"Less than two percent?" That was my response when my supervisor, Dr. Brooks, quoted the statistics that show how many students benefit from using colored overlays while reading. Considering that she holds a reading disabilities doctorate from Vanderbilt University, I trusted her completely. Then, like clockwork, students started to magically bring in the overlays — on their own. “Where did you get this?” I’d ask. “Oh, Mom got it for me at the parent/teacher store. I need it. Bad,” they’d respond. I knew it was time to do a little research and put my question to rest. Do colored overlays really help struggling readers, or is this an attempt to look at the world through rose-colored glasses? Read on to see what I found out.
A quick Internet search led me to find the stats that show that overlays are geared for children with Irlen syndrome. How many of your students have been identified with this? Probably not any, I am guessing. If you are not familiar with Irlen syndrome, I'll give you a brief summary. It is a problem with the brain’s ability to process visual information. In terms of reading, for children with Irlen syndrome, print looks different. This means that they read more slowly and less efficiently and have poor comprehension. Symptoms may also include poor depth perception, eye strain, fatigue, headaches, and low self-esteem. Attention to lighting is also important for these students. Fluorescent and bright lights are not their friends. You can read more about this syndrome on the Irlen Method Web site.
Much of the population I work with has some of the symptoms described on the Irlen Method site. With nearly 70 students under my care, I could only think of two students that truly seemed to benefit from colored overlays. One was diagnosed with complex visual problems, and the other student is in the middle of testing for dyslexia and potential visual eye tracking issues, among other things.
But the tipping point came when an ENTIRE grade level of students came in with colored overlays. I carefully shared the news that maybe they didn’t need the overlays. The crowd response of, “Oh yes, we do,” came quickly and strongly. Then one boy dared — I mean, asked — me to put the overlays to the test. He reminded me that I have to complete weekly progress monitoring and could compare past results to current ones, in which the overlays were used. Genius!
Meh. It was pretty much a wash. If I had the task of identifying which students benefited from the overlays, I’d be hard pressed to do it. Looking at my most struggling readers, I found results looked the same as before. A few even went down.
Of course, remember the student that asked me to put the overlays to the test? Here are his results:
Try completing a quick Internet search on your own, and you’ll notice the messages tend to go as follows:
It was incredibly hard finding a site that said they worked that didn’t have a monetary benefit at stake. I decided to stick with the controlled studies, and found that one study was referenced frequently: "Irlen Colored Overlays Do Not Alleviate Reading Difficulties" by Ritchie et al, published in Pediatrics vol. 128, no. 4, October 2011. The best, most objective evidence currently indicates that any benefit to struggling readers from Irlen lenses/filters is due to the placebo effect.
Of course, this study has drawn criticism for poor design and for being limited in scope. Regardless, looking at the findings, the Irlen Institute estimates that almost half of people with dyslexia have scotopic sensitivity syndrome, a syndrome for which there is no credible published evidence.
Have we all been duped? The research is still out on that one.
For now, I suggest you don’t pass them out like candy and expect miracles from your struggling readers. On the other hand, I can assure you that my two students have completely benefited from the overlays (after carefully selecting a color that works for them). Cautiously proceed, my teaching friends. Cautiously proceed.