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Colored or yellow overlays for dyslexic piano students - Does it work?

Yellow overlays for dyslexic piano students?

Do you know the name Cappy Kennedy Cory? Cappy wrote music for the Noona Piano Method a while ago, but she’s been a dear email friend of mine for quite some time. She emailed me last year to tell me how she’s been using yellow overlays for dyslexic piano students with excellent results.

I was fascinated by what she had to say and wanted to do a little research on the topic. But mostly, I wanted to get this idea out there in front of you to try and to see what your experience is. I know a number of teachers have used these and I’m curious what your experience is with them. But whether or not it’s scientifically proven to work, it’s an inexpensive thing to try with students who struggle to read.

But let’s dig a little deeper

Yellow overlays for dyslexic piano students?

I don’t claim to have read all the research out there, so if you have a link to more helpful research than I cite, please leave your link and a summary in the comments! The more information we have, the better.

But it appears that the National Institute of Health posted a study and abstract about using colored overlays with people who have Dyslexia AND “the so-called Meares-Irlen syndrome.” Children with this syndrome experience eyestrain and/or visual distortions in color, shape, or movement illusions while reading.

How does it work in theory?

The idea here is that if visual stress is the result of the relation between the visual features of black ink writing on white paper, then changing this relation might result in a reduction of the symptoms associated with visual stress. See this article.

So some teachers and researchers have sought to change this relationship of black text on white paper by altering the color of the paper so as to minimize the visual stress.

Enter yellow overlays (and other colors too)!

So you can easily change the relationship of black text on white paper by using a colored overlay. Here’s an example of what the music looks like with these yellow overlays (Please note: I do not get any affiliate kickback for these overlays. I just want you to know where you can get them if you are interested.):

I have had several teachers tell me that other colors work too with different kinds of dyslexia. So if you are one of those teachers who have experience with different colors, please comment and tell everyone about it!

This story speaks volumes:

Now here’s an interesting anecdote. Cappy told me that when she put the music yellow overlay on top of the music for one of her students, this is what the student said:

Oh, the lines aren’t wiggling and I can tell what line or space the notes are on!

Wow. Can you imagine trying to read music if the lines are wiggling and you can’t tell what line or space the notes are on? Cappy said that she talked to the student further and the student explained even more:

The black lines are more prominent with yellow and black than they are with white paper and black.  They stick out, so I can figure out what line or space the notes are on.

So what does the research conclude?

So back to the research. The research seems to say that the results of the studies on overlays and dyslexia are inconclusive. Here’s a great summary provided by this article by Catherine M Suttle PhD, John G Lawrenson PhD, and Miriam L Conway PhD.

Of the four systematic reviews identified in this overview, three conclude that evidence is not sufficient to recommend the use of coloured overlays and lenses for reading difficulty. One systematic review acknowledged limitations to research quality in this area, but concluded that despite these the available evidence suggests that coloured overlays or lenses can alleviate symptoms in people with visual stress. The authors noted that the quality of evidence was lower than would be needed for medical interventions, but ‘coloured filters are a safer form of intervention’.’

Can it still work for my students?

But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. There are still a number of teachers that say this works. And it will cost you less than $15 to try it! So my thought is: Even if the research is inconclusive, if it only costs $15 to try to help struggling students, I’m willing to do it! It won’t hurt them one bit, so what do you have to lose?

Where do I get colored overlays?

You can get the yellow overlays on Amazon here. Keep in mind that other colors work better for some students (and then for others, this does not help at all). So, be sure to try other colors if yellow does not work but you still think there might be something about the student’s tracking that this could help.

So what do you think?

Have you ever used blue, green, or yellow colored overlays for dyslexic piano students (or any color)? I’d love to know what your experience is, good or bad. The more information and experience we share with each other, the more other teachers will be able to benefit. Please leave your thoughts and experiences below in the comments.

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By |2019-02-15T10:08:25+00:00February 11th, 2019|General, General Music, Instrumental Teaching, Piano Teaching|26 Comments

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  1. Bee February 11, 2019 at 11:04 pm

    Some students do better with colours other than yellow. You can purchase overlays in a variety of colours and compare them with your students to see which colour works best.
    I haven’t tried these in my own studio (but probably should!) My aunt is an Irlen lens practioner and has seen great improvements in general reading ability in children when they find the right colour. My piano tuner wears blue Irlen glasses and absolutely swears by them – notes no longer jump all over the page for him.

