Clear improvement

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Eye tests finally explained Sophie's reading difficulties, says her mother, Hilary Robinson.

Having an author as a parent does not necessarily mean that a child will automatically develop a passion for reading. Nor does it mean that they will read fluently and with ease. It took four years to diagnose my nine-year-old daughter's problem but, astonishingly, only half-an-hour to rectify it. The result is that her reading and comprehension have been transformed and her spelling is improving. In one simple test, conducted in two parts - before and after diagnosis - Sophie's reading fluency rose from 80 words a minute to 120.

From an early age it was clear to me that Sophie did not find reading easy. With considerable effort and coaxing on our part she was able to keep up with the standard expected of her but her general spelling was poor and it seemed as if she would spell by writing only those letters, usually strong consonants, that she heard. She found it difficult to read out loud without hesitating, reversing words and adding words from below and above the line. We assumed she probably had the same problems when reading to herself. Sophie would soon became tired when she read and before long, I realised that Sophie was going to find it difficult to learn to love books - a situation made all the more frustrating by having a mother who helped other children to read by writing them.

When Sophie was five her teacher suggested a hearing test. The GP referred us to a specialist but this proved inconclusive. Later, another teacher suggested a sight test as Sophie appeared to blink a lot when reading. Despite regular NHS sight tests, a problem was never diagnosed.

We started to think about dyslexia, even though Sophie did not seem to display many of the characteristics of dyslexia. Her writing was neat and her reading standard was good even if it was not fluent. Overall she was achieving well. So we stuck with the situation hoping that with increasing maturity, confidence and practice she would overcome her difficulties. Over the next few years Sophie did progress well in all areas of the curriculum.

But she still harboured the same problems relating to spelling and reading fluency. It would often be easier for her to memorise text that had to be read out say, in assembly, rather than read it at sight. She loved drama, which entailed memorising text, but worried about reading out loud during class reading sessions. She said that comprehension was easier if she read the text through at least three times but despite having the text in front of her during lessons she frequently misspelt words from the passage. Her English exam result was good but she had lost marks for poor spelling. He school report reinforced this and I became determined to get to the root of the problem. A friend told me about Irlen Syndrome or Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, some of the symptoms of which Sophie appeared to display.

Irlen is a visual perceptual dysfunction caused by sensitivity to light - rather than a visual problem of a refractive nature. By wearing Irlen Filters - coloured lenses - people with this syndrome are able to read and write with comparative ease. An initial test at the Irlen Centre in Leeds indicated that this might be the problem and Sophie was initially advised to practise reading using coloured overlays. Although helpful, this did not seem to improve the situation significantly.

I made further enquiries among opticians as well as eye specialists and this led me to an optometrist, Ruth Perrott of Castleford in West Yorkshire, who had helped many children with similar difficulties.

Within half-an-hour she found that Sophie had "esophoria at near", which means that her eyes overconverged. In other words her eyes turned inwards too much on the reading task and she had to use excess effort to maintain fixation. Ruth explained esophoria is not an uncommon condition but it is one that would not necessarily be picked up by a routine NHS eye test. She said that many children learn to live with the condition simply because it remains undiagnosed. As far as Sophie was concerned the visual effect of the text was that it converged and the only way she could refocus was to stop and blink. Because she had never known anything else Sophie had believed this was the case for everyone.

Ruth Perrott prescribed lenses for reading and writing only and Sophie's response was immediate. What had appeared blurred and confused was now clear. Sophie worked with the spectacles over the next two weeks, reading both out loud and silently, and a subsequent visit showed that we had found the root of her problems. After four weeks the results were impressive. Before this diagnosis, it had taken her a fortnight to read a third of the new Harry Potter but, since sporting her spectacles, it has taken her less than two days to read the rest.

A new world has opened up for Sophie that she had previously been denied and she now approaches each school day with a new-found confidence.

Hilary Robinson's latest book 'Mr Spotty's Potty' for the Leapfrog Reading Series is published by Franklin WattsE-mail: robinsha@aol.coml The visual effects that lead to reading difficulties will be discussed at a series of one-day national courses (January 15 - March 30) run by Ian Jordan, an optician who conducts research into visual dyslexia. E-mail: IanJordanInbox@Hotmail.comWeb:

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