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Exercise in how to trump spelling

A mix of brain gym and t'ai chi movements is helping primary boys to master literacy difficulties, reports Karen Shead

As the eight P4 and P5 boys file into the classroom, one of them presses the play button on the tape recorder and relaxing t'ai chi music fills the room. Before the teacher has even given any instructions, the boys form a circle and start to massage the top of their chest bones, otherwise known as the brain button.

"That's right," says their support for learning teacher, Janet Arbuckle. "We massage the brain button to wake us up for working, for learning.

"Now turn your hands," she continues. "This relaxes them ready for writing."

They all change their movements as Mrs Arbuckle gently commands "Turn the drum of gold" and "Now do the shark."

"That's right, William. Well done, Liam," she encourages, as the boys focus on their moves, concentration clearly etched on their faces.

"Make sure you are wide awake now," she continues. They do the cross crawl, touching each knee with the opposite elbow, followed by lazy eights, where the thumb is held up in the air drawing a figure of eight and the eyes follow the movement. "This makes sure your eyes are moving properly when you are spelling and reading," explains Mrs Arbuckle.

Then they move on to the last part of the session, the relaxation period, called hook ups. "Think about the best thing that happened at school yesterday," she says to the boys, who all have their eyes closed. "Hold on to the feeling, concentrate on the colours and let them become brighter."

Not all lessons at Kirkliston Primary in West Lothian begin like this. T'ai gym, a term coined by Mrs Arbuckle, is a combination of brain gym and t'ai chi movements. The classes started in September when she was asked to work with the boys on spelling.

Mrs Arbuckle has worked with children with moderate learning difficulties for several years and come to realise that a lot of them share similar characteristics. "Many have low self-esteem, short attention spans, poor retention and often become restless," she says. "They seem to look for any excuse to stop the task they are doing and move around in their seats or wander across the room to sharpen a pencil or get a rubber."

This led her to thinking about why they needed to move and whether their concentration would improve if she built a movement session into the class.

"I have been interested in the effect movement has on learning for some years and have attended several courses on brain gym."

She realised her own concentration improved after completing a session of t'ai chi, which she has been practising for two years.

So, after consulting with her trainer to find out which exercises could help children, she decided to combine these with some brain gym exercises.

"It seemed only natural to call my programme t'ai gym," she says.

The series of exercises now carried out at the beginning of the spelling class helps to relax the hands, improve right-left co-ordination and tracking and boost energy levels. Moves such as circling the feet, for example, work on several acupressure points to improve the flow of energy.

Not all the exercises are performed in each class but the sessions always start with brain buttons and end with hook ups.

After the exercises, the boys settle down at the tables and are relaxed, focused and ready to start their spelling work.

The t'ai gym has already had positive results. In August, before the sessions began, the eight- to 10-year-olds sat a Master Your Spelling test, which they took again in January. All of their scores had improved: the lowest increase was 1.1 years, from 7.1 to 8.2 years.The spelling age of one boy went up by 3.2 years (from 6.5 to 9.7 years) and for another by 2.4 years (from 7.1 to 9.5 years).

"The test results are extremely encouraging," says Mrs Arbuckle. "Not only have they scored better on their writing tests; they have also scored better on their reading tests. It goes to show that using a multi-disciplinary approach can make a difference.

"More importantly," she continues, "all of the children in the group now attempt to spell new words, often successfully.

"When I used to say to the children we are doing spelling now, they would say 'I can't do that' and they didn't want to do it. But now they know they can do these things and they feel better about themselves. Their organisational skills have improved and they have become confident learners with raised self-esteem."

Headteacher Bill Cartner praises the exercise programme. "The school values Janet's work tremendously because of the improvements which the children make," he says. "She is a very effective learning support teacher and is greatly valued."

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