Matt Overcomes Hyperactivity and Learns to Read

Jo Anna Shaw, author, poet, and Mind-Body coach, incorporates Brain Gym and other movements in her transformational work.

After doing a few Educational Kinesiology balances with Matt’s mother, which included Repatterning* and other activities from Brain Gym**, I was invited to her home to see what I might be able to do to help her six-year-old, Matt.

She wanted to take him off Ritalin, which had been prescribed to manage his hyperactivity. More importantly, she wanted him to be reading at grade level when he entered the first grade at the end of the summer. I made no promises and suggested she invest in several balances to see if he would be willing to do some Brain Gym activities.

An important factor in getting cooperation from a child, as well as the desired results, is the child’s willingness to be better at something.

Matt wasn’t interested in reading or sitting still. In spite of his taking the Ritalin, I had to follow him around the house and yard as I got to know him. Matt was climbing in a tree and I was sitting on the grass when I asked him what he thought I was there for. He responded with an “I don’t know” shoulder shrug. I told him I was there to help him grow a more powerful brain. Then I asked him what he would like to be better at. He said, “Gymnastics!” and came down to show me how he did cartwheels.

A sample of Matt’s artwork – April.

As part of our play, I handed him one of his books and asked him to show me how he reads. He looked at a page, put the book down and proceeded to show me some more of his gymnastics. We took turns doing activities. Mine were all Brain Gym activities and neurodevelopmental movements. Eventually, he was able to do a Three Dimension Repatterning process* with my guidance.

The Results were Remarkable. I played with Matt, once a week in the month of May, in much this same way. His mother played with him a few minutes every day as well, doing some of the Brain Gym activities I taught her—what we in Edu-K call “homeplay.” In a short time, he began sitting more comfortably for longer periods of time and sharing daily reading time with his mother as well.

 

In addition to this remarkable shift from April to June of the same year, his mother reported that she took him off his meds in the summer and never started him back on them. By the time he returned to school in the fall he was reading at grade level. Δ

Notice the before (above left) and after (below) artwork from Matt’s journal.

A sample of Matt’s artwork in June.

*In Edu-K, Dennison Laterality Repatterning and Three Dimension Repatterning—both processes taught in the course Brain Gym 101: Balance for Daily Life—is used in teaching learners to notice and integrate side-side, up-down, and back-front movement skills.

**The Brain Gym activities are described in depth, along with suggested applications, in Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition (2010), by Paul and Gail Dennison, ©2010, Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc., Ventura, CA. Inspiration for the activities was drawn from many sources, including Developmental Optometry, dance, long distance running, child development, the postural work of F.M. Alexander, the Touch for Health process, and the Dennison’s own inventiveness. The Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition and Brain Gym activity cards can both be purchased at Brain Gym Bookstore.

About Jo Anna Shaw
Jo Anna’s joy is empowering adults and children to move through life and learning challenges into their full potential. The foundation of her Mind-Body Coaching® practice is Educational Kinesiology (Edu-K for short). An author and poet, Jo Anna published Design and Live the Life YOU Love: A Guide for Living in Your Power and Fulfilling Your Purpose (foreword by Paul Dennison, Ph.D., and Gail Dennison). This self-empowerment resource is designed to enhance a reader’s ability to see and communicate with love. Learn more by visiting www.joannashaw.net.

© 2017 by Jo Anna Shaw. All rights reserved.

* Brain Gym® is a trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of an instructor near you. 

 

 

 

Reading Is the “Hearing” of Written-Down Language

In our Brain Gym® work with early reading, we like to say that reading is the “hearing” of written-down language. Similarly, William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well (2015), points out that “Writing is thinking on paper.” Based on my 45 years as a reading specialist and movement educator, I agree, and would add that writing and reading go hand in hand. The more comfortable children are with writing (and thus with thinking and expressing themselves), the better readers and learners they’ll become.

Writing and storytelling develop thinking skills and guide children to a love of reading.

