Reading with rose-coloured glasses

24th November 1995 at 00:00
A little-known reading difficulty found inone in 10 children has a comparatively simple cure, Kay Smith discovers - tinted spectacles. Light reading took on a new meaning for one Edinburgh parent during the summer. Anne Matheson, whose nine-year-old son Jaimie attends a city primary, discovered he was suffering from Irlen's syndrome - a particularly pernicious sensitivity to fluorescent light or bright sunshine which can get so bad that words dance devilishly on the page until they fall off it altogether. Good fun for the letters, but a nightmare for the reader.

For a schoolchild to whom reading is a vital tool of survival, the syndrome can, if undiagnosed and untreated, be a tragedy. The strain of reading, and even seeing, can affect behaviour. It can make the child restless and, to the teacher, a classroom troublemaker. Or it can bring on headaches, fatigue and low morale caused by underachievement. To the busy class teacher the child may appear lazy, withdrawn and a no-hoper.

It was in the early 1980s that Helen Irlen, an American psychologist, identified the syndrome as a treatable reading difficulty. It is one, she would point out, that is not an optical problem but a malfunction in the neurological (or brain) pathways.

Later that decade, in Edinburgh, it was parent power that sowed the seeds for what is now Scotland's most extensive programme of screening and treatment for the syndrome. At Boroughmuir High School, the parent teacher association (whose chair had a son with a reading difficulty) urged Ann Peck, a senior teacher at the school, to train in London in screening for the syndrome.

Initial identification involves a simple verbal questionnaire to discover whether a pupil is suffering from visually provoked strain. The pupil may then be tested to determine if reading through colour perspex sheets helps to reduce uncomfortable glare and calm the printed word. If visual disturbances disappear after a period using the sheets, then further testing can be carried out for a more permanent solution: tinted spectacles.

Ms Peck routinely screens all first-year pupils at Boroughmuir. Collating the preliminary results as part of her master's degree, she finds that support for the research studies abroad, namely, that around 10 per cent of pupils may have the syndrome to a greater or lesser degree. Not all of that group need to wear tinted spectacles. Only a handful now do so at Boroughmuir, not the numbers that were initially expected by those sceptical about the screening process.

Ms Peck has now trained Lothian Region's eight special needs neighbourhood support officers in the initial screening technique. Interested learning support teachers have also had training sessions.

Jaimie Matheson is one Edinburgh pupil who has cause to be grateful for the cascade effect of this in-service training. Once his mother had spotted a possible visual disturbance during a reading session with her son out of doors on a bright, sunny day, teachers at his school were swiftly able to consider Irlen's syndrome as a possible cause and to instigate the screening process.

Mrs Matheson says that there was an improvement from day one after her son started using the colour perspex sheets for reading. Jaimie is now kitted out with red tinted lenses set in a stylish tortoiseshell frame, and is happier and more confident that he is able to realise his full potential in class.

Once Lothian pupils have had the initial screening they can come to Ms Peck to be tested for tinted glasses, a task she acknowledges bears considerable responsibility. "I don't want to put parents to an unnecessary expense, " she says.

Children from other parts of Scotland also come to Ms Peck for testing, which she carries out in her own time (as is much of her Lothian training and testing) under the auspices of a charity appropriately called Reading Through Colours. After testing, Ms Peck orders lenses from laboratories in the United States, which are charged to clients on a sliding scale of up to Pounds 90. The charity aims to supply children from low-income and single-parent families with lenses free of charge.

Colour sheets and spectacles aside, Ms Peck says, schools can do much to lessen the impact of harsh lighting by reducing fluorescent strips, using coloured paper for worksheets and writing paper, and avoiding the use of white boards and felt-tipped pens. The traditional blackboard with coloured chalk is a much better device.

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