In the wake of heightened concern over Australia’s declining standards in childhood literacy and the proposed $1billion ‘reading blitz’ to address the issue, a leading international expert in reading difficulties has questioned whether this is just another whitewash approach rather than addressing literacy challenges and the real issues faced by parents and schools.

Helen Irlen – founder and executive director of the Irlen Institute, and the researcher responsible for discovering the Irlen Method of treating visual-perception reading, attention, and learning disorders – said Australia’s falling NAPLAN reading test standards and the drop in international rankings for reading standards demonstrates a need to dig deeper into why children are struggling with reading.

“While we applaud Australia for focusing the spotlight on the importance of literacy, throwing a billion dollars at a solution focussed entirely on standardised test levels is, in my experience, short-sighted,” Ms Irlen said.

“Such tests can serve as a warning sign that problems exist in the educational system. However, a concerted effort to identify the root cause of readers’ struggles should also be part of the equation. There are parents across Australia dealing with the frustration of children struggling to read and a billion dollar program that doesn’t correctly diagnose the problem is not going to help them.”

“What’s critical is how the resources will be spent. We need an immediate focus on retraining school personnel, from teachers and school aides to counsellors and nurses, to identify learning or behavioural issues early on.”

Recent data reinforces the struggles that Australia faces with literacy:

  1. According to Federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett, as of February 2013 75,000 students nationwide are not meeting national standards in the 2012 NAPLAN tests;
  2. Across Australia, more than 30% of kids going into high school cannot read and write properly[1];
  3. Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveal that in 2006, just half of Australians aged between 15 and 74 had adequate literacy skills; and
  4. The rate at which schoolchildren are being medicated has also increased: the stimulant-prescription rate for children in Australia has increased 34-fold over the past 20 years[2]; additionally, more than 40,000 Australian kids are on antidepressants and antipsychotics.

These statistics are not unique to Australia: there has been extensive research into trying to diagnose and address reading problems for many years.

Irlen Syndrome, also known as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, was first identified by educational psychologist Helen Irlen while she was working with adult learners as Director of the Learning Disability program at California State University Long Beach in the early 1980s. Until described in her book, Reading by the Colours, there was no explanation or treatment for perceptual reading difficulties. Many people were misdiagnosed as dyslexic, slow learners or having ADHD.

The non-medicated, research-based method is a groundbreaking, non-invasive technology that uses coloured overlays and spectrally modified filters worn as glasses to enable the brain to process visual information accurately. Of note, Irlen Syndrome is not dyslexia, even though its symptoms overlap and it is often misdiagnosed as dyslexia.

Ms. Irlen’s work was introduced into Australia 25 years ago by Dr. Paul Whiting, a specialist in learning disabilities at the University of Sydney at that time. Today, the Irlen Method is used in over 44 countries and there are over 174 Irlen Clinics worldwide.

Both young students and adult students, in particular, are significantly at risk of Irlen Syndrome, according to Ms. Irlen.

“Recognition and treatment of this genetic, perceptual dysfunction in young adults has been ignored by education authorities for decades,” she said.

A 2012 study at Campaspe College of Adult Education in Victoria looked at forty students who were classified as “disengaged”; 92% tested positive when screened for Irlen Syndrome. These students improved dramatically in academic output, attitude, responsibility and attendance when it was discovered that they had Irlen Syndrome and were provided with their correct coloured overlays, said Ms. Irlen.

“These pupils realised that the constant, humiliating failure they experienced throughout their schooling was not their fault, and they were not ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ after all, or ‘lazy’,” she noted.

Ms. Irlen continued, “The use of the appropriate colour for each young adult was the key to success for these students. This consisted of a coloured plastic overlay for reading and coloured paper for writing — or Irlen Spectral Filters worn as glasses, which eliminated the need for overlays, coloured paper and modified lighting — plus the application of appropriate teaching methods.”

She noted that parents of young teenagers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of diagnosis by educators and others in authority, primarily due to ignorance of existing research. In fact, a recent article[3] in a British academic journal flagged the importance of considering the Irlen Syndrome when identifying children facing extended reading difficulties.