  2. Barbara Eichenberger February 11, 2019 at 11:12 pm

    Would music printed on Yellow paper work as well?

  3. Lisa Barwell February 12, 2019 at 8:45 am

    I haven’t had a lot of experience with students needing this, but I’ve tried blue overlays before with one student. It didn’t seem to help her particularly but I hope to try with others in future. It’s glad to learn that other colors may help, too! Side note: I had a fellow classmate in college who printed all her assignments on blue paper and said it helped her enormously!

  4. ML Brinkman February 12, 2019 at 8:50 am

    It’s definitely worth trying! But keep in mind, dyslexia & notes jumping all over the place are two different problems that can happen independently of each other. I teach a set of siblings where the older sister has dyslexia and the younger sister has a vision issue with notes jumping. The younger sister doesn’t have dyslexia. As far as reading English goes, she reads books way above her grade level. Music reading, on the other hand, is problematic for her. She has a slightly lazy eye and wears an eye patch over the lazy eye while sight-reading and practicing new music. Once she’s learned & memorized the music, she doesn’t need the patch any more.

    The older student with dyslexia is actually a really good music sight-reader. She can translate the shapes on the page to hand shapes faster than most of my other students. She’s really good at pattern recognition.

    I think the key to teaching dyslexic students to read music is to focus on shapes, intervals, and patterns. Don’t ask them to name the letters of the notes before they play the notes! That uses too much working memory, plus a lot of dyslexic students get “b” and “d” mixed up. If you prepare rhythm patterns and tonal patterns separately, before they encounter those patterns in repertoire, they can succeed just like any student.

  5. Candace McGhee February 12, 2019 at 9:39 am

    I have used yellow highlighter for years highlighting notes vertically. Makes a HUGE difference. Try pink also.

    There are also erasable highlighters on the market. Lots cheaper.

  6. LeAnn Halvorson February 12, 2019 at 9:45 am

    Thanks so much for posting about this. There are a lot of students who have problems with this. Yes, it does work for those students. While consulting with an optometrist, she said that 25% of the population has some form of tracking issues with their eye sight. She also said that sometimes one color will work for a while, then another color works better. Check out more information on this at: http://www.irlen.com

  7. Beth Yantz February 12, 2019 at 9:53 am

    I had both issues, although the milder dyslexia is not formally diagnosed (but classic signs are abundant). As a child my lazy eye was subjected to many therapies, most of which involved colored lenses and patching, 45 years ago. I am going to try this for myself. To this day sight reading and music reading in general are a challenge, due to my eyes not wanting to adjust focus from music desk to keyboard, when playing complex pieces. If I keep eyes on the music and don’t need to glance at position at the keys, I’m okay (leaps, 8va’s, etc). I don’t lose my place, I just need re-focusing time. I’ll repost if it helps!

  8. Deborah Garren February 12, 2019 at 10:03 am

    I have used colored overlays for many years (30+) with great success for some students – mostly (but not exclusively) children who struggle with reading in general, especially visual fatique. We do need to be careful though and understand that dyslexia is a complicated reading disorder that isn’t necessarily “fixed” by using a colored overlay. Dyslexia involves abnormalities in many areas of the brain, many have to do with temporal processing (I did a Master’s research project on how music can help children with dyslexia). Mostly, it is the steady beat and aural approach that best works with dyslexic students – or a more rote/pattern based approach.

    Actually the colored overlays have more to do with helping visually than it does anything else. Reading, whether you are talking about reading a book or reading music, is a very complicated skill. So while the colored overlays will help some students (it could be the students that it helps has both dyslexia and visual fatigue from the high contrast of black and white), it is not necessarily a complete fix for all children with dyslexia. Here is a website about the overlays: http://www.coloredoverlays.com/140/5-best-reasons-colored-overlays-help-overcome-dyslexia-symptoms/

    It is well-known and has been well-researched, that the high contrast of black and white coupled with fluorescent lights produces a much higher level of visual stimulation than reading by incandescent light or natural light. So, if you are using music that is black and white with fluorescent lights in your teaching room- the need to use covered overlays would be greater.

    As teachers, I believe it is vitally important that we ask questions – lots of questions about how our students are doing in school. There is a large correlation between success/struggles in school and success/struggles in piano. Understanding how children develop reading skills and the many issues involved when reading skills do not progress as they “should” crosses over to piano study. If you are interested there are many other resources and links that can provide a deeper understanding of dyslexia, visual fatigue, and other hosts of issues that can cause students to be unsuccessful with piano study.

