The Cross Crawl: A Remarkable Movement


HeartsatPlay_ResourceSite_HomePage_workinaction_cross-crawlWatch someone do her first Cross Crawl* and what do you see? For people of any age, doing this activity inevitably brings a smile as they begin to experience the natural ease and rhythm of this integrating movement. Often someone doing the activity will break into a broad grin, pleasurably surprised to be coordinating the whole body at once in a complex movement pattern.

Paul first learned about the possible benefits of doing contralateral movement in the early 1970s during his studies at the University of Southern California, as he reviewed the research literature on the effect of crawling on academic achievement. The experts of that time had concluded that there was no learning advantage to having children replicate the crawling stage by crawling in the classroom.

Yet Paul had been included in several optometric assistant in-services in which he had observed children making immediate improvements in both visual skills and motor coordination after doing a standing contralateral motion that involved hitting a hanging ball. He described discovering firsthand the academic importance of the Cross Crawl in his first book, Switching On: the Whole-Brain Answer to Dyslexia, in the story of teaching this motor skill to a 10th grader who had been diagnosed as dyslexic and who was a student at one of his learning centers: For weeks now, in her tutoring sessions, Judy had been getting coaching in phonics and vocabulary building, yet she continued to struggle, word by word, to decode a fourth-grade level reading book.

The Hopscotch

The Hopscotch

On this day Paul had Judy pause in her reading so he could teach her the Cross Crawl version that he had recently learned. In the few minutes that it took Judy to internalize this contralateral pattern, Paul saw her unsteady and inconsistent motion become smooth, stable, and regular. He then asked her to read again, and heard her voice resounding with confidence, effortless phrasing, word recognition, and comprehension. Judy read like a different person.

How had doing a physical activity made such an immediate and apparent difference in that individual’s cognitive process? One hypothesis Paul formed then has since become more valid for both of us based on similar experiences with thousands of our students: For fluency, readers must be able to cross the visual midline where the left and right visual fields come together, and from where eye movement in any direction is available. The Cross Crawl’s contralateral movement pattern seems to help learners to experience coordinated physical integration as the left and right sides of the body work together. In a basic Cross Crawl or DLR, the hands cross the midline, connecting the tactile, visual, and kinesthetic midfield, where the two sides overlap.

In contemporary literature, it’s also become better understood that the brainstem modulates patterns, and locomotor movements are built on patterns. John Ratey, M.D, postulates that when information is arranged in patterns, it is neurologically more easily processed, retained, and retrieved. We further posit that rhythmic, coordinated movement restores the natural equilibrium lost when learners overfocus on symbols and phonetic elements—the decoding aspect of reading—thus inhibiting encoding and the ability to hear the story as whole language with meaningful words and phrasing. Ideally, the encoding of language provides a context for decoding—not the other way around.

The Monkey

The Monkey

The human body is bilateral, and the sensory organs of eyes and ears function best when accessing the midfield where left and right sensory input overlap, providing a supportive whole-body context for one-sided activities and allowing the two sides to work together instead of inhibiting one to access the other. Consider that children today engage in few activities, besides walking, running, or swimming, that emphasize alternating bilateral motion, and even these three they do less than their parents did. Yet they take part in many activities that are one-sided. The one-sided activities, such as handwriting or using scissors, are important for developing dexterity and specialized skills, yet the use of one side at the expense of the other is quite different from the use of one side while resourcing both. It is this latter way that we teach in Edu-K.

Today’s most common whole-body activities are sitting at a computer or in front of a TV, neither of which is movement-rich. From eating to drawing, writing, moving a mouse, or riding a scooter (for adults, driving), one-sided motions predominate.

The Ice Skater

The Ice Skater

Doing the Cross Crawl supports a number of the elements that benefit a healthy human gait**:

  • alternating left/right movement of both sides of the body
  • a rhythmic shifting of weight between the left and right sides
  • standing balance on one foot as the other leg is lifted (especially when the activity is done in slow motion)
  • strength of quadriceps and hamstrings
  • foot stability (plantar connection to the ground)
  • alternating motion of the arms (in the walking gait, this reciprocity ideally focuses on the backswing, not the forward swing, which is a refinement that can be taught with such Cross Crawl variations as the Hopscotch, in the above illustration)
  • dynamic whole-body relaxation while in motion
  • keeping the toes pointed forward, outsides of the feet parallel
  • the awareness of moving the legs in their proper left/right tracks (at pelvic width)

The Cross Crawl additionally provides a whole-body context to foster:

  • crossing of the midline, as required for eye teaming when reading
  • movement from the body’s midfield, where the left and right hemispheres work together, instead of inhibition of one side to access the other
  • muscle proprioception of the body’s weight and motion in gravity, needed to develop a spatial map and orientation for movement in all directions

This dance-like movement, when done within a group, can help build social bonds:

  • people doing the Cross Crawl together most often begin to do the movement in synchrony
  • physical movement is one vital way by which we connect with our surroundings and ground ourselves in a social environment.

