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Colored Overlays — Rose-Colored Glasses of the Reading World?

By Angela Bunyi on April 23, 2012
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

"Less than two percent?" That was my response when my supervisor, Dr. Brooks, quoted the statistics that show how many students benefit from using colored overlays while reading. Considering that she holds a reading disabilities doctorate from Vanderbilt University, I trusted her completely. Then, like clockwork, students started to magically bring in the overlays — on their own. “Where did you get this?” I’d ask. “Oh, Mom got it for me at the parent/teacher store. I need it. Bad,” they’d respond. I knew it was time to do a little research and put my question to rest. Do colored overlays really help struggling readers, or is this an attempt to look at the world through rose-colored glasses? Read on to see what I found out.


Irlen Syndrome: Where That Two Percent Number Comes Into Play

A quick Internet search led me to find the stats that show that overlays are geared for children with Irlen syndrome. How many of your students have been identified with this? Probably not any, I am guessing. If you are not familiar with Irlen syndrome, I'll give you a brief summary. It is a problem with the brain’s ability to process visual information. In terms of reading, for children with Irlen syndrome, print looks different. This means that they read more slowly and less efficiently and have poor comprehension. Symptoms may also include poor depth perception, eye strain, fatigue, headaches, and low self-esteem. Attention to lighting is also important for these students. Fluorescent and bright lights are not their friends. You can read more about this syndrome on the Irlen Method Web site.


Putting Overlays to the Test

Much of the population I work with has some of the symptoms described on the Irlen Method site. With nearly 70 students under my care, I could only think of two students that truly seemed to benefit from colored overlays. One was diagnosed with complex visual problems, and the other student is in the middle of testing for dyslexia and potential visual eye tracking issues, among other things. 

But the tipping point came when an ENTIRE grade level of students came in with colored overlays. I carefully shared the news that maybe they didn’t need the overlays. The crowd response of, “Oh yes, we do,” came quickly and strongly. Then one boy dared — I mean, asked — me to put the overlays to the test. He reminded me that I have to complete weekly progress monitoring and could compare past results to current ones, in which the overlays were used. Genius!



Meh. It was pretty much a wash. If I had the task of identifying which students benefited from the overlays, I’d be hard pressed to do it. Looking at my most struggling readers, I found results looked the same as before. A few even went down.

Of course, remember the student that asked me to put the overlays to the test? Here are his results:

Placebo effect?


The Research: To Use or Not to Use?

Try completing a quick Internet search on your own, and you’ll notice the messages tend to go as follows:

  • They work! And you can buy them from us.
  • They don’t work. If they do, it's the placebo effect.

It was incredibly hard finding a site that said they worked that didn’t have a monetary benefit at stake. I decided to stick with the controlled studies, and found that one study was referenced frequently: "Irlen Colored Overlays Do Not Alleviate Reading Difficulties" by Ritchie et al, published in Pediatrics vol. 128, no. 4, October 2011. The best, most objective evidence currently indicates that any benefit to struggling readers from Irlen lenses/filters is due to the placebo effect.

Of course, this study has drawn criticism for poor design and for being limited in scope. Regardless, looking at the findings, the Irlen Institute estimates that almost half of people with dyslexia have scotopic sensitivity syndrome, a syndrome for which there is no credible published evidence.

Have we all been duped? The research is still out on that one.

For now, I suggest you don’t pass them out like candy and expect miracles from your struggling readers. On the other hand, I can assure you that my two students have completely benefited from the overlays (after carefully selecting a color that works for them). Cautiously proceed, my teaching friends. Cautiously proceed.

