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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 48 back to contents
Under-publicised approaches to dyslexiaHelena Michaels

Reading a recent issue of the newsletter, I was interested to see how the phonics approach has been ignored in recent years in teaching reading. This pattern of ignoring recent research is all too common in the world of education, if I can say so as one who has recently been “on the receiving end” of full time study. My special interest is dyslexia and many dyslexic children are missing out due to other research developments being similarly ignored. 

Here is a brief look at two little-understood methods, which can help dyslexic people. These approaches support different areas, all needed for the complex process of reading. Some people will be helped dramatically, others more subtly, depending on which areas needed supporting in the first place. An open mind is needed to give each child the option of exploring what may help. 

Light Sensitivity Syndrome, also known as Irlen Syndrome 

This area of research is perhaps the most misunderstood in the dyslexic field. Many people believe that a claim has been made that tinted lenses which cut our certain light frequencies “cure” dyslexia. This claim was never made, at least not by the key researcher. Helen Irlen identified a condition which is separate from dyslexia, although up to 50% of dyslexics also have it. Irlen syndrome distorts vision when the person reads off bright white paper. Coloured overlays and coloured lenses allow the person to read in comfort. Many children miss out on this approach because it has been so discredited by not being a cure for a condition it never claimed to cure. 

Similar disillusionment with the theory can occur if an ordinary sheet of coloured plastic is used. Frequently it is taken as a reasonable indicator to see if a child would be helped by colour. This often gives a false result as many such filters are very reflective giving rise to further distortions. A matt filter is needed or adjustments to the background colour of a computer for typed study. 

Behavioural Optometry 

Another method focusing on visual difficulty is Behavioural Optometry. The theory is that the brain and eyes are healthy but simply have not developed. Behavioural optometry believes this can be remedied with an eye exercise programme.  A series of exercises is followed daily for six months to a year. Signs that Behavioural Optometry might be needed are dyslexia, poor co-ordination, frequent rubbing of eyes, daily headaches, getting rapidly tired at school and frequent days when exhausted after school. 

Key skills which it can strengthen include “Tracking” or following objects smoothly and accurately such as when catching a beanbag or reading along a line. The field of vision can also be extended if it is deficient so the area, over which vision is possible, can grow. This includes being able to read from line to line without loosing the place on the page. One boy, in his last year of primary school, recently discovered through Behavioural Optometry that his field of vision was very deficient. At a reading distance of twenty-three centimetres he could only see a circumference the size of a two pence coin. Amazingly he had seen two optometrists before starting school and had had the usual NHS eye tests. This story is all too common. Now, however, the boy’s visual field tests as normal and he is enjoying sport. Though still dyspraxic, he does not now have to contend with badly affected vision as well. 

Despite these remarkable results, at least in some cases, Behavioural Optometry is not available on the NHS. Privately it can cost £50 an hour and a weekly session with the optometrist is recommended. Another difficulty with this area is the myth that adults cannot be treated. In cases I have seen, they can and do benefit. Interestingly, many adults have behavioural optometry to improve sports performance, often following the same exercises as those used for dyslexia, yet the efficiency of these programmes is not denied. 

As with all approaches to dyslexia I, like most people, am wary of “quick fix.” The above methods will not work for everyone and more research needs to be done. Several methods often need to be used in conjunction with each other. However I feel sad that educational scepticism and arrogantly set ideas can preclude possible help for so many. Dyslexia is after all a condition which, generally, the educator does not personally have and an attitude of “I do not have it so it can not be a problem” is very common. Everyone, especially those labelled “learning disabled” have different weaknesses which affect their reading and which need supporting, be they auditory or visual. An open mind is needed to consider every option, otherwise many children will face the misery of easily avoidable barriers to learning. 


British Association of Behavioural Optometry, 72 High Street, Billericay, Essex.


Helen Irlen, “Reading by the Colours.” 

Helena Michaels is a freelance journalist. She is currently setting up a ‘pen pal’ scheme for dyslexic and dyspraxic children. The concept is that the children can chat about anything and everything by letter tape or email, including the highs and lows of having specific learning difficulties.




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