What causes a reading problem?

What causes a reading problem?


Why are there so many bright and hard-working children in our schools that aren’t learning to read as they should?  Interestingly, if you read something to them, giving them information through their ears, they understand.  But when you give them the same words to read or to absorb through their eyes, they fail.  Reading problems seem different from hearing or understanding problems, yet it is the same brain showing these differences in ability.

Our brains are ultimately responsible for us being able to read.  If a child struggles to make sense of written words, surely it must be related to problems in some or other area of the brain.  Is this true and if so, which brain areas are not functioning as they should?[1]


Essentially, reading needs a brain

  • That can change light waves into electro-chemical impulses through the visual system
  • That has organized, adequately insulted neural networks through which the electro-chemical impulses can travel efficiently
  • With an area where storage, retrieval and decoding of information can take place efficiently.


Which of these might help us understand why reading problems occur?


If a child can look at a cow and recognise it as a cow, he perceives it. This means that he interprets the image correctly as being a cow.  The light waves from the cow are changed to electro-chemical impulses by the retina in the eye, then pass on to the brain.  If there is no conflicting information coming in from the cow, the child will perceive a cow. Children with reading problems have no problem recognising objects.  In essence, they can read all the physical things in their environment; they have no trouble recognising and perceiving actual objects.


If we show him a picture of those objects he recognise the pictures quite easily.  He can, in essence, ‘read’ the pictures.  Pictures aren’t real objects but are symbols which stand for the objects but they are closely related to the objects. The picture of a cow is easily related to a cow because the picture (the symbol) represents what an actual cow looks like.


If a child with a reading problem easily recognises a cow when he sees one, and he easily recognises a picture of a cow, why can’t he recognise the written word ‘cow’?  What is there about written words which make them different from the real thing or from pictures?  The problem seems to be one of language.


Language is a man-made code, composed of symbols that have no meaning in themselves.  The word ‘cow’ is a symbol with no relation to the way an actual cow appears to the eye or brain.


To be able to use the code, we first have to memorise the meaning assigned to each symbol. If either the memory of the symbol or the memory of its assigned meaning is forgotten, the code breaks down. Thus, storage of both the symbol and its meaning is essential to memory. We know that language is stored in the left brain hemisphere. This means that language and decoding functions needs organized ‘wiring’ or neural pathways that convey information to this area.  Any scrambling of the network due to shorted wires, inadequate connections cause a breakdown in transmitting the electrical messages.


Once the symbol and its meaning have been stored, we have to be able to retrieve it.  Decoding needs a storehouse from which information is easily retrieved. Poor storage in the brain slows down the process of retrieval of information; children who suffer from this slow-down might speak more slowly, or read more slowly.  If incoming information is stored in an excessively disordered way, then we have a reading problem.


Following this analysis, it seems that reading problems can be the result of lack of development of the nervous system, especially if underdevelopment results in undecided or cross-dominance.


Confirmation of this theory comes by looking at other, sometimes subtle, signs of brain underdevelopment that children with reading problems commonly share.  Some of these include

  • Problems with coordination. They seem to lack grace when walking and running, often have a history of skipping crawling or cannot crawl smoothly without concentrating on doing so
  • Early problems with deciding hand, foot and eye dominance, and showing uncertain dominance after the age of 6 years
  • Show an extreme love for music and listening to music
  • Handwriting characteristically shows little consistency of slant; vertical lines of letters such as ‘h,j,p,t,l” make all kinds of different angles
  • Eye problems even though eyes test as normal.  Many have problems with binocular vision or eye tracking movements
  • Many reverse words or letters
  • Most are poor spellers
  • Many seem to do better in numeracy than reading and all prefer verbal discussions to having to write something down
  • Nearly all poor readers understand language better through their ears than through their eyes.


So reading problems are related to the development of the nervous system.  No amount of remedial reading will be as effective as addressing the nervous system inefficiencies directly.


This is one reason why Integrated Learning Therapy evaluates the neurodevelopmental status of children with reading problems.  We don’t address the symptoms of the problem, but go to the root cause.  Once we understand the underlying causes, we are able to design an individualized programme for the child to give the brain a second chance to develop properly.  By understanding the brain’s plasticity and thus its ability to restructure neural networks, we can stimulate brain areas.  This results in more organized neural networks and better access to storage areas of the language brain.


Visit our website www.ilt.co.za to learn more about this approach. We also offer courses for teachers and other helping professionals that are accredited with SACE, ETDP-SETA and the HPCSA.  These are aimed at shedding light on what can possibly be the cause of the problems your learners experience in the classroom as well as their sometimes puzzling behaviours.


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[1] With thanks to Carl Delacato and insights from his book A new start for the child with reading problems.

Systems supporting learning

At Integrated Learning Therapy, you might often hear us comparing children to a house.  Strange, but true!  Let me explain.