Comments (26)

I read this article with interest because i have recently been diagnosed with Irlens syndrome. For years, I had to take paracetamol almost everyday due to headaches and migraines. I fall over patterned flooring and also can vomit due to seeing visually disturbing patterns. I am not dyslexic and have not suffered academically ( I have a degree and postgrad, I have been teaching for 18 years and now run a home school business) but I am amazed at the way the irlens overlays and glasses have changed my life. I can't believe black print on white paper looks so different to other people - I get distortions and words can change before my eyes, lines looks blurred or intense with wavy patterns running through text without glasses or overlays. It is discomfort which is reduced for me. You do have to get tested properly - the screening determines the exact colour overlay you need and my overlay is pink but the glasses are purple, made up of different blues, pinks and purples for a more specific result. I suspect for some students it may be a placebo effect but a genuine syndrome exists and without the overlays and glasses my life is more uncomfortable. I was diagnosed by accident because I went for an eye test and my actual vision is fine. I also have ASD and only diagnosed because I suspected it after teaching autistic students. I suspect the Irlens is connected with this because of the way my brain works. The glasses also help me with the stress of shopping in noisy and brightly lit supermarkets and also help with the occasional panic attack triggered by sensory overload. These things do not hold me back - I am successful and I am happily married with a teenage son. However, life is a little less uncomfortable now.

I think you've missed an important point. While overlays may not improve reading achievement per se, they may well alleviate reading discomfort. The visual stress of looking at a bright white black lined page should not be overlooked as a factor in child and adult willingness to read. I suffer from a perceptual disturbance - not a visual disturbance whereby I experience some discomfort focusing in bright light - there's nothing wrong with my vision and nothing wrong with my visual field. I am not dyslexic and have no problems with academic achievement. Nevertheless, using tinted glasses helps reduce the discomfort which in turn reduces my stress and allows me to focus on the content of what I'm working on rather than the aversive perceptual aspects. Coloured overlays cost hardly a thing - I was tested at the Royal College of Optometrists in the late 90s and given tinted specs and overlays - it wasn't expensive and was very experimental back then too. I never used the overlays but I used the glasses a lot. I also learned to replace white backgrounds on my computer screen with pink. In my opinion, where there is no clinical disorder of vision, this is about visual perceptual comfort versus discomfort and it shouldn't be overlooked.

Overlays man not be the answer for everyone however if they help even just one person then they are a success. My son has had difficulty reading since he started school. He has also had eye surgery because of muscle problems and lazy eyes. His eyes had to learn to work together which is a work still in progress. He also suffers with dyslexia. My son when I started the overlays this year "5th grade" was reading at a 1st grade reading level. Now, I am not claiming they cured his reading problems but they greatly improved his reading skills. My son will always struggle with reading issues but I can tell you that he is of the group that totally benefit from using reading overlays.
Maybe a lot of the studies showed no imrovement because they did not find the color scheme that works best for each person. That is the true key to success with the overlays. I am currently looking for a way to get my son eye glasses with tinted lenses. He also needs the words magnified.

I have been teaching for over 20 years Preschool children-Adults. I have Visual Stress and so does my daughter. Our sensitivity varies greatly, however we both benefit from using the overlays and colored tinted lenses.

Visual stress is the correct medical term. If you do a google search with the terms: Dr Bruce J. W. Evans and Arnold Wilkins, you'll find a wealth of scientific FACTS- NOT OPINIONS with numerous PUBLISHED scientific studies done under the authority of The Medical Research Council,a British Governmental Agency, which holds the rights to the Intuitive Overlays,Intuitive Colorimeter and Precision Tints.

These lenses and overlays have made a world of difference in our lives. My daughter cannot read without them. Otherwise she suffers from severe headaches and mental fatigue as well as experiences great difficulty reading and writing, both on paper and the computer.

I urge you to look into it. There is too much evidence to ignore and even if you help one person you will have a positive impact on his or her life forever!

Not exactly. The intuitive colorimeter had an MRC license as an investigational not as a therapeutic device.
The scientific studies by Arnold Wilkins and Bruce Evans have not convinced most independent bodies, their 1994 randomised controlled trial, which was hampered by a high drop out rate, showed no improvement in reading using the Neale rate of reading test(1). The most recent RCTs by an independent groups again fail to show any benefit from colour in terms of reading (2)(3)

1. Wilkins AJ, Evans BJ, Brown JA, Busby AE, Wingfield AE, Jeanes RJ, et al. Double-masked placebo-controlled trial of precision spectral filters in children who use coloured overlays. Ophthalmic Physiol Opt J Br Coll Ophthalmic Opt Optom. 1994 Oct;14(4):365–70.
2. Henderson LM, Tsogka N, Snowling MJ. Questioning the benefits that coloured overlays can have for reading in students with and without dyslexia: Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, •• ••-••. J Res Spec Educ Needs. 2013 Jan;13(1):57–65.
3. Ritchie SJ, Della Sala S, McIntosh RD. Irlen colored overlays do not alleviate reading difficulties. Pediatrics. 2011 Oct;128(4):e932–938.


