Dr Elizabeth McClelland takes issue with the sit-down-and-learn camp and argues that ‘embodied cognition’ offers a more successful approach for many children classed as having special educational needs

Can physical activity really have any impact on learning, especially for children with special educational needs (SEN)? You’ve probably heard positives and negatives being said on this issue over the years, with the ‘establishment’ being firmly in the sit-down-and-learn camp. Special World included an article on Bad Science which stated that there is a consensus view among researchers that dyslexia is a verbal not a visual disorder, which is best dealt with by interventions that target underlying weaknesses in phonological language skills and letter knowledge. My colleague, Professor John Stein of Oxford University, and many others, would contest this view.

New developments in cognitive science suggest that the brain depends far more on its interaction with the body than was previously supposed. [Claxton, G. (2012). Turning thinking on its head: How bodies make up their minds. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 7, 78-84]. This idea is called ‘embodied cognition’ – the concept that our systems of complex understanding are rooted firmly in bodily awareness.

[e.g. Barsalou, L. W., Kyle Simmons, W., Barbey, A. K., & Wilson, C. D. (2003). Grounding conceptual knowledge in modality-specific systems. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 84–91., e.g. Gallese, V., & Lakoff, G. (2005)]. The brain’s concepts: The role of the sensory-motor system in conceptual knowledge. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 22, 455-479].

Research scientists are now showing, for example, that experience gained from learning accurate muscle control in order to achieve physical tasks helps to build the child’s ability to achieve more abstract goals, including reading and maths. [Boncoddo, R., Dixon, J. A., & Kelley, E. (2010). The emergence of a novel representation from action: Evidence from preschoolers. Developmental Science, 13, 370-377]. Embodied Cognition offers an exciting new tool to support school learning for pupils who currently struggle and have been classed as having SEN.

I have been developing and researching this idea one-to-one with pupils with SEN, with whole school classes in schools and with various academic colleagues for the past 10 years. My experience suggests that there are some specific areas of physical activity which do have a real and significant impact on learning for many pupils. It is necessary to provide physical activities which actually require the child to focus their attention and to learn self-control.

The activities need to train eye-tracking skills, and seem to be most effective when carefully designed to follow a sequential pathway, starting very simply and gradually developing in complexity over a 12-week period. Rhythm and timing of movement are very important, too. I’ve put together a 12-week video-based programme, now trialled with over 2,500 pupils.

I call this Move4Words, and it is available to schools through a not-for-profit social enterprise. The wonderful Professor Sir Tim Brighouse is our patron. I have authored the first peer-reviewed scientific article on the use of this exciting new method to help pupils in school classrooms, due to be published imminently in the journal Improving Schools. [McClelland, Pitt and Stein, 2014. Enhanced academic performance using a novel classroom physical activity intervention to increase awareness, attention and self-control: Putting embodied cognition into practice. Improving Schools, 1-19, in the press].

The article presents strong evidence for significant impact of controlled body and eye movement on academic performance, particularly for pupils who are performing in the bottom 20 per cent. Other, as yet unpublished data, shows dramatic improvements in reading age and reading speed. For example, 38 pupils who had made virtually no progress in reading in an average of four years at school (reading age of five years, but actual age nine years), made 14 months progress in reading during the three-month intervention period.

Teachers reported many improvements during the trials: stuck learners seemed to be switching on at last; reading, maths, concentration and engagement all improved. I have personal experience of the power of focused physical and visual activities to help reorganise the brain and to train learning. In 1997, I was a Geophysics Lecturer and research scientist at Oxford University, at the top of my profession.

Then I was struck by a viral infection which affected my brain, and caused acquired dyslexia. Life transformed to a nightmare where I struggled to read. Two exhausting years later, I finally found a solution to my own problem by using some rather bizarre physical and visual exercises which had a rapid and dramatic impact. Since then, I have been passionately interested in exploring the reasons behind this amazing effect, and to developing simple, effective and easy-to-use tools for school teachers.

A large body of evidence is growing showing that physical activities do have real and important impact on literacy and learning, maths and thinking skills. The field of literacy has the richest literature on this subject. Children who are not good at clapping to a rhythmic beat at age six typically go on to be poor readers, and this correlation lasts up to age 11 or more. [David et al, 2007. Rhythm and reading development in school-age children: a longitudinal study. Journal of Research in Reading, 30 (2), 169–183].

Rhythm and literacy are linked because the developing child needs to be able to hear and analyse the rhythm in speech before they can work out where one word in a sentence ends and the next one starts, let alone split up an individual word into phonemes. [Holliman et al, 2008. Sensitivity to speech rhythm explains individual differences in reading ability independently of phonological awareness. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 26 (3) 357-367].

