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Can providing free eyeglasses improve reading outcomes? Here’s what we learned.

March 25, 2019

Why do so many young students struggle to read? There are many explanations, but one of them may be surprising because it is seemingly straightforward: A significant number of young readers need glasses but don’t receive proper vision care.

The American Optometric Association estimates that one in four school-aged children in the United States has undiagnosed and untreated eye problems that inhibit their learning. Moreover, roughly 95% of non-readers in first grade have significant vision problems.

Although there’s little debate that a student’s ability to see is fundamental to their ability to read, clear vision remains a basic need that is easily overlooked and unaddressed. Most districts offer vision screenings for students to comply with state laws. The problem is many students either don’t participate in these screenings or don’t receive the follow-up care that they need. Last year, the Education Week Research Center found that nearly one in three children had not participated in vision testing in the past two years, if at all, for a number of reasons.

First, some students—particularly those from low-income households—have limited access to vision insurance. Second, according to Pediatric Ophthalmologist Dr. Karen Hendler, it’s fairly common for adults not to know whether or not students struggle to see because young children rarely complain about their eyesight. Many young children don’t realize that their vision is unclear, or if they do, they struggle to articulate that they have a vision problem.

Some schools go beyond vision screenings and offer free eyeglasses to improve reading outcomes

To meet their students’ unaddressed vision needs and improve academic outcomes, several school districts partner with eyewear vendors to increase student access to comprehensive vision care. In addition to offering annual vision screenings, Baltimore City Public Schools now distributes free eyeglasses to elementary students in need of vision care through its partnership with Warby Parker.

Because eyeglasses are often cost-prohibitive, developing these partnerships is essential for districts that want to provide comprehensive vision care for their students. District representatives partially attribute their ability to distribute free eyeglasses to eyewear companies’ growing interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR). Some of these companies view school partnerships as a way to give back to the community and fulfill their CSR goals. As one school representative told EAB, “The key is to ask eyewear organizations about their interest in working with the school community and then try to partner with them.”

Addressing student vision needs is a necessary, but insufficient solution to the reading challenge

Will distributing free glasses to students with poor vision truly solve the reading problem? The short answer is no, not entirely. A 2018 randomized controlled trial examined the impact of access to free eyeglasses on elementary reading scores in Florida and found that pairing vision screenings with eyeglass distribution marginally improved reading scores. Increasing access to eyeglasses may help some students with vision needs learn to read, but this initiative alone is insufficient to ensuring reading success for the vast majority of students.

While students’ ability to see undoubtedly impacts their ability to read, how students are taught to read has an even greater impact on reading outcomes. EAB’s recent K-12 research on the third grade reading gap found that the primary driver behind the nation’s poor reading outcomes is that early grade reading instruction often fails to align with evidence-based research. The districts that have seen the most dramatic improvements in reading focus on aligning elementary reading instruction with brain-based research.

To learn more about the best practices that collectively led to these significant reading gains, please visit the District Leadership Forum’s reading resource center.


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