I found overlays (I used browser extensions) at 30 years old. My reading rate nearly doubled at once. After years of using them I have been able to continue this progress without them. I have recomended with others that have claimed it helped them as well. What harm in there for anyone to try them. Angela, Angela Bunyi, you need to SHUT UP!

This is a terrific post. It is great that someone is questioning the evidence for this treatment and is doing some research of their own. What is needed are high quality randomized trials with appropriate educational endpoints. It seems that your thinking is way ahead of some of the proponents of this type of treatment.
The evidence has been reviewed by a number of independent bodies with no financial interest and they all reach the same conclusion. That this treatment lack scientific foundation.
In the UK, Royal College of Ophthalmologists.
In USA, The American Academy of Ophthalmologists, Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, Council for Disability and the Board of Certified Orthoptists, produced a joint report.
In the UK a systematic review by the Health Technology Assessment Board combined all the randomized controlled trial and found no convincing evidence of any treatment affect and commented on the poor quality of the trials.
As you say the most recent and rigorous trial found no beneficial effect on reading.
Although it may be true, that even if it is placebo effect, it does not matter as long as it works. However, the same effect could be achieved at a much lower cost than a £500 (UK prices) assessment and prescription from an Irlen or Wilkins practitioner. Furthermore, placebo effects are usually short-lived but the effects of good teaching last a lifetime.
The answer to reading difficulties lies with great teachers not bogus medical diagnoses.

Who cares if it is a placebo or if it improves work or grades? If it makes reading more comfortable for the pupil it will make it easier for them to concentrate and make them more willing to complete their work. Also you have no idea of the impact that the strain of trying to read off white paper on the health of those who are Irlen positive. I was hospitalised for suspected brain tumor my head aches were so severe. With my 'placebo' Irlen overlays all that pain went away. The overlays dont hurt anyone, dont cost very much and can have a HUGE impact. Why the aggressively anti-article?

Professor Bruce Evans and Professor Arnold Wilkins both UK vision scientists designed an experiment to dismiss Irlen lenses as being of benefit to children with reading disabilities. At the end of their experiment (1995) they had proved a positive effect. 5% of the population have severe scotopic sensitivity (Meares Irlen syndrome) and another 15% were helped by filter lenses. There were positive effects for some migraine sufferers and the autistic. The modern apparatus for diagnosing which filter is required is the Wilkins Colorimeter and this is extensively practiced by optometrists in the UK and is taught in their Optometric University degrees. The British Government is considering subsiding the filter lenses due to the dramatic difference they can make to children who are failing within the education system. Matthew Auckland New Zealand Optometrist

Actually their trial published in 1994 showed no improvement in reading using the Neale rate of reading test. Although some subjects experienced greater subjective comfort this part of the trial was severely hampered by follow up of just over 50% of subjects so we do not know what happened to the rest.
Governmental bodies such as the West Midlands Health Technology Assessment Board and various Health Authorities have reviewed the evidence and found it lacking and have not recommended funding and do not accept that coloured lenses and filters can make a dramatic difference.

I agree with some of the other comments - it's not really fair to judge Irlen when the students were handed out overlays, and do not appear to have been properly screened for the correct color - and YES, if there is a reading difficulty present, it must still be remediated once the color is chosen. The difference is - it now CAN be SUCCESSFULLY remediated so that it is not an ongoing struggle. I don't sell overlays for monetary gain - I buy them and sell them (often at a loss) to the students I screen. The screening fee barely covers the time I put in. Please go out and visit some screeners, diagnosticians, and successfully and properly screened students before you make this judgement.

