By Kalie Bennett
The idea of using coloured overlays to improve reading has been around since the 1980’s when a psychologist and a teacher first described Irlen Syndrome and recommended coloured overlays and glasses as a treatment (H. Irlen, 1983; O. Meares, 1980). Irlen Syndrome is a perceptual processing disorder that involves symptoms such as light sensitivity, strain and fatigue when reading, frequent headaches, and reading problems such as misreading lines, skipping words or lines, trouble spelling and word distortions on the page (Irlen, 2014). The syndrome has been controversial because some clinics started promoting the use of coloured glasses while the research is not accepted by all (Evans & Drasdo, 1991). Those promoting the method state that it does not instantly improve a person’s reading but can assist a person learning to read, and different colours work for different people (H. Irlen, 1983; A. Norton, 2011). The exact reason for why it works has not been determined, however (Uccula, Enna, & Mulatti, 2014). Others argue that people read better with coloured overlays because they expect the coloured overlays to work, something known as the placebo effect, and there is no real cause for the improvement (Ritchie, Della Sala, & McIntosh, 2011).
Dyslexia is a common learning disability. In 2006, Statistics Canada reported more than half a million adults in Canada have a learning disability (Statistics Canada, 2009). According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is a language-based disability where the person has difficulty recognizing words; that is, they have difficulty connecting the words they see with the sounds they make. Irlen Syndrome, on the other hand, is a disability where the brain has trouble processing the visual information it receives (Irlen, 2014). Text is distorted so it is difficult for the person to read. Coloured overlays are believed to remove some of the wavelengths that are causing the distortions (Irlen, 2014).
I wanted to test whether using coloured overlays actually makes a difference in my reading ability. I also wanted to see whether coloured overlays affect other people, both those who have reading disabilities and those who do not. I think that blue overlays will improve my speed, accuracy and fluency in reading and will work better than other colours. I find blue is less bright and more calming on my eyes while brighter colours make me tired and give me headaches. I think coloured overlays will also help other people with reading disabilities but won’t affect people who do not have trouble reading.
For my experiment I used an iPad to record participants reading, a stopwatch to time my own reading, books at the participants’ reading level and 6 different coloured overlays (purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red) and a clear overlay. The overlays were transparent, coloured divider tabs used for binders, available at Staples.
My experiment involved 4 participants (including myself) who read using 6 different coloured overlays (blue, green, purple, red, orange, yellow) and one clear overlay for comparison. I measured ability to read by looking at speed, accuracy (number of mistakes made) and fluency (number of stumbles, repetitions and missed punctuations). Two of the participants have reading disabilities and two do not. With each person I used a book that was at their reading level and they read for a pre-determined number of words. I picked the order of the colours randomly and provided a short break in between testing each colour. I repeated the experiment on three separate days for all four participants. When I tested myself, I had assistance from my mom, who timed me and recorded the number of mistakes and stumbles I made. The other participants were videotaped while reading using an iPad and I later determined speed, errors and stumbles by reviewing the videos and the books, with some assistance from my mom.
For each participant I compared the results of the three different measures (speed, accuracy and fluency) for each colour to their average results when reading with a clear overlay. As I expected, using blue overlays appeared to improve my speed, accuracy and fluency in reading (see Figure 1). Blue was the only colour that consistently performed better than clear in all three measures; that is, faster speed and fewer errors and stumbles. Colours like yellow, red and orange made my reading worse than not using a colour. The results for the other participants show no consistent improvement in reading when using coloured overlays (see Figures 2-4). In some cases, some colours resulted in improvements in one or two measures but never in all three measures.
The results show that the use of coloured overlays can help some individuals with reading problems to read better, however it does not seem to work for everyone. I did not expect there to be improvement for the participants who did not have reading disabilities, however I was surprised that participant 2 did not improve their reading with coloured overlays. In my case, I noticed the colours that help my reading the most have short wavelengths and the colours that make my reading worse have longer wavelengths. Perhaps longer wavelengths irritate my eyes and the blue overlays filter out some of the longer wavelengths present in white light that is otherwise reflected from the page. I have been using blue overlays for three years. This may have influenced the results as my eyes are used to it, whereas participant 2 had never used coloured overlays before and perhaps they would improve over time with consistent use, as Helen Irlen suggested (Norton, 2011). However, they reported not finding the colours very helpful during the study, while I immediately found relief with one colour (blue) the first time I tried using overlays. The cause of participant 2’s reading issues may also be different than mine. The word ‘dyslexia’ is used for a wide variety of reading problems and different people may have different characteristics (Reid, 2011). In my case, colour seems to play an important role. My dad is colour blind and can see into the ultra-violet range of the light spectrum (something most people cannot). Perhaps I have inherited this too. My dad also reports having words move around on a page. To fully understand what causes coloured overlays to improve my reading would require further investigation but this experiment has shown that it does make a difference. Reading disabilities can have a very big effect on a person’s life as a lot of secondary and post-secondary learning requires the ability to gather information by reading. Using a simple adaptation such as a coloured overlay could have a big impact on someone’s success in school and their career. With modern technology this could also be applied by changing screen colours. While my experiment did not show positive results for the other participant with a learning disability, I believe other people with reading problems may wish to try it out as it is not harmful, and it can be a very simple and cheap solution to a very complex problem.
I would like to thank all participants in my study, the Learning Disability Association of Yukon for helping me find a participant, Ms. Tillet for introducing me to coloured overlays, my teacher, Ms. Beaulieu, for letting me use class time for my study, my optometrist, Dr. Rach, for first mentioning the controversy around Irlen Syndrome to me, and my mom for helping me with this project by reading a lot of the research to me and helping me test the participants.
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About the Author
I am a 12-year-old student from Whitehorse, Yukon, going into high school (grade 8) this fall. I have a learning disability in reading which is making learning very challenging for me, but I am very active in sports. I’ve been wanting to find ways to help improve my reading. For my science fair project, I tested one of the adaptations I have been using at school because I wanted to see whether it actually made a difference. I am excited to have made it to the Canada-wide Science Fair because I wanted to demonstrate that a learning disability shouldn’t stop you from going far and I want to encourage others with reading problems to find solutions to their problems. I would like to raise awareness of the challenges of learning disabilities and remind people that some famous and important scientists struggled with learning disabilities too.