Coloured overlays, bad science, and the B B C (The Windscreen Analogy).

Last week the BBC reported on a study by researchers from Bristol and Newcastle which cast doubt on the efficacy of using coloured overlays to help with reading difficulties. Now that the storm  has died down a bit, I thought it’s time I put in my penn’th (is that how you spell it?).

“Dyslexia not linked to eyesight”, trumpets Sean Coughlan of the BBC. Absolutely right. But who said it was? Therefore coloured overlays don’t work for dyslexia, infer the researchers. Indeed they don’t. However, what they do work for is visual stress, which happens to be a condition of the visual cortex that quite a lot of dyslexic people suffer from, but which has no direct connection with any of the ophthalmic data that the researchers analysed.

Basically there are four separate threads here: Dyslexia, the eyes, coloured overlays, and visual stress (linked with the visual cortex). Because (despite the efforts of Bruce Evans, Arnold Wilkins and other academics), confusion and ignorance still generally prevail over the relationship between dyslexia and visual stress, the researchers have looked at their data on eye conditions (short-sightedness, convergence problems etc) and responded to questions from concerned parents with the following logic:

“We find no statistical correlation between dyslexia and eye problems, therefore a coloured filter can’t make any difference to how words appear to the reader” .

I was trying to think of something that would illustrate the failings of this logic, and decided it was a bit like saying “The demister in your car doesn’t affect the rain on the windscreen, so you’re wasting your time using it on the condensation.”

If you don’t make sure your car windscreen is free of condensation, you run the risk of crashing your car. Sadly, some parents will have listened to the bad science promulgated by the BBC, and run the risk of crashing their child’s reading as a result. And the BBC will be responsible for the crash. You can phonic a child to death, but they will never read with ease and comfort until the words stop moving around – and in many cases the only way to achieve that is by reading through colour, because nothing else deals with the hyper-excitation of the visual cortex that causes visual stress.

Incidentally the Daily Mail, who picked up on this story as well, ran an article on our reading rulers a few years ago entitled “Now you can read through colour”. Obviously it made a good story at the time – 2008, I think it was. Now, in 2015, it makes a good story to say the opposite. Hello? Is anyone out there interested in the truth?

Bob Hext, 5th June 2015.

The DIRM Factor

ProtractorgateBy Beccie Hawes,

(Head of Service, Rushall’s Inclusion Advisory Team)

DIRM stands for ‘does it really matter?’ and it is fast becoming my mantra of choice for many of the issues that I am encountering in our schools! I have the pleasure and privilege of getting to know the many children and young people referred to our service. Often, the conversation starts something like this: “I have this child who no one knows what to do about.” This then leads to: “We’ve exhausted everything we’ve got to offer and were hoping you and your magic wand could come and have a look.” At this point I always agree to go in because I love a challenge and am yet to find the unteachable child. This is because I believe that children and young people who are experiencing learning difficulties actually have teaching difficulties. The difficulty belongs to us – the teachers – it is our responsibility to adapt our teaching until the child learns.

My latest DIRM outing for a supposed unteachable child led me to work with an amazing thirteen year old male. Upon arrival to his maths lesson for an observation Jay (name has been changed) was sat in the back corner of the classroom wearing his baseball cap and hoodie (hood up) whilst complaining loudly about a protractor and another detention. It turned out that he had received yet another consequence for not having a protractor in his pencil case. The teaching assistant in a hushed, red-faced tone told me that a protractor wasn’t needed – it was a multiplication lesson but rules were rules and the rule clearly states what equipment should be present for every lesson. This had led to the cap on, hood up complaining situation which was apparently the tip of a humungous iceberg. According to the teaching assistant Jay forgets everything and is always angry because he has a terminal case of detention attendance.

At this point there was only one course of action for me. So, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that irritants cause pearls and asked the sixty-four thousand dollar question: “Does it really matter?” Once I had made it clear to all parties that I do value and see the importance of whole school polices, rules and routines, we agreed that sometimes you have to let things go so that you can concentrate on the important and bigger issues.

I strongly suspect that the young man at the centre of the ‘protractorgate’ situation is dyslexic. We will work this out as I get to know him. Often, as a result of being dyslexic, organisation and memory difficulties are experienced. By getting caught up in the here and now of consequences the basic need had been overlooked because we’d forgotten to ask: ‘Does it really matter?’ I wonder if his possible dyslexia has always been missed because it has been masked by a whole host of small things that became the wrong focus.

So, next time we are faced with a situation we should all ask ourselves if what we are dealing with is the thing that really matters or is masking what we should be focusing on.

Crossbow are working with Beccie and her team to bring an “inclusion zone” of teaching tips to the crossbow website: keep an eye on for the new Inclusion Zone pages. To visit Rushall’s inclusion service website, go to

Beccie Hawes is presenting a workshop at SpLD Central on 20th June.

