George Lucas Educational Foundation

Squats, Lunges, and Phonemes

Adding movement to reading lessons reinforces key concepts and helps fidgety students concentrate.

September 2, 2022
skynesher / iStock

Five minutes into our reading lesson, as my students and I quickly returned to our seats after doing our slightly modified push-ups, I took a moment to observe the joy I saw on their faces.

You might be wondering, “Push-ups during a reading lesson?”

Yes! We did push-ups on a regular basis during reading. We also did squats, lunges, dips, jumping jacks, and more. When I started teaching reading, I had a very active group of struggling students. Because of their struggles, many of my students mentally checked out when it came time for reading. I knew I needed to get the blood flowing to their brains, get them excited, and use their bodies to learn. That was when I added full-body movement.

Push-Ups and Phonemic Awareness

The push-ups were part of our phonemic awareness activities. We know that phonemic awareness is a critical element in learning to read. It helps strengthen important neural pathways in the brain that provide a foundation for decoding as well as orthographic mapping of words.

That day, one of the students had chosen push-ups as the way he wanted to segment the phonemes in the word ship. That meant that our first push-up had three stops on the way up. We pushed up a third of the way and said “/sh/.” We pushed a little farther and said “/i/.” Then, as we completed the push-up, we all said “/p/.” For the second push-up, we blended the word using one strong push-up and said “Ship!”

Because of its importance, phonemic awareness was the start of every reading lesson. Plastic eggs are perfect for this push-up activity. Before class, I put items or pictures in about five plastic eggs. Five students (I keep a running checklist so that everyone gets a chance) picked an egg out of a hat. Then, one by one, we went through this routine. One student opened her egg and told us what was inside.

Imagine a student pulling out a toy boat.

  • I ask, “How many sounds (phonemes) are in the word boat?”
  • She responds by saying, “There are three sounds in boat.”
  • “What are they?”
  • “/b/ /o/ /t/”
  • Then I ask, “How do you want to show the sounds?” That’s where the movement or kinesthetic part comes in. Some students just want to tap the sounds out on their arms or nose, but others want to do push-ups, dips, lunges, squats, and more. I keep a list of ideas on the board. We put a star by the ones that are used that day—otherwise, my arms get sore from doing so many push-ups!
  • The student says, “Squats!” The entire class gets out of their seats and squats low to the ground. In that position, we say “/b/.” Then we move about halfway up and say “/o/.” Finally, we stand all the way up and say “/t/.”
  • After that, we blend it. So, we squat low and jump up while saying “Boat!”
  • Next, depending on the skill level of the student, I have them identify, delete, or substitute the initial, final, or medial sound in the word. We do one more set of the movements with the response. In this situation, I might ask, “Change the /t/ in boat to /n/ and tell me the new word.”
  • The student (and class) might use the modified squat again to figure it out. Moving up with each sound: “/b/ /o/ /n/.” Then, the entire class would squat low and jump up, saying “Bone!”

Rhyming and Moving

If my students were not cognitively ready for phonemic awareness, we worked on other phonological awareness skills, like rhyming or playing with syllables. We used the same types of movements for syllable segmentation, identification, substitution, or deletion as we did for phonemes.

For rhyming, I had students shift their weight from their left foot to their right foot for the rhyme. Moving from left to right helps reinforce the orientation of reading from left to right. The students say the onset (beginning) of their rhyme with their weight on their left foot and the rime (or the end of the rhyme) with their weight on their right foot. We test out words to see if the sound is the same when the weight is on the right foot. “Do cat and fat rhyme?” Left foot /k/, right foot /at/—Left foot /f/, right foot /at/—“Is the sound on the right foot the same?” This kinesthetic piece really helps the students internalize rhyme.

Avoiding Chaos

Once, when my principal walked into my room and saw us doing push-ups, she smiled because she knew how hard it was for some of my students to focus. Later, she asked, “How do you get the students to do the push-ups and then come right back to their seats?”

The answer is twofold. First, I provided specific instructions. They had to choose a space close to their desk and make sure they were not touching anyone else. They knew they had to stay in their space while they did the activity, and then they knew to quickly and quietly return when they were done.

Second, I did not require that the students participate in the push-ups or other activities. I simply gave them the opportunity. They knew that if they chose not to follow the rules, they were choosing to sit out on that word. I always gave them the option to try again after sitting out for one word. In reality, they loved doing it so much that they rarely sat out more than once. You may have some students with autism or other sensory issues who do not want to participate. That’s fine. Don’t force them to do the movements.

Oh yes, and when you do these movements with your students, remember to start a physical activity on your smartwatch so that you’ll get credit. These activities have the added benefit of allowing you to combine work with a workout!

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Student Engagement
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary

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