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Case Study: Katherine

Katherine is eleven and well known to CVI Scotland. She features on the website in several places.

Whilst developing Look, we asked Katherine's mother if Katherine would pilot Look for us, and give us feedback.

The conversation below took place between Katherine's mother (KM) and CVI Scotland (CVIS, in italics for clarity), and follows their journey over a two month period, from:

Katherine is still unable to read


For the first time she [Katherine] is experiencing what it's like to read a story

Following the conversation below, we've added some comments, because many of the frustrations and challenges Katherine and her family have faced are not uncommon. We have shortened the original conversation but it's still quite long. However from the time Katherine first uses Look, we think you will be as hooked as we've been.

This real exchange explains how a child is actually learning to read using the CVI Scotland reading tool Look, with the approach of Reading Using Recognition.

KM: Katherine is still unable to read, but enjoys people reading to her.

CVIS: We are developing an interactive reading tool for children, where you can put in words and they come up, one at a time, in a choice of size, font, colour (text and background) and speed. The idea is to learn to recognise words rather than read phonetically. Is there any chance we could use Katherine as a bit of a prototype for our prototype?

If you tell me what she is interested I could write some text for you to put in the pre-defined box (does her horse have a name - maybe I could make up a story?) - it doesn't matter if I use words she is not currently able to recognise - that's the whole point of it.

KM: Following your previous advice, school started using a whole word approach, instead of using phonics, which was pointless! Katherine is recognising words, however, when placed in a sentence she can no longer read it, which brings me onto the link you sent. It's amazing, I'm so impressed! I'm going to show Katherine, I'll let you know how she gets on.

I really think technology is the way forward for teaching her how to eventually read. We currently show her one word at a time but she requires help with doing that and it makes her frustrated. The reader would give children much more independence.

We would be very happy to try it out for you.

CVIS: Thank you - hopefully we will learn a lot, Katherine will have some fun, and develop her reading skills. I am going to write a short, developing story for Katherine. Imagine I typed a random unidentifiable symbol into this sentence, it would be silly to expect you to tell me what it meant, and getting you to stare at it for longer and longer isn't going to do anything other than stress you out, maybe leading to random guesses. This maybe what words are like to Katherine and other children before they know them. For this reason, if and when Katherine doesn't know a word, just tell her.

The first thing to establish is the settings. I would recommend using the fixed speed to begin with, but either forward the words manually (so Katherine is in control) or very slowly.

The one rule - it has to be fun - if it's not, get back to me and I will have a think.

Please copy and paste the text below into the pre-defined text box:

Hi, my name is Keira,
I am a horse.
I have a secret.
Can you keep a secret?

I know it doesn't seem like much, but I don't want to overwhelm her.

I think Katherine will quickly pick up 'Keira' and 'secret'. Let's see...

KM: This is so very easy to do, especially for a non-techy person like me! I think she's going to love it, most of the issues and frustrations we have with Katherine are linked to us assisting her with things. This will allow her to be much more independent and give her the ability to change the settings to suit how her vision is at that particular time.

She loved it and there were words that she already recognised, e.g., my, can, am etc. which helped enormously, as it boosted her confidence.

She very quickly picked up that she could use the arrow keys to go back and say the word again. You were spot on too, she needed help with the word 'secret' but then came straight out with it when she saw it again, which was amazing! With her name starting with a 'K,' she is mistaking Keira for Katherine, which I had expected as she thinks every word starting with K is her name!

We are having to use the largest font size and she is still going quite close to the screen and I'm finding blue writing on a yellow background works well. She said she prefers it to how she reads at school, which is a book with cut out card to block off the other words.

She got up this morning and asked if she could do it again to show her brother - she never volunteers to do any reading of any sort usually

CVIS: I will speak to the web designers about increasing the biggest font.

Let me know when she is ready for the next bit - I am imagining that each time Katherine will return to the beginning to read it from scratch, reinforcing the words she already knows.