So often we lose sight of the way a child’s brain develops and how that development may impact on learning.  We tend to see a child’s difficulties in school and try to analyse the symptoms the child is showing to better understand the nature of his or her problems.  The trouble with this approach is that it keeps our focus on the symptoms of the problem, rather than the underlying cause.


Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) tries to avoid this by teaching how a child’s brain develops and what needs to be in place for learning to be efficient and effective.  This is where the example of a house comes in. Children, like a house, need strong foundations.  It is useless trying to build walls and complete a house on poorly laid or non-existent foundations.  Once the foundations are in place, walls will stand firm; no cracks will open up around doors and windows, and the roof will not leak.  When foundations are poor, we spend a lot of time trying fruitlessly to patch cracks and leaking roofs; as soon as we have finished patching an area, the foundations shift and we have to start again. 


This is the reason why so often, remedial work done shows no real, quick gains.  After all, if teacher A has not managed to help a child learn to read, why should teacher B succeed?  Efforts may bring results, but these often take long and require considerable work on the parts of both adult and child.  On the other hand, when the root cause of a learning difficulty is identified and corrected, gaps in learning become more quickly and easily filled.


So the very first step to take when considering a child who is not able to function in school, is to look at his or her foundation systems, to identify which did not develop as they should have.  Remembering that movement (and experiences from the environment) is responsible for many of the most basic foundational systems, it becomes possible to use specific, controlled and slow movements to give the brain a second chance to lay down strong foundations.  Once this is done, the house becomes a haven and learning can take place with far greater efficiency.


Here’s a short video clip for you to watch which explains this further:



Do visit our website www.ilt.co.za to find out more about ILT and also contact us if you are interested in taking one of our courses to help you better understand the children in your care.  You’ll see that our courses are accredited for CPTD points with SACE and also earn you credits towards further qualifications with ETDP-SETA. Earn while you learn J


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Useful ‘movement moments’ for Primary School classrooms


These movements appeared in the Teacher’s Net Gazette, June 2017, Vol 14 No 2 and were suggested by Leah Davies, M.Ed.


In the last post, the benefit of planning short ‘movement moments’ during lessons was shared.  Here we are sharing some ideas for the types of activities that may  both children and teachers to create classrooms with a good learning atmosphere.


When children are able to engage in some physical activity during the school day, it helps them to raise their energy levels and maintain focus on their work.  In addition, we hear from teachers around the world that introducing short activities and other opportunities to move helps to improve behaviour.  It really is worth trying.


You will want to make sure that the activities you choose are age-appropriate for your learners, that all the children are involved and that they enjoy them.  Try a variety of activities and then make a note of the most popular.  They can become a regular feature of your classroom.


  1. Whenever the learners show restlessness, have them stand and so some stretching and other exercises. They can stretch slowly, do arm circles, sway slowly from side to side, touch their toes, hop, jump and run on the spot.
  2. When children are learning to count, have them march in place as they count in 2’s, 5’s and so on. They can march in place as they recite the alphabet, spell out words, say their multiplication tables and so on.
  3. Divide the class into two groups (e.g. boys and girls, or otherwise those on the left side of the class versus those on the right). Ask the children to follow you as you run on the spot.  When you stop, see which group of children stops first and name them (“The boys stopped first!”).  Then begin to run again, stop running and comment on which group was the first to stop.  If you don’t want to run yourself, then tell them to run while you continue to clap your hands.  When you stop clapping, they stop running.
  4. Have children do two things at once – e.g. tap their heads and rub their stomachs; clap their hands and stand on one foot; snap their fingers and nod their heads; snap their fingers while they do jumping jacks.
  5. Let them do crossover exercises. They can raise their left foot behind their bodies then touch it with their right hand; they raise their left knee and touch it with their right elbow; they can jump and while in the air, cross their right foot over their left ankle, landing on crossed feet. They reverse the cross on the following jump and continue in this way.  Make sure very young children are able to do this difficult series of jumps – you don’t want them falling!
  6. Ask the children to hold one or two thumbs at eye level. Have them move their thumb up and down with their eyes tracking the movement.  Then name various numbers or letters and have the children make one at a time with their thumb as their eyes trace the movement.  Or ask them to make large letters or numbers in the air with their index finger.
  7. Have the children choose a nearby partner. Have one child slowly print a spelling word on his/her partner’s back. The partner guesses which word was printed. They take turns doing this.  Or you can call out the word to be printed and the child who feels the word on his/her back has to say whether or not it was spelled correctly.
  8. Sing or say “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” as follows:

“Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.

Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.

Eyes and ears and mouth and nose.

Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.”

The children touch the body part as it is named.  You can substitute names of different body parts for the third line, such as, “neck and hips and knees and cheeks.”  Start off slowly and increase speed as you sing/say it over and over.

