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.
Although I’ve taught in more than 20 countries during the past 35 years, mid-July of this year I experienced my first trip to Moscow. In the 1980s biologist and educator Carla Hannaford of Hawaii first took the Edu-K work to Russia. She was followed there in the 1990s by educators and Brain Gym® instructors Joan Spaulding of Colorado and the late Dorothy H.L. Carroll of Pennsylvania, who taught hundreds of students. Psychologist Svetlana Musgutova, a resident of Moscow at the time, became a Brain Gym International Faculty member and continued to develop the community there for many years. Today, the major leaders of Edu-K once living in Russia have moved on to other locales. So Elena, my sponsor for this trip, requested that I bring my latest thinking to the Brain Gym Instructors and new enthusiasts there.
I found Moscow to be a sprawling city with a multitude of beautiful botanical gardens. On my first day there, Elena and her daughter, Knesia (also my translator), took me walking in the beautiful Tsaritsyno, the Queen’s Garden. On day two my dear friend of many years, Renate Wennekes from Germany, a Brain Gym International Faculty member, arrived to co-teach with me. That evening, we four enjoyed dining on the Moscow River cruise ship and sharing stories about our experiences teaching through movement.
Another evening Renate, Elena, Knesia, and I enjoyed seeing the rousing Russian National show “Kostroma!”* which includes vigorous Cossack dancing—something I’ve always loved to watch. Yet another time we walked around the city center seeing Red Square and the Kremlin, along with its red walls and towers. I was delighted to see St. Basil’s with its unusual architecture of four palaces and four cathedrals—many topped by golden or multicolored cupolas—which I had long heard about.** Wherever we went, I met people who were vigorous and robust, and who seemed typical of suburbanites everywhere, busy pursuing their day-to-day lives.
Active Independence or Passive Compliance
For me, the real excitement of this journey began when I gave a public introductory talk at the Alpha Hotel. I noticed a woman whom I’ll call Ruth, sitting with friends in the center front row of the conference room. Through translation during the question and answer period (the participants spoke little English), I learned that Ruth was a 2nd grade teacher who had been using the Brain Gym activities with her elementary school students. Ruth expressed anger and frustration as she asked me why doing the activities hadn’t helped one seven-year boy in her class. This student, she said, refused to read his history assignment because it was on the topic of war. Even after he did the Brain Gym activities, he still refused.
I explained that the purpose of doing the Brain Gym activities is not to control someone’s behavior. Instead, it’s to give individuals the tools they need to become . Each of the specific 26 activities teaches a physical skill needed for classroom learning, such as sitting, head-turning, hand-eye coordination, and accurate use of tools—for example, how to best hold a pencil for writing and how to access eye-teaming skills when holding a book for reading. I elaborated that when the stressors around the mechanics of functioning are addressed, the natural mental acuity needed to learn is more available. I told Ruth that I think it’s wonderful for a seven-year old child to feel that he can choose what he will or will not read. This shows an active independence instead of the passive compliance we see in many schools and societies. Ruth nodded in understanding and agreement.
The Joy of Eye-Teaming
The next day, with Renate assisting, I began teaching my two-day course: The Dennison Approach to Whole-Brain Learning. I especially enjoy sharing this introduction to my Edu-K work with teachers, as they recognize the challenges to learning and can appreciate seeing people overcome them. It’s thrilling to watch students as they discover their learning profile and then use simple Brain Gym activities to access the learning midfield and make immediate and significant improvements in reading, listening, and writing skills.
One experience was especially meaningful for me. During the opening circle for the course, the participants introduced themselves, again through translation. When I asked who would like to improve their reading, Ruth (from the previous day) eagerly volunteered and told the group that, as a child, she had been told she had a lazy left eye and could do her best with her “good” eye. I had Ruth read aloud. She slowly and precisely read the Russian text left to right, focusing from her right visual field and carefully pronouncing every word. Afterwards, I asked her to say something about what she had read. She could not verbalize any of the content. I checked her ability to track, which requires crossing of the visual midline and seeing in the midfield where the left and right visual fields overlap. She was unable to access this skill.
I encouraged Ruth to choose from the Midline Movement category whatever Brain Gym activity she felt called to. Together, she and I did about 30 seconds of Belly Breathing as the first part of the Learning Menu. Suddenly, Ruth joyfully exclaimed: “I cannot believe it; I can see with my left eye again!” We continued the menu by doing the Lazy 8s and the Cross Crawl.
As a post-check, I asked Ruth to track across her visual midline and focus in her midfield, which she was now able to easily do. She then read a new text, with ease and fluency. She was able to put the text into her own words without difficulty. I could see that Ruth was able to move her eyes smoothly over the words while listening to herself say them–that is, she was able to think while looking, and so access her comprehension.
