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. 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.

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.



Taking Tests Can Be a Breeze

Children Taking a TestTest 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.

Just Do Your Best or “I Thought I Could, I Thought I Could”

LittleEngineFrom my earliest teaching of Edu-K, I have delighted in showing people that they can be effective learners when they don’t try, but simply do their best. Often trying harder simply intensifies the stress learners already feel when they haven’t yet developed a skill. Yet most learners, when doing their personal best, discover their capabilities on their own, once they’re encouraged to explore the physical skills related to the task at hand. In Brain Gym® and Me*, I described it in this way:

“Ultimately, we don’t want to be struggling all the time, but dedicated effort of the right kind is always needed until it’s no longer needed. If you’re learning the piano, you stick to your lessons until you master the instrument so well that you can forget you’re playing the piano and simply enjoy the music. If you’re going to run a marathon, you train hard and follow a schedule so that, on the day of the meet, you can enjoy the bliss of reaching that exquisite state in which you’re effortlessly in the flow.

Life is a continual process of going from low gear to high gear. Low gear is the appropriate state for new experiences, as we consciously and methodically do whatever is necessary to learn them, code them, and follow through on them. It’s the phase in which we climb the mountain with care until mountain climbing is installed in the body. Finally, when we reach the pinnacle of high gear, we enjoy the “I thought I could, I thought I could” experience of The Little Engine That Could as detailed in the well-known 1940s storybook by Watty Piper, that came with a phonograph record; as a child, I played that record so often that I wore it out).

What gave effort a bad name is that, as children, we were expected to try hard for no reason—at least none that we could see or understand. When adults fail to nurture, at home or at school, a child’s intrinsic interest in learning, they are compelled to replace it by external motivators that co-opt the soul in the name of education. This disconnection from our own inner sense of purpose and destiny carries on into adulthood and accounts for the well-known ‘mid-life crisis,’ triggered mainly by the heart’s rising need to have its own frustrated purposes listened to.”


This passage is excerpted is from Brain Gym® and Me: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Learning, by Paul Dennison, © 2006.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All Rights Reserved.

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


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