Spingoes Rides Again! (What goes around comes around.)

Not many years ago the UK government, in its wisdom, decided that all schools had to teach reading through systematic synthetic phonics – in other words children learn to progress through the phonic code by systematically

Spingoes Rides Again

Spingoes Rides Again

learning to blend individual phonemes to build words. So C – A – T makes CAT. Educational publishers immediately began rushing out resources to fit in with “Letters and Sounds”, the programme developed and recommended by the Department of Education for delivering phonics in schools. This government is so sold on the theory that it is currently match funding all purchases on “approved ” SSP ( systematic synthetic phonics) in Primary Schools until October.

Rewind to 1990, when I was teaching dyslexic children in a comprehensive school. One child used to get additional support from a peripatetic specialist literacy teacher. She used to spend their sessions concentrating on phonics (yes, it did exist then!!). Very Dyslexic John just didn’t seem to “get it” – he couldn’t blend the letters, just got stuck on the individual sounds. My colleague and I used to say he got “phonic constipation” when he worked with her. He was 13, with a reading age of six.

Around that time a system was being developed, based on the research of Usha Goswami and others, called Phonological Awareness Training – PAT for short. Its premise was that some people, especially dyslexics, found it easier to blend the ONSET (C) with the RIME (AT) to make the word. So C + AT = CAT. For many Very Dyslexic Johns it seemed to be the cure to phonic constipation, and their reading and spelling would progress. Around 1999 I developed a resource called Spingoes (Spinner Bingo), where children progress through a sequence of Bingo games in which they blended onsets and rimes to make words. When we first took it to the Special Needs London exhibition people were queuing up to buy the packs, and we got loads of good feedback on the product. But now that schools have been herded down the SSP trail and Very Dyslexic John has to experience death by a thousand phonemes, we sell about as many copies of Spingoes in a whole year as we did at that first Special Needs London show.

But for today’s Very Dyslexic John, salvation appears to be at hand! The government commissioned the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to report on the success of the SSP programme. The initial findings were published last week. They found that the programme was a success, and that teachers had received it very well; but they also stressed that ‘children need a variety of approaches in order to learn to read’. I was at the NASEN (National Assn of Special Educational Needs) exhibition at the time, where I had been speaking and we had a stand, and I have to say I cheered when that was announced. (Apologies to Lorraine, whose keynote I interrupted: she it was who announced the NFER findings during her talk). Another thing that Lorraine mentioned from the NFER report was that newly qualified teachers were not actually teaching young children to read any more; they were just teaching them SSP. Interesting.

So I am pleased: not just because we might start selling more Spingoes again (click on the link if you want to have a look at it), but because, in the teaching of reading, there really is more than one way of skinning a cat.

On winning awards: light and gloss…

It’s a month since we won the Supplier of the Year award, so it’s about time I put down a few thoughts.

Firstly, yes it was great to win for the second year in succession. Thanks to everybody (usual acknowledgements – boring to hear/read – Oscar winners excruciating blah blah comes to mind! – but nonetheless true).

A little bit of detail about the award.  The Educational Resources Awards are run by the British Educational Suppliers Association. Again – think of the Oscars, and all the different categories: ERA is the same, so there’s stuff like best ICT product, best exporter, even best marketing campaign (I’ve never worked out what that’s got to do with Education, but whatever). Our Reading Rulers were finalists for best non-ICT SEN product (think “Oscar Nomination”) again this year. So – Supplier of the Year is the “biggie” (think “best film”), and there are three categories: under £1,000,000 turnover; £1-3 m turnover; and 0ver £3m. We won the first category this year and last year, and we were finalists in 2011 as well. The company has continued to grow, so next we’re we’ll be in the middle (£1-3m) category.

So where am I going with this? Well this blog is not so much about us, as about all the other winners as well. Like in any industry, the small business like ours rub along with the big names – the £3m + people. Companies like Findel and TTS come to mind, with huge pots of money to spend on product development, marketing etc. I used to know the guy who started TTS – he’s been to our house. But he sold the company to RM Nimbus, who are huge, and I don’t know who owns them. Findel are a public company who also own one of the door-to-door catalogue companies – Kleeneezie or Bettaware among other interests. Companies like ours are usually started and run by teachers with a genuine interest in children and teaching, who have developed something that “works”. In my case it was the card games I devised with my secondary school dyslexic students. Unfortunately the “big names”  of this world are often owned and run by people whose main interest is money, not children and teaching. I’m not painting myself whiter than white here: I enjoy making and spending money! But here’s the thing: not one of the “big boys” won a major award at the Educational Resources Awards 2013!!  Even though their names may have been splashed across the stage as sponsors of the event, their sponsorship bought them nothing – except a four-figure sum on their marketing account.

