Eye Movements and Reading:
What Teachers Need to Know
S. Jay Samuels, Timothy V. Rasinski, and Elfreida H. Hiebert

Until 1879, it was commonly thought that an individual's eyes continually took in information when reading or viewing a scene. The French scientist, Javal discovered that the eyes "jump" and "paused" as an individual was taking in information as when reading or viewing a scene.

In this wiki, you will learn about the eye’s physiology, the three different types of eye movement, the instructional implications, and indicators of possible eye problems when reading. There are additional resources compiled that explain the importance of directional tracking, ideas and activities for teachers to use in the classroom and a You Tube video to demonstrate how eye tracking is measured.

This information is important as teachers work with students as they develop the complex skills needed to become fluent readers.
~ Jacqueline Tricker and Stacey Freer

Eye Physiology - Jacqueline Tricker
When we read, a series of complex events transpire to translate images on the page to letters and words that work together to form meaningful text. In order to better understand the complexity of the process, we must have some understanding of the physiology of the eye.

The cornea, retina, and optic nerve are the three major parts of the human eye.
  • The cornea lets in visual images that then settle on to the retina.
  • The cells of the retina pass information on to the optic nerve.
  • The optic nerve delivers this information to locations in the brain that analyze and attempt to derive meaning from print or other visual images.
A key component to this process is understanding that a very small portion of the retina (the fovea) is responsible for bringing letter shapes into sharp focus. In addition, specialized retinal cells are responsible for specific tasks involved in deciphering text. Cone cells enable a reader to see letters and words with clarity while rod cells are important for interpreting the size and shape of words. Rods and cones work in collaboration to decipher print.
To complicate matters even further, the human eye is able to focus on a span of approximately 6 - 8 letters with visual acuity. The span is dependent on the uniqueness of each individual as well as the reading conditions. This small field from which we draw information limits our ability to read text efficiently without compensation.
Though reading is not a task that the human eye was suited for, eye movements and tracking compensate for the physical deficiencies of the human eye with regard to reading.

external image EyeFixationsReading.gif

A diagram demonstrating the acuity of foveal vision in reading (during one eye stop).

Eye Movements - Alyssa (Kludt) Baker
Eyes take in information only when they pause and not when they are moving. This is oculomotor eye movements and is called saccades. These oculomotor eye movements that take place during reading is categorized three ways: fixation, forward saccades, and backward saccades.

Fixation- These occur when the eye pauses momentarily on a line of print. Information is contained in the eye and fed to the brain for analysis and meaning.

Forward saccades- This is when the eyes jump left to right when reading English print. When the eye comes to the end of a line the eye movement drops down to the next line. Depending on what text is being read will determine the (left to right or right to left) movement.

Backward saccades- This occurs for different reasons. For the most part it occurs for rereading purposes. Rereadings typically go backward across several words and are primarily for the purpose of improving comprehension and sometimes for correcting faulty eye movements.

Since all eye movements are muscular motions, they are subject to errors. Backward eye movements are called regressions. This occurs to correct faulty eye movements that put the focal point in the wrong place, which impairs word recognition.

To process all the information on a page the eye must move rapidly from point to point to cover the page, and it is only when the eye pauses during an eye fixation that there is an uptake of information that is then fed to the brain and analyzed for meaning.

*Teachers should be aware of the fact that some beginning readers may be experiencing problems learning to read because of faulty eye motions.*

The Fixation Pause - Danielle Bartone

The fixation pause is the time spent on a single fixation. It is during this fixation pause that the eye takes in printed information and processes it for comprehension.

The eye fixation pause can last from 100 milliseconds to 500milliseconds. The average fixation pause lasts 300 milliseconds or 1/3 of a second. During longer fixation pauses it is presumed that information is being integrated from sentences read earlier or gaining comprehension of a sentence is taking a lot of cognitive effort during than during a shorter fixation pause.

Gaze duration is the time spent on a word for several fixations.

