Mother and me with “Bogie” at the soda shop in Garden City, Kansas, a place she remembered from her teen years.
I always knew my mother to be a dynamic person who could accomplish anything she set her mind to. A Kansas native who grew up during the dustbowl days and came to California in her twenties, she had an indomitable spirit. Along with being a loving wife to my dad, she created a warm home environment where she was primary caregiver in the raising of my three younger siblings and me.
Mom looked for opportunities to bring beauty to the world. As an artist, she always had a project going. From trimming everyone’s hair to climbing onto the patio roof to prune the avocado tree to shaping myriad plants into a veritable botanical garden; from sewing clothes for us children to refinishing furniture, repainting the house inside and out, and painting murals on the living room walls, she was forever finding ways to add some esthetic quality to life. Mother was my first teacher, evoking a love of reading and drawing early on, always engaging me in projects, and genuinely seeking out my thoughts and ideas.
My mother in front of one of the many murals she painted for various family members. This one of a magnolia branch was a gift for her brother and his wife when they were newlyweds.
Since I saw my mother as a strong woman and creative thinker, it was hard for me to acknowledge certain changes in her as she grew older. When others expressed concerns about her memory, I didn’t see what they saw. Since I know that change is constant, and since (through my Edu-K experience) I know that learning is available no matter the age or situation, I looked for what new learning I could support in her.
We had always liked to sing or paint together, or to take walks around the house and yard, and I saw that often when she thought she wasn’t up to it, after doing just a few minutes of simple movements with me—the Cross Crawl, the Thinking Cap, the Owl, and Movement Reeducation for feet* were some of her favorites—she would be happy to engage in one of these ways. In her later years, I was grateful to be able to facilitate Edu-K balances: helping her to make small improvements in her vision, release neck or shoulder tension, and stabilize her equilibrium in the context of a playful goal. I valued how, many times after doing a few of such activities, she immediately responded by letting go of frustrations, reminiscing more, and participating more playfully with me.
Mother and me when she was 80, in front of the elephant exhibit at the Kansas City Zoo.
Yet we lived some distance apart, and as time went on I saw that my visits with my mother weren’t frequent enough to offset her now-sedentary lifestyle: after my dad’s death, the challenges of living alone in a rapidly changing world (and later, the challenges of having a care-giver nearby), and the stress of keeping up the house and garden.
In our phone calls, Mom often seemed stressed, distant, or disheartened, and sometimes she couldn’t seem to recall the conversational topic from a moment ago.
In her aging process, my mother went through a period of frustration and feistiness related to all the losses in her life about which she could do nothing—in particular, she talked about her loss of the strength and resources to be as self-sufficient as she had once been. Then she suddenly stopped talking about her problems or saying anything about how various family members should live their lives. She seemed to retreat and become more of a quiet onlooker. I couldn’t tell if she was having difficulty remembering or was simply no longer able to attend to a structured conversation. I was grateful to be able to do balances** to maintain my own wellbeing, and I found that these brought me continued new ways to connect with her.
After a while, Mom seemed to become an accepting observer of her own suffering, and perhaps the suffering of others as well. She began to empty herself of her everyday concerns and put her attention on something larger—perhaps on the wholeness of her life and the lives of her children.
I asked her once about this change, and she responded, “It’s not something I can tell you about, Gail. But you’ll see for yourself as you grow older.” It has made me wonder how much of memory loss is a choice to behave in a new way—a choice that may not be understood or supported by family members.
Mom, with her brother’s assistance, delightedly climbed into the old John Deere combine and looked off into the distance, as though across the wheat field, as I knew she’d done with her dad countless times in her childhood.
Mom often asked about her family in Kalvesta, Kansas, and for her 80th birthday my son and I decided to take her to her early home for a visit. We had a rich and fulfilling experience, enlivened by Mom’s stories and recollections from every aspect of her childhood. We all enjoyed visiting with relatives and taking some great photos, like the one of Mom pretending to drive her dad’s old combine. I could picture her as a freckle-faced 10-year old, playing with her siblings and friends, and helping her folks maintain the farm.