  9. Edna J. Bloom February 12, 2019 at 10:25 am

    It’s interesting to me that some music is/was printed on a creamier color paper; perhaps the preference was related to this very issue. In college we were advised to use yellow backing with black figures for classroom sized flashcards. The reasoning was that many road signs use this combination and that the yellow helps draw the eye in from the objects in line of sight. Of course, now the majority of road signs use a green field with reflective lettering.

  10. Wendy Stevens February 12, 2019 at 10:27 am

    That’s so interesting that you mention the road signs now. I was just wondering why they chose bright green with white yesterday! Maybe the black stands out more with the yellow because the yellow is so unnatural. Those signs are usually ones where they are trying to warn about something coming up (like a curve or stop light or merging lanes), so that’s really interesting to think about!

  11. Wendy Stevens February 12, 2019 at 10:28 am

    That’s a great question, Barbara. Cappy and I chatted about this and she mentioned that the only reason she wouldn’t is that it’s just so much more flexible to have the overlays so that you can easily move them from piece to piece. And books that are already printed would need the overlays instead of the prints. There’s another thought that she was going to check on because she has a friend doing something with colored paper, so she said she’d get back to me.

  12. Maryann Messina February 12, 2019 at 10:39 am

    Fascinating story! I haven’t had any students with this issue (yet) but will keep it in mind!

    I do have an ADHD student who requests that I use an erasable pen to mark her music because the sound of pencil on paper is like fingernails scratching a chalkboard to her. WOW! So much yet to be learned.



  13. heather robbins February 12, 2019 at 10:57 am

    This is so timely. I am a singing teacher, and have recently been wondering about a student who has unusual trouble reading; specifically, sometimes if the next note is going up, she sings down, or she sings a pattern wildly different from the music on the page. She has a very good ear, and a beautiful voice, but I feel she’s not progressing as she could, mostly because the note-reading goes soooo slowly. She prefers to learn a song by ear rather than by using the music, by her own admission. She might be having trouble at school – she has a lot of outside tutoring, though that is not uncommon in this high-achieving region. I haven’t asked her about it directly. I’m wondering if these or the symptoms of what you’re talking about? I will give her some music printed on yellow paper to see if there’s any help there.

  14. Rachel Wilke February 12, 2019 at 11:12 am

    I tried this years ago and found that what color works is a very individual thing. If you get the wrong color it makes it worse and even more unreadable. I developed a severe focusing problem after a MMR vaccine reaction when I was going to go to college and it caused something similar to dyslexia. I tried vision therapy and tinted lens which helped a little. However, the doctor said that for each person with the dyslexia or focusing problem the color needed can be different and different shades of the same color can make it better or worse. They suggested buying a multicolor pack of those overlays and experimenting with each color then layering the colors. He did say not to judge the color needed by the name of the disease and he had a whole business doing tinted glasses and overlays..

  15. Rachel Wilke February 12, 2019 at 11:14 am

    I have used it successfully at times but it doesn’t always work. For the kids it does work for I sometimes print their flashcards in the same color as well. That is a good article and I hope it helps a lot of struggling teachers and students.

  16. Dr. Janet Soller February 12, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    Hi Wendy. Thanks for your great work.

    Teachers should understand, plastic colored transparencies are NOT the overlays necessary for Dyslexia.
    Please only purchase them at Irlen. I bought the variety colored package because the different colors work differently for students with dyslexia. It’s best to try which color works for the student.

    I’ve also found that you often have to educate the school teachers and the parents about overlays as well.

    Thanks again for a great post.

  17. Wendy Stevens February 12, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    Thanks for that extra info, Rachel! It is very helpful. Im so sorry that you’ve struggled with the issues in your adult life!

  18. Emily February 12, 2019 at 12:19 pm

    I currently do not have any students with dyslexia, but I know for a fact that the Irlen lenses/over lays, and even copying on a different colored paper really works.
    Up until this past Sept. I have not only taught piano out of my home, but was also a teacher’s aide at my kids’ private school. Our principal is trained to test kids for Irlen lenses. We have had quite a few kids coming through that school with issues of not being able to read, write, etc. and once they got those glasses, for some, it was a night and day difference. It wasn’t dyslexia, per say, but what was happening to the words etc when they looked at the page.
    My son was having issues with everything being blurry and has always suffered from headaches, and yet, his eye sight was more than 20/20, so we had him tested for Irlen. We never got him the glasses, but he had a few overlay combinations put together that he would put over his school work and that made things better for him. His teacher also would print everything up for him on a lightly colored piece of paper, whereas everyone else was on white.
    In school, every classroom has the fluorescent lights and everything is printed on bright white paper. I know I’d be seeing things if I was working under those conditions all the time.