Recently I tested a 12 year old girl for Irlen's syndrome. She reported big improvements in blurriness, movement, spacing, comfort and more, and went away with overlays.

Her Dad went online and found some negative comments like Angela's. He's now saying it is all smoke and mirrors. Meantime the girl constantly uses the overlays, resulting in faster reading and fewer errors.

She's pleading to be allowed to get Irlen lenses, despite the fact that she won't use her optometrist-prescribed lenses (I'm not sure whether it is because she gets a hard time about wearing glasses, or if she doesn't think they make enough difference).

What 12 year old ever WANTS glasses? Only one who is convinced that the result is worth it.

The teacher is so right - do not pass them out like candy! Irlen falls into disrepute when people attempt to fix the symptoms like this.

You don't ask your mate for help with a medical problem - you ask the doctor and he/she systematically looks at the symptoms, tests and then prescribes. The doctor will treat the problem much better than an amateur. Same with Irlen - get a trained Irlen assessor/diagnostician to assess the kids and the results will be different.

Also, why ignore 699 pieces of positive research and make sweeping statements based on one negtive one - just becasue it is much-quoted does not make it good research.

I am proud to be a representative of the Irlen Method in Wichita, KS. I have spent 19 years doing screenings and evaluations for filters in eyeglasses and contacts. I have made money from this practice, but not enough to keep my office open or to retire. On the other hand, the instant gratification I get when listening to a youngster read on grade level with overlays or to hear what they thought was normal before getting the correct lenses is worth any effort on my part. Some people cannot be helped in this way, and I'm proud that the screening lets me know, so that I can recommend other avenues for seriously frustrated parents and students.
When I hear that there are no more migraines, that a child is removed from a "behavior disordered" setting because he or she can control and function in a regular classroom when wearing Irlen filters, I am thrilled. When I hear that teachers send home for some child's glasses because they are not doing well without them (many of these glasses with no prescription other than the color), I celebrate. When I see someone with an essential tremor hold his lenses up with no difficulty during testing, I know that person's life will be different.

I would like to know more about the essential tremor part of your screening with color. My husband has this tremor and can only read so long without seeing double. All six of our daughter have the tremor and 2 of them have dyslexia. Please I would really like this information. I am always doing research on the internet concerning ongoing medical proplem existing in our family. Either let me know how to contact you or I will give you info to contaact me. Diane

I can tell you that my son, who is both gifted (math/science) and has a learning disability (in writing)could read if the print was a big enough font and not dense. As the fonts got smaller, he had more trouble. He couldn't copy off the white board, couldn't follow on overhead projectors and took 2 1/2 hours to read 8 pages of an AR (Accelerated Reader) 5.1 level book at the end of 5th grade. He had migraines, red eyes and would ONLY read outside during a specific time - he liked the light at that time. He was screened the next month. During the screening, I was looking on and when a yellow overlay was tried - I had an INSTANT migraine that lasted for 6 hours. With my son's colored overlay (thankfully NOT the yellow for my sake), he read the ENTIRE next book in the series (still a 5.1 AR level) in only 3 hours - about 100 pages, over 10 times faster. He still couldn't copy off the white board or see clearly overhead projected items until he got the glasses. By the way - when he first complained of not being able to read the board in 2nd grade - we started getting his eyes checked - he has 20/10 - BETTER than 20/20. How much of his writing disability developed because he couldn't read???

I now have the Irlen tinted glasses and I quit having migraines - except when I need the tints changed. Since I have a pair of tinted glasses with no prescription (for use with contacts), others have tried them - it's amazing when they sigh, relax their faces and shoulders, and tell me white is amazingly white. For others, it's not the right tint and they see a color. The cost puts off most of them. I have talked with special education teachers and most of them try colored overlays, never knowing why one color worked over another.

If my son hadn't gotten the Irlen glasses, what do you think the odds would be of him being in college - working towards an ENGINEERING degree??? His brother - who has the same gifted/LD and same test scores, but was almost out of High School when his brother started with the overlay (and refuses to even consider wearing the glasses) refuses to attend college, even though he has CREATED after market car parts and SELLS them. He would benefit from at lease some engineering classes, but hates school because he struggled for 12 years.