The £3m + winner was Rising Stars; an independent publisher. I hadn’t even heard of the £1-3m winners. And even though one of the “big boys” had entered their SEN brand into the under £1m category (how does that work??), they didn’t win, because we did. I was really heartened by this: the judges – all teachers and other Education professionals – were not impressed by the gloss that money can put on a company or product, but by the shine that came from its quality.

Which brings me to my last point: if anybody involved in organising conference exhibitions reads this, please take it on board. This year’s ERA awards show that people want genuine shine, not superficial gloss. Light, not polish. Yet some Conference exhibition organisers charge huge amounts of money for the “marketing opportunity” of exhibiting to a hundred or so people at their events. So who is going to exhibit? The companies for whom hundreds or thousands of pounds are just another line on the marketing budget. Gloss, not shine. Polish, not light. If you ever wondered why you only see the same old names  exhibiting at some of the events you’ve been to, just ask the exhibition organisers how much they charge for exhibition space…

And finally – if we do ever end up being one of the “big boys” ourselves, I hope and pray that we don’t lose sight of the values that make us what we are at the moment. If we can be a bit of light in the world, that will be good.

Overcoming Dyslexia (Guest Blog)

Dyslexia Fence

Dyslexia Fence (Photo credit: The Nikon Guru)

Overcoming dyslexia- Florence Beastall

I am only four years older than my brother, so when it was first recognised that he was dyslexic I was still quite young myself. From my childish point of view, I just thought that he was a bit slower at writing than I had been. I knew that he was actually a very clever boy, and if you had a conversation with him, he was very engaging and knowledgeable, but if you’d have asked him to write anything down you’d have found it strange that it was entirely beyond him to transfer his thoughts to paper. There was one day after school that it hit home to me how serious and important recognising dyslexia is for a child. My Mum and brother in were in the living room, and aged 14 or so, he was crying because he found school too hard. It broke my heart. I had never had a problem with any of the work at school, being reasonably bright; the only thing I had needed to worry about was your usual teenage girl things like spots and not letting anyone know you fancied someone a bit weird. Going to school, having to deal with your usual teenage boy things AND not be able to do the work you’re asked to must have been horrendous. I can’t imagine it.

He got through it though. He had a scribe with him for his GCSE’s and did well. At college he had a scribe with him and got better A Level results than I did. And I couldn’t have been prouder of him. He’s now at university, studying Politics, planning to go and study in Norway for a couple of months at the end of the year, I believe the universities are in negotiation about what extra support he will be needing while he’s out there, which is fabulous. Entirely different from the struggle it was for him to get support when he was in primary school. I know my Mum worked very hard to get it recognised that he was dyslexic, and not just a lazy little boy. He got a statement in Year 4, and from then I think things were a little better for him. My advice would be that if you think your child is dyslexic and needs extra support, fight for it, because it can make a lot of difference.

Now he’s at university, I know that the support hasn’t stopped there. He has a special program on his laptop called “Dragon naturally speaking”, which types whatever it is that he says into the microphone, meaning he is able to dictate his essays to his laptop and it does the spelling and writing for him; therefore taking the problematic “getting the ideas to paper” bit of essay writing. It does mean that he gets some wild mistakes in his writing, when he mumbles something and you get a random, nonsensical word in among the argument, but that’s what sending your work to your sister to proof read is all about. For the planning of his essays he uses “inspiration” software, which helps him make mind-maps and set out his thoughts clearly so that he can get straight into writing the essay without having to physically write a plan himself.

Having dyslexia doesn’t mean that you’re not intelligent, and that you can’t get a degree in something as rooted in reading and writing as politics. I have a politics degree myself and I know that there is so much reading to do, and essays are very complicated to plan, but if my brother can do it, there is no reason that someone else as determined couldn’t too. It’s all about having the right support.

I think it is so important to get the right provision as early as you can. My brother is an example of how something as simple as having a scribe with you for your exams can make the difference between getting A Level results that will see you safely into university, and not.

“In my eyes and brain”

English: Author - John Henkel, from the Food a...

English: Author – John Henkel, from the Food and Drug Administration Structure of the basal gandlia, including thalamus, globus paladus, substantia nigra, and cerebellum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve already posted a couple of the homeschool review blogs on this site, so I don’t want to overdo things – but I’ve just read this bit from one of them:

It has tremendously helped Kylan, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Tourette’s and Dyslexia several years ago and has always had problems reading due to his poor tracking ability. He immediately said he could feel a difference “in his eyes and brain” while reading with the blue or green colored rulers. He finished the chapter with no complaints that day and over the next couple of days actually finished his book with no problems. I can tell he enjoys reading with the blue ruler because he’s been keeping it in his book as a bookmark. Just a couple of days ago a family friend asked Kylan what his favorite subject was and he said, “READING”. I was so happy and excited for him, it just seemed to finally click for him and I think it’s all due to the Eye Level Reading Rulers!