Katherine may be getting close to the screen because of a subconscious need to limit surrounding background clutter, so another thing to experiment with, is to place the computer on a plane sheet or table cloth, or even a black sheet.

Here's the next bit of the story...

You can keep a secret?
Oh good.
My secret is about my mother who was a famous horse dancer.
Does that sound funny?
A horse who can dance?

You might want to watch the dancing horses if Katherine hasn't already seen them, next stop will be Vienna https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gogIZALj7WY

KM: Thanks for the second part of the story. Katherine herself has solved the font size issue, by accident I have to add! I have a touchscreen laptop and she enlarged the font while using the arrow keys.

She's doing really well, obviously there are some very new words but she's really enjoying it and it's really giving her a boost. We sat and watched the dancing horses, she said she's going to try that at her next riding lesson, eek!

Katherine is usually very reluctant to do anything she deems as work!

P.S. on the second part of the story, I should have mentioned that she recognised the word 'secret.' I'm intrigued at how you predicted that prior to even giving me the sentence?

CVIS: In answer to your question about how I predicted Katherine would learn the word secret:

Here are the words from the first block of text:

Hi, my name is Keira, I am a horse. I have a secret. Can you keep a secret?

Imagine each word is an exotic fish with its own unique markings. The biggest and most exotic is going to be the word 'secret' - not only the longest word, but once revealed (by you, the first time it came up) a wonderful word full of suggestions - and then, only four little words later, there it is again, that beautiful exotic fish, of all the fish the most recognisable - and recognition is key here. This is the point we keep trying to make. And with that Katherine recognised and correctly repeated the word, which I hope would have surprised and pleased her, giving her the confidence right from the start that she can do this!

So, then we got to part 2

You can keep a secret? Oh good. My secret is about my mother who was a famous horse dancer. Does that sound funny? A horse who can dance?

The exotic fish was remembered and correctly recalled, swimming amongst other little fish, some known, but 'secret' stands out. And again, two big rewards (secret written twice in the first nine words, the surrounding words are all small), the new word is recognised twice. Over time with repeated experience, Katherine will remember more and more detail about each exotic fish, including the ones that look alike as she has to remember the much finer markings (like between Katherine and Kiera).

That's why I thought (and hoped) the word 'secret' would be easily recognised.

I will be guided by you as to when you think Katherine is ready for part three - she will be reading parts 1 and 2 combining her memory of the text with developing recognition of certain words. Did she get horse in part 2? It has to stay fun and achievable.

KM: Katherine's quick response to horse is usually house, she then remembers what the story is about and corrects herself. Katherine is very impulsive and finds it difficult to think before she speaks.

CVIS: looking at the two, in the middle the house has a seat (the letter u, one can sit in) and the horse has a horse's head (the r looks a little like a hobby-horse)

KM Thanks, it's getting that visual picture in her head and for her to look for the 'u' or the 'r' before saying the word. She's doing ok with it, I think I might need the next bit soon as she is asking, 'what happened next'.

Yesterday while pulling into a car park Katherine asked if the word on a sign said Christmas. I nearly crashed the car, she has never done that before. She's definitely becoming more confident and she looked so pleased with herself when I said it did. I've got to admit, I did a little happy dance when I got out of the car!

CVIS: Here is the next bit (below)

My mother was a beautiful horse,
her name was Belle.
Belle means beautiful,
did you know that?
Belle, the beautiful dancing horse.
But Belle was not happy.

KM Katherine spent 45 mins using 'Look' yesterday. For Katherine to sit doing an activity for that length of time is pretty impressive! She started from the beginning with me, we got to word 120, she then decided she wanted to show dad, so went back to the start. She is using the arrow keys to manually change the word which works much better for her as it gives her more time. She's mastered Keira, secret, horse and Belle, there's no hesitation now with those words, so added to the words that are already familiar to her, gives a nice little flow and she's loving it.