For many years the dance-like Cross Crawl has been Paul’s and my daily practice. We also enjoy doing it as we do the four PACE activities, for work, teaching, or simply before a long walk. We hear that, worldwide, more and more children are enjoying the Cross Crawl as they, too, take a quick break from sitting to rediscover their whole-body movement. What a wonderful way to celebrate our movement and aliveness!


Note:  In the late 1970s, Paul and I also learned more about the Cross Crawl through our studies of the Touch for Health book and courses, developed by John Thie, DC. However, it was the optometric work and crossing of the midline that initially inspired Paul to develop Dennison Laterality Repatterning and to discover how to use the Cross Crawl activity to teach more effective movement and reading skills.

* The Cross Crawl is one of of the 26 Brain Gym® activities described in Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, © 2010.

* Some people initially find it a challenge to access the complex coordination required for doing the Cross Crawl activity. If so, you may want to find someone who knows Dennison Laterality Repatterning (DLR), a simple process used to teach this level of integration so it becomes automatic. The DLR process is included in the course, Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life and is also offered by instructors through private session work. Click here for the name of an instructor near you.

**The Movement Dynamics course, © Dennison and Dennison, 1990 and 2006, includes 30 Cross Crawl variations, accessing three movement dimensions and taught in improvisational and dance-like sequences. The illustrations included in this article are from the manual, © Gail E. Dennison.

***References on the human gait:
Katy Bowman. Alignment Matters: The First Five Years of Katy Says. Propriometrics Press, 2013.

Michael Whittle. Gait Analysis: An Introduction. Butterworth-Heinemann, 4th edition, 2007.

Guertin, Pierre A. Central Pattern Generator for Locomotion: Anatomical, Physiological, and Pathophysiological Considerations. Frontiers in Neurology. 2012;3: 183. (Research on generation and modulation of rhythmic locomotor patterns.)

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

Cramming, or Relaxed Test Taking? Succeeding at the College Level, a third-year college student, summarized his recent private session with me in this way: “I’m thinking about the midterm now without having a knot in my stomach. I can see that it’s only a test—no problem. I know the material in a new way.”

According to the American Dream 2.0* report, 46 percent of college students fail to graduate within six years. Many of these are gifted individuals with much to offer society, yet apparently the stress of competing in an academic environment with tedious reading assignments, driving demands for term papers, and the need to cram for comprehensive exams can be so overwhelming that it breaks the spirit of many.

Tyler was referred to me by his college advisor, who had suggested that a Brain Gym® session might help him get back on track with his academic program. On the phone, Tyler said he had been an all “A” student who consistently did well in his reading and test scores throughout high school and his first college years. Adept at using his iPad and computer, and a fast typist, he had recently hit an impasse and was rereading his nightly assignments two or three times in order to understand and remember the material.

When Tyler arrived for his session, he explained that in the last few weeks he had felt tense and often unable to sleep at night. Before exams, he needed to stay up all night rereading his books and cramming, yet when an exam was in front of him he often couldn’t think what to write: “It’s like my brain shuts off and I can’t think or remember.”

Tyler’s goal for the session was to enjoy his studies and remember what he learned, especially during tests. I asked him to read aloud from one of his history textbooks. He read the words without thinking, and then was unable to tell me in his own words about what he’d read.

I used Edu-K’s 5-Steps to Easy Learning, including seven in-depth assessments, to help Tyler become aware of key aspects of his sensorimotor intelligence. Surprisingly, he was able to cross the midline, which is usually the challenge for readers who word call without thinking. The mechanics of information processing were easy for Tyler. Clearly he had integrated the physical skills for reading, yet he was still finding challenges in meeting the demands of the academic world.

