By Dianne Craft, MA, CNHP
“Look, the words are much bigger now!” said one of my third grade boys in my remedial reading class. “Yeah, and the spaces between the words are bigger, too,” replied his reading mate.
“Can we use these for reading every day, Mrs. Craft? And, can I take one home, too?”
What were these struggling readers so excited about? I had just given them a blue colored reading transparency to put over the pages they were reading. What is happening here?
The Eyes and Reading
The eyes have many responsibilities when reading. Two of the most important roles they play are: 1) to work together as a team moving effortlessly from left to right as they gather in words and sentences; and 2) filter out the white paper into the reading “background” while attending to the black letters on the foreground of the paper. While we often realize that a child is suffering from eye teaming, tracking or convergence issues when reading, we very frequently forget that some of their reading dysfluencies could be the result of a light filtering dysfunction when reading from white paper. They could be experiencing varying degrees of visual perceptual distortions as a result of this improper operation of this filtering system. Readers without these dysperceptions routinely filter out the white background without having to expend energy. It is automatic for them. Thus, when these kids are struggling to read small words, or get fatigued after reading just a short while, they do not know what is “wrong” with them.
Why Do Colored Transparencies Help?
Some people have hypersensitive photoreceptors that react inappropriately to some wavelengths of light. Thus, when they read black type on white paper, their eyes react to the white glare of the paper, creating havoc with the smooth reading process. They may experience eyestrain, fatigue, or headaches while reading, because of these visual perceptual distortions. When the child or adult puts a darker colored transparency over the reading page, such as blue, green or blue/green, they really “even the playing field.” Now there is less of a discrepancy between the black words and the white background, taking stress out of their visual system. They often become visibly relaxed while reading. 1
The biology behind this reading dilemma is very interesting. The retina at the back of the eye is a light sensitive layer, which consists of rod cells and cone cells. Rod cells are for light and dark adaptation, and they help us with our peripheral vision…seeing the “whole.” The cone cells are for detailed vision, or acuity. In the animal kingdom, pigeons have only cone cells while owls only have rod cells. Humans, of course, have both. When examining the make-up of the eye, we find more fascinating facts. The retina of the eye, a very membrane-rich tissue, contains particularly large amounts of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in the rod cells.
Dr. Bazan has studied and written much about the association between DHA and the function of the light/dark adaptation of the eye. He found that, “The body’s highest concentration of DHA,a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid found mainly in fish, is in the retina of the eye. Concentrations of DHA may be as high as 65%. Why is this molecule so important in the retina?
Its presence enhances the development of photoreceptors, specialized cells in the retina necessary for vision….The highly unsaturated nature of DHA has unique effects on retinal cellmembranes allowing them to transmit light signals very quickly.” 2
More evidence that DHA is important for restoring this natural visual perceptual function, and remove visual distortions caused by the malfunctioning of this photoreceptor comes from Dr. B.J. Stordy.
Dr. Stordy says, “My research on young adults with reading issues showed that dyslexics and children with other reading issues often have poor dark adaptation, which is a function of the DHA-rich rod cells of the retina. However, supplementation with high-DHA fish oil restored dark adaptation to normal. The rod cells are the photoreceptors for the magnocellular pathway, which has been shown to be defective in dyslexia. While improving the function of the receptor doesn’t necessary mean central-processing deficits will be helped as well, it’s likely that this is the case. Thus, when working with these struggling students, I always l like to suggest the addition of protocol amounts of DHA, so that we can make permanent difference in their reading and eye fluency ability. 3
Three Easy Steps to Take
In working with struggling readers in school, and in my private clinic, I always take three steps to eliminate these visual distortions.
I had colored reading transparencies available in my classroom for the students to use to make the act of reading more comfortable for them, right away. In my experience I found that three colors were the ones most chosen by my students…Blue, Green and Blue/Green. Since these transparencies were expensive, I only kept those three colors around.
2. Correction #1
I have consistently found that my students who did well with the colored reading transparencies had eye convergence, teaming and binocularity issues. This caused them to skip small words, reverse letters and words when reading, and read a letter from the line above: all very frustrating issues for them. For the parents who took their child for regular vision therapy sessions to a developmental optometrist, these frustrations became less, as their eye teaming skills improved. For the majority of my students who were experiencing these visual processing problems, who did not receive any vision therapy, I did daily eye exercises that crossed the midline of the body, and once a week Brain Integration Therapy Visual Brain Trainings, to encourage the visual processing skills needed for reading to transfer to the child’s Automatic brain hemisphere. This proved to be very effective.
- Correction #2
After attacking the physiological components of this visual processing issue, I proceeded to address the biological basis for these hypersensitive photoreceptors that reacted inappropriately to some wavelengths of light, resulting in reading stress. I suggested that the parents consider following the DHA studies protocol recommendations (500mg according to Dr. Stordy), which wouldfeed their child’s rod cells in order to function properly. This also proved to be extremely helpful.
What Kind of Transparencies Should I Get?
In all my years of working with colored transparencies for struggling readers, I have found that the more carefully engineered the plastic transparency is, the more effective it is for the student; thus, when I purchased my first colored transparencies (as colored plastic folders from Office Depot), my students experienced minor help, but not enough to make much of a difference. Later, as I searched for more sophisticated reading transparencies, I purchased some colored transparencies online that were in a case; easy to carry…which I loved. However, these were a harder plastic, and were more “filmy”, as the kids put it. So, those were put aside. I tried some of the very small strips that were sent to me as a reading teacher, but found that they were detrimental to my students’ ability to process whole phrases, and thus did not lead to any measurable increase in fluency. I wanted their eyes to be able to “scoop in” more words than just the small strip allowed. Finally, I ordered some transparencies from the National Reading Service. I added these,much more uniformly and deeply colored transparencies to the others, and sat back and observed my students. As they tried each one, in a few days I saw that my students ignored all but these newer ones. I now have transparencies available for purchase on my website, www.diannecraft.org.
There are services available that will test your child to see exactly which colored transparency would work best. Just go online and Google colored reading transparencies. I have found that the two colors, blue and green, are very popular with the majority of the kids I worked with.
Since my goal was to eliminate the need for these reading transparencies in the long run (after 8-10 months), by addressing the biological and physiological causes of the problem, I was willing to pay for the more sophisticated and engineered ones, so that I could help my students feel better about reading right away. I knew that if I were careful to take the “three easy steps”, this would not be a lifelong expense.
While there obviously is not one answer alone for reading struggles, we can always try an easy, inexpensive method to helping a child or teen read with more ease. The college students who were in my classroom doing their fieldwork in education, frequently “walked off” with my blue transparencies. They told me that they found they could study much longer when using these transparencies. Their eyes were just more relaxed. I love unsolicited feedback like that from students of all ages. It helps me know that I am doing something worthwhile to make learning processes easier.
- Lucinda Willis, Ph.D., Barbara Locke, Ph.D., “Examining the Use of Colored Overlays with Field Dependent Reading Disabled Children,” Journal of Visual Literacy, 2009, Volume 27
- Bazan NG, Rodriguez de Turco EB, Gordon WC. “Pathways for the uptake and conservation of docosahexaenoic acid in photoreceptors and synapses: biochemical and autoradiographic studies,” Can J Physiol Pharmacol. 1993
- B.J. Stordy, “Benefit of Docosahexaenoic Acid supplement to dark adaptation,” Lancet, August 1995
- Dianne Craft, “Daily Exercises to promote Visual Processing Skills,” Brain Integration Therapy Manual, 2010 edition.