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Irlen Lenses: A Cure for Reading Ills, or Quackery?

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Cambridge, Mass--Almost as soon as he began to learn to read in the 1st grade, Kevin Fruh started coming home from school each day with a headache.

The Newburyport, Mass., youngster complained of seeing spots after looking at the black-and-white page and said the words just "wouldn't get clear."

In an effort to help their son in his struggle to read, the Fruhs tried a variety of remedies. They took Kevin to eye doctors. They sent him to a special summer program for dyslexics at a private boarding school; they hired after-school tutors; and Kevin began getting special-education services in his regular public school.

But nothing produced improvements quite so dramatic as the pair of rose-colored glasses he obtained nine months ago at the Irlen Clinic here.

"Now I can read a lot quicker and I don't stop for the easy words that I would've stopped for before," says Kevin, who is now 11. And, he adds, the headaches and the spots have disappeared.

"Those glasses did more for him in one hour," says his mother, Virginia Fruh, "than the private school did in six weeks."

Kevin is not alone. An estimated 15,000 people worldwide wear Irlen lenses to combat their own reading problems. In this country, 20 Irlen clinics have sprung up in recent years.

And more than 27 school districts, colleges, and private schools have been impressed enough with the concept to have their own staff members trained to screen for students who might benefit from using the glasses or their less expensive alternatives, colored plastic overlays.

But for nearly every success story like Kevin's, there is an expert who wonders whether the lenses are more quackery than quick fix.

Experts in the reading and ophthalmology fields say there is still too little hard, scientific evidence to show that the lenses really work--or even why they should.

And with the scientific jury still out, they say, educators and people with reading problems should approach the lenses with caution.

Nowhere is the debate more practical than in the schoolroom, where the technology poses a very fundamental dilemma for educators: Should they try something that could help a child read now or should they wait until research has proven that the lenses really work?

"People say, 'Wait until the literature comes out,"' says William Piche, a Quincy, Mass., educator who is trained to screen students for Irlen overlays. "But, my God, what if you can change somebody's life in that time?"

Visual Distortions

Irlen lenses are the brainchild of Helen Irlen, a former educational psychologist from California. Ms. Irlen stumbled upon the idea in the early 1980's, when she was serving as a coordinator of a program for learning-disabled adults at California State University in Long Beach.

She discovered that, despite the fact that her students had been through years of special education, and had visited numerous eye doctors, no one had ever asked them a very simple question: What does the print look like?

Some saw distortions similar to those Kevin reported. Others said the letters faded in and out, walked off the page, or swirled around. And some said that the white background encroached on the black letters, the lines merged together, or that they saw flashing lights.

Of the 37 learning-disabled students in the program, 31 reported such distortions.

But, with the correct colored transparency, the affected students were able to extend their reading periods from 15 to 20 minutes to as long as two to three hours.

Symptoms of eye strain such as headaches and red, watery eyes disappeared and all of the students said the page had "calmed down." Reading rates increased for all the students, according to summaries of the study provided by the California-based Irlen Institute.

Ms. Irlen termed the students' perceptual problem "scotopic sensitivity syndrome." She theorizes that the retinal receptors may be overstimulated by specific wavelengths of light, causing distortions. She says the colored lens blocks out the troublesome wavelengths.

Based on studies conducted here and abroad, Ms. Irlen says 10 to 12 percent of children may have the syndrome. Among learning-disabled students, the proportion can be 46 percent or higher, she says.

Though scotopic sensitivity syndrome is often confused with dyslexia, Ms. Irlen argues that the syndrome is really a separate "layer" to the problem. In dyslexic children such as Kevin, additional remediation is often necessary to learn to read.

"But how much nicer if we can take that layer away so that we really can address the education or remediation needs of the child," Ms. Irlen says.

"What I'm doing is violating so many basic educational premises," she adds. "When you're an educator and you're used to all the solutions being remedially based and taking a long time, you have to understand that there's going to be a tremendous rush of skepticism for something like this."

Reaping Publicity Benefits

Ms. Irlen's work attracted the attention of the popular "60 Minutes'' television show last year. The favorable segment on the lenses, which was broadcast in May 1988, prompted more viewer calls than any other story in the program's history, Ms. Irlen says. And among those interested were the Fruhs and a number of educators.

"We recorded it and we looked at it and we looked at it and we decided that it might have merit," says Sara Parsons, who is special-populations supervisor in western Tennessee's Tipton County school district. After reviewing the research, Ms. Parsons contracted to have 13 staff members trained in the screening process.

The school district now provides overlays for half the handicapped students screened and 10 percent of the nonhandicapped students--proportions similar to those reported by Ms. Irlen for such groups.

"We have to do what works," says Ms. Parsons, who uses a "goldenrod"-colored overlay herself. "If it works for a little while, then we're a little while ahead of where we started."

But the Irlen method is encountering a cooler reception in academia, where experts worry that lenses--which, with an initial screening, cost $300 to $400--may yet prove to be another educational fad.

"In an area such as reading, where there is so much tragedy, so much heartbreak, and so many promises, they are going to have to be more careful in their research," contends Jeanne Chall, a professor of education and director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory at Harvard University.

"If it works, we have to know for whom it works, what works, and why it works," she says. "And the evidence does not yet indicate that we can use it with expectations for better than what we are doing now.''

According to Ms. Chall, some educators may mistakenly see the lenses as a cure for dyslexia--partly because of claims made in some of the promotional brochures. What may be happening instead, she speculates, is that the lenses may increase reading efficiency for those who already know how to read, "which is very different from dyslexia."

The major criticism of the Irlen studies so far is that the research often uses no scientific controls, relies on the self-reports of subjects, or has simply never been replicated often enough with large groups of people.

One study involved 41 high-school students in California's San Gabriel Valley who were diagnosed with the syndrome. The students were divided into two groups: Those who wore lenses and those who did not.

But the lens-wearers also received additional counseling and guidance on other compensatory strategies to help them with their reading difficulties, such as the use of a tape recorder, tutors, non-timed tests, and oral exams.

"It's hard to tell whether it was the lenses or the extra attention that produced improvements," says John Wright, a Boston ophthalmologist who is critical of the Irlen method.

Laurel Adler, who is superintendent of the school district where the research was conducted, readily concedes that the study "was not scientific by any means."

"We wanted to see if it would work in a school system and there are many variables in school systems," she says. "Nonetheless, there appeared to be differences we couldn't account for in other ways."

Ms. Irlen says six studies underway in school districts, colleges, and universities in this country and in Ireland may yet answer her critics' concerns. Meanwhile, her methods are slowly winning converts.

"To my amazement, this worked," says Georgianna Saba, a former educational administrator who currently directs the Irlen clinic here. "It blew the hinges off my mind, and I thought it was an important mission to share this knowlege."

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