Next I asked Tyler to think of his examinations. He immediately held his breath, and then said he was breaking out in a cold sweat.

“Tyler,” I said, “I can see that you’re bright and capable. Is it possible that the stress at school is getting to you to the point of shutting down your senses and your ability to physically participate?” Tyler agreed that this was a concern for him, and that he had lately become fearful about his memory and his health.

I responded: “Do you get that when your stress level goes up, your ability to think goes out?” I explained that when we’re anxious, often we can’t think and remember because the sympathetic nervous system is preparing us physiologically for a life-threatening danger, like a grizzly bear. We have no time to reflect on the situation or analyze it. We must be ready to either fight for our life or run away. Only when we’ve restored the ability to logically process our circumstances can we let go of the negative stress that we no longer need, coming back to a state of body/mind integration that lets us play, laugh, relate to others, and experience the pleasure inherent in our work.

After he did several Brain Gym activities, the big “aha” came for Tyler when I asked him to think of a test again while holding his Positive Points with his fingertips. The Positive Points are two places on the forehead, above the center of each eye and midway between the hairline and eyebrows. Behind these points are the prefrontal poles, the foremost points of the prefrontal cortex—locus of the executive functions of planning, choice making, and intentional social behavior.

According to John Ratey, MD, and neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg, when the prefrontal cortex is engaged, it helps to regulate the fight-or-flight hyperarousal response.** Holding the Positive Points for a minute or two increases the vascular pulsations (which are palpable) in this area.

After his Positive Points process, Tyler laughed and said that he felt like he was back in his body.

“What happens now when you think of the test?” I asked. Tyler responded, “It’s no big deal. When I did the Positive Points, I could feel my thoughts getting organized in a more cohesive way.”

As Tyler read for a second time, he was anticipating where the text was leading, and afterward his summary showed good comprehension. He commented that he could also now feel the movement of his body, which he had somehow not been doing for a long time (sensation often diminishes during a long-term stress response).

For homeplay, I taught Tyler two more activities from the Brain Gym 26***—Hook-ups and Balance Buttons—that he agreed he could use in calming himself back in the classroom. The Hook-ups activity helps one to slow down and breathe while experiencing the comforting containment of crossed arms and ankles. Balance Buttons help to release tense neck muscles and reestablish the balance of the head over the torso, and so allow one to feel safe moving in space without losing stability.

“Wow. I’m going to do Hook-ups, Balance Buttons, and the Positive Points every day before I study, and especially before exams,” Tyler declared. “Now I can study without freaking out. Maybe I’ll enjoy learning at the same time. That would be awesome!”


* “The American Dream 2.0” report of January 2013 was created by a coalition of educators and leaders and sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more information:

**Ratey, John, with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008, p.159; Goldberg, Elkhonon, The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 119.

***For more information about the Positive Points, Hook-ups and Balance Buttons, as well as the other Brain Gym activities, see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Paul and Gail Dennison, © 2010. To see a photo of the Positive Points and description of how to do the activity, click here.

The photo is © Anniwalz |, used with permission.

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

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


Five Minutes to Better Reading Fluency, age 8 and in the third grade, had been taught how to do Lazy 8s* in his school classroom. (One of 26 Brain Gym® activities, Lazy 8s is done by drawing a large 8 on its side, first with each hand separately and then with both hands together.) When his mother called me to set up a private session, she said that Jared initially liked doing Lazy 8s, as they helped him read better, and he had made some good improvements remembering his words. Yet over the summer, he seemed to have fallen behind in reading. Now that school and homework were beginning again, Jared was reading too slowly to keep up with his daily assignments, and he frequently complained about feeling tired or having his eyes bother him.

I asked Jared’s mother to have him bring to the session a favorite book that he liked reading, and that was easy for him. I talked with Jared about a goal to have more fun reading, and he was enthusiastic about this. I listened to him read as he carefully pronounced each word, one at a time, yet when I asked him what he had just read, he had no recall or understanding of the story content, even with help from the pictures.

Reading is a complex language skill involving the expressive encoding of speech and receptive decoding of listening modalities. Although it involves visual skills, reading is not a visual process. I have been a reading specialist for more than 40 years, and in the 1970s taught phonetic analysis and auditory discrimination daily at my reading centers. I’ve found that, for the thousands of readers of all ages and abilities with whom I’ve worked, auditory skills have rarely been the difficulty. In fact, most young people today have excellent speech and language skills. It’s the visual stress that inhibits language processing while reading.