Yet, on a phone call just days after our return, my mother implored me to take her on a visit to Kansas as though we had never gone. In that moment, perhaps due to my staying centered with such activities as Hook-ups and the Positive Points, I was able to override my inclination to correct her and respond instead by saying, “Mom, you want to spend time in Kansas, and I like to write. Let’s write a book together about your experiences growing up in Kansas.” I think I imagined that I would hear a story or two that I hadn’t yet heard. Without hesitating, Mom responded, “Okay. Well, it should begin like this:”
What I remember most about growing up in Kansas is looking out over the vast, vast country, as far as I could see, and watching the fields of ripe wheat blowing back and forth. The wind would sometimes push the wheat till it lay right down on the ground, and then lay it down the other way, or blow it in circles—the golden tassels just whirling in the wind.
The wind was always an important presence in our lives—blowing our hair, our hats, and our dresses. For people who have never seen Kansas, a state right in the center of the United States, it might be hard to believe what it was like there in the 1920s and 1930s. Not everybody could understand Kansas, and many wouldn’t like it.
The golden wheat fields of Kalvesta, Kansas, after the fall harvest. Post-harvest, when everyone gets to relax, proved to be a good time for our visit.
Tears filled my eyes as I scribbled verbatim notes as fast as I could write. Remarkably, for this moment my mom was no longer withdrawn or at a loss for words. She had apparently been waiting to tell this new version of her story, and she told it as quickly and eloquently as if she were reading it aloud.
The windmill at Mom’s childhood home.
After this, each time I called my mother I would do some Brain Gym activities, with the intention of being able to stay present with her and draw out more of her story. I would briefly catch her up on family events. She might at first seem not to remember about the book, yet as I read back to her some of what we had written and held that attitude of inquiry, she would most often continue her narrative with enthusiasm.
Within a few months we had completed a small, wonderful book—one that I treasure still as one of Mom’s great gifts to the family. Even more valuable to me was the bond that we deepened as she shared her thoughts and stories.
On one of her visits with me, Mom had some difficulty in walking, and needed to lean against me in order to get around. I figured out that her medication was affecting her equilibrium, and asked the doctor if I could wean her off of it. He agreed.
In the few days of her visit, we did Brain Buttons, the Thinking Cap, Balance Buttons, and Hook-ups together, as well as a lot of cross-crawling. Without the medication, Mom had some difficult moments of anger, despair, and irritation. Yet, each time, I was able to assist her in using the activities to calm herself, access greater strength and balance, and put any concerns into words. Within the first half a day, she was walking with a steadiness and vigor that I hadn’t seen for a while.
I also discovered that if Mom sat on a stool with her back to me, in front of the chair I was sitting in, I could wrap my arms around her, crossing her arms over her chest, and rock her very slowly from side to side in the My Little Boat*** movement. She found this soothing and restorative, and would sometimes hum as we rocked, as if she were rocking me. We would both quickly became more centered and connected; sometimes she would doze off and I would simply hold her hand.
Over the next couple of years, this activity became one of my favorites to do with Mom. It offered us many restorative moments, and afterward our visit would be characterized by the kind of conversation and relating that we both found so fulfilling. ♥
* The Brain Gym® activities mentioned here are from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, (c) 2010; Movement Reeducation for feet is from the course Educational Kinesiology in Depth: Seven Dimensions of Intelligence.
**An Edu-K balance offers five steps to easy learning. The balance process, along with 11 Action Balances and the 26 Brain Gym® activities, are all taught in the introductory course Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Live (see instructor link below).
***The My Little Boat** activity is one of the twelve Integrated Movements from Educational Kinesiology in Depth: Seven Dimensions of Intelligence.
© 2013 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.
Each of us can benefit from even small improvements in our ability to access positions of dynamic sitting. Although this article was written in response to a question about a four-year old, the markers described below, along with the Brain Gym activities, will be useful at any age.
Question from a Reader:
My grandson is four years old. He has been accepted into a public preschool program. One of the problems with this is that he would be on a school bus two or more hours per day, though the program is only two and a half hours long. The other option is to continue his private preschool classes three times a week. In determining which program is better for him, his mother is open to suggestions. At this point, he shows no problems except that it’s hard for him to focus, especially on things he’s not interested in, such as art.
The Edu-K work is based on the concept that the more learners can integrate their basic sensorimotor skills for ease of whole-body balance and coordination, the freer will be the whole brain—especially the prefrontal cortex, the “Executive Brain”—that is needed for focusing on cognitive skills. Otherwise, as a child learns, he may always be keeping a partial focus on the challenge of how to sit, balance, walk, hold a pencil, or otherwise be comfortable as he moves. For a four-year-old, exploration of the three-dimensional world through play and movement is the best way for him to organize himself in his world—to discover how to relate happily to his surroundings with both mobility and stability while focusing his attention.
