15 Jul 2015

As the summer draws in, parents around the country are carefully planning their summer strategies for encouraging learning. The strategies themselves vary hugely depending on the children, however, there is one element that is consistent across the board, and it is some form of reading. For those with struggling readers this element can be extremely daunting. There are countless parents in the US who feel that they have tried every option and gotten every medical opinion, but nothing seems to end the struggle.

For those parents, here’s a strange question: Have you ever asked your child what the text looks like to them?

It has been discovered that many of us see text differently than the majority of readers—for some, the words themselves may move or jump on the page; others describe color appearing on the page, while others say the lines “scrunch” or jumble together. These are just a few examples! Would you not agree that being able to see text clearly is a fairly basic pre-requisite of reading effectively?

We can learn from our British counterparts who now recognize this condition, known as visual stress. Visual stress is a neurological condition characterized by hyperactivity of the brain’s visual cortex, whereby improper processing of visual information causes perceived distortions when viewing text. Amazingly, it has been found to affect nearly 20% of the population; however, the percentage is much greater in those with other learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

This over-stimulation occurs as a result of two things: first, the high contrast of the black text on a white page, and second, the patterns that the lines of text create. The two combined cause what is called “pattern glare.” This pattern glare creates excess electrical activity in the visual cortex which can creep into other areas of the brain, which in turn, creates the distortions.

For many, visual stress simply means that they do not like reading for prolonged periods, or they may get a headache after a while when reading. However, for 5% of the population, visual stress can have such an effect that reading can become very difficult indeed. Symptoms of visual stress vary but can include headaches and migraines (especially when working at the computer), and eyestrain.

Some, or all, or the following can be noted while sufferers are reading. They may:

  • Fatigue quickly when working with text or seem to experience increased difficulty after an initial period of about ten minutes
  • Skip words or lines when reading
  • Read slowly and haltingly and have difficulty absorbing information
  • Track with the finger
  • Yawn while reading or frequently rub their eyes
  • Keep moving their head or body position or move closer to or further away from the page

Visual Stress typically causes the following distortions of print, although not all of the following will necessarily be experienced by one person:

  • The print appears to jump or otherwise move on the page—sometimes appearing to move off the page altogether.
  • Swirling effects appear in the text.
  • Whole lines of text may appear to move.
  • Shimmering colors may appear on the page.
  • White rivers may seem to run down the page where the white background, as opposed to the black text, has become the dominant image perceived.
  • Letters may double, reverse, fade or blur.

Basically, the image of the letters and words is unstable against the white background, and this instability can be experienced in a number of ways.

So what can be done? Well fortunately there is a simple solution, which is to read in color!

“Ladybug said that the yellow color of the Reading Ruler made the words more in focus… She went from struggling to finish one chapter book a week (in spite of good decoding skills) to reading one (eagerly and confidently) in a day and writing about it in her Reading Response Journal!” (The Old Schoolhouse review)

It has been found that for each of us there are specific wavelengths of light which cause the most stimulation, and when these are filtered out by reading through the correct color overlay, it calms the brain down enough to process the information correctly and fix the text in place—simple! The effective color is not the same for everyone, so assessing correctly is very important; for example, yellow may help Jack, but it may make things worse for Jill. Fortunately, all that is required is a set of ten overlays or Reading Rulers of different colors to systematically work through. These are increasingly available from companies such as Crossbow Education. It may seem too good to be true, but color overlays are now being used for this reason in over 65% of schools in the UK.

So before you despair when you look at your summer reading list, ask your child what the page looks like to them, and try reading through color!