Today, I will be blogging about the importance of incorporating motor skills into literacy centers for children. Common Core standards have increased the expectations we are placing on our little ones. As an Occupational Therapist, one of my concerns is that the children are still given opportunities to use and develop their motor skills throughout a typical school day. Over the past few years, I am finding that children’s motor skills are decreasing, rather than improving. So, what can we do? Tons of things! There are so many ways to incorporate movement into reading and literacy lessons. Why not work on two skills at once?
What is RTI, anyway?
RTI stands for “Response to Intervention”. Response to Intervention (RTI) is a framework used by teachers to help children who are struggling. For example, a first-grade student is behind his peers in reading. The teacher will use his test scores or other strategies to provide targeted interventions to address that deficit. What does that mean? It means the teacher will determine where the child’s weakness is and then provide specific strategies and lessons, geared to helping that child improve on that skill. If the interventions don’t work, the teacher will provide more focused interventions. RTI is a 3 tiered process. It allows general education students to get the help they need, before falling significantly behind. It is designed to be proactive in helping children to catch up to their peers.
Anyway, RTI is here to stay, and it’s a great way for teachers and parents to keep track of their student’s success. RTI strategies can be used for learning, behavior, and even motor skills. One of my best ideas (in my opinion!) over the past two years was to create “motor boxes” in my classrooms. I collected shoeboxes from all the teachers in my building and then had a blast building activities that incorporated both motor and literacy skills. The boxes were designed for each child’s special learning needs. I admit it took a while because I created the boxes based on each child’s individual needs; however, the idea behind the boxes is perfect to use from an RTI perspective! So, I am going to share the ideas/boxes that I created for my classrooms in hopes that parents, teachers, OT’s and Speech and Language Pathologists will create similar activities to use with all of their students, too!
My teachers have given me great feedback on the boxes, and they told me that the “motor boxes” are great for independent working time. This allows the teacher to pull children in small groups while other children work independently at their desks on the motor and literacy skills in their box. From an RTI perspective, a teacher could create multiple boxes, so the children can take turns using them, working on different skills. I found it very helpful to create a “star chart”. I numbered each box, and then I put the children’s names and the box numbers on the chart. After a child finished the task in the box, they were excited to go over to the chart, find their name, and put a star in the column of the number box they did. This also eliminated a different problem. Originally, kids were avoiding the “difficult” boxes! Now we had a way to ensure that each child worked on all the different skills we planned.
The first thing I did was to ask my teachers for a list of the skills they wanted to work on, as well as the sight words they would be teaching this year. Then, I used the information to create each box to be a little different. As I said, the children were all at different levels, so I had to make the boxes hard enough to be challenging, but easy enough to succeed: “The just-right challenge”.
As we all know, school materials can be expensive! I recycled a lot of things and then used Dollar Store materials to supplement where I needed to. Here were some of the activities that I came up with.
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So, this was an easy one. The Dollar Tree sells sight word flashcards in different grade levels. For a Dollar, you get a whole stack of words, with different levels of difficulty. I separated the words into two piles and put the “difficult” ones away for the second half of the year. I love clothespins to work on grip and hand strength. Again, the Dollar store always has them. I took a sharpie and wrote the letters of the alphabet (a different letter on each side) on the top of the clothespin, and I did extra clothespins for vowels and popular letters like s and t. That was it! The kids are now reviewing grade-level sight words, much like flashcards. They are also working on bilateral coordination to hold the clothespin and the card at the same time as they are increasing their hand strength (particularly their Pencil Grip muscles) to open and close the clothespins, too! This box also incorporates Visual Figure Ground—the ability to find what you are looking for in a busy background. Many times, the kids will say, “I can’t find an A!” even when it was right in front of them. They had to track and scan through the pile to find what they needed. This is just like looking all through the fridge to find the milk (that is right in front) or looking through your crayon box to find the black (even though it’s right on top).
This activity could also be adapted to be a vocabulary lesson. Use index cards with definitions, and write the word on the clothespin. Children have to find the correct definition and pin it onto the matching card. The possibilities are endless!
