The latest issue of Best Evidence in Brief continues a long-standing trend in the business of teaching children to read: namely, to flail about looking for anything that might shore up student reading, without having to go to the bother of actually getting teachers to teach differently.

The bulletin describes an intervention in 12 US primary schools with economically disadvantaged students. All had their vision tested and were issued free spectacles if they were found to need them – one pair for school, one for home, with broken pairs replaced for free. I was surprised to read that 69% of students tested needed glasses, so it was well worth investing in the screening process.

Providing poor children with vision testing, and supplying glasses if indicated, is a good thing in and of itself, and to be applauded. It removes a key barrier that might otherwise impinge upon students’ ability to access reading texts. What is startling, though, is the Best Evidence in Brief claim that this approach ‘points to a new strategy for improving reading performance in high-poverty schools.’

I could accept this as a possibility if there had been a marked jump in test scores as a result of the programme. However, the bulletin reports that the effect size of the study was +0.16. In other words, not much. Add to this the reported pvalue of 0.3, well above the maximum .05 that is accepted as a reasonable indicator that the results did not occur by chance, and we have nothing to talk about when it comes to spectacles improving reading.

Children who have trouble seeing the text need glasses. But let’s not confuse the business of seeing the page with the business of learning to read the symbols on the page. Improving children’s vision removes a barrier, but it does not improve reading per se – nor is there any logical reason why we should expect it to do so. What is required is explicit, systematic, well-informed teaching. But in educational research, as elsewhere in education, it seems that we will grasp at anything rather than admit that it is our teaching that needs to improve.

And until we admit that, there is no possibility of improvement, and many disadvantaged children – with or without spectacles – will not learn to read as well as they should.

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