So how can your daughter best ensure that her son is actively engaging his sensorimotor skills as he begins school?
A child who is developmentally ready for tasks involving hand-eye coordination will be able to sit with ease and stability.
Our suggestion to her (or to any parent with similar concerns about their child of any age): Watch the child at play for 20 minutes and make note of how many times they change position. Then observe the child while he or she sits. Will they know how to stay comfortably upright on a long bus ride?
There’s a world of difference between active (dynamic) and passive sitting. So note how frequently a child’s seated movement comes into vertical alignment with gravity (active sitting); that is, his sacrum and occiput are in sync, allowing the spine to move freely without slouching. Sitting with knees level with hips (or slightly lower) protects the neck and spine. If a child’s chair doesn’t properly fit him, sitting on a rolled towel or wedge most often gives immediate access to good alignment, as indicated by the following markers:
- He or she is sitting on their sacral platform (sitz bones), allowing for a natural lumbar curve.
- The hips, torso, and head are stacked, with a vertical axis in gravity; he doesn’t tend to tilt his head or twist his torso to either the left or right.
- The child’s head is balanced over his or her torso, rather than thrust forward or bent down (for each inch that the head tilts forward of the shoulders, the neck muscles must support about eight pounds of added weight).
- The movements of his sacrum and occiput are generally in sync (a good connection between the sacral and occipital areas provides stability for development of the neck muscles, jaw and eyes, and overall head-turning ability).
- He moves his spine freely, without collapsing into a C-shape curve.
Noticing of these markers can help a parent to recognize when a child is developmentally ready to sit for any length of time, as they’ll surely be required to do in a school classroom, or as would be necessary for a bus ride.
Parents might also consider how likely it is that the time on the bus will teach a child to become inactive, for the 2½ hours is time he or she might otherwise be using to do gross-motor play like running, jumping, or taking a walk with his family. Or the child might be doing fine-motor arts and crafts, or learning to socialize with friends—any of which can support sensorimotor coordination and even the initiative to move. How much will excessive sitting dampen down the child’s motivation and aliveness?
By the time your grandson is in kindergarten, he and his peers are likely to find themselves in a classroom hierarchy largely based on how well they pay attention, including how well they sit still. Yet it sounds like these are two things he isn’t quite ready to do. The stress of a two-hour bus ride is more likely to inhibit than support his connection to the motor skills that will help him prepare for classroom ease. There is probably little your grandson can gain in even a high-quality preschool classroom that will justify his sitting inactively in a school bus for more than two hours per day.
Regarding the Brain Gym activities, it will also be helpful to teach him (little by little) the Cross Crawl, Lazy 8s, a few Lengthening Activities**, and some Energy Exercises—especially the Energy Yawn, the Thinking Cap, Earth Buttons, and Space Buttons, as these can support his motor skills, centralization in the visual midfield, and general learning-readiness, and can help to release motor compensations. Knowing these activities, and the comfort they can bring, can also empower him to know what he needs to keep his eyes, ears, and whole body more active—either in the classroom or on a bus. To benefit a four-year-old, the Brain Gym activities will ideally be done to music and as a fun family activity.
Our preference is always to increase children’s playtime and to support movement patterns (playful Cross Crawling and many long walks) until a child’s freedom of focus becomes the leading energy. This can take minutes, days, or weeks.
Gail Dennison, co-author of the Brain Gym program and movement educator
This situation can also be a wonderful opportunity for you, as a grandmother, to share with your daughter what you know through your years of hands-on experience, as well as through the book and research links that I’ve included below. Although the decision is ultimately up to the boy’s mother, I believe we all hunger for a deeper connection with the wise elders in our lives. I have many times used Edu-K balancing to step into that role, and have found this to bring me great joy.
I received this thank-you note: “I think the article you wrote is wonderful. Just thought you’d like to know that my daughter and her husband have agreed to NOT send my grandson to the public school. My daughter appreciates your thoughts in the article, and it probably made an impact on their decision.” Δ
*For a detailed description of these and other Brain Gym activities, see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, 2010, by Paul and Gail Dennison.
