The Dreaded “Eyes Off Text”

I have a student who persistently takes his eyes off text. Right from the beginning this behavior of eyes off text and inventing can be seen on the Observation Survey.

His strengths are using meaning and language structure along with the text pattern to read the text. He has a weak pointing finger and is not consistent with his one to one matching.

I have been spending time lately reading as much as I can about how to help children learn how to look at print.  If you have a student like mine join me in my battle to keep those little eyes on text through very careful planning.

Directional Behaviors

In Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals (2nd edition), Marie Clay writes, “when they direct their eyes to search for information within the directional rules of the written page, beginner readers will be able to link what they see to their own language responses.” (Clay, p. 49).

In other words, children need to know how to look at print and what they are looking for.  Reading requires the reader to look at print in a precise manner in which they follow the rules of print. When we look at anything else in our environment we can scan it in any manner to make sense of it – this is not the case when reading.

Children will need to know where to start reading, which way to go, and how to return to the next line.  They will have to develop a habit of looking left to right through a sentence, word, and letter.  They need to know that letters have a particular orientation.  We can begin this work by helping our students to have a one to one match with each word on the page. It is easiest to start with one line of text and then once that is under control move on to two and three lines. We can also bring this work into writing by arranging the text in different ways (changing the number of lines) to encourage flexibility.

Locating Behaviors

In Change Over Time In Children’s Literacy Development, Clay tells us that “early intervention teachers must think carefully about children who find it difficult to locate the visual information they need in the printed code” (p. 155).  We have to help our students to acquire an organized system for looking at print and keep lapses to a minimum.  When students are not sure where to look and aren’t attending to letters and words in detail the text resembles a bunch of squiggles. They might not even notice the spaces separating the words.

Training the “Wandering Eye”

Imagine that you are taking a leisurely drive and something catches your eye, a deer by the side of the road, or a rainbow in the sky. These distractions can lead us away from our intended destination if we don’t put our eyes back where they should be.

We can help our students attend to the text by reducing anything in the environment that might draw their eyes away from what we want them to be attending to. We never know what might attract our student’s attention.

I looked critically at my teaching area and asked myself what might draw my student’s attention away from their learning.  I moved my magnetic letters out of view along with my hanging daily schedule and a few other materials.

Here is my clutter-free space ready for my next lesson.

I cleared the area where students make words on the salt tray.  I had a few stuffed animals and a plant behind the salt tray.  I don’t want to take any chances that my student is attending to Oliver the cat instead of the word “Here”.

When working at the chalkboard, I keep the board clear and add what I want the child to attend to as he/she watches.  This makes it clear to the child where his/her eyes should be looking.

When comparing, I pull the two letters that I want the child to attend to next to each other away from the other letters.

Expand the Meagre Knowledge of letters and Words

Our students need many opportunities to find known letters and words in the books they are reading and plentiful opportunities to contribute what is known during writing.  Once a child seems to be attending to a new word encourage flexibility by having it pop up in various places.

Help students to discriminate between letters. Students need to be able to retrieve this information quickly.  We should support the child in becoming flexible with variations of letters (different fonts, sizes, colors).  This work can be done with magnetic letters at the board by matching and grouping letters together.

In her article, The Eyes Have to Have It!  Jake’s Engagement with Print in Early Lessons, Maryann McBride writes about using a sliding, masking card to have her student read known words quickly in text before they begin reading (p. 22).

The letters and words that we work with should come directly from the reading and writing our students are doing.  When we pull a letter or word out of text it becomes easier for the student to attend to it in detail.  After taking these items from text we should always return them back to continuous text.  McBride reminds us that it is important that we keep students in continuous text and that we don’t take “too many detours for the sake of item knowledge” (p. 24).

Supporting Attention to Print

There are ways in which we can support our students with gaining control of directionality, developing locating behaviors, and preventing “wandering eyes”.

  • Provide clear demonstrations with little teacher talk
  • Give specific praise
  • Provide exaggerated movements (for a short time)
  • Choose/make books with one line of text that starts in the upper left and consists of several words
  • Choose/make books with clear spacing
  • Insist on a “clear pointing finger” that points under each word
  • Keep letter and word work at eye level
  • Interrupt old unhelpful habits – do not allow them to happen!

It can be easy for us, as teachers, to take for granted how complex attending to print is because we understand and follow the rules of print without any conscious thought at all. The resources I read really helped me to think about my student and how to go about getting those eyes to stay on text.  I will definitely be reaching out to my Reading Recovery colleagues as well!



Clay, Marie.  Change Over Time In Children’s Literacy Development.  Portsmouth:  Heinemann, 2001. Print.

Clay, Marie.  Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals, 2nd edition.  Portsmouth:  Heinemann, 2016. Print

McBride, Maryann.  “The Eyes Have to Have It!  Jake’s Engagement with Print in Early Lessons.” Journal of Reading Recovery.  Fall (2006): 15-25. Print.

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