Finally, engaging in rhythmic training actually does improve literacy skills for poor readers [Moritz, C., Yampolsky, S., Papadelis, G., Thomson, J., & Wolf, M. (2013). Links between early rhythm skills, musical training, and phonological awareness. Reading and Writing, 26, 739–769].

Eye exercises
Reading is a visual task, and the brain has to process the visual signal in many complex ways before the words emerge in our awareness. Researchers have shown that visual attention is at least as important as phoneme awareness in early reading, and becomes far more important as reading matures. [Bosse and Valdois, 2009. Influence of the visual attention span on child reading performance: a cross-sectional study. Journal of Research in Reading, 32 (2), 230- 253].

This is not just academic theory, but can be used to help poor readers. Regular eye exercises involving tracking and convergence significantly improve reading for poor readers, particularly those with dyslexia. [Clisby et al., 2000. Outcome of treatment of visual problems in children with reading difficulties. PATOSS Bulletin Nov., 9-14].

Thumbs up

School pupils showing hand gestures during class

There seems to be an evolutionary thread underpinning these links and many other connections between the physical and the cognitive. It is now thought that human language developed from gesture [Gentilucci, M., & Corballis, M. C. (2006). From manual gesture to speech: A gradual transition. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 30(7), 949-960.]; clear evidence for this is that brain scans show that the brain is highly active in the areas which control physical movement, when the subject is listening to language, speaking or reading [Tettamanti et al, 2005. Listening to Action-related Sentences Activates Fronto-parietal Motor Circuits, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 17, 273–281].

What’s more, the areas which light up are closely linked to the meaning of the language being processed; for example, when hearing the abstract concept of ‘delegating responsibility’ our brains will reproduce the hand and arm gestures of handing a physical object over to someone else. [Glenberg, A. M., Sato, M., Cattaneo, L., Riggio, L., Palumbo, D., & Buccino, G. (2008). Processing abstract language modulates motor system activity. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(6), 1–15].

I’m not the only one to have had positive results when using inclusive classroom exercise programmes to help children learn more effectively. Researchers from the University of Aberdeen found that primary school pupils performed better on cognitive tests after regular classroom physical exercise. [Hill, L., Williams, J. H., Aucott, L., Milne, J., Thomson, J., Greig, J., & Mon-Williams, M. A. R. K. (2010). Exercising attention within the classroom. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 52, 929–934].

Scientists from the University of Kansas found that academic achievement improved when primary school lessons were made more physically active. [Donnelly, J. E., & Lambourne, K. (2011). Classroom-based physical activity, cognition, and academic achievement. Preventive Medicine, 52(Suppl.), S36–S42.] Why is this important? In UK schools, one in five children are classified as having SEN, five times the European average.

‘Only 13% of UK children with SEN, including dyslexia, receive diagnosis of their condition, so 1.5 million SEN children do not receive support tailored to their specific needs. This is a huge number and a very worrying statistic. It leads to our education system failing far more children than elsewhere in the developed world’.

Is this because we are one of the very few countries which start pupils sitting down and concentrating when they are far too young? Many specialists think this is the case, and I am inclined to agree. Researcher David Whitebread, of Cambridge University Faculty of Education, along with another 130 early childhood education experts, called for the UK Government to delay the start of formal schooling until the age of seven, in line with the rest of our European counterparts, who have higher levels of child well-being and academic achievement. Unfortunately the UK Government simply stated that this report was ‘misguided’ and are pushing full steam ahead with plans to allow children as young as two into formal schooling.

Received wisdom
I’m sure there will be a lot of people out there who don’t like the ideas I’ve discussed here. The received wisdom in the academic world of literacy research is that the only thing that is needed to improve literacy is more and better phoneme awareness training. I believe that the proof is in the pudding; we need to find what actually works in practice, never mind whether it is underpinned with a theory which is mainstream and accepted.

In the 1980s, I did some geophysics research which went against the status quo in my field. Luckily, my international colleagues were open minded and allowed my ideas to be published, although I got a lot of ribbing at conferences for going off the wall. Eventually, more than 10 years later, technology moved on to the stage where sophisticated electron microscope techniques allowed the behaviour to be observed.

I turned out to have been right, and the accepted theories had to be completely overhauled! I don’t mind being out on a limb – let’s hope that these ideas can really help children with SEN achieve happier and more successful lives in the future.


About Contributors

Dr Elizabeth McClelland is the developer of the Move4words literacy programme and ran a private practice supporting children with SEN until 2009. She is an educational consultant, an academic visitor at the Department of Physiology, Oxford University and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

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