Exercises That Help Students Focus on Reading

An occupational therapist shares movement breaks and simple tools that help elementary students focus on the written word.

September 15, 2022
kali9 / iStock

When children are physically overstimulated, their reading often suffers. They may rush their reading and skip lines. They might have difficulty decoding and have decreased comprehension, visual focus, and reading stamina. The good news is that there are many small and large movement strategies and supports that can address overstimulation and assist students with the underlying developmental components of reading.

I’ve put together several easy exercises that students can do in class. I’ve also included some simple but effective tools to help them focus on their reading.

The movement strategies incorporate crossing midline (where one side of the body crosses to the other side, leading to cross-hemispheric integration), tactile (touch), visual input, and proprioception (deep pressure to the joints to improve body awareness).

Students can do these strategies as stand-alone movements or as a sequence before reading as a preparatory activity, as well as during the reading process as a break to ensure that their pace and attention are extended through the resulting sensory feedback.

Consider creating a visual of these strategies to place near reading areas to remind students to do the exercise sequences during the reading period to maximize sustained reading and regulation and to improve stamina.

Small Movement Exercises

Temple taps: Students gently tap the sides of their head in a brisk and steady manner, repeating five to 10 times.

Eye break: Students rub their palms together until they feel warm. Have them close their eyes and gently place their warmed palms over their eyes for 10 to 20 seconds. This is a great exercise to use both before reading and when students’ eyes begin to lose focus during reading.

During school-based tasks involving sustained visual focus (e.g., near and far point copying, reading from a book and from the board), students may experience eye muscle fatigue. Utilizing an eye break at regular intervals or whenever the eyes start to experience fatigue can give tired eye muscles a brief rest and can improve stamina as well as performance in related tasks.

Big Breaks

Whole-body tap-rub-squeeze combo: Have students stand up with their feet flat on the floor and cross their arms, bringing palms to opposite shoulders. Then, beginning at the shoulders and moving down to the wrist, they quickly tap up and down. Next, keeping arms crossed at the shoulders, students firmly rub the arms up and down in a steady manner, going up and down from the shoulder to the wrists. Finally, students firmly squeeze the arms up and down in a steady manner from the shoulder to the wrists.

Make an 8: Tell your students the following: “Picture an 8 on its side. Pretend that you’ve drawn it. Picture how it looks and imagine that it’s right in front of you. Take your right hand (moving the shoulder along as well) and trace it carefully. Now, trace over it with your left hand. Now, take both hands together (one fist on top of the other) and trace over the 8 together.”

Note: The make-an-8 activity, while for the whole body, also works on visual attention and acts as an eye break, so it may be a good strategy to utilize when engaging in activities that have significant visual motor and visual perceptual components, such as reading, writing, drawing, copying from the board, and sustaining visual attention during instruction.

Helpful Tools

Textured bookmark: Ask your students if they ever feel as if it’s hard to keep their eyes on the page, or if they often find themselves having to read the same word or sentence over and over again. A bright, plain bookmark to track each sentence during reading may help to keep their eyes on the page for longer periods of time and ensure concentration.

Note: The bookmark goes above the words.

Students can make their own bookmarks (younger grades may need help). Cut out sheets of paper in the shape of bookmarks. Any type of available paper will work, such as construction paper or lined paper.

An alternative is to use already-made bookmarks. Try placing textured Velcro or stickers on the bookmarks to increase sensory feedback. Students can fidget with the Velcro while reading.

Colored overlay: A colored overlay is a colorful see-through sheet that has a narrow window that students can read through, one sentence at a time. The window should be approximately ¾ inch wide, depending on the size of the letters and words the students will be reading. This can make it easier for students to keep their eyes on their reading, because the words are tracked within the window.

DIY: To do it yourself, buy a see-through folder (the brighter and more lightweight ones usually work better). You should be able to get about eight windows from each folder. Cut a thin strip out (approximately the size of a sentence). Students can use it as a bookmark as well.

Alternative DIY: The color of an overlay can assist with visual tracking and decoding skills. Test out what color students read through with the most fluidity. Next, cut a transparent folder of that color in half. Have them read materials through that lens. It’s important that you use a folder that is transparent and thin for this strategy.

Using these exercises as reading preparation activities and as breaks during reading and adding simple tools can help make reading go more smoothly for students.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts

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