Are Coloured Overlays evil? Asking the right questions


I was pleased to see this,, arguing coloured overlays can help reading speed.


But there is also this,; here the author argues that dyslexia charities should be more honest about the efficacy of coloured overlays and categorise them under alternative therapies. I’m inclined to agree with this too.

Coloured Overlays get a bad press – partly because they may once have been over-hyped as a cure for dyslexia.  Visual difficulties do not mean someone has dyslexia  (it is a phonological processing difficulty – think ear rather than eye) 30% of those with dyslexia however may also have visual stress as a co-occurring difficulty.

Visual stress can affect students’ comfort and exacerbate reading difficulties;  the white glare of a screen or paper can make reading stressful. For others it appears to be more dramatic; students may report the words blurring or moving around or that the black print is swamped and the white background comes to the fore.  This can result in eye strain and headaches.

I have only come across two very severe cases:

One student, who rubbed his eyes excessively and squinted at text after a few minutes, nearly fell off his chair when I put a coloured overlay over some paper – he just looked in disbelief at the print. I sent him straight to a specialised optometrist (he didn’t have dyslexia). Another mature student from an FE college I once worked at found the use of a coloured overlay and a screen tint on her computer “life changing”.  She had dyslexia. From what I have learned since, I would still have referred her to a specialist optometrist to rule out any other problems.

Many students I meet see little difference with a coloured overlay but others report a ‘less stressful’ experience when reading.

For the price of a coloured overlay it seems wrong to deny them to students who say they help. Obviously for an expensive intervention I’d want harder evidence before I spent thousands of pounds but for such a cheap resource I’m willing to accept the students’ voice on this.


If your school can’t afford coloured overlays there are cheaper alternatives:

  • The first thing to do is teach the student how to change the background colour on a Word document/kindle
    (iPad has apps which will change background such as ireadwrite and goodreader)
  • It is also worth changing the background colour of your whiteboard (off white or light blue seem popular -maybe worth asking students which they prefer).
  • Have a stash of mixed colour poly pockets in the classroom.
  • Present your work on different shades of paper and allow students to choose.
  • Tintmyscreen and MyStudyBar are both free downloads for computers.


  • Reading Rulers may be useful for both visual stress and tracking.


I would add that those who do show a marked difference when using colour to read should see a specialist optometrist in visual stress who also examines focusing and binocular vision. They can rule out any serious problems.

Has research into coloured overlays asked the right questions yet?  In the articles above, one shows an improved reading speed which will please many and discredits the ‘comprehension’ research. The other cites studies showing little proof other than a placebo effect.  For me though, my question would be ‘does it make reading nicer for you?’ For those students who keep going back to worksheets on buff paper or who consistently use a reading ruler or who always change the shade of the word document – for them the answer is yes, and why should we deny them this?

More research.
Arnold Wilkins own web page where he summarises use of colour and provides lots of links.
Wilkins book Reading through Colour, available from Amazon.


Visual Prompts for students with poor Working Memory

‘Working Memory provides temporary storage and manipulation of the information necessary for such complex cognitive tasks as language comprehension, learning, and reasoning’ Baddeley 1992.

A strategy used to help students with poor working memory is visual prompts. This could be a number line for maths work, a list of key words for a subject based essay or a card describing basic grammar.

The visual prompts below were created with a student studying ‘The Tempest’.  A quick discussion showed he remembered the ‘stinking fish’ scene, which had made him laugh from a video clip, but little else.


We ran through the basics and created these diagrams. They are nothing special but help to trigger his memory. Every time we met while he was studying ‘The Tempest’ we would quickly go over characters, scenes and themes using the visual prompts.
The diagrams are unlikely to help anyone else; the process and subsequent use was for the individual not for an audience.  They don’t need to look good merely trigger details of the subject the student is studying.


The question above, ‘Why couldn’t Prospero stop the storm? shows little understanding of the play. We unpicked this until the student realised that the question would have been better as ‘why did Prospero cause the storm?’ and the student was able to see the motivation behind Prospero’s Tempest.  Below helped the student to visualise the characters landing on different areas of the island.


A few moments drawing out diagrams and revisiting regularly may help those with a limited working memory capacity to remember details more easily. Many teachers give small, regular tests to students so they remember and retrieve facts – for those who require a little more, why not allow them memory aids to assist them and level that playing field?


More Tips for students with poor working memory

  • Keep student’s table clear to avoid distractions
  • Sit student at front of class keeping them as free from distractions as possible 
  • Give short, clear instructions
  • Ask student to repeat back what they are expected to do
  • Allow short breaks, physical or otherwise – the type of student who yawns excessively may find learning very challenging and reach capacity quicker than others
  • When asking questions, by beginning the answer for a student can take away the fear and help trigger a response – King Lear’s daughters were….the nice one Cordelia, the one who gouged the eyes out was……’ Alternatively, students may be poor at remembering names: Was it Cordelia or Regan who gouged the eyes out?

More information on Working Memory
Packiam-Alloway argues working memory is a better predictor of school performance than IQ.

Baddeley 1992 – definition used in blog for Working Memory

Baddeley working memory model.


This is the link for the ‘Centre for Working Memory and Learning’ in York if you’re interested to learn more.