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.

Can the Hand say to the Eye: “I have no need of thee?”

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner (Photo credit: Wikipedia) would have had the same problems…

In the original quote, (from 1 Corinthians 12: 21, in the New Testament of the Bible) the eye and the hand were the other way round, but never mind…

While I was researching an article I wrote for Special Magazine in March, I came across the following…

‘A policy statement issued by the Committee on Children with Disabilities, American Academy of Paediatrics, American Academy of Ophthalmology, and American Association for Paediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus stats that:

“Visual problems are rarely responsible for learning difficulties. No scientific evidence exists for the efficacy of eye exercises, vision therapy, or the use of special tinted lenses in the remediation of these complex neurological conditions.” ‘

Having got over my sense of frustration at this attitude, I had to ask myself the questions: “Just what, or whose, agenda are these people on?” and “Exactly where have they been looking for evidence?”, and even “Have they seen just how much of the brain is dedicated  to visual processing?” . I’ve been meaning to post on the subject ever since.

Unless this committee’s view of learning is limited to specific cognitive processes that take place entirely outside of the visual processing centres (and of course they understand  the brain in its entirety, unlike the rest of  the human race to whom it is currently given, I believe, to understand less than 10%…), this seems like saying “If a car doesn’t work properly it’s never got anything to do with the transmission”.

What’s worrying is that committees such as this one make pronouncements that influence policy, and that simple, cost-effective interventions that will both change lives and save large amounts of money remain sidelined instead of becoming enshrined in mainstream thinking. Nobody would deny the need for evidence-based research to underpin policy, but even if the sheer weight of anecdotal evidence of many thousands of people for whom the “words stopped moving” as soon as they read through colour is insufficient, is the scientific rigour and the peer-reviewed research of the Dept of Vision Science at Essex University not enough?

I suppose it’s always going to be that way: Science waits in the car with the engine running, while the establishment is still asleep in bed. Edward Jenner would have had the same problems introducing his discovery of the smallpox vaccine, and the science of immunology…  But if anybody has any means of contacting the above committee, would they mind sending them a copy of this link to Arnold Wilkins’s web pages, “Colour in the Treatment of Visual Stress”   and ask them to PLEASE WAKE UP?

Bob Hext   June 2013.

Reading comfort, lighting levels, and what you can do.

The "beat effect" problem created wh...

80% of classrooms still use old fashioned, flickering flourescent tubes.

Classroom Lighting is often too bright
Lighting in classrooms and offices is often very bright. This is partly because the room lights are left on unnecessarily, and partly because window blinds are often not used. In a recent survey more than 35% of classrooms had lighting levels that exceeded the level at which reading starts to become uncomfortable (1000Lux). It is good practice to ensure that ceiling lights are turned off when not needed and to use the window blinds to prevent direct sunlight entering the classroom.

How you can check using a camera
To determine whether the lighting levels are appropriate, you can take a single lens reflex camera and direct it at a page of text on the desk. The lighting is at recommended levels when the exposure is appropriate for a film speed of 100 ASA, an aperture of 5.6 and a shutter speed of 1/25th. More than this and the lighting levels are unnecessarily bright.

Unhealthy Lighting
More than 80% of classrooms still have the old fashioned form of fluorescent lighting, in which the lamps flicker 100 times per second. This lighting is unhealthy: it can cause headaches and eyestrain and the flicker interferes with visual tasks.

Eliminate the Flicker
Next time the lighting in your school or office is changed make sure that the new form of high frequency electronic circuitry is used to control the lamps. This eliminates the 100 per second flicker and although the installation costs are higher, the lower running costs offset the additional installation costs in about two years. High frequency electronic circuitry can readily be obtained from conventional suppliers. Some circuitry has the additional advantage that it can enable the lighting to be dimmed.

These notes are taken from the page on lighting in Crossbow Education’s Visual Stress Assessment Pack, which contains lots of background information as well as how to conduct a test for choosing the correct coloured overlay.

An afterthought
I remember an afternoon when I was still teaching: it was a difficult, noisy class of 13-14 year olds. Someone asked if I could switch off the lights and pull down the blinds. I resisted, because I was suspicious of the motives of the person who made the request. However I acquiesced eventually. The tension leaving the room was like air escaping from a  balloon. A lot of children in that class had difficulties with reading and writing, and they were the ones, usually, who were the source of the disruptive behaviour that often occurred. If I had known then what I know now I would have switched those lights of a lot earlier, and a lot more often!

Bob Hext

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.

