A new machine called the Visagraph II is being credited with improving students’ reading scores in more than 600 schools, according to its producers. The device, hooked up to special goggles that produce a computerized record of a reader’s eye movements, lets school officials test students for eye-related reading problems, the company said.

Created by Taylor Associates of Huntington Station, N.Y., the Visagraph II can tell whether a student’s eyes are “tracking” correctly, the company said–checking whether the student’s eyes are moving quickly, smoothly, and simultaneously across a line of print. The machine also shows how long a student fixates on individual words, according to Taylor Associates.

“We are dealing with an aspect of reading no one else is doing,” said Stan Taylor, the company’s president. “This supplements what a school is already doing. Schools are basically involved in educational approaches to reading, and we supplement that with a procedural approach.”

As many as 60 percent of students lack visual coordination and tracking ability, Taylor said. For some, this could mean an impediment to learning; for others, it means they don’t read as efficiently as they should, he said.

But even inefficient eye movements can have a significant impact on reading comprehension, Taylor said. Wandering, random-order eye impressions can affect a student’s understanding of a passage by the time the student gets to the end, he said.

The Visagraph II is the result of some 60 years of research in reading technology, according to Taylor. In the 1930s, Taylor’s father and uncle developed some of the first reading instruments in the U.S., he explained. Taylor Associates continues that work by using modern technologies to explore reading proficiency, he said.

The Visagraph II alone can’t make students better readers, but the data it collects can reveal weak spots in reading fluency, said Taylor. Teachers then would provide recommended computer exercises to target the weaknesses and improve students’ reading abilities, he said.

To use the Visagraph II, a student slips on the special goggles and reads a passage selected by the teacher. Infrared optics in the goggles sample eye movements 60 times per second and transfer the data to a computer program, which calculates various measures of reading performance. The student then is tested to see how well he or she understood the passage.

The Visagraph II was introduced four years ago. Initially, the machines were used only by eye doctors, the company said, but have recently reached the classroom.

A Visagraph II machine costs a school about $2,150, according to Taylor Associates, and is reportedly easy to operate. Schools can use it to diagnose vision problems or reading inefficiencies right on campus, reaching thousands of students who otherwise would not get tested, the company said.

Officials at Harrington Elementary School in Denver are convinced of the machine’s value. Dozens of Harrington students were reading well below grade level before the Visagraph II was introduced, according to teacher Marjory Ulm. Already, they are reading where they should be or at a higher level, she said.

Using the Visagraph II, Harrington found that 90 percent of its students had some sort of eye dysfunction, and that the problem was severe in 10 to 15 percent of the students.

One girl’s reading improved two grade levels after just one month of eye training, officials said. A fourth-grade boy who had been diagnosed as having a learning disability jumped almost three grade levels in reading in only a few weeks.

Harrington officials said the therapy has not only dramatically improved reading skills; it has also cut down on student behavioral problems, because students who had a hard time grasping their lessons now can follow them much more easily.

At Harrington, the “time-out” room where disruptive students were sent on a regular basis is now used for storage. And the number of students sent to the principal’s office this school year reportedly is down by 90 percent.

Taylor Associates