Researchers discover there’s more to age old literacy problem than meets the eye

Posted by er134 at Nov 19, 2013 10:10 AM |
Elderly adults find reading more difficult due to the way they process language according to new research from the University of Leicester

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 19 November 2013

Older adults often have greater difficulty in reading than younger adults and, for the first time, new research published in Psychology and Aging from the University of Leicester’s School of Psychology has ruled out impairment of eye movement control as the cause of this difficulty.

The study, funded by the British Academy and the Ulverscroft Foundation, involved 32 adults, 16 young (aged between 19-30 years) and 16 older (aged between 65-74 years), where researchers found no evidence of a tangible difference in the control of eye movements while reading by the two age groups.

These novel findings suggest eye movement control of young adults is preserved into older age and that instead, older adults suffer from reading difficulty due to an impaired ability to recognise words.

Dr Kevin Paterson, co-project lead from the University of Leicester’s School of Psychology explained: “The difficulty older adults have with reading is not due to problems in controlling the movements of the two eyes. In fact, older adults coordinate and target their eye movements as effectively as younger adults.

“For the first time, this allows us to rule out faulty eye movement control as a cause of the reading difficulty that occurs naturally as we grow older, even in individuals who are healthy and do not suffer from visual impairment or eye disease. This is really important because if we are able to understand the nature of the reading difficulties faced by healthy older readers, we will be able to design effective interventions to improve the reading experience.”

The researchers observed the eye movements of the adults as they read lines of text, monitoring the alignment and location of both eyes’ fixations. They found that older adults demonstrated typical patterns of reading difficulty but showed no differences in the alignment of the eyes’ focal points, therefore enabling them to it rule out poor alignment of the two eyes as the cause of this reading difficulty.

Professor Tim Jordan, co-project lead from the Department of Psychology at Zayed University in Dubai, and formerly the University of Leicester, added: “We have found that despite reading more slowly, older adults employ a reading strategy that is well-adapted to the task. As this difficulty is not because of impaired eye movement control, it seems to be caused by changes in how older adults recognise words and work out the meaning of the text.

“The world has an ageing population, many of whom are likely to work until much later in life, well beyond the current retirement age. This means it is vital for elderly adults to be able to continue to read effectively and for us to understand why such difficulties occur so that we can develop effective interventions to overcome them. Moreover, the loss of good reading abilities is likely to restrict their capacity to work effectively, and reading problems associated with older age are likely to make a substantial contribution to social exclusion in the elderly.”

This research is part of a broader project seeking to understand the difficulties experienced by elderly readers.



For more information, please contact Dr Kevin Paterson at:

To view a copy of the paper, please visit:

The British Academy for the humanities and social sciences. Established by Royal Charter in 1902. Its purpose is to inspire, recognise and support excellence and high achievement in the humanities and social sciences, throughout the UK and internationally, and to champion their role and value. For more information, please visit  Contact the Press Office on or 020 7969 5263. Follow the British Academy on Twitter @britac_news

The Ulverscroft Foundation is a UK registered charity dedicated to helping visually impaired people. The Ulverscroft Foundation funds research projects, ophthalmic hospitals and clinics, and social and welfare services for visually impaired people. For further information contact website

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