Writing and storytelling develop thinking skills and guide children to a love of reading.

Early in my teaching experience, I realized that a big part of what makes us human is the desire to tell stories and otherwise express our experiences. Language is something not to take apart, but to put together—something by which we create connections with others.

This is why, in working with thousands of youngsters of varying abilities, I’ve never sat next to a child and listened to her decode symbols or sound out words as a reading process.  For me, teaching children to passively analyze words and symbols rather than actively hear and think about the meanings they represent would be making the code more important than the language it signifies.

I first discovered this in the 1970s during my doctoral studies, when I was introduced to the work of Russell G. Stauffer, a professor of education at the University of Delaware. Stauffer cogently pointed out in his book The Language-Experience Approach to the Teaching of Reading: “Creative writing may be defined as a composition that reflects a child’s own choice of words, ideas, order, spelling, and punctuation.”

Children can learn to "think on paper" by illustrating and talking about their experiences, and by reading their own made-up stories that a grownup has written down for them, or that they write down for themselves.

Children can learn to “think on paper” by illustrating and talking about their experiences, and by reading their own made-up stories that a grownup has written down for them, or that they write down for themselves.

For many years, at my learning centers, younger children would be busy making books—drawing pictures and then dictating autobiographical stories that I would write down for them. Sometimes they would listen, to books or to other descriptive literature and poetry, as I read aloud. The older children (eight and up) might be mastering cursive script while writing down, for themselves, their favorite words or their own imaginative stories.

As I studied with developmental optometrists, I began to understand my purpose as that of helping learners become comfortable enough in their physiology to seek out new challenges. So, before each lesson, or if a child felt stuck, we would do a few Brain Gym activities* such as the Cross Crawl, Lazy 8s, and the Double Doodle to activate whole-body movement, centralized vision and eye-teaming, hand-eye coordination, and other physical skills.

Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D., reading specialist and cocreator of Educational Kinesiology and the Brain Gym program

Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D., reading specialist and cocreator of Educational Kinesiology and the Brain Gym program

Day by day, I observed and facilitated. I saw that each of these children was actively exercising a flow of visual, auditory, tactile, and gross-motor as well as fine-motor abilities. As they wrote and read, they were learning to listen to their own thoughts and the thoughts of other writers—“hearing” the written-down language as they read it back, and so reading it with comprehension and expression. Each hour brought pleasurable challenges and ahas as they constructed ways to integrate these skills through practice and exploration.

Today, Brain Gym activities are used internationally and cross-culturally. One important use made of them is to teach those physical skills that invite a confluence of listening to the words of others, speaking one’s own thoughts, expressing oneself through pen on paper, and reading the written language of published authors as well as the writings of other students.

 

*The Brain Gym activities are described in Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, by Paul and Gail Dennison, ©2010, Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc., Ventura, CA. 

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolfe, © 2007, HarperCollins.

I Already Know How to Read: A Child’s View of Literacy, Prisca Martens, 1996, Heinemann. This valuable little book offers Marten’s insights as a professor of language education on her three-year observation of her daughter Sarah’s self-initiated exploration of reading and writing from ages two through five. This view can help us recognize the ways children (in our modern world, surrounded by written media) are naturally literate, and how they will “invent” writing and reading on their own, when given the opportunity. Informative reading and writing samples present Sarah as a natural inquirer who actively constructs symbols.

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, © Iain McGilchrist, 2012, Yale University Press.

Photo Credits:
ID 55829126 © Dmitry Kalinovsky | Dreamstime.com
ID 61438275 © Wavebreakmedia Ltd | Dreamstime.com

© 2016 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of an instructor near you. 

You might also enjoy:

In Celebration of Handwriting

A Message Across Time

Why I Love Teaching Double Doodle Play

Double Doodle Play Brings Emotional Harmony Following a Stroke

How Reading Is Like Playing Soccer

A child's self-chosen goal is a great motivator, and teaching for transfer of learning is not difficult when the focus is on physical skills, such as eye-teaming.

