Academic who lost ability to read turns the page

20th April 2012 at 01:00
She has created a programme to help struggling readers at school

After recovering from a brain virus, Oxford academic Elizabeth McClelland was left with an unexpected and distressing side effect: she had lost the ability to read.

Doctors seemed unable to help, leaving Dr McClelland to track down the help she needed to teach herself to read again with a series of eye exercises. Now she has drawn on her experience to launch a programme that she says will help struggling readers at school.

The academic's experience began when she was diagnosed with a brain virus in 1998. Dr McClelland, at that time a lecturer in environmental earth sciences at the University of Oxford, made a full recovery, except when it came to reading.

She could decipher single words and write using a computer, but she could not read sentences. After two years of searching for a reason why - and with doctors unable to provide an answer - she found a physiotherapist who diagnosed the problem.

"I had lost the ability to track my eyes from word to word along the line," Dr McClelland said. "My eyes would move maybe five lines down and eight words along. I did eye-tracking exercises for a month and things improved. After another month, my reading was back to normal."

After her illness she returned to work part-time and, inspired by her own experience, began researching the connection between sensory and physical abilities and learning abilities.

While Dr McClelland remains a visiting senior research fellow at Oxford, she has created her own programme, Move4Words, based on what she learned about the connections between the brain and movement. She has also established a not-for-profit organisation of the same name to promote the programme and has started working with a small number of schools to test it out.

Rather than trying to diagnose particular children, the programme is designed to be used by a group and is based on a number of studies that look at the relationship between reading difficulties and physical and sensory difficulties.

Dr McClelland said that her programme draws on several studies that show movement programmes can help to improve children's reading.

It was in part inspired by Professor Usha Goswami, director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge, who has published evidence on the link between being able to hear rhythm in music and reading ability.

Dr McClelland points out that there is little definitive research into exactly how such initiatives work, but she has recently completed a study of 248 children who are using her programme and found that they improved faster than similar children. Below-average readers make five times the progress in reading age than expected over the 12-week period of the programme, Dr McClelland said.

Julia Percy, a Year 5 teacher at Christ Church Primary School in Leigh, Greater Manchester, used the programme, aimed at Years 3-7, last year and is repeating it this year. "There is nothing in there that is about practising reading; it is all exercises," said Ms Percy. "But we saw the reading ages of some children really improve and the children themselves commented that their concentration had never been better.

"We want to look at more long-term results, because classes can vary so much from year to year, but we have decided to carry on with it and give it a good go."

Nicola Matthews, a Year 5 teacher at Rose Hill Primary School in Oxford, who has been following the programme since January with her class, has also reported positive results.

"We start with fast marching to music, swinging arms and legs in time. Then there are coordination exercises, eye exercises and a clapping sequence," she said. "They really enjoy and it ends with breathing and relaxation. Quite a few of the children, maybe 12 of the 29, say it is easier to concentrate and feel they can read more speedily."

John Rack, head of research and professional development at Dyslexia Action, said that programmes such as Dr McClelland's were delivering positive results, but added that there was a lack of evidence to show why they work.

"I would say to do these things with an open mind, because in almost all cases we don't actually know what the active ingredient is," Dr Rack said. "We certainly know there is room for innovation. But the track record shows that, basically, if you want to get better at reading, you need to train in reading. It would be nice to come up with a fix for the underlying problem, but so far nothing has stood rigorous investigation."


Dr McClelland's programme is not the first to link physical movement with improved reading.

The Primary Movement programme, which aims to help pupils improve their learning through a daily 10-minute movement programme, received #163;209,000 of government funding earlier this year.

The money from the Education Endowment Foundation will be used to run a trial to find out how effective the programme is when used with a whole class, rather than targeted pupils.

Primary Movement was developed by psychologists at Queen's University Belfast and is based on the reflex movements that are present at birth, but should disappear during normal development.

The researchers already have evidence that struggling readers who follow the programme make more progress in reading than similar children who do not follow the exercises.

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