Source: Sherman Publications

Reader uses colors to tame tumbling text

by Phil Custodio

July 13, 2011

Learning to read was a struggle for 9-year-old Hannah Rostek of Clarkston.

Her parents and teachers worked with her for years, trying to understand why Rostek, a bright, outgoing girl, had trouble deciphering the words sitting there on the page.

Trouble was, the words weren’t.

“They were popping off the page, I’d see halos around them – it felt like they were loose on the page,” Rostek said. “It made my tummy feel queasy.”

It took the help of one of her reading teachers, Paula Cook of Independence Township, and a pair of subtly rose-colored glasses to get the words to settle down.

“It’s exciting to see her reading,” said her mother, Brenda Lanker of Clarkston. “She’s less anxious, not as tired at night, and just in the last two months.”

“They make lines straight,” Cook said. “It’s so simple – when she wears the glasses, she can read.”

Cook, a reading teacher and tutor for 10 years, used the Irlen Method to help Rostek read, a process she learned about late last year.

“Around Christmas, I was working with children and wondering what I was doing wrong,” she said. “They weren’t making progress. I looked online and stumbled onto it.”

The method, and the Irlen Syndrome it treats, is named after Helen Irlen of California. Her research in the 1980s found that color affected how some readers perceived written text.

For those with Irlen Syndrome, paragraphs on the page shake, flip, swirl, seesaw, float, ripple, wash out, flash, flicker, and/or pulsate. Symptoms vary in intensity and variety from person to person.

She and other researchers refined the work into the Irlen Method, a proprietary treatment including screening, assessment, and color evaluation.

Treatment includes plastic overlays of 10 colors, which can be combined based on each reader’s need. The reader places the overlays on top of text, and can also wear glasses made in those colors.

Rostek’s colors are rose and gray purple.

“I can still see white and all the colors,” she said. “It feels good to read and not feel queasy.”

“The overlays work – they makes the words stop,” Cook said.

When Rostek was 5 years old and starting to work with longer texts at school and church, she described seeing unusual spaces between words, Lanker said.

“She would ask, ‘mommy, do you see the squiggly lines on the page,’” she said. “I couldn’t figure out what meant by that.”

She had a full vision evaluation, and found to have 20-20 vision. Years of working with doctors and teachers, as well as repeating the second grade, did not seem to help.

She was a good speller, when she could look at one word at a time. Free writing was a struggle, as was following teachers as they wrote on classroom white boards.

“I used to pretend I could read it – I’d just look and nod,” Rostek said.

Readers with Irlen, which was found to be hereditary, are often misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and other learning disabilities. They also suffer headaches, stomachaches, and other maladies from straining to read.

Cook researched Irlen Syndrome online, then attended teacher summits and training to learn how to screen for it.

She tested over 40 of her students, including adults and older children, and found about 30 have some form of it, she said.

“The problem is we think we see what they see – we never think to ask them, ‘what do you see,’” Cook said.

“I never asked that question, simple as it is,” Lanker said. “It was a huge eye opener for me.”

The overlays and glasses work, but they aren’t magic – Rostek works with Cook twice a week on phonics and other reading skills to get her up to grade level.

“It’s not a cure-all,” Lanker said. “But it level the playing field. Now she can see the words on the page as they should be.”

Cook will continue to learn about Irlen and offers information about it to parents and those struggling with reading.

“My goal is to get information out to help children,” she said. “I’d like to see screenings in school – that may make a difference.”

Rostek also has high hopes for the future.

“I feel like I’ve been let out of a little cage and blossomed,” she said. “I want to be an Irlen doctor. I have it, so I understand it. When I talk to kids, I’d know exactly what they’re talking about.”

For more information, email Cook at