For info, while we were on holiday, Charlie my son was attempting to get Katherine to read a book - Paw Patrol I think it was. She told him she didn't read books like that anymore as she can't see the words and then tried to explain how she wanted it to be

What we really love is seeing how proud she is of herself and the little squeals she gives when she gets words right. I need to purchase a mouse for my laptop to make it easier for her to move to the next word. I have to admit, I thought any word with more than three letters was going to be too challenging, but it appears that it's the bigger words that seem to be sticking in her memory.

CVIS: Just consistently recognising the words Keira, secret, horse and Belle demonstrates that Katherine is very capable of learning to read using this approach - she just needs time and patience. For info, the right arrow key should move to the next word, some parents use a bit of Velcro on keys so the child can feel them rather than having to move their visual attention.

KM: 'LOOK' is allowing us to work with Katherine at home, something we have never been able to do, as she wouldn't engage in anything.

To see how much she is enjoying it, because it's presented to her in a way that works, is pretty amazing! For the first time she is experiencing what it is like to read a story.

CVIS: Today we are launching Look. The feedback from you about Katherine really helped shape it. What you showed us was the difference motivation makes, and conversely, when something doesn't make sense how frustrating and de-motivating this must be.

KM: You introduced a whole new world to Katherine. She was desperate to read words but the methods we were using were too challenging. She loves using 'Look' as will so many other children.

I know the VI teacher who visits school is very interested to know how 'Look' works and the teaching staff are very impressed with it. The fact that it is being offered free is very generous but I appreciate that the whole point of developing this, was to introduce a whole new, easier way to learn how to recognise words and Katherine is proof that it works, when conventional methods have failed.

We will continue to use it at home and I know school will continue to use it daily, she is getting so much enjoyment from it and I feel it's the only way she will make progress.

Katherine can talk and the fact that she asks to use 'Look' says it all really!

Katherine found reading difficult and stressful for a number of reasons to do with both perceptions and motivation:

Perceptual Barriers:

  • Katherine had some success learning to recognise whole single words, but was unable to see them when in a sentence. Like many with CVI, Katherine struggles in a cluttered environment, and this extends to letters, within the words, within a sentence, within a paragraph.
  • Due to this clutter, the words were not perceivable to Katherine

Motivational Barriers:

  • Kathrine was frustrated because she is an intelligent girl who can't understand why it doesn't make any sense. The teacher can't be wrong so it must be her!
  • Katherine is also a highly independent girl, and hates other people having to do things for her. This alone made the process of learning to read something she didn't look forward to or enjoy.

Another key issue is that whilst Katherine is 11, her language is probably more at the level of an eight year old and reading skills at a three / four year old level. But Katherine is eleven, and she needed a story suited for an eleven year old, using a mixture of language she knows and language to learn, because stories do not only teach reading, they also extend our vocabularies (as we discussed in our Reading to your Child for Fun section). Books for three and four year old children are not appropriate for Katherine, which is why we wrote Kiera's Secret for her, available for anyone trying this approach.

Now Katherine can read her own stories and is loving it - the simple formula once again triumphed:

1 Perceivable - The words were presented one at a time, in a size and format visible to Katherine. The words were not presented as lots of individual letters needed to be understood individually, then put together in the correct order and made sense of (phonetic reading). Katherine was asked to simply remember the word as a whole picture.

2 Meaningful - For the first time this approach made sense to Katherine and she could see a simple way that she could learn to recognise words and with that, again for the first time, read them.

3 Motivation - Being perceivable and meaningful would have given motivation enough, but Katherine also loved the independence Look gave her. Katherine is quite correctly very proud of herself, and loving showing off her new skills, and her reading skills improve daily.

= Successful Learning

CVI Scotland would like to thank Katherine's mother, and particularly Katherine, for their ongoing help and support. We are already working on several measures to make Look even more effective.


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At CVI Scotland we are devoted to helping people understand cerebral visual impairments, and together working towards developing the understanding of this complex condition.