A child’s self-chosen goal is a great motivator, and teaching for transfer of learning is not difficult when the focus is on physical skills, such as eye-teaming.

Ramon, 11, walked into my office with a positive attitude, ready to learn. He was there with his mother, to get help with his reading. I told him that our session would be about him and his life, and that his immediate goal could include more than reading comprehension. When I mentioned sports, his eyes lit up. “Can you help me with soccer? I’d really like to do better when I play.”

I often find that improvement in a sport serves as a motivating goal for those who also need to improve an academic skill. “The very same skills that you need for reading, you need for soccer,” I replied. “You need to be alert, in tune with all your senses, and continuously moving forward and looking ahead—anticipating what will happen next.”

Ramon’s mother, Monika, had told me on the phone that her son had been diagnosed with high-functioning autism. According to his teachers, his main difficulties were with memory, organization, and receptive and expressive language. Ramon worked so hard, she said, that he made the honor roll despite mediocre test scores.

I had responded that in Edu-K we focus on learning as a dynamic process. We’re interested in what a child can do, not what he can’t do, so we don’t have any reason to refer back to static measurements, such as test scores or a label that’s been placed on him. We help the learner acknowledge what he’s already able to do, and guide him in taking a few solid steps forward. Our work is to draw out each individual’s natural abilities through movement-based education that allows him to continue learning on his own.

Ramon had been introduced to the Brain Gym work when he was in kindergarten, with encouraging results, both academically and socially, at that time. As a five-year-old, he had eagerly done Brain Gym activities in the car every morning on the way to school. Monika was now revisiting Brain Gym because she and Ramon had seen such good results before.

Ramon’s new goal was “To play and read with active attention to what’s happening all around me.” During the pre-activity of kicking the soccer ball, he was hesitant and unsteady on his feet, losing his sense of balance and kicking the ball off to the right.

This youngster, like many analytic readers, is focusing in his right visual field in order to avoid crossing the visual midline.

This youngster, like many analytic readers, is focusing in his right visual field in order to avoid crossing the visual midline.

When reading, he pronounced every syllable accurately, reading in his right visual field and using a finger to point sequentially, from left to right, to each word. According to Edu-K assessments, he was not accessing his left visual field.

Many parents and educators interpret this kind of excessive phonetic analysis as good reading, and assume that children will grow out of it. My finding is that youngsters who first succeed in reading in this analytic way rarely make a shift to whole language without being given express instruction to do so.

For example, when I asked Ramon what the paragraph he’d just read was about, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Can I read it again?” Such a request isn’t unusual. I find that, prior to a balance for comprehension, people of all ages often need to read a paragraph two or more times to understand it.

I asked Ramon instead to do an experiment with me by choosing an activity from the Learning Menu wall poster. He selected Three Dimension Repatterning*. I knew this process would be well suited to his goal, as it would help integrate his proprioceptive “movement map” in all three dimensions: left and right, up and down, and forward and backward.

The pre-activity for the repatterning gave me a chance to show Ramon that, while being attentive, he was able to cross the participation midline in the forward-and-back motion, but not when grounding himself in the up-and-down motion or when moving laterally, as he needed to do when tracking the ball (or reading left to right). I explained that, on the playing field, this overfocused movement pattern might make him feel hypervigilant, unstable, or easily confused. Similarly, when he was reading or simply sitting, he might be zeroing in too much, at the expense of feeling comfortable and secure in his body. Ramon seemed to understand.

After the balance, I kicked the ball to Ramon and he kicked it down the center of the room with focus and precision, without falling backward or losing his balance as had happened the first time. I could see that he was more alert, eager to participate, and more ready to move in any direction.

The visual assessment now showed him to be accessing both left and right visual fields, as well as the midfield, where binocularity occurs. When he read this time he was actively involved in the story—both receptively and expressively—clearly listening to the words as he spoke them and anticipating their meaning. He read fluently without finger pointing and elaborated on the story, in his own words, with accuracy.