I had a million craft sticks that were donated to me by a retiring teacher. I wanted to use them up but wasn’t sure how to get a motor skill out of simple craft sticks. I used the vocabulary list from my teachers to make cards again. Then, I used a box cutter to make little slices in the top of a shoebox. It’s better if the shoe box isn’t too high, so the sticks don’t fall through. I did, however, have one box that was too big. With this one, the kids learned that they had to modulate the amount of force they used when putting the sight word in the hole, so it wouldn’t fall through. This is a great skill for kids who press too hard on their pencil and squeeze too hard on the glue. I also like that the children had to put the stick in the correct slot. It helped to build their awareness of left to right fluency as well as spacing. You can’t just put any letter anywhere, or the word won’t be correct.
This activity was designed for some of my preschool students who are having difficulty sorting by color. The children actually had good fine motor skills for their age, so I used these tiny “Perler” beads to keep the “just-right challenge”. They had to discriminate between the beads to find the proper colors, in order to put them in the right hole. I used loose-leaf reinforcers and magic markers to mark the colors with an empty spice container. Sorting and categorizing are math skills, but they are also language-based skills that a child needs, in order to develop good literacy.
I bought these “ABC” beads and this floral wire at, you guessed it, the Dollar store! I cut the wire into different lengths so I could use them for different boxes. One of the teachers had sent me her “words to know” from the Journey’s program (aka sight words) via email in a label template, so I printed them out, stuck them on index cards, and done! I should mention that I always print out the directions and paste them inside the box. This way, I can make sure the teacher or teacher’s aide knows exactly what I want the kids to do. I also go through each box with the kids, when I present them, to explain what they need to do. The tricky thing with this center was that the kids would pick a card and then find the right beads, but they had to WAIT to put them on the wire until they found all the letters. Otherwise, their word would end up backward. In my directions, I explained to the kids that they had to find the beads, put them in order, then string them (last letter first). They had to put a plain colored bead in between the words to represent a space. Then, they had to write the 5 words on loose leaf. This center reinforced left to right directionality, spelling, writing, and recognizing sight words. It also worked on using a pincer grasp to pick up the small bead, using bilateral skills to hold the wire and get the bead on, and left to right tracking to line the beads up properly. Don’t forget Visual Perceptual skills to find the bead they needed and to recognize the letter, whether it was upside down or turned sideways.
I had some Linking Cubes that I hardly ever used. You could also use Legos or Mega Blocks if you have them. I used the same pack of Dollar Store sight words, and I used a Sharpie to write the letters on the blocks. I suggest putting all your cubes together before you write the letter so they are all facing the right way. I made a few long towers and then wrote all the letters, extra vowels, and popular letters. I then flipped the cubes over and wrote more letters on the back. This way the kids had double the letters with half the blocks. I also included some fun pencils in the box so the kids could practice writing the words. Kids love anything novel. The kind of pencils where you can pull the top off and stick them in the back are always a hit! Plus, they work on bilateral skills and pincer strength!
I love to use dice with children in any way I can. The first thing that most teachers don’t realize is that children don’t actually “roll” the dice. That is because they really haven’t developed the arches in their hands yet. You need arches in your hand in order to make a “cup” so the dice don’t fall out. There was a cute pin, on Pinterest, of dice in a clear Tupperware. It’s kind of like the “popper” from the game Trouble. I think it’s a great idea because children can shake the Tupperware without the dice going flying… BUT I would rather deal with the flying dice so that children can learn to use the arches in their hands to hold things (including dice) without them falling out of their hands. I feel the same way about glue sticks—Ok, so there is no mess, but there is also hardly any work involved. Kids need to squeeze, turn the cap, and learn when to stop squeezing. They benefit way more from real glue, but I digress!
It is easy to think of ways to use dice for math, but for literacy? There are still a lot of ways to use dice. I have seen “Roll A Sight Word” sheets in many classrooms. You can use my free BINGO template for this purpose, too. You can use the concept with any subject. It’s simple to assign each number a word or even a definition, for older kids. An example: a Kindergarten student is practicing simple sight words. The teacher has a simple worksheet with a “key”.
- Roll a one: he
- Roll a two: she
- Roll a three: they
- Roll a four: it
- Roll a five: the
- Roll a six: and
The child rolls the die and then colors in a box with the word in it or writes the word in the box. The child is using future math skills (probability, graphing) with current math skills (counting, number recognition), as well as literacy skills, recognizing the number, matching it to the word, remembering that the number two is code for “she”. They are also using motor skills to build the arches in their hands, to hold the die and “roll” it, rather than drop it or throw it. (They often need to be shown this). Then, they are working on pencil or crayon grip and fine motor skills, to write or color. That’s a lot of things accomplished with a die activity. The activity can be adapted to fit any teacher’s needs.
