Discovering Vision Therapy Blog

Reading But Not Retaining: Why Kids Can Read But Not Remember Words


Reading processing problems are difficult for parents to wrap their heads around. If your child can read a word, why can’t he or she remember what it means? The truth is, you do the same thing. Maybe every day.

When you’re a parent, your child’s health is determined by what’s “normal.” You base your definition of normal - normal behavior, normal growth rate, etc. - on the insight of doctors, educators and others. But much of it is based on our own personal experience, and how the world looks to you.

Perhaps that’s why parents sometimes have a real problem getting their head around the concept of a functional vision problem - especially processing issues.  If a child can read a word, why can’t they remember what it means?

The truth is, we all have our limits in terms of processing. Here’s an example that will help you relate to your child’s struggles with reading - and why it may be caused by a functional vision problem.

Reading But Not Remembering - “What Did I Just Read?”

You’ve probably been in this situation: You’re reading a book, and it’s late at night. You’re tired from a long day. As you’re reading, your mind wanders. Suddenly, you realize you’ve reached the end of the page, but you have no idea what you’ve just read.

You backtrack to the last part you remember, and you read again. The same thing happens. Nothing seems to be registering with your mind. You realize that you’re exhausted, so you close the book and go to bed.

Why does this happen?

The reading process is complicated.  Let’s break it down into two components: Physical and mental.


First, consider the physical act that must occur with your eyes, as described by the College of Vision Development (COVD): @covd

“When we read, we need to:

  • Aim two eyes at the same point simultaneously and accurately
  • Focus both eyes to make the reading material clear
  • Continue to sustain clear focus, and
  • Move two eyes continually as a coordinated team across the line of print.

When we move our eyes to the next line of print, we continue with the process.”

That’s the physical aspect, essentially. Now we move on to the next component - Cognitive - in which the reading comprehension occurs.


Again, the COVD: “We are constantly taking in the visual information and decoding it from the written word into a mental image. Memory and visualization are also used to constantly relate the information to what is already known and to help make sense of what is being read.”

Many processes occur while reading

There are many processes occurring while you read, and if one derails, our reading comprehension suffers. It’s like the example of reading late at night: Your eyes may be engaging in the physical act of reading, but the cognitive component isn’t working correctly, so you can’t remember what you read.

We have a certain amount of mental energy that can be used at any given time. In our example of reading late at night, if you’re fatigued, then you don't have enough energy to keep the words single and clear on the page, move your eyes, AND comprehend what you’ve read.

If a child is using all available mental energy to keep the words single and clear and to move their eyes on the page, then the act of reading becomes so laborious that actually processing the information in a meaningful enough way to remember is not possible.

Your Child’s Reading Process is Broken

With a functional vision problem, something is affecting your child’s ability to see an object in space.  One of those reading processes is being impaired.

If your child has a convergence insufficiency, for example, the eyes have problems focusing together on a single point. If the eyes are focused on two different spots, the brain won’t be able to combine the image.The physical act of reading a line of text across a page can be an enormous struggle for a child whose eyes won’t work together as a team.

Unlike the example where your own reading suffers when you get tired late at night, a child who has a functional vision problem experiences this problem all of the time.

That’s why schoolwork for so many children is an continuous struggle. Kids avoid reading, don’t do homework, and eventually develop problems with behavior in school. They are working twice as hard as other kids just to read “normally.” 

Fortunately, a functional vision problem can be corrected through vision therapy. By engaging in a series of activities designed to improve your child’s functional visual skills, the entire visual system - brain, eyes and visual pathways - can be retrained to work effectively.

Download our Vision and Learning Guide and take a closer look at the types of functional vision problems that can affect reading and comprehension. Discover what you can do to make life “normal” for your struggling student.

Download Free Vision  And Learning Guide

Posted by   The Vision Therapy Center, Reviewed by Dr. Kellye Knueppel

The content in this post created was written by professional writers and then reviewed and edited for medical accuracy by Dr. Kellye Knueppel of The Vision Therapy Center.   Learn more about Dr. Knueppel's medical background