Find out how a visual stress test and understanding Irlen syndrome has helped N’s reading. (*Ad – contains affiliate links)

N’s never been a fan of reading. Everyone says children will get there, but not all do enjoy reading, however much we try.

Reading did click for him in Year 2 when his teacher really made him practice more. And he’s been on track or above in reading age when just reading words. But he doesn’t enjoy reading and finds reading comprehension harder – it’s fine if he can just read the answers, but finding the answer for something that is only inferred by the text is a lot harder.  This brings his standardised reading age down.

The same with spellings. Ask him to spell something and generally he’ll get it right, the same with doing ok in spelling tests. But if he has to think about correct spellings while he’s writing a story, he finds it hard getting it onto the paper. Not going back to check properly doesn’t help.  But these are the type of skills children need to be able to do to pass exams and do well at school.

I’d just like N to enjoy reading more and find books that he’ll want to read, rather than feeling like it’s a chore. We’re getting there with some books (the Andy Murray biography went down well, and he’s currently reading about the world wars in a huge History of the World book), but he still moans about having to read.

what is visual stree and irlen syndrome eye issues

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Reading assessment in school

Through school, several classmates have had reading overlays for various reasons to help with their reading. Almost immediately on starting in Year 5, after checking his reading, the teacher suggested N try some overlays.

He decided the blue one worked best and suddenly said that reading was faster. He didn’t lose his place as much as he used to. School gave him a large blue overlay for worksheets and a small one for reading which he used at school and for homework. It seems bizarre to me as I find it just makes the page really dark and gloomy but his eyes obviously see different things. 

Irlen Syndrome

I had looked up overlays and found out about Irlen syndrome. Like most people I had never heard of it, but lots of people potentially have some kind of visual stress.  

Irlen syndrome can be found in a lot of people with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, autism, reading difficulties, headaches and those with light sensitivity, ie visual stress. Ultimately it comes down to the way the brain processes information, often making it hard to read. 

There’are lots of basic self tests on the website which show what people who struggle with reading or concentration might see. The text might be blurry, faded, jumping around or any number of odd things. Having Irlen syndrome doesn’t mean someone has another issue, but it’s worth getting checked for visual stress if you struggle with other learning difficulty based problems in case overlays can help.

For N he’s not particularly light sensitive (apart from car headlights which is probably down to his astigmatism), and didn’t find movement of letters or blurriness. The overlays just made it easier to focus and keep his concentration in one place. Therefore it speeds up his reading and makes it more fluent rather than the stopping and starting, or missing out words he would do before. I just thought it was laziness in reading before, but now it makes sense. 

The Irlen method to solve these diverse issues is coloured overlays, with some people then having prescription glasses with colours to help for bigger issues with visual stress. 

Opticians visual stress test

Obviously you can check online for basic tests as to whether different colours help, but you can also pay for a private visual stress test at an opticians. Unfortunately it’s not tested for under the NHS. As N has really good vision and healthy eyes, this issue wouldn’t ever have been picked up if school hadn’t known about overlays helping readers who might struggle or are reluctant to read.

Not all opticians offer the test, but there were two in our area, so I was able to book in. For us, it included a standard eye test as well as the visual stress parts, and would last around 90 minutes.

What does the Irlen Syndrome test include?

As N also had a normal eye check up, and it was with a different optician to where he’d normally go, it was quite hard to tell what was included just as the visual stress part. 

He had photos of his eyes taken beforehand to check there was nothing physically wrong.  Then there were the usual distance and close up tests – checking the letters on the wall, checking the strength of his eye muscles in following the light and looking in different directions. Checking how close he could see a point before it became double (he’s like me, it never gets to double even when right up close). 

Then his prescription was checked to see if he needed glasses, what would the prescription be. So using the funny ‘glasses’ to slot in the different lenses to check what made items rounder or clearer or blurry.on white, red and green backgrounds.

The additional tests included further checks on when items went blurry with different measures. A check for colour blindness And obviously the reading tests with different overlays.

The overlay tests were done on the computer. There were texts with 2 different coloured overlays next to each other and he had to say which was clearer. The checks compared all the different colours (although he did say that the blue was more grey than the 2 different colour blue overlays he had tried at school).  

Once they’d worked out which was his preferred overlay – this time it came out with yellow – they then did the timed reading test.  First of all checking the baseline which was to check how many random words on a white background could he read correctly in a minute. For N it was quite stop and start, and he made 4 errors having to rethink and take his time to go back.

Then he read with the yellow background, the same test, random words in a minute. Hearing him it was obvious how much better he did second time round with the overlay. He didn’t stumble over any words, it was a lot more fluent and he read a lot more than the first baseline attempt. In fact, he went up from 79 words to 119 words in the 60 seconds with no errors.

boy in eye test with prescription glasses machine

After the eye test

We’re still waiting on the optician’s report so we will share that with school. I’ve already updated them with a quick note in his homework diary saying that the yellow overlay came out best. We bought one from the opticians in case school didn’t have any. But the same day school knew about the change in overlay, they were able to provide him a yellow one, and have changed to printing his worksheets on yellow paper or card. It must be a real hassle for the school having to remember what colours different children use, but they want to get the best out of the children. We’re definitely lucky the teachers pick up on this as it’s nothing I’d heard of before.

While N doesn’t always use the overlays when reading his own books, he’s been happily reading each morning (I still struggle to get him to read to me as part of homework though. I think it’s just too much work after school to do homework and reading).  He’s preferring non fiction at the moment – currently reading History Year by Year* picking out the world war years that he’s done a bit about at school. It doesn’t worry him that it’s not specifically a children’s book.  And for school he’s got another Horrible Histories book* which is a bit more story like and fun. 

He’s said the overlay makes it easier and faster to read because he doesn’t lose his place. It amazes me how different coloured overlays can magically help people with so many different issues.

Hopefully this will really help N with his confidence. I’ve always said that if he read more, his writing and everything else would fall into place more easily. Fingers crossed this will also help him with his comprehension and spelling within his writing. At least he’s now finding reading less of a chore..



Resources on Irlen syndrome and visual stress

Irlen Syndrome website – this includes different self tests you can try, as well as trying some of the different colours on screen.

Coloured overlays* – these come in different sizes, including ‘ruler’ size which is good for reading, and as clings for computer and tablet screens.

Colour tints for screens – there are different ways to do it, for free or paid for. This includes some of the screen colour overlay methods you can use

Coloured overlap app – for your android phone, small cost from the play store and phone overlay trouble shooting/how to use it

Have you come across visual stress before or suffer from it? 

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1 Comment

  1. That’s so wonderful that N is developing a love of reading. Whatever inspires him to get stuck into books is brilliant and if the aid to help him access them is a coloured screen that’s amazing. I think computer displays have settings as well to produce the same effect as he gets older and needs to work more on screens. So pleased for him.

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