Monika was thrilled about the difference in Ramon’s understanding and approach, saying how grateful she felt for such an incredible system, and how happy she was to see him “really reading now!” She and Ramon promised to do Brain Gym Homeplay** together every day, including PACE, Neck Rolls, Lazy 8s, Think of an X, Balance Buttons, Earth Buttons, Space Buttons, the Energy Yawn, and the Positive Points.

Paul outdoors head*Three Dimension Repatterning, taught in Brain Gym 101: Balance for Daily Life, offers a simple movement experience in which learners discover habits of “switching off” one of the three planes of movement in order to use another.

**The Brain Gym activities are described in Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, by Paul and Gail Dennison, ©2010, Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc., Ventura, CA. 

Photo Credits: © Dreamsnjb | Dreamstime.com – Boy With Soccer Ball At Sunset Photo and © Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com – Young Boy Reading Book At Home

For a Spanish translation of this article, click here: Leer es como jugar al fútbol

© 2015 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of an instructor near you. 

Build a Robot Dog! Literacy in Action: A 5-Year-Old Shows Us How

The Robot Dog, as my grandson built him.

The Robot Dog, as my grandson built him.

Our five-year-old grandson recently visited, and we were enjoying all kinds of good play. At one point, he and I looked at the pictures in a book he had about robots, and we saw a colorful drawing of a robot dog. My grandson and I like to make paper crafts that move (automata), and this looked like the perfect thing. “Do you think we could make our own robot dog?” I asked. “We would just need a wheel—maybe a lid from something . . .” He nodded enthusiastically, so I opened the craft box and began sorting through the recycle items; asking him what he thought would work for a body, a head, and so on. He looked up thoughtfully and said: “Oh, I know how Grandma! Do you have some white paper? First I have to write the instructions.”

I know it’s important for youngsters to be able to carry their own creative projects through from the concrete to the abstract, and back again to the concrete. So I quickly put my own ideas aside, letting him guide the project. I got the paper and sat down next to him, listening intently to see how (or if) I would be invited to participate. My grandson began scribing some strange marks on the page. In a few minutes, his “writing” was complete (see his numbered schematic, below).

My grandson's schematic for the Robot Dog.

My grandson’s schematic for the Robot Dog.

He held up his instructions and pointed to each step as he thoughtfully explained it. (Below, I’ve written out my version of his verbal “instructions,” next to the photos of how he implemented them):

Steps 5 & 9, somehow omitted from my above photo.

Steps 5 & 9, somehow omitted from my above photo.

1. First you need a lid to make the wheel. Use a scissors to poke a hole in the lid. (He found two apple juice lids in the craft box; we put them back to back. Since the scissors wouldn’t work for poking a hole through metal, I got to do that job with a hammer and nail.)

1. Wheel (lid); scissors (upper left) to poke the hole.

1. Wheel (lid); scissors (upper left) to poke the hole.

2. Next, use a cardboard tube for the dog’s body. Make a slit to put a bendy stick (pipe cleaner) through.

2. Use scissors to make a slit in a cardboard TP tube.

2. Use scissors to make a slit in a cardboard TP tube.

3. Poke the bendy stick through the hole in the wheel and through the slit in the cardboard. (My grandson later changed his mind about the slit, and simply wrapped the pipe cleaner around, instead).

3. Use a bendy stick to attach the wheel to the cardboard tube.

3. Use a bendy stick to attach the wheel to the cardboard tube.

4. Scotch tape 2 straws to his body: one for his neck; one for his tail. Use tape and construction paper to cover one of the holes in the cardboard roll.

4. Tape a straw to the TP tube.

4. Tape a straw to the TP tube.

 

Your Robot Dog will look something like this as you complete steps 1 - 4.

Your Robot Dog will look something like this as you complete steps 1 – 4.

5. Make the Robot Dog’s head out of construction paper; tape it to the straw. Use scotch tape and construction paper to cover the hole at the other end of the cardboard tube.