Experts** tell us that the eye muscles can move as much as 10,000 times in an hour of reading; that means the eyes must be able to refocus effectively in order to take in information without backtracking. When the two eyes don’t point together as they cross the midline*** from the left to the right visual field, it will be easier to avoid the midline than to work on the midfield, where the eyes might see a blur, a double image, or the letter symbols appearing to move on an unstable background.

Even though Jared had done Lazy 8s and other Brain Gym® activities in school, I could see by the way that he moved, sat, and looked around as we talked that he was still avoiding crossing the midline. I asked him to follow my pen light with his eyes as I moved it slowly and horizontally (within reading distance) from left to right across his visual field. As Jared tracked the light back and forth, I perceived a hesitation and a slight adjustment of his head and eyes each time he crossed the midline.

The body’s vertical (lateral) midline describes a specific anatomical plane that runs through the navel, sternum, neck, and center of the head. I find that when learners know how to function in terms of this midline, they experience definitive left, right, and middle visual (and auditory) fields. I understand movement habits to be task specific—changing from one task, such as reading, to another, such as writing. When children are developmentally ready to read, they’re generally able to sit upright and move their eyes left and right without distorting their body or visual field as they shift from one task to another. When they lack this readiness, they often continuously misalign their eyes or body posture in order to adjust to the specific and changing visual and kinesthetic demands of using various tools, such as a book, tablet, computer screen, pen and lined paper, or white board.

Yet I find that young people (or anyone) must discover new movement habits intrinsically, for themselves. “Sitting up straight” cannot really be required or achieved by instruction. As with many things, there’s a difference between knowing what to do and knowing how to do it.

I asked Jared to draw some large Lazy 8s on my office chalkboard. He drew the 8s very quickly and with the center of the 8 in his right visual field, keeping his head turned slightly to the right to avoid the midline. I suggested that we do Lazy 8s together. I guided his hand to help him slow the movement enough that he really needed to focus on his hand motion and align his body’s midline (his sternum) with the midpoint of the Lazy 8. I talked him through the activity, helping him to identify the exact center of the 8 and to distinguish between the image of his hand moving up and over into the left visual field and that of it moving up and over into the right visual field.

I noticed how he moved his eyes. Each time that Jared moved his hand into his left visual field, his eyes would jump or backtrack as they had done earlier when he tracked the pen light. I helped him slow down even more with the upper left part of the 8, giving him time to adjust the teaming of his eyes into the left field. After a few times around both the left and the right sides of the 8, he began to easily anticipate the movement of his hand without his eyes wavering.

Suddenly he looked around the room and said, “Wow. The room just got bigger.” I laughed and said that sometimes when we get our two eyes working together as a team, we “switch on” and see more than we did before. A big part of my work with students is helping them slow down enough to notice changes like this, which, for me, are the real aha moments of learning. Such internalizing experiences create empowered learners who understand the learning process as personal and dynamic—often occurring in a matter of seconds—rather than impersonal and static, and only about the tedious taking in of more and more information.

I told Jared that I sometimes describe doing Lazy 8s as similar to slowly tracing the frame of a pair of large eyeglasses. Tracing the frame reminds us that we have two eyes and that, when we look through left and right lenses, we see both a left and right visual field. What happens when we put the eyeglasses on? We see only one image, the midfield, as the left and right sides meet on our midline, where the glasses sit on our nose. The Lazy 8s movement helps us find the exact center of our left and right fields and how they join to become the overlapping midfield—one single field of attention. This is the bilateral midfield where information processing best takes place.

After this short experience of doing Lazy 8s with understanding, Jared had no more difficulty tracking my pen light and was able to readily identify the midline and access the midfield. When I asked him to read again, he read with expression, speaking the words, phrases, and sentences as if he were simply telling me a story he had just heard.  As I’ve seen with thousands of learners of all ages and abilities, reading is easier and more fun when the eyes and the rest of the body are working together on the midfield. I love the simplicity of Lazy 8s for teaching this skill of awareness.


 *Lazy 8s is one of the Brain Gym® activities, from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, ©2010.

