The Guardian Article

Copyright Guardian Newspapers, Limited Dec 31, 1996

Education: Shades of difference
John Bald reports on a technique to help children read by using tinted overlays on a page


By John Bald

TONY, a bright seven-year-old, is reading accurately but extremely slowly from a simple storybook, following each word with his finger so that he will not lose his place. His teacher, who has heard that tinted overlays placed over a text can help some children with reading, borrows a screening kit and finds that a deep yellow overlay lets Tony zip through the same text with perfect fluency. He has stopped using his finger.

Stuart, aged 11, needed a bucket beside his desk in school, as reading literally made him sick. As a medical student, his father had shaded important passages in his textbooks with crayons to alleviate a similar problem. Both now have tinted lenses, and Stuart reads in bed.

More spectacular still are reports of relief from severe migraine and photosensitive epilepsy, as cited in research studies by Dr Arnold Wilkins, a psychologist from the Medical Research Council's Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge.

Precision tinting as a solution to certain types of reading problem was launched in the UK 10 years ago, using a system developed by Helen Irlen, a Californian psychologist, which sold for over pounds 200. The cost, coupled with a conservative attitude from opticians and outright derision from some dyslexia specialists, restricted access to the technique and threatened its survival. Now, however, Dr Wilkins has developed a simple pack which enables any school to screen children who appear to be suffering from sensitivity to light.

It takes less than 20 minutes to screen a pupil to determine if they will benefit from a coloured overlay. Subsequently, they can be referred to an optician to be fitted with specially tinted glasses. In every school in which I have used the kit at least some of the beneficiaries have been teachers, many of whom have become used to headaches, tiredness and eye strain caused by years of working under fluorescent light.

Dr Wilkins' interest in visual stress had begun in 1971, when he was introduced to a patient who had epileptic seizures when she looked at striped patterns. Helen Irlen's work made him consider the possibility of a link between this form of epilepsy, which is quite rare, and discomfort induced by the striped effect produced by the lines of print across a page.

He found that her coloured lenses enabled some users to detect fine detail more clearly than normal lenses, and that most saw fewer distortions when looking at the striped patterns which had triggered the epilepsy.

Dr Wilkins set up his own system of tinting lenses - at first a thoroughly Heath-Robinson affair with bottles of dye in a tray of warm water - and developed a machine to speed up the assessment process. Under trial conditions, he gave potential subjects two pairs of glasses: one of them was imperceptibly altered to provide a tint which was close to but not identical to the chosen tint.

Users tended to prefer the chosen tint, and showed small but consistent benefits in reading. More recent research has shown a statistically significant improvement - roughly 11 per cent - in the reading speed of long-term users of coloured overlays.

Dr Wilkins' account of the saga is available in paperback (Visual Stress, OUP, pounds 25). The first half is a highly specialised account of the epilepsy work, but the second is a detailed account of the effects of lighting on many aspects of modern life, and deserves serious consideration from architects as much as from reading specialists. A study of the effects of tinting on migraine is under way at the Institute of Optometry - further details are available from Dr Regini Patel at the address below.

Overlay Screening Kit, price pounds 40, from the Institute of Optometry Marketing, 56-62 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6DS.

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