5. Make the Robot Dog's head. Add a paper to cover the holes in the TP tube.

5. Make the Robot Dog’s head. Add a paper to cover the holes in the TP tube.

6. Make his ears (construction paper).

After making the head and ears (5, 6).

After making the head and ears (5, 6).

6. Use scissors to make your Robot Dog some ears.

6. Use scissors to make your Robot Dog some ears.

7. For your dog’s tail, use construction paper to make a round circle and tape it to the straw.

7. Make your dog a tail.

7. Make your dog a tail.

 

Blue construction paper makes a great pom pom for the tail (7).

Blue construction paper makes a great pom pom for the tail (7).

8. For your Robot Dog’s instrument panel, make three dots on one side of his body.

8. Add 3 dots (the instrument panel).

8. Add 3 dots (the instrument panel).

9. He’s ready to go for a spin!

9. The completed Robot Dog, ready to roll!

9. The completed Robot Dog, ready to roll!

Later, my grandson made a bone and bed (below) for his Robot Dog.

Every dog needs a bone.

Every dog needs a bone.

My grandson told me that he has a new pet goldfish, Rennie, that he won at the fair. “And now,” he said, “I have two pets: Rennie and my Robot Dog!”

A bed for the Robot Dog.

A bed for the Robot Dog.

My addendum: My grandson has all the preliteracy skills in place. He loves to move and play. He enjoys conversing. He loves books, likes being read to, and delights in making up his own stories. He likes three-dimensional crafts, and enjoys using his hands and eyes to explore and create things. He has an active imagination: it took him only seconds to visualize how he would make the Robot Dog, and only a few minutes to write out the sequence in his shorthand way—less time than it took to actually make the Robot Dog. He’s curious about making and translating symbols, and knows how to hold a pencil correctly. Our daughter said to be sure to mention that he plays with Legos, and likes to “read” the instructions.

Perhaps most important was that, without any help, he first got the big picture and then was able to use symbols to put his thoughts into a detailed, linear sequence for later reference. In Edu-K and Brain Gym®, this is what we mean by whole-brain learning: the ability to perceive the big picture and be challenged by it while filling in the significant details. When applied to reading, this involves giving youngsters opportunities to have meaningful experiences with language and letting them take ownership of the creative writing process (as my grandson did with his symbols), thereby building a powerful motivation for learning to read and write.

You’ll notice that, although he sometimes reverses numbers, we call no attention to it. This is normal for his age; (in the 3-D world, a chair is still a chair, whether it is facing to the left or to the right.) As he transitions to using abstract symbols for writing, if he continues to reverse numbers, when the time comes, we’ll do a few minutes of Lazy 8s or Alphabet 8s (oriented to numbers) with him, so that he can experience the left/right difference as it applies to 2-D symbols. In any event, our focus is on learning as a synthesizing experience, especially for young learners, rather than an analytic one. Generally speaking, we find it best to let learners follow their creative flow, then hold any discussion of details aside for a separate lesson (such as an Edu-K balance or activity session).

We had fun rolling the Robot Dog around, giving him his bone, and putting him to bed.

We had fun rolling the Robot Dog around, giving him his bone, and putting him to bed.

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
―Albert Einstein

For more articles on the importance of movement, imagination, and visual skills to beginning literacy, see
Reading Is a Miracle
Independent Reading: A Path to Self-Initiated Learning
How Play Can Nurture the Imaginal World: A Photo Journal

© 2014 by Gail E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of an instructor near you.

 

How Play Can Nurture the Imaginal World: A Photo Journal

A spotted dog stands on the rocks, looking out into the distance.

A spotted dog stands on the rocks, looking out into the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. —Albert Einstein

About a month ago, my 10-year old granddaughter, H., came by for her Wednesday after-school visit. As often happens, we sat and talked for awhile, drew pictures, then spent some time playing outdoors. Later in the afternoon, H. became immersed in quiet yet active play in the living room, while I took the opportunity to catch up on my own things.

