As I continued to research methods for teaching children after I had begun my experiment, I received a book I’d requested from the library: Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head, by Carla Hannaford. Hannaford’s book became a valuable tool: it changed the shape of my experiment. In the final stages of my experiment, the tools necessary for reading, and the eye in particular and relevant brain function, became of special interest in constructing a yoga class for the third grade.
In early primary grades, maturity is a huge factor in student success. I have tended to think of maturity in terms of social and emotional skills, and I suspect that many people think along these same lines. However, as Hannaford explores, physical maturity is a powerful factor in becoming a successful student. In light of the reading and writing work I do with students, I have become intrigued by the function of the eye: it is absolutely essential for students to look at letters in order to learn to read. This is a surprisingly difficult task, especially among first graders, emergent readers, but also at any level of reading – especially when reading a difficult word. One first grade teacher frequently reminds her students, “read to the end of the word;” “look at the word in your book! It’s not written on the ceiling or on my forehead!” Certainly the student looks up or to the teacher when she encounters a difficult word to seek help or affirmation. However, the letters themselves prove to be an obstacle.
According to Hannaford, before approximately age seven the muscles of the eye have developed to accommodate three-dimensional, peripheral, and distance vision. At about age seven, the eyes’ muscles begin to allow the eye lens to more easily focus an image on the fovea centralis of the retina: “ninety-five percent of the receptors the rods, are for peripheral vision, while only five percent are cones for foveal focus, which is what we use for up close, two-dimensional paper work” (116). Hannaford elaborates:
Children who have looked at books in the home may have already acquired some foveal focus if the process was their choice and free of stress and pressure to perform, however, most children are not physically ready to read at age five as is now mandated in our schools. (117)
Third graders are eight or nine years old: so foveal focus should have developed by this point. As I read Hannaford’s book, however, I began to wonder about the effects of intensive foveal focus on the eye before the eye is ready. What, for example, is the effect on the muscles that develop to support three-dimensional, peripheral, and distance vision? Again, I am not equipped to answer my question except based on my own observations and experience. I feel that the third graders’ lack of enthusiasm for reading is partially due to culture and partially due to the physical makeup and chemistry of their brains. Their explanation that reading is “boring” is too simple.