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.



The Gifts of Moving in Synchrony

Students in a Brain Gym course in Germany move in sync as they draw two-handed shapes on one-another’s backs, a game called the “Double Doodle Train.”

In Brain Gym, Paul and I identify three dimensions of learning: Focus, Centering, and Laterality. We describe the Focus Dimension, the dimension most commonly called upon in a modern classroom, as involving two kinds of attention.some focal attention is almost certainly necessary for storing information in the memory at all. Beyond the well-known focal attention—usually seen as occurring within the range of hand-eye coordination, we teach learners to access a second kind of lesser-known attention, often referred to as ambient awareness.* It is in part this ambient attention that a group of singers, dancers, musicians—even players of active games or sports—must call on in order to stay in sync with one another.

I’m familiar with this kind of coordinated rhythmic movement, as it’s noticeable when we do Brain Gym activities, such as the Cross Crawl, the Double Doodle (a variation of which is shown in the above photo), or other Brain Gym or Vision Gym activities with a group. Doing simple movements together creates an immediate connectedness among people, bringing smiles to faces and playfulness to interactions. There’s something joyful about a synchrony like this.

Rhythmic and coordinated movement provides synchronous behavior that is the essence of many kinds of group activities. I was seeing the evidence of at least three out of eight kinds of intelligence, from Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, as interpreted by educator Thomas Armstrong*: Bodily-kinesthetic, spatial intelligence (an ability to sense one’s environment), and logical-mathematical (pattern recognition).

This contextual, spatial awareness allows a person to feel safe in the room, while the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence keeps them sitting comfortably upright in their chair, able to stay aware of their whole body position as they move just one part, such as their eyes for reading or their hand for writing.

Does synchrony help with academics? I’ve heard educator Randal McChesney (who teaches coordinated movement in the Education Through Movement program) speak of group singing as being supportive of vocal intonation and the poetic rhythm of prosody needed for fluent reading. And I see evidence all the time of coordinated movement being an important touchstone for the development of language skills. Δ

For more on the hypothesis of the what and where streams, see

Ungerleider, L. G., and Haxby, J. V (1994). “What” and “where” in the human brain. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 4, 157–165.

Ungerleider, L. G. and Pasternak, T. (2004). Ventral and dorsal cortical processing streams. In “The Visual Neurosciences” (L.M. Chalupa and J.S. Werner, eds.) pp. 541-562. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

For more research on interpersonal synchrony and its effects on social bonds, see

Cirelli, Laura K., Kathleen M. Einarson, and Laurel J. Trainor. 2014. “Interpersonal Synchrony Increases Prosocial Behavior in Infants.” Developmental Science: This study of 14-month olds  “. . . support[s] the hypothesis that interpersonal motor synchrony might be one key component of musical engagement that encourages social bonds among group members, and suggest[s] that this motor synchrony to music may promote the very early development of altruistic behavior.”

Shaw DJ, Czekóová K, Chromec J, Mareček R, Brázdil M (2013) Copying You Copying Me: Interpersonal Motor Co-Ordination Influences Automatic Imitation. PLoS ONE 8(12): e84820. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084820

Tal-Chen Rabinowitch, Andrew N. Meltzoff. Synchronized movement experience enhances peer cooperation in preschool children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2017; 160: 21 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2017.03.001

Hove MJ, Risen JL (2009) It’s all in the timing: Interpersonal synchrony increases affiliation. Social Cognition 27: 949–960. doi: 10.1521/soco.2009.27.6.949 PubMed/NCBI

*Educator Howard Gardner did pioneering work on the theory of Multiple Intelligences in the early 1980’s. Educator Thomas Armstrong has interpreted this work in several books, including Seven Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Multiple Intelligences Plume, 1999, and Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Achieve Success in School and Life, Da Capo Lifelong Books; 2011. Besides the four intelligences named here, Armstrong also names the well-known linguistic intelligence, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (emotional) intelligence.

A friend recently sent me a link to a video on the Recycled Orchestra, in which young musicians in Cateura, Paraguay, play instruments made of trash. I found it to be both inspiring and thought-provoking.

This 3½-minute documentary tells of a community of people who live in a slum built on a landfill. When someone there discovered the discarded shell of a violin, a remarkable idea ignited within the neighborhood: to imagine how they might advocate for the children in their community to learn to play musical instruments. In a place where “a violin is worth more than a house,” residents have built cellos made from recycled oil cans, made use of kitchen tools and bent fork tines to hold violin strings, and generated orchestral music where such music had been rare. Landfill Harmonic is an upcoming feature-length documentary about how this happened.

Watching the video, I saw joy and a bright intelligence in the faces of these young people, and felt these qualities resonating through their compelling music.

© 2013 by Gail Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym®  is a trademark of 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.

Research Nugget: Visual Skills and Reading

ReadingIn a 2007 research study published in the Journal of the American Optometric Association, visual skills and visual acuity were measured for 461 California high school students (average age 15.4) who were identified as having poor reading skills. Among the students, 80% were found to be weak or inadequate in one or more of the following visual abilities:

            • accessing  singleness of vision ranges at near point (binocular fusion)
            • coordinating turning of the eyes inward to focus on an object (convergence at near point)
            • focusing on stimuli at various distances and in different sequences in a given time period (accommodation)

In contrast, only 17% had deficient visual acuity—20/40 or worse in one eye—the standard model of deficiency for school vision screenings.1

1David 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.

Research Nugget: Saccadic Tracking Skills

reading_boyIn a 2008 study, researchers Powers, Grisham, and Riles used the Developmental Eye Movement Test to measure the saccadic tracking skills of 684 ninth-grade students identified as having poor reading abilities.

Horizontal (saccadic) times were typical of grade 3 students; the average number of errors on the horizontal test was typical of grade 2 students. Both genders performed similarly. Retests showed slightly improved horizontal times and fewer errors, yet the grade-level equivalents remained dramatically low. Fewer than 10% of the students scored above the 50th percentile for eighth grade, suggesting that poor readers in high school might be at high risk for poor saccadic tracking.



1. Maureen 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 American Optometric Association. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


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