“I don’t like reading!” Sound familiar? Take a moment to stand in their shoes…

shutterstock_195500480Have you ever asked your student “What do you see when you look at text?” The answer for most is no, because surely the answer is obvious – they just see text.

This assumption stems from the idea that we all visually perceive things the same, however, what if this were not true? If you knew that for some children just looking at text was difficult, would this alter your expectations of him/her?

Extensive research has now demonstrated that this is indeed the case, and that approximately 5% of the population find it so uncomfortable to look at text that it severely impacts their reading ability. This is referred to as visual stress.

Visual stress, (sometimes referred to as Meares-Irlen syndrome, it has also previously been referred to as Scotopic Sensitivity, however this has now proven to be a misnomer, as visual stress is not related to the eyes), is visual-perceptual in nature and is caused by a hyper-excitability of the visual cortex. It is triggered by a combination of the high contrast of black text on a white page and also the patterns that lines of text create.

The biggest problem? Children don’t realize they see the page any differently to anyone else!

When questioned however, a sufferer of visual stress may note that the words appear to jump or otherwise move on the page, they may see swirling effects appear in the text, shimmering colors may appear on the page, letters may double, reverse, fade or blur, or they may describe white “rivers” that seem to run down the page, where the white background, as opposed to the black text, has become the dominant image perceived. These are just a few examples.

How can our children learn to decode if they cannot focus on the text?

Fortunately, visual stress is very simple to treat. The simple act of reading through a color filter “calms down” the text enough for our brains to be able to better process it. Indeed, in the UK nearly 70% of all schools and colleges now use colored overlays for their children with visual stress – we in America have a little catching up to do!

With the correct color overlay (each sufferer of visual stress has a specific wavelength of light that causes the most discomfort, therefore the most effective color filter is also individual – it is important that the correct color is assessed), readers are once again able to see the words clearly and begin moving forward in their education.

It is therefore of vital importance that parents and educators are aware of the signs and symptoms of visual stress. The UK is again ahead of us here, with visual stress recognition now a national, mandatory part of training for every special education teacher. Luckily there are telling signs that we can all look out for:

Some, or all, or the following can be noted while reading. Sufferers may:

• Fatigue quickly when working with text.
• Experience problems copying from the board.
• Develop headaches and migraines when reading.
• Skip words or lines when reading.
• Seem to experience increased difficulty after an initial period of about 10 minutes.
• Keep moving their head or body position, or moving closer to or further away from the page.
• Read slowly and haltingly and have difficulty absorbing information.
• Track with the finger.
• Yawn while reading.
• Frequently rub their eyes.

In general, somebody with Visual Stress may:

• Experience difficulty looking at a computer screen.
• Be unusually sensitive to bright lights, especially fluorescent lighting.
• Have difficulty judging heights or distances, which sometimes causes problems with stairs and/or escalators.
• Find driving at night particularly stressful, sometimes experiencing a fragmentation of reflected light. (Many adults have visual stress and do not realize – they may have always just thought themselves “bad readers”!)

So what can we do?

Well firstly, if you have any students who suffer from any of the above symptoms, assess them for visual stress! This does not have to be an expensive process – while there are comprehensive assessment kits available, the quickest and easiest way to tell if color will help is simply to buy a set of different color overlays (they are often sold in sets of 10 colors), and systematically work your way through them, asking your reader which is more comfortable – for those who severely suffer the improvement when using color will be obvious. Once the best color is known, they can then keep an overlay to hand whenever there is reading to be done!

A little caveat…

It should be made clear that successful treatment of visual stress IS NOT a cure for dyslexia or any other learning difficulty. Reading through color is just the start – once our children can see the text, then we can start the long, rewarding journey of teaching literacy!

To learn more about visual stress, or to see what resources are available for those with visual stress, got to www.crossboweducation.us. If you would like information about where to find the research for visual stress please contact Elizabeth Macdonald at elizabethmacdonald@crossboweducation.com In addition, we encourage you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for additional study tips, weekly reading challenges, phonics news and more.

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