  19. Melinda February 12, 2019 at 1:10 pm

    My flute professor did some research with this and had the most luck with light green-she copied music onto light green copy paper and my friends with dyslexia really liked it. She actually would have each dyslexic student experiment with different colors to see what worked best for them. Most were green, but there were a few yellow and one that preferred lavender.

  20. Val February 12, 2019 at 2:35 pm

    My daughter was diagnosed with the Irlen Syndrome at 10 years old.
    One of the things that shocked me during her testing was that she saw the lines of the music staff as wavy and moving up and down. By this point she had taken 5 years of Music Lessons. I now understood why school, piano, etc. was so very hard for her. I knew that she had developed a very good ear for music and she was excellent at memorization which both helped her compensate for the vision difficulty.
    Once we found the correct color for her and she got her Irlen glasses, learning – whether at school or music – became a very different experience for her!
    She started out with a bluish color, but when she became a teenager her color actually changed to a grey color. We were told that the changes in the body can, also, change the color that works for the child.
    Children that struggle with learning, paying attention, and many other issues often are dealing with underlying symptoms that are not accurately diagnosed.

  21. Jo Anne Wroblewski February 12, 2019 at 5:17 pm

    I have an adult student who had really been struggling as we got into more difficult music. It was only after she told me that sometimes she mixed her letters, had lots of difficulty with math as a child and that organizing her life in general was nearly impossible, that I started putting things together. She has never been formally diagnosed with dyslexia. We talked about the use of yellow overlays; she was very creative in putting on sunglasses with yellow lenses, also claiming that things don’t move around so much. In our emails to each other, she finds that using a deep pink really helps with reading. I used to be a stickler with her regarding fingering, but now that I know a little more about her difficulties, I focus less on that and am happy she gets the right notes. I am grateful for any improvements, slowly, but surely.

  22. Christy February 13, 2019 at 7:00 am

    Great information from the article and all the comments! The biggest deal for me is getting my parents to let me know if the student has any kind of learning hurdle. I even ask on my questionaire if I need to know anything about how the students learns. A few years ago I didn’t find out that one of my students had dislexia until after he was done with piano to start band. Golly, had I known, I could have tried some different tactics like these overlays. Also, thanks for the links as to where to obtain these.

  23. Kristi Negri February 13, 2019 at 10:22 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Wendy, and for creating a forum for this discussion. Years ago, (I think it’s Sarah Lyngra) Yellowcat Publishing started producing materials with different colors for each note. While I don’t go so far as to use only materials in color, over the years, I have students who definitely benefit from coloring the stems of notes. With some of them, it’s night and day. Side benefit, it also helps them to learn the notes. All Gs green, Bs brown, etc.. Sometimes it really isn’t obvious, for example, that the note they are looking at is the one they were on two notes before. Coloring the stems really helps that pattern recognition. I believe I have also read about visual development where the condition this helps is sometimes outgrown. I’m on my way to look into these overlays!

  24. Hannah Weston February 13, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    Really fascinating article, Wendy and thank you to all who took the time to write out their personal experiences. I do not have any students with dyslexia at the moment, but this information has been really valuable. Thank you!

  25. Wendy Stevens February 18, 2019 at 8:02 am

    Hi Barbara,

    I asked Cappy about this and she said that she knew a teacher that used buff colored paper and it did seem to help. I also had another teacher email in response to this article and said that she did the same thing…using colored paper…and it did seem to help. That’s really handy when you are dealing with studio licensed music that you can print from your computer.

    The nice thing about the overlays though is that they can just move it from piece to piece.

    I hope that helps!

  26. Wendy Stevens February 21, 2019 at 11:51 am

    Quick update everyone…Cappy emailed me and said she had ordered some from Amazon that were too dark, so be aware that there are different degrees of overlays.

    She also said that she found some at Office Depot that “are like manila file folders with a tab for writing but I cut them apart to make two sheets. Light blue, lavender, etc.”

    Hope that helps!

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