Visual Stress and Visual Processing Difficulties

Visual Stress and Visual Processing Difficulties

This is a slide presentation by Matt Grant, a UK Special Needs Co-ordinator and Irlen trainer. Apart from the fact that it is very detailed and informative, it is beautifully put together, and worth looking at just for some of the graphics alone. His blog site is called “Humans not Robots“. If you don’t know much about Visual Stress, this is a good place to start. I’ve only got it as a pdf file, so you’ll have to click on the title link (below the picture) to enjoy it. The image is from one of the slides.

The eye is the window of the soul...

The eye is the window of the soul…


“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.

Is that what you mean by a word? Why we must assess weak readers for Visual Stress.

visual cortex

visual cortex (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A six-year-old boy (we’ll call him Joe)  was unable to blend C-A-T to make “cat” when he was assessed with the  Visual Stress Assessment Pack.  The assessor had worked through the single colours in the test, with no significant difference between a single colour tint and white paper. He was now in the final stages of the visual stress  assessment, using double overlays to deepen the tint on the page of text. When Joe was given a double blue overlay, he sat back and said: “Oh! Is that what you mean by a word? Can I start learning to read now?”

Visual Stress is not assessed for, or even recognised, nationally. Successive governments have attempted to raise literacy standards in school, with the latest “push” being for systematic synthetic phonics as recommended by the 2007 Rose Review, followed up by the current government’s match-funding initiative for approved synthetic phonics materials.  Following the Rose Review, Lord Adonis, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools and Learning, wrote in November 2007:

“We now have a clear, tried and tested method of teaching our children how to read. Since we know what works, there should be no question of any child being left behind.”

No child left behind – except of course, for Joe, and thousands like him, who cannot put three letters together because they won’t stay still on the page.  According to research by professor Arnold Wilkins of Essex University, Visual Stress is most probably caused by “cortical hyperexcitablility”: a condition which results in certain cells in the visual cortex being over-stimulated by specific rays in the colour spectrum, and resulting in a disrupted visual image of the word.  Whatever phonics programme Joe is presented with, he will not start learning to read unless that interference is filtered out, in his case by a deepish blue tint. Until then, it is a lost cause. Visual Stress has won the day.  As I am getting tired of saying: no child can decode a word if the letters are moving around.

Visual Stress number crunch

When children like Joe are left behind they eventually lose interest in education, and seek success and self-esteem  in other areas. Some are fortunate enough to succeed in sport or the arts, but many are not so lucky. Many criminal careers start with educational failure:

“Nearly half of male sentenced prisoners were excluded from school and nearly a third of all prisoners were regular truants whilst at school and more than half of male and more than two-thirds of female adult prisoners have no qualifications at all.”
Prison Reform Trust (2003/2004) Report on ‘Social Characteristics of Prisoners’.

There are various statistics on literacy levels among prisoners, but most sources agree that around 50% of prisoners have a reading level below that which would be expected of an 11-year old. Research by Professor Wilkins published in his book Reading Through Colour (Wiley 2003) suggest that as much as 22% of the population suffers with varying levels of Visual Stress . So how many prisoners are like Joe? 10%? 20%? More?

UK Figures from HM Prison Service, National Audit Office and Ministry of Justice tell us that there are 85,419 prisoners in England and Wales ( BBC News, 29 March 2011) and that the average cost of keeping someone in prison is £47,000 per year. That’s over £4 billion a year.

There are about 17,000 primary schools in the UK.  17,000 Visual Stress Assessment Packs  that would pick up the likes of Joe would cost the taxpayer just £850,000. At 6, Joe was still desperate to start learning to read.  Not many years from now he wouldn’t be.   Yet there is no national screening for Visual Stress in schools, in the UK or anywhere else.

The message to decision makers, whether in schools or in governments,  is simple.  Do you want to save a lot of money? Do you want Joe to have a life?  Do the maths. Take Visual Stress seriously.

Beating the Bullies

This is just a quickie:  I read a great comment on an SEN forum today, referring to a year 6 boy with visual stress who had been prescribed green tinted lenses, and was getting a lot of flack at school from other children. You can guess the sort of thing: “What are you wearing those ugly green things for?” “Alien” etc.

The post suggested teaching children various snappy retorts, and invited members of the forum to contribute suggestions. She got the ball rolling with
“Actually they give me x-ray vision, and I can see into your head. I didn’t realise just how few brain cells you’ve got!”, and
“Actually they’re really cool. When I’m doing a test they don’t just help me see the questions more clearly, but they show me the answers too!”

If this appeals to you, feel free to add to the list and pass it on. I thought it was a refreshing approach to dealing with some of the problems caused by visual stress!

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.