During the fixation pause there is a slight eye tremor which activates neurons in the retina where the fovea is located. Three parts of the eye (the fovea, the parafoveal region, and the peripheral region) are used to provide critical information the brain. The foveal information is critical because the letters that fall on the fovea are in sharp focus. The parafoveal and peripheral regions let the brain know about the word length and shape.

Four to five letters fall on the fovea during each fixation. The eye will skip words such as the, a, and of due to their short length and lack of bearing on comprehension. Preferred fixation locations are halfway between the beginning and the middle of the word because that part of the word is highly informative and the meaning can often be gathered from that part of a word.

A fluent reader has reached automaticity of word recognition or decoding. They can recognize a whole word or part of a word quickly. For a fluent reader five separate things occur during a fixation pause:
  • stabilize the eye
  • focus the visual images on the retina (where the fovea is located)
  • decoding (this can take only .10 second for the fluent reader)
  • word meaning and comprehension
  • plan the next saccade taking blank space into account

A non-fluent reader may only be able to accomplish the cognitive task of decoding during a fixation. The non-fluent reader may need to fixate again to gain comprehension.

During a fixation the reader's attention must switch from decoding to comprehension. If attention has to switch back to decoding it fatigues the short-term memory and makes reading more difficult for the non-fluent reader. Decoding and comprehending must be accomplished within the 10 second duration of the short-term memory system for sound information or the information will be lost and not usable to the reader. A non-fluent reader often does better on a second read due to having been exposed to the text and having tried to accomplish that mental task already.

Students must read more to become better readers and to be able to decode and comprehend in one fixation. Success with initial reads (not having to re-read for comprehension) will make reading more enjoyable and motivate students to read more.

Instruction Implications - Jillian Niebergall

“The human eye is not ideally suited for the task of reading” (Samuels, Rasisnski & Hiebert, 2011, p.32). This knowledge creates an element of concern for teachers, which may not have been previously considered as a component of learning how to read.

Did you know: The human eye can only place 6-8 letters into sharp focus at a time?

Fun Activity: Take a moment and read something recognizing how many letters you focus on as you read. How did you do, was your flow of reading affected? Did you find yourself rereading or slowing down to ensure you captured all the letters of words?

Important tips for the classroom:
Spelling – create a strong spelling program, so that students sight vocabulary increases. One component to assist the human eye’s ability to recognize words faster should be:

Word Shape – words are “simply a letter or group of letters surrounded by white space” (Samuels et al., 2011, 32). Word shapes include tall, middle and low letters. Instruction could be multi-modal by adding in hand signals (tall – point up, middle – make a fist, low – thumb down) or entire body (tall - stand up, middle – sit down, low – squat to the floor). Activities could include paper pencil activities (graphic below is linked to an online generator if you would like to create your own word shape boxes for spelling class). There are online games as well such as STAR WORDS . Or students could stamp out their spelling words and draw the shape box around.

figure 1.1

“One way to define reading fluency is to state that the fluent reader can decode and comprehend during the time span of a single eye fixation” (Samuels et al., 2011, p.38). Since words are depicted by the white space surrounding them, this is another area that teachers could be unaware of its importance of training the human eye for reading. Training ones eye to recognize white space is directly linked with eye fixations which are linked to the brains process of
transforming the visual information into its sound representation [span] the advantage gained by transferring visual into phonological information and placing the phonological information into short term memory is that the shelf life of the acoustical information in short-term memory is about 10 seconds, which is considerable longer that the duration of visual information, which is about 1 second (as cited in Samuels et al., 2011, p.39).

Did you know: If we relate reading to viewing imagery, the amount of fixations is identical, approximately 3 fixations per second. This being said once learned our brain can then process high frequency words at 3 words per second and skip words such as the, a and of.

Fun Activity: Samuels et al. (2001, p.43) provide a great illustration to show “how difficult reading becomes when word shape and length information are eliminated, try reading the following text:


Important tips for the classroom:
Move away from teaching and progress monitoring reading through “round-robin” reading. Where one student reads, others follow along. With different abilities of readers, those who are reading at a slower rate cause those who are stronger/faster readers to do more fixations and regressions which is counterproductive to training the eye to move forward as we read.

