Are Coloured Overlays evil? Asking the right questions

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I was pleased to see this, http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g5160/rr/763235, arguing coloured overlays can help reading speed.

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But there is also this, http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g5160/rr/763262; 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.

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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.
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  • Present your work on different shades of paper and allow students to choose.
  • Tintmyscreen and MyStudyBar are both free downloads for computers.

http://www.tintmyscreen.com

http://eduapps.org/?page_id=7

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

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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.
http://www.essex.ac.uk/psychology/overlays/
Arnold Wilkins own web page where he summarises use of colour and provides lots of links.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Reading-through-Colour-Difficulty-Psychology/dp/0470851163/
Wilkins book Reading through Colour, available from Amazon.

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One thought on “Are Coloured Overlays evil? Asking the right questions

  1. Thank you for this. We get so frustrated when people conflate visual stress with dyslexia, then use that logic to argue against the usefulness of reading through colour. Visual stress appears to be more prevalent in individuals with SpLDs, but is by no means exclusive.

    We’re heartened to hear that some of your students find these interventions life changing – it’s why we do what we do!

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