Ending the distortion

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During a curricular presentation at a recent school board meeting, MFL MarMac fifth grade teacher Amy Bunting shared what she's learned about Irlen Syndrome, a perceptual processing disorder that distorts how people view printed words on pages or screens.

MFL MarMac teacher researches syndrome that affects reading

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Last year, when one of her students was struggling with reading problems, MFL MarMac fifth grade teacher Amy Bunting devoted her personalized professional development time to discovering the cause.

“He said the words were crossing,” she explained during a curricular presentation at the Feb. 12 school board meeting. “Right away, I thought it was dyslexia.”

However, the real culprit was something Bunting had never heard of: Irlen Syndrome.

First identified by educational psychologist Helen Irlen, and sometimes referred to as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, Irlen Syndrome is a perceptual processing disorder that distorts how people view printed words on pages or screens.

“It’s not actually an eye issue, but a brain issue,” said Bunting.  “It’s like an optical illusion.”

The page background overtakes the foreground, causing words to move, overlap, swirl, blur, brighten, fly off the page or even disappear altogether.

As a result, said Bunting, students skip words or lines, repeat lines, lose their place or read slow and choppy, which, in turn, can lessen comprehension.

Irlen Syndrome is triggered by light sensitivity: the bright whiteness of a page, overhead fluorescent lighting or the glare of a computer, tablet or cellphone screen.

Bunting said the light sensitivity doesn’t just cause reading issues, but headaches, tiredness, stomachaches, sore or dry eyes and more.

In addition, Irlen Syndrome can be the root of some behavioral issues, making students jittery or anxious and lessening their ability to concentrate.

“Kids are under those fluorescent lights much of the day,” Bunting said. “At the end of the day, they’re having these symptoms. More kids are also having issues because of the technology they’re using.”

Bunting said studies have even shown that many kids diagnosed with conditions such as ADD, ADHD, dyslexia and autism also have Irlen Syndrome.

“This could solve a lot of it,” she said.

That’s an aspect a lot of educators, or even parents, know little about, Bunting added. And for being largely unheard of, Irlen Syndrome is actually fairly common.

It’s estimated that one in five people have it at varying severities and with different symptoms, she said. Out of her class of 19 students, 17 noted some degree of distortion while reading on white paper.

Anyone can get Irlen Syndrome; not just those who have trouble reading. The condition is genetic, but can also be brought on by a concussion or other head injury.

Luckily, there are ways to combat Irlen Syndrome, with the most common being a colored, plastic overlay. When placed over a page or even a screen, the color filters out the light sensitivity, Bunting explained. This improves print clarity and reduces strain and fatigue, allowing people to read longer and more comfortably.

A variety of colors are available, leaving it up to the individual to determine which helps them see words the best.

Bunting is an Irlen screener and is also trained to help kids figure out which color or colors to use.

For her student last year, Bunting said that color was pink. 

“When he put the pink overlays on, it’s like night and day,” she said.

Aqua is one of the most popular colors, Bunting noted, along with other blue variations.

“Sometimes,” she added, “it’s not just one color, but four or five layers of color.”

Other remedies include using colored paper or recycled paper, rather than bright white. Turn out the overhead fluorescent lights in favor of natural light or soft light. Wearing a hat or visor may even help.

If it’s difficult to place the colored plastic overlay on a screen, Bunting said there are some apps available that will tint the color of the screen.

“Turning down the brightness on any gadget is huge,” she said.

For those with severe cases of Irlen Syndrome, Bunting said glasses with colored lenses are even available after meeting with a diagnostician.

By implementing some of these things in her classroom, Bunting said she’s seen quite a difference. When using their perfect color overlays, students have instantly gained anywhere from 32 to 106 more words per minute. Students are reading more accurately, with better comprehension, and showing fewer signs of headaches, strain and fatigue.

It also helps them feel better about themselves.

“The best way to get kids reading more is to increase their confidence,” Bunting said. “They think they’re dumb, that they can’t read. They wonder ‘Why am I not progressing?’ No intervention is going to help them unless you get this roadblock out of the way.”

Speaking to the school board, she advocated for the purchase of overlay packs for each pre-K through eighth grade class, a move superintendent Dale Crozier said he would look into.

“I think it would really help,” she said. “We want to help as many kids as we can so they don’t have a whole lifetime of issues.”

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