Create assignments that focus on spacing between words, letter shapes so that students can begin to increase their eye movement ability to recognize different lengths of words. Teaching word spacing can be done with Popsicle sticks, Spaceman, Smarties, m&m’s etc.; but also through activities such as setting up dominoes. This activity will show the students that if words (the dominoes) are too close together they fall over before you can even set them up, too far apart and the game doesn’t work (which makes reading hard to do, so a “just right” space allows the words to work together to make a sentence look, feel and sound correct.

Do understand that the beginning of the word is the most important part of the word. So activities that have students looking beyond the first section of the word are important. We often see children “guessing” at a word and provide something that is similar because they have only fixated on the beginning sound. For example, the beginning letters of blue, black, blanket and blow are all “bl”. I know many students who mix up blue and black when learning their colour words because they are trying to speed read. But I now understand they have only taken in the beginning letters and created the word that would be appropriate to end.

Forward SaccadesStacey Freer

When reading English, forward saccades are characterized by eye movement jumps that move left to right (Samuels & Farstrup, 2011)external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQnl_a5i_qzowJp-yGFIF-GL8q05x-EIq8XkGVJnGDEQvUj_4dXwQ
Eye Movement

- Left to right (when reading English text)
- Vision is suppressed to focus on print because the brain cannot focus on everything else
- Each forward saccade = 1-20 letter spacesexternal image eyeball.png
  • Average = 6-8 letter spaces

Information Analysis

The planning of how far to move the eye with a forward saccade is critically important (Rayner, 1983)

- Each forward saccade ends with a fixation
  • Primary goal during fixation: decoding on fovea (see diagram in Eye Physiology)
  • Secondary goal during fixation: comprehension – usually for higher learners
- Time from fixation – fixation

Regressions and Rereading - Melissa Lafayette

  • Regressions are when the eyes move backwards when reading. Since English is read left-to-right, regressions are when the eyes move right-to-left.
  • Causes may include:
    • Poor reading habits, for example when listening to a less fluent student read, regressions may occur when the reader is trying to follow along.
    • Decoding problems, when the student needs to do an accuracy check of what has been read.
    • Unexpected word, so the reader is checking comprehension
  • Older readers tend to have less regressions than younger students
  • Because younger kids have more regressions and take longer to decode words, they often forget what they are reading, so their short term memory has lost what they have read, making it necessary for them to reread for comprehension.
  • The harder the text for a reader the more comprehension checks are needed and the need for regressions and rereading increases

Indicators of Eye Problems in Reading - Marie Jacinto


Some early reading problems may be connected to improper eye movements. Examples given in this chapter include:are
Tracking problems-
  • some readers have difficulty maintaining focus on a line of print
  • others may skip lines while reading. The issue with skipping lines becomes exacerbated the longer the line of print is on a page.

Lack of binocular coordination-
  • while reading, each of the reader’s eyes may focus on different letters rather than working together.
  • extra effort is needed to stay focused on the line of print leading to eye fatigue and double vision

Convergence insufficiency-
  • the eyes are unable to come together and focus correctly while reading
  • the reader may have blurred vision, headaches and burning or excessively watery eyes

The following is a partial list of signs teachers can look for to help identify students who may have underlying vision problems. These indicators, along with the fact that the student is also having difficulty learning to read, may lead the teacher to suggest that the student see an eye health professional for further examination.
  • student reports visual discomfort
  • student is only willing to read for a short period of time
  • student frequently loses place when reading
  • student reports the words are fuzzy or blurry
  • student has difficulty concentrating when reading and wants to avoid reading
  • student use fingers to keep track of the line of text
  • student frequently leaves out words while reading orally
  • student has one eye that moves in a different direction from the other
  • student may squint, close one eye, or cover one eye during reading
Samuels, et al (p. 48)

The following article includes some visuals that further explain what a reader with improper eye movement might experience during reading.
Scroll down to the sections on eye-teaming, tracking, and focusing.

