Hundreds of five-year-olds are to get a new addition to their timetables in a bid to boost their literacy: exercise.
The 10-minute routines of controlled movements, likened to t'ai chi by one teacher, will be introduced at 40 primary schools to train pupils out of reflexes in their bodies that can hamper their reading and writing.
Most children grow out of certain reflexes, such as the way a baby grasps a finger placed in its palm, but when they do not it can slow development and have an impact on their learning, according to researchers. They have now devised exercises - many of which are accompanied by songs and nursery rhymes - to help to "switch off" the reflexes, aiding children's ability to concentrate.
Dr Martin McPhillips, a psychology lecturer at Queen's University Belfast who has studied the phenomenon, estimates that among the children in the bottom 10 per cent for reading, 60-70 per cent may have so-called "persistent primary reflexes".
A study authored by Dr McPhillips compared two groups of children who experienced difficulties with reading. Those who carried out the exercises made 15.3 months' progress in reading over a year, compared with six months' progress made by similar children who did not perform the routines.
Many teachers advocate bursts of vigorous exercise to help to motivate pupils, but this project is about precise movements that affect the way the body works. Dr McPhillips said that the brain uses part of the motor system when reading, so curing any problems with the motor system can boost overall abilities in reading.
One example is a reflex in babies that causes their arms to stretch out when they turn their heads. If that persists into childhood, it can cause problems at school.
"If you sit down to write, your head looks towards your hand to see what you're writing," said Dr McPhillips. "A child who has the typical response of a newborn has to make more effort to control their pencil. The mechanical control of the hand is taking up so much cognitive space that there is not much left over for thinking about what they are writing."
The exercise programme, which 1,400 pupils will participate in, has been funded by the government-backed Education Endowment Foundation. It is one of seven initiatives across England that have been awarded #163;3.2 million by the foundation, which aims to improve the attainment of poor children.
Dr McPhillips, who established the Primary Movement charity that will run the exercise project, said children in disadvantaged areas had a higher risk of development problems related to reflexes.
Trisha Saul, training coordinator for Primary Movement, said that the charity had already worked with a small number of schools in Northern Ireland and England. "The big change with this particular project is that it will be trialled in an area with a high level of social disadvantage and a lot of schools will be involved," she said.
Susan Woodroff, assistant head and Year 2 teacher at Holy Trinity Church of England Primary School in Hartlepool, performs the exercises with her class every day before lunchtime.
"We do some songs first, as a warm-up, and then the exercises, which are very slow, controlled movements," she said. "They look just like t'ai chi. We've noticed that it does make a difference to reading scores.
"I think it's probably the best training I've been on in 20 years of primary teaching. It's inspirational and it works."