It seems that the dog is standing guard, keeping his eye on a scrawny grey cat and a fluffy white  one as they meet next to a bird cage. The cats have positioned themselves atop two strange, mythic creatures (my plant stands).

It seems that the dog is standing guard at a distance, keeping his eye on a thin grey cat and a fluffy white one as they meet next to a bird cage. The cats have positioned themselves atop two strange, mythic creatures (my plant stands).

The two cats face one another and stand their ground.

The two cats face one another and stand their ground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A day or so after this, I noticed that H. had moved several medium-sized rocks from where I had them in front of the living room fireplace, and had carefully set them up, along with the small figure of a dog, near the window seat (all things she has done before). I started to put these things back in order, but something about their specificity gave me pause. I realized that the dog was positioned to be looking at something a couple of feet away. When I stepped back to get the bigger picture, I was immediately drawn into an imaginal world. (Check out the photos above to see the key features of the scenario that H. had created, and below for those that she added just this week.)

A Griffin (or a mountain) appears to be a backdrop for the action.

A mythical Griffin (or a mountain?) appears to be a backdrop for the action.

 

 

 

 

I love playing with my grandchildren. I’m also delighted when I see them involved in their own imaginal play, especially when it reaches beyond the confines of toys and games, and into everyday spaces. I know that adults can support children in crossing the threshold into their inner world by providing a quiet space and making available some simple things, often from nature, that they can explore on their own. When a child can enter that make-believe realm, they discover a place belonging uniquely to them. Here, any found object can take on a new meaning.

The grey cat stands alongside a red dinosaur.

The grey cat stands alongside a red dinosaur.

 

 

 

 

 

This inner place is not at all a passive rethinking of something seen on a screen. Yes, it might begin with fantasy, but it soon becomes grounded in something else—an active, connected exploration of inner feelings, sensations, and symbols; a way to bring these into greater congruency. It seems to me that it’s this love of an inner sequencing (not necessarily in words) that helps children sort their feelings and explore their place in the world. And it’s this personal “narrative” that will surely call children into the world of reading. In this case, I immediately felt that what I was seeing was the very reason this kind of play is so valuable, and an example of how children love to invent and elaborate their own stories.

Four little chicks rest in a wooden cradle.

Four little chicks rest in a wooden cradle.

So I left the stones and animals there. Nothing happened for awhile and I didn’t think about them. And then this week—some four weeks later—I had the honor of seeing how this timeless saga was continued, as H. played for over an hour in that same location: Here’s a cradle of tiny chicks . . . a robin, sitting at the foot of a Griffin (or is this a mountain?) and carrying a frog on her back as she looks after the chicks. The grey cat has joined a dinosaur on top of the Griffin’s sunglasses—or is that a mountain ledge? And the dog continues to gaze calmly out over it all.

A spotted frog rides on the back of the Robin, as she watches over the chicks.

A spotted frog rides on the back of the Robin, as she watches over the chicks.

I have only a glimpse of the world H. was exploring, but can see its signs in this one by the way she uses language, expresses her feelings, coordinates her movement and centralizes her vision as she organizes her play, and in so many other ways. Although all these skills can be taught, as we do through the simple movements of Edu-K and Brain Gym®, it’s also wonderful to learn them first-hand through active explorations of the world around us. I’m confident that this inner world H. is building will continue to hold a motivating fire for reading, writing, and even learning itself. I trust you’ll enjoy the glimpse as I do.


 

 

Author’s note: My thoughts on imagination began to take root in a course I developed in 1986 called Visioncircles, where participants explore eight spheres of perceptual awareness, “Internalization” (symbolic representation) being the sixth. (I borrowed this idea of Internalization from psychologist Jean Piaget, who described Internalization as the last of the sensorimotor stage, where toddlers begin to think symbolically, solve motor problems, and use language.

For more about how imagination and symbolic representation contribute to literacy, see I Already Know How to Read: A Child’s View of Literacy, by Prisca Martens.

