An interesting talk in the Radio 4 programme ‘All in the Mind’ alerted me to the Dyslexia Research Trust’s sponsorship of a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show about the impact of coloured filters on reading problems. (Thanks to @sutmae on Twitter for the nudge to the programme.)

Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University, John Stein, and garden designer Tim Fowler, discuss the theory that colours can help with the processing of words on a page. The premise is seen as controversial by those who focus exclusively on language impairment and consequent problems with processing sounds within words so characteristic of many learners with dyslexia. Phonological processing ability is clearly a central difficulty, but to my mind it is not necessarily the only underlying cause of reading difficulties. Differences in dyslexic brains show that auditory processing is not the only indicator of dyslexia.

Stein maintains that blue and yellow backgrounds are particularly advantageous for learners with visual stress and thus the designer of the garden has chosen these colours to work with. The garden features books, first closed then open, to demonstrate that judicious use of colour (overlays, glasses) enables many youngsters with difficulties to read.

The first part of the garden contains white and green flowers. Along the path are random letters, set higgledy-piggledy in the path. This represents the problems that many learners with dyslexia have with ordering letters, especially when against white backgrounds.

You pass by a pile of closed stone books to see a mass of yellow and blue flowers surrounding a path embedded with real words. Yellow and blue are especially significant for supporting learners with specific reading difficulties.

The yellow flowers represent the filter that enables readers with visual difficulties to make the letters stay still so that they can be ordered.  The visual magnocellular system is impaired in dyslexics: filters make a real difference to their experience of looking at print.

Stein says (in another talk here ):

Sometimes giving these yellow filters has a really dramatic effect, whereby a child who has been complaining that the words and letters have been moving around or are blurred can find things much clearer with yellow filters. On average, children who benefit from yellow filters will improve their reading by six months in a three month time period, therefore doubling their reading progress. This should be considered in the context that if such children are given no help to their vision then they tend to go backwards (in three months they might only progress one month). Therefore dyslexia overlays can have a significant impact.

Blue filters regulate the body clock:

It is believed that these work in a different way because the blue filters stimulate a kind of cell in the retina that is important for controlling daily rhythms. These are useful because the magnocellular system is actually favoured by yellow light. Therefore, when blue filters are given children are helped to synchronize their body clocks.

The children who benefit from blue often have problems with sleeping. Blue spectacles will improve sleeping patterns and they will be able to sleep at the right time and wake up at the right time. There is another benefit in that these same children often get migraines or stomach aches. You give them the blue glasses and these go as well because they all depend upon this hypothalamic clock.

Stein’s research provides evidence that 50% of serious reading problems can be helped by the use of blue or yellow filters.

At the end of the garden is an open and enticing book demonstrating that reading is possible. Finally a water feature – a lens shaped bowl – symbolises the importance of calm and tranquility and the reduction of stress (whether visual or emotional) that is so often a feature of learning when reading disabled.

I’d love to visit. (And I so wish there were a more dyslexia friendly WordPress theme!)