 ** See Research Nugget: Visual Skills and Reading.

***It’s my finding that early decoding for reading instruction, before children’s visual systems and whole-body movement skills have matured enough for near-point binocular focus, can contribute to reading challenges later on. I now teach synthetic phonics only during the spelling lesson; not for sounding out during reading. I want readers to experience the sounds and meaning available through a whole language approach to reading. Although many people doing the Lazy 8s improve their reading skills as quickly as Jared did, not everyone does. Jared had the vestibular balance and gross motor coordination to support his visual system, and was ready to cross his midline for reading.

© 2013 by Paul 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 in your area.

Photo credit: © Ctacik |, used with permission

Learning to Read: The Magic of Words on Paper

HeartsatPlay_ResourceSite_HomePage_workinaction_cross-crawlJosie, age nine and in the third grade, is an attentive student who loves sports, art, and to play outdoors. Reading came late to her, and she has never found it easy. She was tutored early on by her grandmother, Jane, who listened patiently and pronounced for Josie any new word she didn’t recognize. It was Jane who called me to set up a private session for Josie when she noticed that her reading had become more strained this school year.

When we met, I asked Josie what she liked about school. She responded in a halting, stilted way, saying that she liked playing with her friends. Josie then read a paragraph from a book she’d brought with her. I noticed that she read methodically, one word at a time, in a dull, flat monotone.  She knew most of the words, yet struggled along with little apparent enjoyment of the process.

A closer look revealed that Josie was holding the book in her right visual field. I checked her eyes for left-to-right tracking across the visual midfield, where the left and right visual fields overlap and the eyes converge for binocular integration.  Each time we crossed the midline, Josie lost sight of the target, unable to maintain her focus.

For beginning readers, the natural flow of informational learning starts with auditory perception as a child listens to people talking, or to fascinating stories being read or told. Like language, reading is first and foremost a verbal and auditory process. Relating it to prior experiences in memory benefits from integration of the auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile areas of the brain and the ability to interpret such received information as meaningful.

Learning to read requires simultaneously holding what is familiar (stored in words as a verbal code) and relating new information to experiences held in memory. It’s imperative to the learner’s long-term thinking success that the wholeness of language and its meaning is not broken into small, disconnected information bits as he reads. Eye-movement patterns are necessary, yet incidental, to the mental aspect of reading, and need to be so fluid, automatic, and stress-free that the auditory-language processes can proceed without inhibition. Language and meaning must always lead, and never follow, visual input.

Yet, for many, reading is about focusing on linear input, one word or phonetic sound at a time. This is a lesser aspect of reading, and one that, in its overemphasis, teaches excessive eye-pointing and an inaccurate idea of the reading process. This fragmenting of language can affect not only the way a child learns to think, but even their everyday way of speaking, as it had for Josie.

I invited Josie and her grandmother to do some enjoyable movements with me. I played some music, and the three of us put on our Thinking Caps, rubbed our Brain Buttons, did the Cross Crawl, and explored some slow Lazy 8s and the Double Doodle. We completed with Belly Breathing. After about fifteen minutes of the activities, Josie was able to track a moving target of focus with ease and facility, both left to right and right to left, across her reading midfield.

I asked Josie if she felt ready to return to her book, and she started to read again from where she’d left off.  It was like listening to a different person. Josie was now relaxed, and was telling us the story in her own natural speaking voice, with fully animated expression and obvious comprehension of where the narrative was headed.

“What was that about?” I asked. This time, Josie was able to answer without hesitation, easily turning her thoughts into fluent and meaningful language.

Jane was amazed. “How long will this last?” she asked. I told her that, like all physical skills, if this new way of reading is fully learned and becomes a new habit, it will last indefinitely. Josie will now prefer to read by staying in the midfield instead of avoiding it.

To reinforce the new skill, I recommended as homeplay the Thinking Cap, the Double Doodle, and Lazy 8s before and after reading, so Josie could quickly orient her body to her auditory and visual midfield to assure a happy reading experience every time. When they said goodbye, Josie and her grandmother told me they were looking forward to doing the activities together at home.


See also Discovering the Reading Midfield

Research Nugget: Visual Skills and Reading

Reading a printed page presents its own issues, as there is much more to reading than simply looking at an object. Experts have said that the eye muscles can move nearly 10,000 times in an hour of reading; that means the eyes must be able to refocus effectively in order to take in information without backtracking.

