 90 per cent success rate, but stresses that her therapy enables people to read by improving visual skills and visual perception. She doesn’t teach reading per se so remedial classes may still be required. After assessing a child, Ross devises an individual program of reading and eye exercises that the parents implement, usually in sessions lasting 20-25 minutes once a day, five days a week for six weeks.
Ronquist, who was so impressed with Ross’ work that she took up the calling, demonstrates how simple these exercises can be. She moves a penlight behind a white sheet of paper in straight horizontal lines. A child’s eyes, attracted by the light, follow it back and forth, strengthening the tracking muscles in his or her eyes. Ronquist taps the back of the sheet with the bright end of penlight, dot-dot-dot in a broken line pattern. This, she says, encourages a child’s eyes to stop as they should between rapid eye movements, thereby restoring proper saccade function.
“There’s all sorts of exercises you can do. It depends on the child; it depends on the problem. You’re just training their eyes to do what they’re supposed to do,” she says.
Ross agrees. “I tell the child, ‘This is just a bunch of silly muscles. You tell your eyes what to do but your eyes do as they please. Whose eyes are they anyway? They’re yours. They should do what you say.’ It’s such a relief. I’ve had so many kids say to me, ‘Oh my God, I thought I was dumb.’”
Eye training is combined with various reading exercises Ross designed to help children perceive what they read. Ronquist gives a simple example by writing the word SAT on a piece of paper and covering it with one hand. “You lift your hand for, say, a tenth of a second, just so the child can see the word. You get the child to say it (sat). Then you do it again. ‘What’s the word? Sat? Good.’ You do it again. “What’s the word? Good.” The child doesn’t have time to sound out the word. He or she learns instead to recognize it by sight.
It is this combination of eye training and reading exercises that makes Ross’ program different than most, says local optometrist Dr. Leonard Demarchi. Demarchi says vision falls into three broad categories: focusing, tracking and perception. Optometrists deal with the 20/20 focusing issues and learning psychologists deal with visual perception, but the middle ground has largely been abandoned. “Most optometrists do the eye-tracking, but we don’t do the eye-training part any more,” he says. “She’s filling in the cracks between our profession and teaching, the learning assistance assessments and psychological evaluations.” Optometrists did eye training in the 1940s and 1950s and it’s still practiced by a large group in the US called developmental optometrists. “We’re just a bit different here in Canada for some reason.”
Ross says her therapy trains eye muscles to a point where a child starts seeing as other children do and never looks back. It’s like learning to ride a bike – after numerous attempts, a child suddenly finds her balance and maintains the ability to ride for the rest of her life. Ross began developing her program, now called Vantage Vision Program and Vantage Reading Program, in 1964 when she became curious about why some intelligent children couldn’t read. “I noticed one day that if you talked to them, they’d look away to answer you,” she says. “They couldn’t use their eyes and ears together. Their auditory system was cutting out their visual system.”
Ross, a teacher until she retired in 1983 to work with her programs full time, took this insight, taught herself everything she could about vision and developed her own program. “I’m persistent. I never let anything go until I find out about it.” Working out of her home in Kamloops, B.C., Canada, she has spread the word in Vantage centers in Red Deer, Calgary, Smithers and the Kootenays. Ross says that together they have helped 6,000 children. If a child’s parents can’t afford even a token, she will still help their child. She’s a believer in what she does.
So is Ronquist. “I want people to know about it, that they have the option to go this route if they’re stuck. At least rule it out,” she says. “I know that even at the school I was at the teachers knew about Alice and never really said anything. Which made me really crazy. ‘Oh, yeah, we know about her.’ I thought, ‘Geez, if you just got the word out we could have been spared so much.’