Let’s think about the same activity for a fourth-grade teacher. She can use it to work on social studies definitions and vocabulary. Fourth graders often study in class by copying definitions from the textbook or from the board, doing fill-in-the-blank sheets, or multiple-choice questions. Here is a way to make it a bit more fun AND work on those hand muscles.
- Roll a one: Definition of longitude
- Roll a two: Definition of latitude
- Roll a three: Definition of equator
- Roll a four: Definition of plateau
- Roll a five: Definition of peninsula
- Roll a six: Definition of plains
When the child rolls the die and reads the definition, they have to find the corresponding word on a sheet and color it in. Now the child is working on vocabulary and motor skills at once. If you wanted to add another component, you could add an extra die, make more definitions, or have the kids write the word instead of color. You could even have the kids write it in script. The possibilities are really endless. You just need to think about your typical classroom and homework routine in a different way (aka involving motor skills).
There is an easy way to incorporate scissors skill practice into literacy. Cut till you get to the words you need! Again, you can modify this concept any way you want. Use it for letter or sight word recognition or to learn vocabulary. Once you start thinking differently, you can adapt anything to your needs.
“Start at the beginning, and cut until you reach your sight word. Try to stay on the line! Tell me the sight word!?”
I’ve also made motor boxes to help kids learn their word families. I’ve used plastic eggs and even other novelty items (like these eyeballs), to make it fun. You can write on anything with a Sharpie. Twisting eggs takes fine motor and bilateral coordination as well as forearm rotation, which kids need in order to cut with scissors. Scooping with these great measuring spoons (Dollar Tree!) also works on forearm rotation and hand-eye coordination.
These eggs end up sticking around all year long! I made different eggs for each word family, with magnetic pieces to make up some of the words in that family. Kids can use the whiteboard or an easel to make the different words and then write them.
This simple, boxed worksheet is the one resource that I use all the time (and hopefully you will too!) Shown here is a simple spelling review activity for a second-grade class. Children were given a handful of Bingo chips and told that they need to hold at least three in their hands. When they hear the spelling word called, they have to use their fingers to manipulate the bingo chip to their thumb and pincer and then place it on the correct box (word). Children try to compensate for decreased in-hand manipulation skills by “dropping” the chip onto the board or using their other hand to simply pick it up and place it in the right spot. The purpose of this activity is to work on a skill called “translation.” Translation is the ability to move an object from your palm to your fingertips. Picture having your hands full and manipulating your ring of keys to get the right one into the doorknob or trying to get the quarter (when you have a handful of coins) into the slot of the vending machine. This activity can even be used for high school students. Teachers can put definitions, vocabulary words, you name it, in the boxes. I’ve also used it to work on letter recognition in script and print. And what child doesn’t like to win BINGO? If you don’t have Bingo chips, change it up. Use coins, stamps, or even stickers. Anything that the kids need to manipulate within their hands is good!
Click the link below for your FREE printable template that can be used and customized in a million ways.
Adapting the ideas for children who are significantly delayed
Everything can be adapted to be appropriate for children who are significantly delayed. Make the pieces bigger, make the directions more simple, etc. I know that I am simplifying what can sometimes be a very difficult task. Modifying the curriculum, so it is still appropriate but still achievable, can be a challenging task for any therapist/educator. Simple adaptations, such as using bigger pieces or using simpler directions, can really help. Here was one way that I adapted the “bingo” idea. I used checkers from a “Connect Four” game that had broken. I put stickers on the face of the checkers and then used a sharpie to write letters and simple sight words. I had the children pick up one checker at a time and place them on a simple sheet. Some of the children were non-verbal, but they knew the letters. Using the larger coins allowed them to work on their sight word or letter recognition, grasp and release, fine motor skills, and dexterity skills just like their peers.
What about Gross Motor Skills?