I have used Irlen lenses for twenty years. If I wear them I can read for as long as I like with no problems. If I dont I end up suffering chronic migraines and can only work for 1-2 hours a day. This is no placebo. Irlen lenses and Irlen overlays dont cure dyslexia but they 100% cure Irlen syndrome.

I'd like to start by saying that I do not make any money from the increased sales of colored overlays and I don't' care who you potentially buy them from... I have been a teacher for 20 years and I have a hard time getting many of my co-teachers to believe in the benefit of trying covered overlays with their struggling readers. (But, I'd like to thank my co-teacher, Sam, for posting this article on my FB page).

Why do I believe in them? I did not read for pleasure until I was 19 years old -- I was the kid who had a book open, but wasn't really reading; I was the one who took as long as possible looking through the book shelf so that I didn't have to read; I was the one who went to the nurse during reading because I had a headache (sometimes I did); I was the one who struggled with spelling even though I studied a lot; I was one who was given reading glasses that didn't help any; I was the one who missed discovering the love of reading.

For those of you who have decided that 2% of students isn't a big enough percentage to bother and try covered overlays, I'm disappointed that you would be willing to leave students like me behind. I totally agree that there is some degree of novelty and the placebo effect with many students -- more of my students use them for a few days/weeks/months rather than use them long term. When that is the case, they turn their covered overlays back in and it doesn't cost the district a dime. However, a few of my student have kept them for years (I cut them in half -- the total cost is $5). I have had parents thank me for introducing them to their child -- I've even had a parent who went out and bought them for himself.

Once I got my covered overlay in 1990 (which, at the time, was a 1/8" piece of polarized, hard plastic), I was amazed to see the page like the rest of you see it; I was able to retrain my eyes to read correctly (without regressions and rereading lines); I stopped getting headaches from reading; I learned to dim the computer screen so that I didn't get eye fatigue and headaches; and, most importantly, I started reading for pleasure -- all the time!

Isn't that what it's all about? Once we get our kids reading for pleasure, we've won the battle -- we've made them life-long readers and learners, regardless of what their test scores are.

So, please... don't be turned off that covered overlays will ONLY help 2% of your students -- be thrilled that you have the opportunity to make a difference their lives!

Peter Mesh
Wynantskill, NY

In 2nd grade my daughter was struggling with her reading. She kept telling me she couldn't keep her lines. I told her to use her finger, a ruler, a line guide anything but she said it didn't work because the lines never stayed still. When I asked her what the lines looked like she said they looked like waves in the ocean or fish swimming in a river. When I told her teacher about this she instantly knew where to send me. She had had a student previously with Irlen Syndrome and thought my daughter should be tested. She even brought in a colored overlay the next day for my daughter to use. The overlay didn't help much and I was skeptical about paying the money for the Irlen screening just to find out it wasn't going to help but my daughter was crying and frustrated with her homework every day. She had migraine headaches every day (we later found out this was caused by the fluorescent lighting)and she would get nausea whenever she tried to read for more than 10 or 15 minutes. So off to Irlen we went. My daughter was diagnosed with Irlen and then had to start the process to find the right color overlay and filter for her. This is key for Irlen sufferers. The wrong color overlay or filter will not help a person with Irlen BUT the right color overlay or filter will CHANGE THEIR WORLD. It was amazing to watch the change in my daughter once she got her Irlen glasses. No more headaches or nausea, her DRA (reading level) jumped 10 points because her lines and words were not longer moving on the page. She went from a 16 to a 26 in a matter of a few weeks. As her world became calmer and more "still" her confidence in doing new things grew and she started to blossom. It may be a true statistic that only 2% are going to benefit from the colored overlays but if your child is one of those 2% you can't ignore the life changing affect it will have on them. I urge all parents to do whatever they have to do to help their child succeed. If that means spending a few dollars on an overlay then so be it. If you are concerned your child actually does have Irlen Syndrome, have them tested. The right color overlay is crucial.

I am considering to send my son for further diagnosis for the Irlen syndrome . We did try on the overlay but is only work for white paper with black ink , And it also depend on the lighting . I am not sure how much can the glasses help .

