The Link Between Color and
Reading Comprehension

› Color Overlays

Using color to improve reading comprehension is not a new strategy, but why does it actually work?  And are there best practices in teaching reading that teachers can apply by using colors?

Every year there is at least one student, often more, that just seem to have more difficulties than the other children with tracking, creating a return sweep with their eyes and comprehending a text even at a basic level.

A few years ago I had a student who was nearly two years below grade level in reading.  After working with her for the first month of school, I contacted her parents about taking her to an eye doctor, specifically an opthamologist as I had noticed she skipped rows of text and frequently lost her place.

Color and reading comprehension facts using blueThe Color Blue and Reading Comprehension
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This student ended up needing light therapy which involved using green and red lights to improve her vision (she could not see more than a few words at a time).  

I also began trying to use different color overlays to strengthen her reading skills.  Did it really work?

Yes, it did.

Visual Information - Two Types of Trains

There are actually two systems of visual pathways to the brain:  parvocellular and magnocellular. Magnocellular is the locomotive of information - it's always running and on the fast track.

Parvocellular is more like the Little Engine That Could:  slower moving but always chugging along.

The locomotive (magnocellular) processes information very quickly.  As the scenery rolls by it takes it all in and sorts it out so we can understand it instantly.  Our little chugging engine (parvocellular) makes us pay attention to details, like individual letters.

If one of these trains break down, a reading problem can occur that starts in the vision pathways. 

How Color Dramatically Changes Visual Perception at the Parvocellular Level

This student below is attempting to read a Guided Reading Level F book.

Anything beyond CVC words are nearly impossible for him, and there is little recognition of common digraphs and sight words (and the speech impediment makes it difficult to understand as well).  

However, click the next frame when it pops up, and listen to the difference a simple color overlay can make - same day, same book (different page).

There is a syndrome called Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome that is known to interfere with the ability to decipher and read letters and/or words (fluency and ultimately comprehension).  It is a visual perception disability (magnocellular) that causes people to not be able to perform within a certain spectrum of light.

The rods and cones in our eyes have light sensitive elements, and this is what enables some of us to see at different levels of light.  About 50% of all readers have difficulty with perception of print within certain types of light, and this is SSS.

Black print on white paper is not very soothing for many people.  It is the preference of most dyslexics, for example, but when given the choice is not the one they choose.  Why is that?

Light perception - we instinctively know color and reading comprehension can be complimentary or detrimental.  How often have you rubbed your eyes or your head while reading black print on white paper?  

Not to say you haven't done it with other colors, but Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (SSS) is thought to be quite common.  SSS actually jumbles up the print, and many teachers swear by using color overlays to help focus attention to the text and reduce eyestrain in their students.

While it is merely a hypothesis still, I have seen the evidence of a link between color and reading comprehension in my own room.  So that brings this question to mind:  Which colors are the most effective?

Which Colors Improve Reading Comprehension?

Colored bookmarks used for reading comprehension

Most studies show that in general, colors don't make that much of a difference.  

However, beige, goldenrod, green, pink and blue have been shown to increase readability and contrast for students with SSS disorder.

There has been no discernible difference found in students learning things like sight words on different colored paper, although it may help trigger memory in the executive function of the brain.

The really fascinating parts though, are about the color blue (and most of my students choose blue overlays, which is a coincidental yet interesting side note).  

I recommend the Color Overlays from the Irlen Institute  - they improve print clarity and reduce eye strain.

I have watched my own students read longer because they were more comfortable and were finally able to understand what they were reading.

Now, none of this is to say that just giving a student a blue overlay is going to cure all reading issues.  It likely won't cure any of them without solid, evidence based practices happening at the same time.

As well, student choice is always a factor.  I am of the opinion that it is always good to offer options as students will likely choose the color(s) that ease their eyes.  This may result in even more improved comprehension by reducing errors and focusing attention to text.

So if a link between color and reading comprehension really does exist, why aren't more teachers doing it?

  1. Colored Overlays for Visual Perceptual Deficits in Children with Reading Disability and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Are They Differentially Effective?Isabella Iovino, Jack M. Fletcher, Bruno G. Breitmeyer, Barbara R. Foorman 
    Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology 
    Vol. 20, Iss. 6, 1998
  3. Belfiore, P. J., Grskovic, J. A., Murphy, A. M., & Zentall, S. S. (1996). The effects of antecedent color on reading for students with learning disabilities and co-occurring attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(4), 432-438. 

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