Here are two ideas to incorporate gross motor skills into a small group lesson:
Playing with balloons is always fun. A bag of balloons can cost $1 dollar for 12 balloons, so that’s a great bargain. Balloon play helps a child with visual tracking, hand-eye coordination, and crossing the midline. It also addresses some sensory issues for children who don’t like smells like latex or loud noises, like popping. You can use your imagination to come up with an activity that suits the needs of your class, but here is one that I like to do with small groups. Give each kid a balloon and a Sharpie. You can incorporate music if you want to. Play keep it up, where the kids have to keep their own balloon in the air until the music stops or the teacher says “freeze”. The teacher then says a sight word, a definition, or a category. The children use their Sharpie to write the answer or the word on the balloon. The teacher is incorporating the lesson and literacy activity at hand, with the motor skills involved in balloon play. This allows the children to showcase and build their knowledge, while still getting some active juices flowing. I’ve played this with my students, outside and inside. I found that playing inside made the kids negotiate the obstacles (desks, cubbies, etc) in the classroom. Playing outside lets them breathe fresh air, play in natural light and run. Sometimes the balloons pop if they hit the grass, though. You can prevent that by tying a string around the balloon and the child’s wrist. Now, it’s more like a paddle balloon. Whatever! It still works on all the skills I’ve mentioned…
In my OT/PT room at school, I had a tic tac toe board that I barely ever used. I decided to use it in a different way by having my students work on their word families. I set up the tic tac toe board right by the Smartboard. The kids lined up excitedly to throw a bean bag at whatever square they could. When they hit a word ending, they had to tell me a word from that word family and then write the word on the board. I pulled up lined paper on the board so the kids could also practice writing their letters on the lines with proper spacing. The kids thought they were “having a break”, but we were also able to target a literacy skill that they needed help with.
Using Motor in RTI
Teachers can incorporate these motor skills into their classroom lessons or reading groups, at any Tier in the RTI process. Tier One is a general intervention to be used with all students. Teachers can and should incorporate motor activities into their lessons as general practice. Tier Two instruction targets 5 to 10% of the students who are not making adequate progress in the core curriculum. Targeted instruction is provided based on the student’s needs and rates of progress. Motor activities can easily be incorporated into small group instruction. Teachers can find simple ways to include movement and motor skill activities with the reading and literacy activities they are focusing on, for Tier Two interventions. Tier Three provides Intensive Instruction, on top of regular core instruction, to 1 to 5% of children who aren’t responding to interventions. As the teachers monitor the progress of the children and determine what interventions to put in place, motor skills are being addressed and monitored as well.
Look at the Whole Child
Literacy is of utmost importance. Teachers are being evaluated based on their student’s reading scores and levels of success. Common Core has increased the demands of the curriculum so that Kindergartners are doing what used to be done in the First grade. As an OT, I am amazed and impressed with what our children are able to absorb and learn, but it is still so important that they have a chance to develop their motor skills. Any movement activity that can be incorporated into a literacy or reading lesson should be. We, as educators and parents, need to remember to look at the whole child.
1) Reading is really important, but there are many other skills that help a child to read well. Visual tracking, language, letter recognition, and postural control are just a few.
2) Kids need to move! Movement helps them to maintain an engaged state of mind so they can focus. It lets them get their wiggles out. They are still kids! Research shows that when kids move, as part of learning, they process information better, and the learning stays with them for longer periods of time (Jensen, 2001).
3) What about writing? Yes, we know that technology is taking over the world, and even little kids can text. That doesn’t take away the fact that they still need to learn how to write properly. Using a pencil to write helps them to use all of those little muscles in their hands that they need, in order to live life, to open a bottle of water, to zip their own coat, to sharpen a pencil, to use a fork and knife…the list goes on. Writing, in itself, is a fine motor skill, and so is coloring! It drives me nuts when teachers tell me they aren’t supposed to color anymore. What?!
4) Coloring IS meaningful and purposeful for children of all ages. It is exercise. Teachers who incorporate coloring and drawing into their lessons are building fine motor strength as well as helping children to create memories associated with pictures or words. The association of pictures with words or vocabulary can help solidify a child’s learning.
5) Don’t forget your BINGO FREEBIE! I hope you come up with a million ways to use this simple sheet.
Jensen, E. (2001). Arts with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
I really hope that my “Motor boxes” have inspired you to start creating! What motor centers did you create for your students? As always please feel free to comment! I love to hear from readers!
~ Miss Jaime, OT
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