Movement helps kids learn letter sounds

"The results suggest that embodied learning activities can significantly improve early literacy and spelling performance in children," says Linn Damsgaard. (Credit: U. Copenhagen)

Children who use their bodies to shape letter sounds improve their spelling skills more than those who receive traditional classroom instruction, a study finds.

The learning strategy works for children with normal literacy development, as well for those who are at risk of experiencing reading difficulties.

The development of literacy skills is an important aspect of a child’s earliest years of school. This learning usually takes place while seated, which can be difficult for some children. And when a child falls behind in reading, they risk lagging behind throughout their school years.

At Copenhagen’s Nørrebro Park School, 57 first graders participated in the study. One group of children received regular spelling and reading instruction, while the other group received instruction that focused on letter-sound couplings with the use of the body. Both groups included children with lower and higher reading abilities. The children were tested in spelling, letter-sound knowledge, and word reading before and after the intervention.

After only four weeks of three 25-minute interventions each week with movement phonemes—teaching that focuses on letter-sound couplings with the use of the body—the children doubled their scores in both spelling and letter recognition tests. These improvements were significant compared to the group of children who received regular classroom instruction.

“The results suggest that embodied learning activities can significantly improve early literacy and spelling performance in children,” says Linn Damsgaard, who did the research as part of a doctoral dissertation in the University of Copenhagen’s department of nutrition, exercise, and sports.

“We expected to see the greatest improvement in children with lower reading skills. But it turned out that children with normal reading levels experienced similar improvements. It is gratifying that children at every level experienced significant improvement in their skills, regardless of their baseline,” says Damsgaard.

Even though the children improved at letter recognition and spelling individual words, the researchers observed no significant improvement in their reading ability. According to Damsgaard, there might be a natural explanation: “Our intervention at the school was relatively short, and there is a difference between recognizing an individual letter and reading an entire word. So, we think any lack of an impact on children’s overall reading abilities is likely because the children had simply not gotten there yet in their literacy development. Had we been with the children for a longer period of time, we would probably have seen an effect on literacy later on in the school year.”

Study collaborator Anne-Mette Veber Nielsen of the Danish National Centre for Reading sees potential in the results and hopes they can form a basis for delving more deeply into the connection between movement and learning—especially for the benefit of those children who are at risk of reading difficulties.

“The results help to substantiate how effective systematic training in linking letters and their different pronunciations is for early literacy,” says Nielsen. “I hope that future studies can help shed light on why embodied learning is the reason why children at risk of written language difficulties also experience such remarkable progress in just five hours of instruction.”

Through the ACTIVE SCHOOL project, researchers are continuing their work to investigate other forms of embodied learning and how memory and learning processes can be improved through movement. The goal is to generate knowledge that can help educators, school leaders, and students strengthen learning, well-being, motivation, and physical and mental health through physical activity.

The results of the study appear in the journal Educational Psychology Review.

Source: Adam Heed-Andersen for University of Copenhagen