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

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

Independent Reading: A Path to Self-Initiated Learning

From 1968 to 1972, as a public school teacher and reading specialist working toward my doctorate in education, I taught first-grade and third-grade classes at the Malabar Street School in East Los Angeles. I was one of a select team of teachers doing daily in-service training with Dr. Constance Amsden to assist in the development of her innovative three-year program, “The Malabar Reading Project for Mexican-American Students.” 1Paul

Being invited to join the faculty at Malabar was a pivotal experience for me, as it was there that I discovered how true learning can always be identified by the satisfaction it brings to children. I also realized at Malabar that the most effective teaching acknowledges learners where they are and then fosters in them the independence to explore the new and unknown.

Through my prior studies of reading curricula, I was familiar with a continuum of reading instruction at three states of learning: the independentinstructional, and frustration levels. These theoretical levels became real for me during my tenure at Malabar. As the program included reading instruction to students age six to twelve (for most of whom English was a second language), we determined that state-adopted textbooks were typically at the frustration level—culturally as well as linguistically—for 90 percent of the children.

Despite the widespread belief that reading is the simple, linear decoding of language, it is not. By my understanding of the process reading must build upon a person’s existing associations, so the reader can later express in their own words what they’ve read. Neither word analysis nor word recognition alone is real reading, as they don’t engage the whole brain in a way that builds on what learners already know and want to talk about (See Editor’s Note).

A child listens to a meaningful communication of language and, over time, makes it his own by expressing it in his own words. Pen in hand, he discovers that his ‘scribbles’ can also capture meaning, and he reads back the code he created and goes on to be entranced by other written codes. If the child cannot first hear speech sounds and perceive them as meaningful, he won’t have a reason to speak them or write them as his own. Teaching young children to read by phonetic analysis may teach many the code, however it fails to engage the child’s natural creativity, expression, and joy of learning. The code is important, yet reading is a language process that transcends it. The child may passively sound out phonemes that he is trained to decode, but he won’t actually be reading language. The rhythmic sounding out of phonemes may provide the word dissection and analysis that benefits spelling, but this must never supersede the active, inventive construction of meaningful expression that is at the heart of reading.

Research on beginning reading concludes that, for new readers, the ability to sound out and recognize vocabulary words is essential. According to researchers, “Deficient skill in mapping between the alphabetic representations of words and their spoken counterparts is the chief barrier to comprehension of text.”2 Decoding new words is important, but it is not the same as reading whole language. Recognizing phonemes is only one of the many skills required of young readers, including effective eye movements, listening comprehension, sight recognition of words, and spelling. Yet the most important skill in reading is recognizing that it is “talk written down.” Without this awareness, thinkers rarely move past the inhibiting frustration of overanalysis.

At Malabar, even with the best educational intentions, teaching by the state textbooks would have set those children up for frustration and failure and kept them from discovering their intrinsic interests and abilities. So we taught using a whole-language approach3 , always addressing phonics and word analysis separately from the reading lesson. Seeing reading as a language skill, we helped the children write stories and booklets—which they also illustrated—in their own words. These written expressions of their own thoughts they could read independently, take pride in, and eventually use to create a bridge to their grade-level textbook.

Thus, as the Malabar students in grades one to three would complete two or three of their own handmade books, they began to be able to read the mandated textbooks. We took care to ensure that the vocabulary and syntax were always engaging learners’ curiosity at the independent and instructional levels—never the frustration level. At the instructional level, we introduced new (and often challenging) vocabulary words that students could discover from the context of the story. The children became independent-level readers, and began enjoying the experience of reading on their own. In a three-year period they went from the third to the 50th percentile on standardized test scores.

From my Malabar years I developed a keen knowing of whether, at any given moment (and eventually in any given subject area), a learner was working at the independent or instructional level, and actually learning, or was stuck at the frustration level and not really internalizing the meaning. This knowing formed the basis, in Edu-K and Brain Gym courses beginning in the 1990s, for Gail’s and my development of the integrated high-gear (independent) level of Got it! and integrated low-gear (instructional) Getting it stage, and even for the unintegrated high and low gears, where a student is at the frustration level and not really learning at all. Through the years, parents and educators as well as learners themselves have shared with us how noticing these distinctions help them seek out both the expressive (familiar, independent, and high-gear) and receptive (novel, instructional, and low-gear) elements that work together in all active learning.