  1. Play “Simon says.” Stand at the front of the class and give commands.  Carry out all of the commands but tell the children to obey only the ones preceded by the words “Simon says.”  For example, if you say “Simon says: hands on your hips,” everyone does it.  But if you say “Run in place,” no one but you should be running.  A variation is to say “Do this” or “Do that.”  “Do this” means that the children should move like you are moving, while “Do that” means they stand motionless.  Those who do not listen and move at the wrong time must sit down and wait a turn before playing again.
  2. Play “I spy.” Explain that when you say, “I spy,” every child needs to stop what he/she is doing, listen, and respond with “What do you spy?”  You respond with “I spy children dancing in one place,” or “I spy a rock star silently playing a guitar.”  The children act out that idea until you say, “I spy.” Then all of them stop what they are doing and again respond with “What do you spy?”   Ideas include “I spy children waving their arms,” or “I spy children standing on one leg with their eyes closed.”  After playing for a little while, say “I spy learners sitting down quietly.”


Of course, you can choose children to be the leaders of these activities, giving you a little time to sit back and observe.


If you would like to learn more about the value of movement and understand the types of movements that are so important for brain development and function, you might want to consider a course with Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT).  Read more about this on the website www.ilt.co.za or write to us at info@ilt.co.za.


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Something ridiculously easy to do in your classroom to improve attention


You all know how frustrating it is when you’re trying to get an important message across to your class and you notice that one or more of the learners is not listening.  At other times, the end of the school day looms and the learners are tired.  It becomes increasingly more difficult for them to maintain their level of focus. There is something you can do to help in these situations.


It’s all about one of the most primitive of reflexes human beings share.  It’s crucial to our survival and without it, we would die.  I’m talking about sucking. If a baby is born unable to latch and suckle, very rapid steps will be taken to ensure that the infant is tube-fed. But apart from the importance of taking in nutrition, sucking and swallowing have very significant effects on brain function.  Infants can self-sooth by sucking on their fists or thumbs and sucking and swallowing also help them to breathe deeply.  This early reliance on sucking and stimulation of areas around the mouth doesn’t leave us either. Watch how young children move their mouths in rhythm with their hand movements when they are learning how to cut with a scissors.  How many of us turn to chewing or sucking sweets when we are tired but still have marking or lesson preparation to do!  Do some of you bite the end of a pen, your nails or even your bottom lip when listening closely to something?


Sucking and swallowing, which are controlled by tongue actions, are our very first brain organisers. When babies suck, swallow and breathe, they are laying the foundations for arousal, attending and focus.  By helping to organise the communication between different neural pathways, sucking can reenergise us when we’re tired or calm us down when we’re excited.


 In addition, tired eyes might not be focusing on you or on a task requiring reading or writing.  Sucking with eyes closed helps the eyes to maintain focus.  Try this yourself: close your eyes and put your index finger between your lips on the midline of your face.  Suck hard and feel how the eyes pull in together. 


Because the eyes and ears work together (through the mechanism of a part of the brain called the colliculus) the ears follow the eyes to focus on the sound coming from whatever the eyes are looking at.   This means that what we look at directly affects what we listen to.  Grandparents were quite correct when they insisted on us looking at them when they spoke to us!  In this way, vision that is focused on something specific in the environment produces focused auditory input as well. This lessens the distracting effect of extraneous sounds in a classroom.


So what can you do?  ILT doesn’t recommend that you have children sucking on their fingers, unless they are very young children and you have nothing else for them to suck on!

Instead, try to supply your class with some ‘crazy’ or ‘loopy’ straws that you can buy in the party section of several of the supermarkets.  Insert these straws through a small hole in the top of a small bottle of water (or supply plastic cups or glasses).  When you feel the attention of the children is waning, ask them to close their eyes, place the straw in the middle of their lips and have them suck – swallow – and breathe. Or have this as a routine part of your lessons. Before beginning a task, have the learners drink some water through their straws.  Their concentration will improve – and the water will do them good too!


Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) addresses learning and behaviour difficulties caused by disturbances in neurodevelopment or environmental factors.  If you are interested in learning more about this approach, visit our website www.ilt.co.za.  We have practitioners around the country ready to help and also offer training courses that are accredited with SACE and ETDP-SETA. 


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What teachers can do about learning difficulties

People worldwide share the belief that education is important for children. Academic achievement is considered to be a key to future economic stability and personal success in life. Yet, in spite of school curricula being designed to be achievable to the average learner, too many children and youths are not able to meet the learning targets set by their teachers and education authorities. These children are not necessarily amongst those who have a mental or physical problem that can be seen to interfere with their learning. Neither are many of them disadvantaged in terms of geographic location, poverty, poor home circumstances and poor teaching. So what is missing? Why are these children having difficulties and showing fairly commonly observed symptoms such as

  • Hyperactivity
  • Problems with gross motor skills
  • Memory deficits
  • Disorganization – always losing equipment and possessions
  • Concentration problems
  • Inability to complete tasks in time
  • Difficulty understanding concepts
  • The list goes on and on ….