Chapter 2 Take-Aways - Erica Woodsumexternal image thumb_rev_117_3_808_fig1a.jpg
Eye Movements
-eye movements are essential to reading
-we do not continuously take in information, only when our eyes stop and pause on something
-eye movements, termed 'saccades' by Javal in 1879, fall into one of three categories
1. Fixation: when the eyes stop momentarily on a line of print
2. Forward Saccade: when reading English, the eyes move from left to right
3. Backward Saccade: rereading or regressing for a better understanding

Eye Physiology
-understanding eye physiology can enable teachers to see how students learn to read
-the retina contains two kinds of cells related to text recognition
1. Rod Cells: these help distinguish word length/shape and aid the eye in determining the appropriate jump distance based on the amount of white space surrounding a word
2. Cone Cells: these allow the eyes to focus clearly on letters and words
external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQgvocMsxBuqpq6GduzDJmad3pNpAaYdQ1qsbZ7SdySdxFN9Iza

Basic Statistics
-our eyes can only focus on 6-7 letters at a time
-letter/word accuracy to the right of the focus text is higher than to the left
-after a rapid eye movement from one part of the text to another, a reader typically pauses/engages in eye fixation (330 milliseconds for a fluent reader)
-information read must be understood within 10 seconds or it will be forgotten

-research has shown that fluent readers often skip small words like a, the, of because they are not crucial for comprehension
-some research cautions against round-robin oral reading in the classroom because it teaches bad eye movement habits

Experienced vs. Inexperienced Readers
-readers of different abilities focus on different sized visual units when reading
-younger, less experienced readers focus on letters, meaning longer words take more time to recognize
-older, more fluent readers focus on words, meaning they can identify words of various lengths in the same amount of time
-experienced readers are able to decode and comprehend at the same time
-inexperienced readers are only able to do one of these tasks at a time so it takes them twice as long to read/comprehend the same material
-experienced readers follow a 5 step process during a fixation pause
1. Stabilize
2. Focus
3. Decode
4. Word Meaning and Comprehension
5. Plan Next Saccade
-beginning readers follow a different process because they are not able to decode and comprehend simultaneously

Eye Problems
-eye problems can impact how effective eye movements are
-tracking is a common eye movement problem, easily fixed by placing a note card under the line of text
-there are many symptoms of eye issues including headaches, blurred vision, excessive tearing, and double vision
external image 3528661.jpg

Additional Information on Eye Movements and Reading

Dr. Keith Rayner explains eye movements when reading.

This Youtube video offers a demonstration in how eye tracking is measured. The initial reading is in a foreign language but stick with it, the student reads in English about half way through the video. Regardless of the language, it is interesting to be able to "see" how a reader tracks text.

The following websites discuss why directional tracking is so important, how parents and educators can teach it, and give more information on eye movement and the reading process.

The next group of pages include ideas and activities for teachers to use with students in the classroom.


A to Z Teacher Stuff. (2012). Retreived May 17, 2012 from

BBC Schools. (2012). Retreived May 16, 2012 from

Heinzle, J., Hepp, K., & Martin, A. C. (2010, July). A biologically realistic cortical model of eye movement control in reading. Retrieved May 18, 2012 from

Helder, E. (2012). Eye Reading Video. Michigan State University: Virtual university design and technology. Retreived from

Rayner, K. (1983). Eye movement in reading: Perceptual and language processes. New York: Academic Press.

Rayner, K., & Caselhano, M. (2007). Eye Movements. Scholarpedia. Retreived May 17, 2012, from

Really Good Stuff Inc. (2012). Retreived May 18, 2012 from

Samuel, S.J. & Fastrup, A.E. (2011). What research has to say about reading instruction (4th ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

The eye: The retina. (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2012 from

Web Books. The Eye. Retrieved May 16, 2012, from

Why do I have fuzzy or blurry vision?. (2010, April 21). Retrieved May 18, 2012 from

Wikipedia. (2012, May 7). Eye movement in reading. Retrieved May 17, 2012, from