More than 40 years after my work at Malabar, I find that in many of today’s schools, reading expectations are still set too high—for both challenged and gifted students—without assessment of the skills a child has already gained. Using my own whole-to-parts approach, I’ve worked internationally with thousands of children and adults. In this cross-cultural work, I find that I can call on the distinctions of the independent, instructional, and frustration levels to help learners attune to the valuable skills they already have, and to support them in discovering their own learning pace and becoming self-initiating learners. Δ

1 Amsden, Constance. A Reading Program for Mexican-American children, Third Interim Report. Final Report. ERIC database, 1969. (ED039961).

2 Comprehension and Decoding, Patterns of Association in Children with Reading Difficulties, Shankweiler, Lundquist and Katz, © 1999, Scientific Studies of Reading 3(1), 79-94

3  See also Research Nuggets

Editor’s note: Through his review of the literature of approaches to teaching reading, Paul was 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.  

For more information, see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, © 2010 by Dennison and Dennison. The Learning Flow (page 18), shows the whole processing continuum, starting with conscious thought (integrated low gear or Getting it) and building in self-reflection and feedback, until the physical skills become implicitly learned (Got it!)—that is, automatic and integrated into function. The concept of High- and Low-Gears are also central to Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life.

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. Updated 2017. All rights reserved.

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



Discovering the Reading Midfield

young boy readingWhen I first met Connor, age 11, he read for me one word at a time, carefully keeping his eyes in the right visual field and pointing them to each separate syllable, pronouncing it perfectly as he had been taught to do. When I asked him to relate to me what he had just read, Connor was able to repeat only one or two words that he barely recalled. He did well at breaking the printed code into discrete parts, yet had no understanding of reading as language, as a way to grasp the big picture being conveyed by the author.  I invited him to do some playful Brain Gym® activities with me before continuing.

After doing PACE, we used Brain Buttons again, along with Earth Buttons and Lazy 8s, to help Connor discover how to track, to use his eyes as a team to cross his visual midline, and to work in his visual midfield where the left and right fields overlap. It was fun! When Connor read a second time, less than half an hour later, he read with ease, enthusiasm, and full understanding.  Connor was now able to report in his own words what he had read, using intonations to add meaning as he spoke.

It’s important for parents to realize that many children can appear to read well, receive good grades, and excel at school yet be pointing their eyes primarily in the right visual field, where they separate information into small parts or bits. Reading this way, they may get tired, read slowly, get headaches, have eye strain, or lose depth perception. Like Connor, they may even need to read material two or three times in order to fully comprehend it. The pleasure of reading fluently is assumed for the future, yet for many, never happens.

Having taught adult speed reading to people who have been reading in this slow way for years, I’m aware that eye pointings per line (known as fixations) increase as students struggle to use their eyes as a team, and that the number of times a person rereads the material (called regressions) also increase. For youngsters, when grades are good, this one-sided way of reading is accepted as normal, since most people don’t recognize the visual stress and don’t question what seems to be working. Only the children who are labeled with learning challenges get special help, and even then teachers may not identify the subtle difficulty these students are having when crossing the visual midline1, let alone know that it can be easily addressed with a few minutes of doing such activities as Lazy 8s and the Double Doodle.

As stated by UK psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist2,  “the first apprehension of anything is by the right hemisphere while it remains new” but is soon “taken over by the left hemisphere where it becomes familiar. Knowledge of the whole is . . . followed by knowledge of the parts.” For reading, this means that the skilled learner takes in at a glance (through the left visual field and right hemisphere), the meaningful context and picture clues that help him guess where the story is going. He simultaneously confirms his hunch (through the right visual field and left hemisphere), by pronouncing the words.

From my perspective as a reading teacher, it’s easier for learners to read with both eyes working together on the midfield than to rely mainly on one eye for information.  In any case, reading with both eyes and a singleness of vision is more functional and less stressful. Having helped thousands of people to learn, through effortless movements, the simple, mechanical, physical skill of eye teaming, I know that most readers can readily get beyond the visual stress of word analysis to enjoying the auditory language experience of listening to themselves tell the story as they read it, which is what reading really is.


1David Grisham, O.D., M.S., Maureen Powers, Ph.D., Phillip Riles, M.A. Visual skills of poor readers in high school. Optometry – Journal of the American Optometric Association. Volume 78, Issue 10 , October 2007.

2Iain McGilchrist. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World Yale University Press; Reprint edition: 2012.

For a translation of this article into Italian, click here:

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

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