“Stop making the words swirl!”

Posted by Brainspring on 28th Jan 2021

Almost seven years ago, I attended a class called “How to Screen for Dyslexia” instructed by Susan Barton, author of The Barton Spelling System and recognized by the International Dyslexia Association’s Hall of Honor. During this time, we learned about the myths and warning signs of dyslexia as well as how to screen clients for dyslexia by using tools such as CTOPP-2. One of the last screening tools was a questionnaire about Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (SSS), which I had never heard of before. Since then, I have screened multiple students and clients for SSS, also known as Irlen Syndrome.

What is Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome?

SSS has also been referred to as Meares-Irlen Syndrome, Visual Stress, and is defined as a perceptual processing disorder that has nothing to do with optical challenges; it is the brain’s inability to process visual information.

This perceptual processing disorder tends to be hereditary based; however, at this point, it is not listed in the DSM-V or cannot be diagnosed with either educational or medical standardized testing. Recently, neuroscientists Dr. Margaret Livingstone and Dr. Jeff Levine completed their study into this perceptual vision problem. Currently, there are over 170 Irlen clinics in 44 countries around the world that treat people with these perceptual difficulties found in many who struggle with ADD/HD, autism, light sensitivity, reading, and headaches.


In 1981, Helen Irlen, a school psychologist, became a federally funded researcher with California State University-Long Beach to start an adult learning disability program. Over the next two years, Irlen interviewed over 1,500 adults with significant reading problems. Out of the group, a subgroup was formed based on adequate decoding and phonetic skills as well as an average sight word vocabulary. In this subgroup, the commonalities were that they would slowly reread a text 3-4 times because of either losing their place or the ongoing need to take their eyes off the text. When Irlen asked this group to describe what a page of text looked like when they were trying to read or as they continued to read, the responses were surprising.

  • Letters and words were running together.
  • White spaces were forming rivers that would run down the page.
  • The text became a black line, and the words were gone.

Interestingly, around the same time, Olive Meares, a New Zealand teacher, wrote about visual distortions that caused children to have reading problems when looking at the contrast of black print on white paper.

A Personal Connection: What I Know

As a Reading Specialist, I have taken hundreds of running records since 2015. Of the students who struggle with reading, I have seen patterns of skipping every other line, not reading the word on the last line, and skipping words in a pattern (e.g., missing every third word). I have watched these same students squint with fluorescent lights, prefer to read while wearing a baseball cap or have the lights turned off. Some even misjudge where a wall is and then run into it. Sadly, I have had children place their heads down on my table and weep or angrily shout out their frustrations.

  • “Stop making the words swirl.”
  • “Could you please stop making the letters dance all over the page?”
  • “Why do my letters start to fall off at the end of the line?”

I cannot explain why one of my students drastically increased his words per minute once I had fit him for an Irlen-Syndrome overlay or why a previous student now smiles with her colored lenses as she skips down the hallway to class. According to her family, she loves reading now and is doing very well in school. I am so thankful that I was given the opportunity to train with the Irlen Institute and become a certified Irlen Screener.

What Can You Do?

In the classroom, take note if a student seems to complain of headaches, feeling tired, or always wants the lights turned off. When reading, does the student blink, squint, or begin to have watery eyes? Take note if a student seems to hold the book at an odd angle. Once a child is older (second grade and on), ask them what happens to words when reading.

In conclusion, implementing a strong phonological awareness program alongside a Multisensory Structured Language program based on the Orton-Gillingham methodology (like Brainspring’s Phonics First® or Structures®) is essential for a student’s reading and writing success. But, it is also important to be aware of how other literacy struggles, such as Irlen Syndrome (SSS), can have a negative impact on a student’s academic performance.

Works Cited

Dyslexia Awareness
The Irlen Revolution by Helen Irlen
Irlen Syndrome
Reading by the Colors by Helen Irlen
The Reading Well

Written by Jennifer L. Padgett, M. Ed.

Jennifer is a Structured Literacy Specialist, K-12 in Mexico, Maine.

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