For a translation of this article into Spanish, click here: Preparados para la Escuela = ¡Preparados para sentarse!
Links to other books, research, and articles on sitting alignment that we reference:
Kathleen Porter’s Sad Dog, Happy Dog: How Poor Posture Affects Your Child’s Health and What You Can Do About It, searchable at http://tinyurl.com/n7wzrk3 #parents
“The Vestibular System Goes to School,” by Mary J. Kawar, MS, OT/L, PediaStaff: http://www.pediastaff.com/blog/the-vestibular-system-goes-to-school-362
Research study results, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, showing that children who did not spend time outdoors after school failed to reach the recommended amount of daily exercise. The same children also spent an additional 70 minutes per day in sedentary behavior, compared to children who reported spending most of their time outdoors after school. Peer-reviewed journal reference: Schafer, Lee, et al. 2014. “Outdoor Time Is Associated with Physical Activity, Sedentary Time, and Cardiorespiratory Fitness in Youth,” The Journal of Pediatrics (early release)
“Kids Still Getting Too Much ‘Screen Time’”: CDC, HealthDay, US News and World Report.
“A Surprising Hazard of Sitting All Day” by Michelle Schoffro Cook, link here.
Photo Credit: ID 19548117 © Rimma Zaytseva | Dreamstime.com
© 2014, 2017 by Gail Dennison. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of an instructor near you.
Paul and Gail Dennison
Dear participants in the Brain Gym® International Conference 2014,
Congratulations on joining together to celebrate learning through movement and the Brain Gym program in beautiful Fort Collins, Colorado! We offer our deep appreciation to the Colorado network, Foundation staff members, International Faculty, keynote presenters, and all who will be contributing to make this year’s conference an outstanding event.
We’re excited that you’ll be meeting keynote presenter biomechanist Katy Bowman*, whose work has greatly influenced us over the last five years, and who will give you a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by the sedentary, one-sided learner in the classroom, as well as some great options for addressing these. You’ll also meet a dear and heartful inspirer of play, longtime friend of Edu-K, Fred Donaldson, who is bound to take you into new and surprising play spaces. Author and consultant Patricia Lemer will support you in expanding your thinking beyond that of symptoms and developmental labels, and give you some simple options for supporting the whole person.
Our hearts are with you as you meet for the Welcome Reception on July 25 and continue celebrating through the three days of conference events and two days of post-conference courses and workshops.
Our own new way of working has allowed Paul so far this year to teach here in Ventura, California, as well as in Arizona, Puerto Rica, Canada, and in Europe–Verona, Italy; Lausanne, Switzerland; and Avignon, France. You can see photos of Paul’s courses on Facebook. Be sure to look for the picture of Paul fulfilling a lifelong dream to do the Cross Crawl on the bridge at Avignon! Later this year he’ll also be teaching in Coyoacan, Mexico; Innsbruck, Austria; and Damme and Kirchzarten, Germany. Meanwhile, Gail continues working on blogs and the latest book project. We are delighted with the continued growth of the Edu-K and Brain Gym work.
Now that we’re connecting with so many of you on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, we’re valuing the importance of developing a presence for Brain Gym® in the social media. As we read about and reflect on the rapid changes taking place in classroom environments worldwide, we are celebrating a growing awareness of the importance of movement, play, and structural alignment in one’s everyday activities, and especially in the learning environment. Where Edu-K once pioneered the field of movement-based learning, there are now many “move to learn” programs. We believe that the 26 Brain Gym activities, the Brain Gym 101 course, Seven Dimensions of Intelligence, and our other fine courses remain unrivaled in scope, simplicity, and a regard for the learner through self-actualizing activities. Neuroscience research continues to catch up with our commonsense recognition of the interrelationship of the human body and optimal brain function.
In today’s technologically driven world that requires both near-point focus and passive sitting, the Edu-K work is becoming more important than ever—not only for schoolchildren but for people of all ages. Please acquaint yourselves with our learning resource site, Hearts at Play: Move, Learn, Bloom, that continues to offer blogs and videos to answer many of the how, what, and why questions about the Edu-K work that you’ve asked us throughout the years. We trust you’ll find this site useful in creating immediate interest in your courses and private sessions. May your lives be touched by the “Possibilities” of moving to fulfill your personal and professional goals, and may we all keep moving with joy!
Love to all, Paul and Gail
*For more about the 2014 Conference and keynote speakers, click here.