According to Ms. Irlen, by not diagnosing Irlen Syndrome, students can fall behind in school work, become frustrated, display problem or aggressive behaviour, drop out of school, experiment with drugs, become involved in crime and end up with a depressive illness or in jail.

“These young lives could be saved, with appropriate action from education authorities,” Ms. Irlen said. “The Australasian Association of Irlen Consultants advocates screening all children at risk in year two. It is an inexpensive intervention by the government that could save millions of dollars in later years, eliminate the need for remediation for some students, serve as an alternative to drugs for others – and ideally help to break the genetic cycle of low socioeconomic situations from which many family members are unable to escape.”

“Many solutions have been considered thus far to improve educational standards. Now it’s time to ask if a piece of the puzzle is missing,” said Ms. Irlen. “It is time to consider Irlen Syndrome in any ‘reading blitz’ strategy that includes diagnosing and treating children who have visual perception disorders. Proven and effective treatments, such as the Irlen Method, already exist to treat such perceptual disorders at low cost.”

The Irlen Method technology can improve reading fluency, comfort, comprehension, attention and concentration, while reducing light sensitivity. Millions of children worldwide now use Irlen coloured overlays or Irlen filter lenses to manage reading disorders, as well as conditions such as Aspergers, Autism, and more. The Irlen lenses are also used to treat physical symptoms, such as migraine, fatigue, eyestrain, brain injury, and depth perception and judgement difficulties when driving or negotiating steps.

Ms. Irlen’s work is supported by leaders in the field of medicine. Dr Daniel Amen, M.D., a noted author and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, has produced Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography [SPECT] scans of before and after brain activity with Irlen Spectral Filter lenses. He proved that Irlen coloured filters normalise activity in the brain experienced by individuals with Irlen Syndrome while reading and enable wearers to concentrate without eyestrain or fatigue.

Ms. Irlen will be sharing her thoughts on using visual-perception treatments to address educational challenges when she speaks at an upcoming industry conference in Canberra. The Australasian Association of Irlen Consultants’ 2013 Conference, an invitation-only gathering of leading experts, will convene on 23-24 April to examine the state of visual-perception disorders, including advances in technology. The conference will feature leading experts in the field presenting news and findings on treating conditions such as Aspergers, Autism, head trauma and more.  Ms. Irlen will be a keynote speaker, along with Dr. Tony Attwood, noted author and psychologist.

Learn more about the Irlen Method at www.irlen.com.

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  • I would recommend seeing a speech pathologist first


  • My son struggled with reading when he first started school. I just spent more time with him reading. Now it’s one of his most favourite things to do


  • Its very good knowledge to know! Thanks for sharing this article!


  • Interesting read. Thanks for sharing. It’s important to know this kind of info with literacy.


  • What an interesting read. Thank you for sharing this information. It’s very handy to know.


  • It is really worrying that literacy rates are falling. it makes you worry about what is actually being taught in school if the basics are not being taught.


  • This is such an important issue. Thanks for the story.


  • My daughter to can read and write but has trouble “hearing” sounds and spelling the word.


  • This was so interesting! What a discovery!


  • it surprises me as to how many still manage to get through school


  • I’m going to be honest here – why are there so many ‘symptoms’ these days. We seem to have a society of making excuses. Yes, there are children that have medical conditions.always have and always will be, however vigilant parents, teachers and doctors usually pick these up fairly quickly.

    If 30% of children going into high school cannot read and write properly then lets start looking at the size of the class rooms, the curriculum, how the work is being delivered and how much time is being spent actually teaching the subjects that count, reading, writing and mathematics.

    I do feel sorry for teachers, unfortunately they have a time frame to get through the work and don’t have the time to spend on the students that need the extra help, it seems to be the average or brighter children coast along fine and the rest are left behind to sink or swim, and I know a lot of those children get unfairly labelled and misdiagnosed.

    As for Naplan – pfft. Get rid of it and spend the extra time on teaching our children to read and write properly.


  • Thanks for the insightful article


  • a very interesting read, full of good information


  • Thanks for this, it was a very interesting article.


  • Thanks for such an informative read my youngest daughter always struggled in primary school so the school decided to repeat her a year she is now in high school and is now just getting there with her school work


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