Ruth said, “Now I understand what you mean by the physical skills of learning. Now that I can see without straining my eyes, I can hear myself thinking and I can trust my eyes to see the information I need.”
Although during the course the translation into Russian had sometimes sometimes presented a challenge, I felt that for most of us that day the language of movement transcended any linear thinking.
*See a segment of this dance on YouTube.
**See our facebook page for a photo book from Paul’s trip.
To discover more about Paul’s approach to teaching, see Brain Gym® and Me: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Learning, by Paul E. Dennison, © 2006.
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. http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/muscles.html
© 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.
Test taking is required of students throughout their school career. And, according to parents and educators in my courses as well as my own reading in the field of modern education, test-taking anxiety is a major challenge for learners around the world. People of all ages have shared with me about how they froze up or otherwise couldn’t think when faced with an important test. And such tests often become a metaphor for similar life experiences, such as being interviewed or giving a presentation.
It’s commonly known that, when stress goes up, mental integration goes out. People can’t perform well or fully access what they know when they’re nervous, worried, or in fight-or-flight mode. Writer’s block and test-taking apprehension result from trying too hard, doubting one’s abilities, or feeling oneself to be under pressure to perform. And in my work, I find that people writing under pressure to perform typically exaggerate one-sided habits of movement, avoiding the midfield where the left and right visual fields should overlap for memory access and information processing. For example, in the photo above, three youngsters are exhibiting movement patterns like tilting the head or putting the face so close to the page that they can’t focus with both eyes at once.1,2,3
I’m reminded of an anecdote related to me by a school principal. She was proctoring an exam for fifth-graders when a child approached her to say that she needed to do some Brain Gym® activities in the hallway outside the room, and asked if she could. The principal advised her that this would be okay, but that the test was timed and she’d need to turn in her paper when everyone else did. The young lady stepped out to the hall for a few minutes to do Brain Buttons, the Cross Crawl, Lazy 8s, and Hook-ups, and soon came confidently back into the room, completed her exam, turned in her paper early, and ultimately received a high score.
This child knew she could depend on certain kinds of movement to support her relaxation, reconnection, and information retrieval. As that principal pointed out, this youngster knew how to notice her experience and take care of herself; she knew how to do her best without trying.
It’s because of feedback like this that I find great satisfaction in teaching people how to do their best under high-pressure conditions. Doing consistent Brain Gym activities helps classroom learners faced with performance anxiety to self-calm, access their sensory skills and whole-body movement, and do their best.
A parent will tell me that she knows her child is bright beyond his years and has the answers, yet he can’t seem to put what he knows down on paper—especially during a test. As a teacher, I often respond that modern education gives too much attention to rote memorization or stamping information in, and has lost the true measure of learning: the joy of exploring the rich world, of feeling and senses, in which one lives. Learning is a different experience altogether when we can see our lives as a context for the easy retrieval of information from memory. This is why learners everywhere can benefit from the 26 simple Brain Gym aids to getting the information out.
1In my Edu-K work, I use movement to teach students to centralize their focus and to develop saccadic ease. Through simple activities, they learn to identify and develop singleness of vision and eye-coordination skills at near point (reading distance), and skills of accommodation (focus and refocus) at various distances and in different sequences. I find that these physical skills are directly related to ease of reading, writing, and test-taking, and that they can be learned.
2David Grisham, OD, MS, Maureen Powers, PhD, Phillip Riles, MA. Visual skills of poor readers in high school. Optometry – Journal of the American Optometric Association: Volume 78, Issue 10 , Pages 542-549, October 2007. © 2007 American Optometric Association. Published by Elsevier Inc.
3Maureen Powers, PhD, David Grisham, OD, Phillip Riles, MA. Saccadic tracking skills of poor readers in high school. Optometry – Journal of the American Optometric Association Volume 79, Issue 5 , Pages 228-234, May 2008. © 2008 American Optometric Association. Published by Elsevier Inc.
(C) 2013 by Paul E. 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.
October 23: Today was my second day of teaching the Dennison Approach to Whole-Brain Learning to a group made up primarily of educators. I led the participants through simple ways to apply movement-based learning and whole-to-parts teaching in the classroom. These techniques are helpful for many aspects of the educational process, from connecting learners with their kinesthetic experience to helping them discover a love of language as they read. As my students experienced the reading, writing, and listening balances, they found for themselves the profound impact of movement on learning, and saw the possibilities for their own students.
© 2012 by Paul E. Dennison. All Rights Reserved.