Learn how colored overlays and Speechify help people with comprehension problems and reading difficulties.

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Using colored overlays for reading difficulties

Many powerful tools and techniques are available to help children and adults with reading difficulties improve their reading comprehension. Among the options available are colored filters intended to make words stand out.

But how effective are colored overlays in helping people with dyslexia? This article discusses colored overlay effectiveness and how Speechify helps with reading performance and fluency.

What are colored overlays?

Colored overlays or tinted overlays are designed to make reading more accessible for people with visual processing disorders, which can affect reading. They are especially helpful for people with poor eye contact, typical in autism, or those with visual stress, known as Meares-Irlen Syndrome.

There are many types of colored filters. The two most used are overlays and lenses. Coloured lenses are implanted into the glass frames, while colored overlays are thin tinted sheets positioned over text on white paper. Colored overlays are promoted by various groups and are commonly referred to as the “Irlen Method.” (More information may be found in the 1990 article entitled “Irlen lenses: A critical appraisal,” published in the Journal of the American Optometric Association, available on PubMed.)

Colored overlays are designed to help alleviate reading disabilities caused by visual processing disorders by emphasizing text and giving an illusion that the text is on a colored background. They work by changing each color’s wavelength, revising how fast signals are sent from the eye to the brain. Tinted lenses also selectively alter the speed of information to restore the balance of the wearer’s discernment of text.

An early study on dyslexia and vision was printed in the New York Times in 1991. Entitled “Study Ties Dyslexia to Brain Flaw Affecting Vision and Other Senses,” the authors were hopeful that the study’s findings could lead to methods of detecting dyslexia in infancy so treatments could begin in early childhood.

But in July 2009, an issue of the journal Pediatrics contained a joint statement on learning disabilities, dyslexia, and vision. It was issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, and the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology, among others, questioning the validity of this form of treatment.

Do colored overlays help with dyslexia?

Tinted lenses are claimed to remove or lessen a range of reading difficulties, including low reading speed, accuracy, comprehension, and visual stress. These symptoms often co-occur with dyslexia.

The theory of colored overlays being a treatment for dyslexia derives from cases of dyslexia being attributed to Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (SSS), also known as Irlen Syndrome or Meares-Irlen Syndrome.

Many papers have covered the topic, including one by Della Sala. In fact, a study by Wilkins et al. investigated how effective colored overlays are on reading problems associated with dyslexia, but controversial results were found. Participants, both with and without dyslexia, were asked to select their preferred colored overlay to place over text for reading tests.

The combined findings of the authors of this systematic review (Evans, Henderson, Ritchie, Wilkins, et al.) concluded that colored overlays were an ineffective treatment for reading fluency and accuracy for adults and dyslexic children ranging from 7 to 32.

Who do colored overlays help?

Around 30% of the population experiences visual distortions and text illusions when looking at black and white stripes of a specific width and spacing Some people may find reading black text on a white background challenging because their visual cortex is hypersensitive to specific wavelengths. This is known as visual stress, Meares-Irlen Syndrome, or Irlen Syndrome. This condition is hypothesized as sensitivity to frequencies of the light spectrum. Symptoms of visual stress include:

  • Moving print

  • Slow or inefficient reading

  • Letters becoming darker, fading, or disappearing

  • Patterns appearing

  • Headache or eyestrain

  • Oversensitivity to glare and sunlight, fluorescent and bright light, and sometimes the light at night

  • Feeling fatigued while reading

Optometrists have found that Irlen lenses or Irlen colored overlays on text may alleviate visual stress symptoms. When the problematic wavelength is filtered out, the text is clearer, and eye strain and headaches are reduced.

Treatment of visual processing difficulties does not help a person with learning difficulties improve their reading skills. Visual stress is not the same as dyslexia but is more common among dyslexic individuals. People with and without dyslexia can experience visual stress. This has caused confusion that people with dyslexia can be treated using the color overlay technique.

How to find the right colored overlay

The most comfortable colored overlay is generally found through trial and error. You can purchase colored sheets from Amazon and try each color by placing it over black text on white paper. The words should be read through for at least a minute, with reading speeds and accuracy recorded for each colored sheet. Find out whether the following happens each time:

  • Do the words move, flicker, or wobble?

  • Are there any strange patterns appearing in words?

Eliminate the possibility of a placebo effect by monitoring whether the same benefits are experienced when reading with the chosen overlay after the trial and error test.

The trial-and-error technique effectively finds the most comfortable colored overlay.

However, interventions may be necessary to determine whether someone suffers from Irlen Syndrome and should be screened by a trained professional. Specialists in optometry and licensed optometrists provide colored lenses to treat visual processing difficulties. They do not have the appropriate diagnostic process for color overlay selection and the wrong choice can worsen symptoms.

Use Speechify text to speech to overcome reading difficulties

While the use of colored overlays is proven to help people with visual stress, people with specific learning disabilities or reading comprehension problems require a different technique. Speechify is a powerful assistive technology tool for reading. It converts text to speech to effectively support people with reading difficulties. It can convert web page text, text in documents, and text images into a clear, natural voice. It’s been downloaded by over 20 million users and has received over 150,000 five-star reviews.

Reading while listening has been shown to improve reading ability, fluency, and accuracy. Speechify highlights text as it’s read and the reading rate can be adjusted. Consider trying Speechify today by downloading the Chrome extension or mobile app for iOS and Android.


Do color overlays help with reading?

Color overlays help people with visual processing difficulties to read by filtering out offensive light waves. This allows the brain to process visual information more accurately.

What colour background is best for dyslexia?

A dark-colored text on a light background (not white) is a dyslexia-friendly background. Colors like green, pink, and red should be avoided since colors are challenging to see for people with color blindness. There is variability when it comes to the best color, so individuals are best off using trial and error to find what works best for each person.

What are other uses for color overlays?

Color overlays, colour overlays, or coloured filters are strictly used to help overcome the symptoms of visual stress. This technique serves no other purpose.

Do reading glasses help dyslexia?

People with Irlen Syndrome may use glasses with tinted lenses to help them recognize letters.

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