Reading and the body: the unacknowledged physical challenges of learning to read in school

In the 2010s, while working as a Reading Recovery1 teacher, I witnessed the daily challenges that young children face when learning to read and write. It became increasingly clear to me that those young readers with were battling with the physicality of reading as well as the cognitive demands of texts. Some children hadn’t yet developed the dexterity to easily turn the pages of a book. Others were at the early stages of learning to co-ordinate their eyes, lips and tongue to work together to generate sounds that could be assembled into words. And the continuous visual focus and importance of maintaining the position of the book required a stilling of the body that often seemed at odds with constantly jiggling knees and feet. 

My realisation that attending to the physicality of reading might be of benefit to anyone who is working with beginner readers was complicated by the difficulties I found when I began to research the teaching of reading in schools in more depth. There was barely a mention of it.

Schools in the UK follow a national curriculum for reading, the basis for which is a cognitive-psychological approach and these documents published by the Department for Education for England2 give a good sense of what this might mean in practice through the teaching of phonics. During my initial training as a primary class teacher, I was largely unaware that there were other paradigms3 of reading beyond the cognitive-psychological model that was conveyed to us simply as ‘reading’. My discovery, several years later, that reading is a purely human construct with a variety of paradigms that seek to explain its processes and significance was a turning point for me. I realised how limited my own teaching had been within the single model that I had followed and this led me to research some of the different interpretations of what it means to read and to be a reader. My discovery of a paradigm for reading by Thomas McLaughlin in his fascinating and thoroughly readable book Reading and the body (2015) gave me the opportunity to integrate his understanding of the physicality of reading with my daily observations of readers. And that, in turn, helped me to understand that the physical aspects of reading will also have consequences for the physical environment of the reader. 

Of course children do manage to learn to read in schools without any acknowledgement of the significance of the physical aspects of reading. However, McLaughlin is persuasive in delinating the physical aspects of reading that can easily be forgotten:  

“Eyes scan the page, hands hold the book, body postures align the entire musculoskeletal frame around the visual and manual requirements of reading, adapting to the materiality of the book and to the physical space the reader inhabits” (McLaughlin, 2015, p.1).

Here, McLaughlin acknowledges the physical complexity of reading. Not only this but as he develops his argument, he adds another layer to this complexity, suggesting that the act of reading incorporates a basic deception, presenting the illusion to fluent readers that the mind is in direct contact with the text. He elaborates on this here:

[R]eading itself is an act of the body – the brain, the eyes, the hands, the postures, the habits, the body in space, even if it presents itself as pure mental operation, denying its own bodily nature. Reading seems ascetic, detached. And yet, in spite of the attention required by reading, the body simultaneously scans and maps the surround and itself. The reader is not out of this world, not completely transported. Reading is the body tricking itself into thinking there is something other than the body doing the reading.” (ibid. p. 115)

As McLaughlin explains, an essential component of the act of fluent, avid reading is the illusion that one’s surroundings and even one’s body melts into insignificance. The experience of being lost in a book is beautifully evoked in  The Child that books built by Francis Spufford (2003). 

I can always tell when you’re reading somewhere in the house’, my mother used to say. ‘There’s a special silence, a reading silence.’ I never heard it, this extra degree of hus that somehow travelled through walls and ceilings to announce that my seven-year old self had become about as absent as a present person could be. The silence went both ways. As my concentration on the story in my hands took hold, all sounds faded away. My ears closed (…) There was an airlock in there. It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside. The silence that fell on the noises of people and traffic and dogs allowed an inner door to open the book’s data, it’s script of sound. (p. 1) 

McLaughlin presents to us a vital aspect of fluent reading: a sense of immersion in a text. He explains that focusing one’s mind upon a text demands a high cognitive load and that the body zones out so that one’s mental capacities are not subsumed by it or its surroundings. Taking his thesis a step further, I’d suggest that this is a crucial difference between the beginner and the expert reader and that when we are considering how to teach reading in schools, it is one that we could helpfully attend to. Beginner readers have to manage the process of recognising sounds, letters and words and the context and meaning of the text, along with a more acute awareness of their bodies and the distractions of their surroundings. The facility to block these stimuli is not yet available to them. No wonder learning to read can feel so difficult and frustrating for them.

If we, as teachers and designers, can become more aware of the array of physical challenges for beginner readers as well as the challenges sometimes posed by their surroundings where they practise reading aloud with a teacher, I am convinced that we could support young readers more effectively. Ensuring that their bodies are comfortable might be a good starting point. We can use the thoughtful design of the spaces where they learn to muffle distractions and create what McLaughlin calls a ‘cocoon of personal space’ (p. 31) that mimics the effect of losing an sense of oneself and one’s surroundings when enjoying a good book. Reading spaces in schools are often designed for the expert reader who can concentrate their full attention on the text, maintaining this as their focus, with the assumption that they can settle their bodies easily to read and block out noises and other distractions. Let’s think about creating quiet, comfortable spaces for beginner readers in schools wherever we can. Learning to read is such an important part of young children’s experience of school, can we use thoughtful design for beginner readers to make it a happier and more pleasurable one for them?

Notes

  1. The Reading Recovery programme for 5 and 6 year olds was devised by Marie Clay, a clinical child psychologist working in New Zealand. She was prompted to do so by research findings that indicated that children who made the least progress in their first formal year of schooling in reading and writing, generally continued to do so throughout their school career. Clay regretted that she had misnamed the programme Reading Recovery and wished she had called it Reading and Writing Recovery, as writing makes up a significant part of each lesson.  

It is interesting to note that the physical challenges of writing for young children are usually well-understood by education professionals who recognise that children might struggle to form letters, to hold a pencil etc. However, these this recognition does not generally extend to the physicality of reading. 

2. Although the document I’ve linked to below from the DfE England isn’t intended to explain the teaching of phonics but rather to validate private companies who are intending to sell phonics programmes to schools, it actually gives a stronger sense of what this model of reading teaching means in schools than many other explanations that I’ve come across

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-teaching-materials-core-criteria-and-self-assessment/validation-of-systematic-synthetic-phonics-programmes-supporting-documentation

3. If you’d like to find out more about the different paradigms of reading, an excellent primer that outlines some of them with clear practical examples is Kathy Hall’s Listening to Stephen Read, first published in 2002 by the Open University Press. Although it is nearly 20 years old, it still feels very relevant. A more comprehensive publication but one which requires some previous knowledge of reading theories is Kathy Mills’ 2015 text Literacy theories for the digital age: social, critical, multimodal, spatial, material and sensory lenses, published by Multilingual Matters. 

References

Hall, K. (2002). Listening to Stephen read. Buckingham: Open University Press

McLaughlin, T. (2015). Reading and the body: the physical practice of reading. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Spufford, F. (2002). The child that books built. London: Faber.

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