Jared, 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.