For more about the play state, see:
Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan, 2010;

Playing by Heart: The Vision and Practice of Belonging by O. Fred Donaldson, 1993;

and the classic, Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce, 1992.

© 2014 by Gail E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of a Brain Gym® or Visioncircles instructor near you.

 

Reading Is a Miracle

Paul E. Dennison, Reading Specialist and Developer of Educational Kinesiology and Brain Gym®

Paul E. Dennison, Reading Specialist and Developer of Educational Kinesiology and Brain Gym®

In my 45 years as a reading teacher, I’ve never sat next to a child and listened to him decode symbols or sound out words. And that’s because, for me, this would be making the code more important than the language it represents.

At my learning centers, the children were always busy making books—telling stories that I wrote down for them that they then drew pictures for. Sometimes they would listen to these books, or to other descriptive literature and poetry, as I read aloud. Or they might be learning cursive handwriting while writing down their own life stories for themselves. These children were actively exercising their visual, auditory, motoric, and tactile skills, and constructing ways to integrate these into their own functioning.

A big part of what makes us human is our desire to tell stories and otherwise express ourselves. Language is something not to take apart, but to put together—something by which we create connections with our world. Through our planet’s long history, our ancestors drew pictures that later became an alphabet, in order to record, recall, and communicate their experiences. Reading is the miracle that resulted from these marks and symbols. Codes were created and agreed upon that could later be decoded by others in order to pass on the culture to the next generation. Every child who learns to read and write recreates this miracle.

Yet humankind has long assumed that reading capability is inherent to all children. We forget that reading isn’t a natural function to which we’re born, but one that must be learned. A child identified as having dyslexia, a perceived difficulty in learning to read, doesn’t have a medical problem—he has simply not yet experienced the relationship of language to his own drawings or marks on the paper. He hasn’t yet discovered how to invent his own reading and so create his own miracle.

Reading, the decoding and neural encoding of written alphabetic symbols for their meaning, is a human invention that reflects how the brain rearranges itself in order to process written speech. “Human beings were never born to read,” writes Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and child development expert, in her remarkable book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, who goes on to explain how reading evolved over millennia—from the decoding of cave drawings, to symbols that became an alphabetic code, to the complex sentence forms that we read today.

Wolf understands reading as we do in Edu-K—as the creation and mastery of a lexical symbolic code that represents experience for later recall or re-imagination. Reading, a totally man-made ability that has helped create the human brain of today, entails much more than focusing on linear input, one word or phoneme at a time. Wolf suggests that “the evolution of writing and the development of the reading brain give us a remarkable lens on ourselves as a species, as the creators of many oral and written language cultures and as individual learners with different and expanding forms of intelligence.”

The brain has no center or location for the function of reading as it has for seeing, listening, moving, and touching. The miracle of reading requires the interconnection of many separate and specific neural locations. Through an engaged exploration of symbols, each child teaches himself as his brain automatically makes these connections.

Not all children learn in the same way, and learning to read seems easier for some than for others—just as methods to teach reading work better with some learners than with others.

Xavier, age 8 and in the third grade, appears bright and curious, yet was not keeping up with his classmates at school. When his parents took him to be privately evaluated, he tested as being more than a year behind grade level in reading, writing, and spelling. On a referral, they brought Xavier to see me. Reading for me at my office from his school reading book, he pointed to one word at a time and sounded it out, pronouncing each syllable carefully as his classroom teacher had instructed him to do. When asked to recall and relate what he had read, he was able to remember only one or two isolated words.

An 8-year old boy discovers how drawing, writing, and moving to learn can help him read more easily.

An 8-year old boy discovers how drawing, writing, and moving to learn can help him read more easily.

During his session, Xavier chose from a wall poster the Brain Gym activities he wanted to do. Together we did the Cross Crawl, Lazy 8s, the Calf Pump, the Footflex, Arm Activation, and the Gravity Glider. In the process, his parents and I watched him shift from a passive posture to a more active way of carrying himself and speaking.