That’s quite a basinful though – Asberger’s, Tourette’s and Dyslexia. Obviously we want to sell products – we are a business after all – but we get a genuine buzz when we read stuff like this.

Visual Stress and Dyslexia

There’s still a lot of confusion around on the subject of Visual Stress and its relationship to Dyslexia so I’m going to post a series on the topic to try and clear some of it up.

They’re not the same thing
That’s the first point. Dyslexia is a cognitive processing difficulty; Visual Stress is a disorder of the visual processing system. Visual Stress is common in dyslexia, but does not cause it. In fact about 35% of dyslexics suffer from Visual Stress. It is also fairly common (though less so) in other specific learning difficulties, especially dyspraxia, ADD/HD and autistic spectrum disorders – the autistic author Donna Williams, for example, is well-known for her pink tinted lenses. It actually occurs in about 25% of the population, so it is more common than dyslexia (usually quoted at around 10%); and severely – to the extent that literacy is significantly impaired- in about 5%.

What are the symptoms?
For those who don’t know exactly what I’m talking about here, Visual Stress is a condition that causes headaches and sore eyes, skipping words or lines, hesitant reading with many errors and poor comprehension, and  perceptual distortions  including movement of letters and words on the page, flickering shadows and coloured  “halos”,  and “rivers” of white running down it. Visual Stress itself is thought to be caused by specific wavelengths of light (they differ with each individual, although certain parts of the spectrum cause more problems than others) that over-stimulate cells in the Visual Cortex, and its effects can be reduced or eliminated by simply placing a precision coloured filter over the page or by wearing precision tinted lenses.

Coloured Overlays don’t cure dyslexia
Websites which claim that overlays “cure dyslexia” are not helpful in this respect. As mentioned above it’s Visual Stress that we’re talking about, not dyslexia; and secondly they don’t “cure” Visual Stress any more than spectacles cure short-sightedness: they just deal with the symptoms. Over-simplified claims that are made for marketing purposes and have no basis in science just add confusion to the subject.

“Visual Dyslexia”
This is a term favoured in some circles and is used by some behavioural optometrists. Behavioural Optometry has a valuable contribution to make to Vision Science, but  is muddying the patch with this terminology which is possibly promoted by  certain individuals to distance themselves from scientists who query their claims. There is an ancient saying “The Unity commands the blessing”. Factions don’t ultimately help any causes.  Enough said.

Call a spade a spade
We all know what a common cold is, and we know what treatments are available – although the jury may be out on whether they actually work! It’s the same with Visual Stress. As well as “Visual Dyslexia”, it’s also called “Irlen Syndrome ®”  (the registered trade mark of the Irlen Corporation), “Meares-Irlen” and “Scotopic Sensitivity”, which was the term originally used to describe the condition by Helen Irlen when she first started marketing coloured overlays and tinted lenses in the 1980’s.  “Scotopic Sensitivity” is in fact a scientifically inaccurate term, as it refers erroneously to the spectral response of the rod system in the retina. Visual Stress is actually a neurological condition of the visual cortex. If we don’t even agree on what it is called, how are we ever going to understand and treat it?

Different Explanations
There are two differing theories as to the causes of Visual Stress. The one mentioned above is called “Cortical Excitablity” and is proposed by Professor Arnold Wilkins of Essex University. There is another theory called “Magnocellular Deficit”, which suggests that the problem is caused by a weakness in the transient (Magno) processing cells in the Visual Cortex. This is the theory put forward by Professor John Stein of Oxford University who heads up the Dyslexia Research Trust. Both these academics are eminent scientists doing valuable work and bringing great benefit to the community. The weight of evidence would appear to be in favour of the Essex research, but the fact  that scientists disagree on the “Why” doesn’t encourage public acceptance of the “What”.

It’s not Always Visual Stress!
The symptoms mentioned above can be caused by other problems in the visual system, and so coloured overlays are not always the answer – although often they are! Binocular Instability is quite common (though less so), and there can also be accommodative  anomalies (problems with focus). Where reading difficulties persist it’s always important to refer to an Optometrist. A list of those who specialise in Visual Stress can be found at

Visual Stress is a reality
So whatever we call it today, and whatever its cause, the existence of Visual Stress and the validity of precision tinted filters to treat it is a reality. And it isn’t the same as Dyslexia: if coloured overlays effectively treat the Visual Stressexperienced by a dyslexic person, the other processing difficulties associated with that person’s dyslexia will remain. I will post on some of the research that proves the reality another day: today let’s all call it the same thing and get on with taking it seriously.