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Can Movement Enhance Literacy Lessons?

4 min read

Clarke Occupational Therapist Explains the Value in Moving Around the Classroom Mindfully

Clarke student and teacher on playground
Clarke Occupational Therapist Shantel Isaac, MS, OTR/L, supports Clarke students in and outside the classroom. 

Literacy skills aren’t just vital to children’s ability to learn, they also help engage their imaginations, connect socially and cultivate confidence. To help celebrate literacy and encourage students to become readers and storytellers, World Read Aloud Day has been celebrated for the past 14 years on the first Wednesday of February.

There are many ways that caregivers and teachers can help foster both literacy skills and a love of reading in children. One method is bringing physical movement to literacy lessons—including speech sessions, classroom exercises and even reading together at home.

Why Does Moving Matter?

There’s a common misconception that children need to be seated quietly to read, but movement can actually support their reading. “Movement is essential for brain development and growth,” says Shantel Isaac, MS, OTR/L, an occupational therapist at Clarke New York. “Research shows a connection between movement and cognition. Movement also produces improved blood and oxygen flow to the brain, creation of synapses and more.”

 She notes that adults feel more focused and centered after a good workout or yoga class and children are no different.  

Shantel explains that the connection between movement and learning goes back to infancy. Consider a baby learning to crawl and explore. As the caregivers call out things for the baby to look at, it helps make that connection between what they’re looking at and what they’re cruising toward.

For young children, incorporating strategic movements can help release “the wiggles,” improving their ability to concentrate as well as strengthening the connection to what they’re learning. Shantel offers the example of a student who loved to move around and was having trouble focusing during speech sessions. So, Shantel incorporated movement activities into the session—swinging on a swing, using flash cards during an obstacle course—to provide some needed physical activity while helping the student increase awareness and comprehension of the targeted sounds.

Shantel says that incorporating movement is even more important now, since many children —especially those in cities — had fewer opportunities for physical play while parks, camps, sports and other activities were closed or paused during the height of COVID-19.

What to Consider When Choosing Movement Activities

Certain types of movement are more conducive to learning than others, particularly for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Shantel notes that many children with hearing loss have difficulty with balance, which should inform the kinds of movement the teacher or caregiver introduces. “Start at the ground level,” she says. “For example, if you want them to hop to sound out a word, have them hold on to a wall or table. If you’re kicking a ball but some children lack the strength or balance for that, instead have them march with a pause to stop on one leg and improve their balance.”

Teachers and caregivers should also think strategically about how the movement connects with the learning objective, as well as the child’s personality and interests.

For example, Shantel says that children who have lower energy levels can benefit from “alerting” activities such as jumping and marching. But those high-energy moves can over stimulate children who are naturally higher energy. For those students, she recommended “grounding” activities, such as crawling or imitating different types of animal walks to release some energy.

Another advantage? “Children start to learn what their bodies need,” she says. “They’ll tell us what they need.” After introducing animal walks or jumping exercises, teachers and caregivers can ask children which movement activity they prefer.

In the classroom or therapy room, incorporating movement can take many different forms. For one student, Shantel helped devise a series of motor actions he could do that went along with the speech sounds he was working on. For example, if the prompt was a picture of a monkey to make the “ooo” sound, he would also gesture like a monkey. “It’s fun and motivating for them and reinforces what they’re learning,” Shantel says.

For other children, she’s created puzzles that spell out a word. Each piece of the puzzle gets placed on a rock wall and the child has to spell the word by climbing the wall and grabbing the right puzzle piece. “They get so excited. Things like handwriting and reading may not seem interesting to children, so to get a response like that is so great,” says Shantel.

Shantel notes that not all movement is beneficial to learning. Take spinning in circles, for example. Shantel says that this type of movement can be too stimulating—especially for children with sensory issues—and affect their ability to concentrate.

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In a session with Clarke Occupational Therapist Shantel Isaac, MS, OTR/L, preschooler Greyson engages in a multi-step activity which incorporates a climbing wall, a puzzle, handwriting and letter identification. Shantel notes that this type of movement can enhance the impact of literacy lessons for young children. (Video courtesy of Shantel Isaac.)

Ensuring that Movement Is Inclusive

Movement doesn’t have to be marching around the classroom. Seated movement can be just as beneficial. “If you want them to be more focused — with active participation and sustained attention — but can’t do movement, performing resistive activities in the chair such as manipulating Thera putty, pressing stencils into playdough, stretching buddy bands on chairs can also produce a just right arousal level,” she says.

For junior high or high school students where the school allows it, Shantel suggests the use of chewing gum. Shantel notes recent research that showed chewing gum for adults in the workplace can reduce stress, increase work performance and lead to an overall positive mood. Chewing gum may help older students during challenging literacy tasks. In general, or in lieu of chewing gum, she says other oral motor exercises that can be beneficial include breathing exercises, such as pretending to blow out a candle or blowing bubbles.

Movement activities should also include modifications to fit the range of abilities in the classroom. “Offering alternatives can help to keep everyone involved,” Shantel says. “For example, if you’re demonstrating a stretching position, remind them that if they can’t touch their toes, touching their knees or legs is fine too. And children learn from each other and from seeing what others model.”

No matter what a student’s energy level or interests, finding small ways to incorporate appropriate movement into reading, literacy lessons and therapeutic sessions can make the process more fun and effective for all involved.

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