To help make reading more meaningful, I invited Xavier to make friends with 15 of his own favorite words. His parents and I shared his excitement as he thought of the words and I wrote them down for him on index cards: elephant, popcorn, airplane, zebra, and so on. Xavier agreed that every day he would trace the letters for each word with his fingers as he said the word aloud and thought about its meaning. By the time he said goodbye that day, he already recognized the words elephant and zebra by sight.

After two weeks of tracing his words and doing Brain Gym activities with his parents, Xavier returned to my office ready to read for me again. I could see by the way he sat and held his book that he was now experiencing a better sense of balance. He was now able to move his eyes to track horizontally across his visual midfield without excessive head movement. He was reading fluently, in the same way that he spoke, rather than focusing on separate phonemes, without effort and with enthusiasm and full comprehension—my definition of reading comprehension. We celebrated a miracle, as Xavier was now able to report back what he read in his own words. How, his parents wondered, did a few simple movements and activities help Xavier to read so much more effectively?

Because learning means adding the new to the old, the natural flow of learning to read begins with the recognition of what we already know. It requires simultaneously holding what is already familiar (stored as a verbal code) and relating new information, coming in, to that associated experience. Reading is first and foremost a flow of communicative language. Visual skills such as pointing the eyes to each word are, though important, incidental to the mental process of reading, and need to be so automatic and stress-free that the auditory-language processes can proceed without inhibition. Meaningful speech must always lead—never follow—the visual analysis of the code.

Effective reading of the code for meaning requires, just as it did for our forebears, the skillful integration of the auditory (say it), visual (see it), kinesthetic (write it), and tactile (feel it) areas of the brain, as well as the ability to interpret such received information as meaningful by relating the new to prior experiences.

When students like Xavier seem dyslexic, analyzing a linear progression of disconnected sounds one word or syllable at a time, and not yet able to immediately recognize those symbols within an expressive language context, they’re lost in the details of deciphering the code and are not even hearing the content. In my work with children diagnosed as dyslexic, I emphasize that reading (and, in fact, all of the language arts skills, including writing and spelling) be experienced on the visual midfield, where the left and right brain hemispheres can be accessed at the same time, for both immediate recognition of the new and the subsequent, almost simultaneous, neural breaking of the code to make it into familiar language.

The miracle of reading requires an instant recognition of new information in a meaningful context, followed by confirmation of the symbols or code, not the other way around as it’s usually taught. Thus the natural flow of learning requires a fresh perception within a context of previous experience. We learn the symbols so well that we hardly ever notice them.

As stated by psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, “the first apprehension of anything is by the right hemisphere while it remains new . . . soon taken over by the left hemisphere where it becomes familiar. Knowledge of the whole is . . . followed by knowledge of the parts.”

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolfe, © 2007, HarperCollins.

I Already Know How to Read: A Child’s View of Literacy, Prisca Martens, 1996, Heinemann. This valuable little book offers Marten’s insights as a professor of language education on her three-year observation of her daughter Sarah’s self-initiated exploration of reading and writing from ages two through five. This view can help us recognize the ways children (in our modern world, surrounded by written media) are naturally literate, and how they will “invent” writing and reading on their own, when given the opportunity. Informative reading and writing samples present Sarah as a natural inquirer who actively constructs symbols.

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, © Iain McGilchrist, 2012, Yale University Press.

Editor’s note: Through his review of the literature of approaches to teaching reading, Paul is well versed in the work of Russell G. Stauffer: The Language-Experience Approach to the Teaching of Reading©1970 and Teaching Reading as a Thinking Process,©1969, Russell G. Stauffer.  

*In Edu-K we keep phonics separate from experiences with reading. For more about our whole language and move to read approach, see: 5 Minutes to Better Reading FluencyIndependent Reading: A Path to Self-Initiated LearningDiscovering the Reading Midfield

To read the Italian translation of this article, La Lettura è un Miracolo, click here.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of an instructor near you.

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