Playful flowers, leaves, and curlicues drawn with two hands at once make a colorful design.
Flowers are always fun to draw, and especially welcome in the springtime. Their shapes can be quite soothing and relaxing to make when using two hands at the same time. Whether you want to make a card or picture to express your gratitude to someone special, or to simply reflect on and celebrate such qualities as playfulness or beauty, this project is a great way to connect with nurturing feelings. All you need is some paper, marking pens (crayons or paint can also work), and a few minutes time, to create a cheerful or whimsical image. (See the photo at bottom right for a suggested layout of your tools.)
In the image that you see here, I’ve included five distinctive radial flower shapes that I often use in my workshops with teens and adults of all ages. I’ve taught the more simple shapes to children as young as five (though please be sure they can do one shape easily before showing them more). People generally find the making of Double Doodle flowers to be a calming and reflective activity—one they are often surprised that they can do.
Begin by taping your paper to a smooth surface. Then take a moment to relax yourself, especially your arms, by doing a few strokes of the Cross Crawl, all of PACE, or perhaps Lazy 8s or the Arm Activation, if you’re familiar with these. This will help you orient yourself to the page in terms of your center—your sternum—while simultaneously feeling the reach of your arms and symmetry of your hand motions. I made the above left image while standing at a table, as I often do. Or you might want to work on an easel.
You might begin with a dandelion-like design.
An image like this does not require working on the midline of the page, but calls for us to see the midpoint and midline of each individual flower-shape that we draw. You might begin, as I did, with a different colored marker in each hand, with the marker tips resting next to one another in the center of your visual field. I first drew a dandelion-like design: With both hands on the center point of your dandelion, create outward strokes away from the middle to make the shape. Add more dandelion shapes to your bouquet, as you like.
The first petal motion for the Looping Flowers.
Next I drew the three looping flowers in the upper-middle area. These are fun to do in one flowing motion: the first petals are made as your hands move up, down, and then
loop back up; the second petals move down, then loop up and out diagonally, the third loop out to the sides, and so on.
A completed Looping Flower shape with six petals.loop (see the image at left); the 2nd petals are made as your hands move out to thesides, in toward the middle, and then loop; the 3rd petals are similarly made with a downward, then upward motion.
The first two petals for the Heart-Petal Flower.
The third flower has tiny heart-shaped petals (see image at right). Simply draw two hearts at once, side-by-side, to make the top two petals, then continue with the side and then the bottom petals. You can walk around your paper or draw the hearts upside-down. Again, this is most fun to do in a smooth, flowing motion. As you work, let yourself—your movement and looking—be more and more from a place of comfort and soft focus. Doing the Double Doodle invites relaxation of the eyes and hands, so if you feel yourself tensing up with old movement patterns, pause and do more large motor movement before continuing.
A Heart-Petaled Flower.
Next, I made two playful roses at once, by first drawing the calming outward spiral, then encircling it with two or three rounded waves to suggest the thick and sensuous petals .
The fifth flower is simply made by drawing two 6-pointed stars at once: Your two (fine-point) markers touch at the midpoint, then quickly brush out and away to make three radiating lines. Can you find my ten tiny Star-Flowers?
Finally, you can add leaves, curling vines, or curlicues, to fill the space. If you wish, go back to each flower and layer it with two (or even three) more colors, as I did. With your dominant hand, you might color in a shape or two, or add other asymmetrical touches, as you like.
I used a variety of thick and thin colored markers, as well as two colored pencils.
I’m confident that you’re final image will surprise you with the joy of coordinating your hands and eyes, and the beauty and mystery of asymmetry that seems to accompany the Double Doodle process.
For more information on the Double Doodle, read A Soothing Double Doodle Heart for Kids of all Ages.
The Double Doodle is one of the 26 Brain Gym® activities, from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, by Dennison and Dennison. To find an instructor of the workshop Double Doodle Play: A Window to Whole-Brain Vision, developed by Gail Dennison, click here.
For a translation of this article into Spanish or Catalan, click here or paste http://kinemocions.com/ca/primavera-cinco-flores-con-dobles-garabatos/.
Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International. For more information, or to find an instructor in your area, go to www.braingym.org.
(C) 2014 by Gail Dennison. All rights reserved.
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.
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 Fluency; Independent Reading: A Path to Self-Initiated Learning; Discovering 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.
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