It's hard to even know where to start. For over 20 years, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have benefited from Irlen filter or lenses - there are volumes of letters and stories that people wrote on their own volition. Why would this be a placebo affect? Why would people believe they could read better if they could not? What benefit would that be for anyone?

No Irlen filter will not help everyone, nor will overlays nor will any new product on the market. The filters or overlays help only a percentage of people with this visual perceptual disorder as well as people with light sensitivity, headaches and symptoms from autism and dyslexia. They do not cure people, they help people. If a child struggles with the skills involved in reading or has dyslexia, he or she will still not read well because of these lenses - they are not magic - BUT they will simply make the words and letters clearer. Prescription glasses will also not make a non-reader a reader if he or she does not know how to sound out the words. Was any of this taken into account in this study? No. As someone else pointed asked: Where these children tested for the colors in the spectrum that would best suit them? I do not think so.

In a world where major drug companies are touting ADHA and numerous other trends of the day with cures, it's hard to claim that people making and marketing overlays are wrong for doing so because they make a living from it. Your doctor and dentist makes a living as well as does Angela for writing the article and the work she does. Even the non-profits of the world have a staff whom they pay, so the concern that people are making money in the this area is not valid in the scope of the world we are living in and the entire health care industry.

When Dr. Amen, noted in the field of brain scans and brain research and author of several best selling books stands behind Irlen filters it makes me question whether his testing or Angela Bunyi's single test has greater validity. With all due respect Angela, I'm going to go with Dr. Amen.

the comment about looking around the internet can be easily addressed by keeping in mind that you can find anything you want on the internet. As a strong proponent of adoption, I found people who are anti-adoption, as someone with statistics of the dangers of guns, I can find numerous people who think owning a gun is a blessing and site facts and statistics to support their argument. You can find any side to any argument on the Internet.

It's just hard to fathom why so many regular people worldwide would simply write about and talk about positive results if they have no reason to do so. Perhaps it's just too simple. People want high tech solutions or the latest pills. Overlays don't fit that level of complexity - they are simply something that helps some people.

It reminds me of someone trying to sell me on an amazing home cooling system. He was very distraught when explained that if my simple little air condition wasn't doing enough I had another solution - I opened a window. Overlays are a simple answer that work very well for some people, not all. Why mus you challenge someone's success? Nobody is saying everyone must buy them.

To the poster at 8:57- The simple preference of a color overlay was something my EA partner and I were talking about. She wondered if our children's digital presence online and through gadgets would have something to do with that. With the frequent glare they encounter, it makes me wonder as well.

To the poster at 8:20- I believe Dr. Irlen's work came out in the 1980's so that makes sense.

To the poster at 7:54 pm- The students that I looked at were in fifth grade, for the most part. Most students were screened using Carbo, including the two students that really seem to need it. Through Carbo testing, specific shades of a color are even recommended, but I'll be honest and say I have never administered a test before.

And I didn't mention this in the post, but that teacher that did the testing has over 20+ shades of colors and they are 8.5 x 11 in size (through Carbo). I have a several who just purchased the kind pictured in my post (smaller) through a parent/teacher store.


Funny. I was just asking a reading teacher about these today. She didn't know much and I think I will save my money. Thank you!

I have, in 11 years of teaching, had 1 student with Irlen Syndrome. He and his mother both wore tinted glasses. I had not heard of this syndrome prior to having him. I do use colored overlays from time to time, though for a different reason. Some students just PREFER not so see the bright white paper. And if I can eliminate one more distraction from their reading, you bet I'm going to! Whether it's a placebo effect or not, if it helps them I'm game!

Twenty years ago, a teacher at my son's Junior High suggested that possibly my son's dyslexia could be helped by these overlays, there was even some testing she did. He used the overlays for a couple of years, they helped, kind of, or at least he thought they did (placebo effect?). They were not a cure for his dyslexia, however. I am a Title One Teacher and I work with many struggling readers and I had not even thought to try the colored film. I don't think I will.

Were the students individually tested for the correct colors or combinations of colors?

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