2/10 primary school children failing to reach targets in reading, writing and maths at 7 years of age

Yesterday’s figures showing that there had been a 2% drop in  primary school children achieving expected standards in writing, 1% drop in maths and 2 out of 10 children failing to reach targets in reading despite government initiatives to focus on literacy at primary school and pre-school education, suggest that the teaching of children in a formal education setting alone, is not enough.

Results of a series of studies carried out by INPP in schools between 2000 and 2005 indicated that 48% of children within mainstream schools in the United Kingdom are not “ready” for school in terms of their physical skills in the year of school entry and 35% still have issues related to physical immaturity two years later.  Of these at least 15% are under-achieving at reading.  If the samples included in this research* are in any way representative of the general population, they suggest that physical maturity is important for educational achievement.

The concept of physical readiness for formal education is not new. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget listed the stages of development necessary to achieve integrated functioning beginning with sensori-motor learning.  More than 30 years ago, Louise Bates Ames who originally worked at the famous Gesell Institute for Child Development in the United States observed that reading readiness coincided with the shedding of the first milk teeth, which usually occurs around 6 years of age.  The United Kingdom is one of the only countries that places such emphasis on reading at under 5 years of age.

Physical readiness does not develop as a result of sitting at a desk for 6  – 7 hours of the day or sitting in front of a television or computer.  Physical readiness begins with physical interaction with the environment, time spent with primary care-givers (preferably involved parents) and social engagement.  Physical readiness is important because it reflects maturity in neurological pathways involved in the complex processes of reading, writing and problem solving, and all of these “higher” learning abilities involve physical action and cooperation between the brain and the body.

Reading for example requires development of eye movements, sufficient to be able to focus the eyes on a set point on the page, get the two eyes to work together as a team to follow a line of print from left to right, make a larger eye movement in the opposite direction (right to left) to return to the beginning of the next line.  These are motor skills involving control of eye movements.  If eye movements are immature and unstable, the letters, numbers and words can become scrambled on the page so that the brain sees them in the wrong order and the child has difficulty decoding the symbols, word building and making sense (comprehension)  of the written word.

Reading is also based upon an oral tradition, and the ability to understand phonics begins with the development of language and speech.  Children speak with their bodies before they articulate words, using the language of posture, gesture and intonation to make themselves understood.  The desire to communicate using words is partly innate but is also dependent on environmental stimulation - being talked to and listened to -  by caregivers throughout the day on a daily basis in the pre-school years. 

Writing is a fine motor skill which requires coordination between the hand and the eyes supported by posture.    Children with postural problems often find it difficult to sit still and coordinate different parts of their body. Postural development in the early years is encouraged by physical interaction with the environment, the process of physical play.

Maths in addition to understanding the meaning of numbers involves numerous interactions between the two halves of the brain to solve problems and apply known concepts.  It also involves the ability to carry out a sequence of mental operations(multiplication tables for example) carried out by a part of the brain called the cerebellum, which is primarily responsible for fine tuning the coordination of motor activities and which learns by doing – in other words - through repeated physical action or practice.  Communication at a neurological level is stimulated by physical activity, but young children of today have less opportunity and time spent in physical interaction and engagement than any generation of British children within living memory. 

Increased focus on sedentary activities in pre-school education and the primary years will help those children who already have the physical maturity to benefit but will not necessarily help children who are not physically ready.  The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology has instigated a number of initiatives in schools in various parts of the country, training teachers how to administer a simple battery of tests to assess children’s physical readiness and implement a programme of exercises carried out under teacher supervision for 10 minutes every day.  Results to date suggest that the behaviour, concentration and social skills  of children who take part in the programme all improve compared to children who do not participate and that more general  behavioural improvements are followed by increased levels of attainment in educational measures.

Physical education matters. Until Education addresses children’s physical needs at every stage in education a % of children will continue to fail to reach government targets.

*Research published in Child Care in Practice 11/4:415-423. 2005.

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