These behaviours may lead to some or other diagnosis with the result that the child is labelled.  We hear about Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and many other words starting with ‘dys’, which signifies a supposed learning disability.  Here are some definitions of the most frequently used labels:

Dyspraxia: difficulty coordinating movements

Dyslexia: difficulties with language, such as reading, writing or spelling

Dysgraphia: difficulties with writing, spelling, handwriting, putting thoughts on paper

Dyscalculia: difficulty learning and understanding how to use numbers

Dysphasia: difficulties with speaking and/or understanding language

And then, of course, we have Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).


Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) dislikes the use of labels because they result in the label being treated while sight is lost of the child who carries the label. It works like this: A teacher has difficulty in getting a child to remain in her chair and the constant movement suggests to her that the child is hyperactive.  The parents are asked to consult a medical doctor. The doctor listens to the complaints and perhaps observes the child’s restlessness in the consulting room. A diagnosis of ADHD is made and a prescription for a drug that is recommended for this disorder is promptly written.


The usual approaches recommended to ‘treat’ the labels don’t always help.  If we don’t understand the real nature and cause of a learning or behaviour problem then all we are doing is treating the symptoms shown by the child.  This is the same as taking a headache pil: it certainly may help to relieve the pain we call ‘a headache’ but doesn’t do anything about getting rid of what may be causing it in the first place.

Too often we label these symptoms and lose sight of what could be an underlying cause of these symptomatic behaviours.  If the underlying cause of a child’s problem is misdiagnosed, families may try many ‘cures’ for a disease, disorder or condition that their child doesn’t actually have.


Make no mistake – some children do struggle with aspects of learning and sometimes the label might be accurate.  Children with ‘real’ ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and so on need specialized help in the particular area of difficulty.   ILT has, however, had many years of experience in unravelling the root causes of the symptoms shown by many children.  In most cases, the disabilities are caused by neurodevelopmental delays, meaning that they have a brain area that hasn’t developed fully.  In many other cases, the brain is unable to function optimally because of the influence of environmental factors.  If these are addressed, the symptoms sometimes disappear or at least diminish considerably.  Neuroscience has proved that the brain is ‘plastic’, meaning that it can change, grow and be adapted continually.  This knowledge means that we can restructure the brain, encourage the growth of new brain cells, stimulate the development of new neural pathways.


With this knowledge, why resort to only the use of medication or remedial teaching methods to try and find ways of coping with the symptoms of various disorders?  Why not learn how to correctly identify possible causes of these disorders?  Why not be able to refer to professionals who might be better able to help the child at a fundamental level?


Better still, teachers at the pre- or early primary school level should have knowledge of how to prevent neurodevelopmental problems from interfering with school progress.


One way of ensuring that the brain has developed to the point that a child is learning ready, is to incorporate special movement programmes into the pre-school and Grade 1.


The role of movement in brain development


Research over the last few decades has convinced us that movement is crucial to the organization of our neurological system (i.e. the brain and other parts of the central nervous system).  A well organized nervous system that has well developed neural networks will function efficiently and effortlessly.  Think of a child whose behaviour is ‘scattered’. He may be unable to sit still or listen in order to understand.  He reacts before thinking and seems aimless in what he does. Even when playing, he seems to prefer running around the playground rather than take part in more organized or purposeful games.  This kind of disorganized behaviour is a reflection of a disorganized neural network.  His ‘brain wiring’ hasn’t made the connections needed for purposeful, deliberate, productive thinking and behaviour.  So often it is possible to see that the brain needs help in becoming more efficiently ‘wired’.  He doesn’t have ADHD.  He is in need of neurological organization that can happen if he is given certain movements to do that replicate those he should have done in infancy.


The discovery of the importance of movement has lent a great deal of support to the importance of allowing babies to move freely during infancy.  Babies who are strapped to their mother’s backs for too long, or who are confined to baby seats, car seats, walking rings and so on are not able to move as they should. This can interfere with good brain development.  Babies who are left passively lying in a cot without stimulation to encourage movement of the head, eyes and body are also at a disadvantage. We believe today that the best playground for a baby is a rug spread out over open floor spaces.


Would you like to learn more about this? ILT offers training courses to teachers especially to help equip them with knowledge of what the brain needs to develop and function properly.


Our distance courses are very popular, as busy teachers don’t have to spend days away from work and home and do not incur travelling or accommodation costs.


In addition, no-one needs to fear failure on our courses. We try to help all trainees as much as is needed to ensure all arrive at a deep understanding of the content. For those courses which include movement activities, we also work hard at helping you feel confident in using the activities correctly in order to help individual children as well as groups.


You can read about our ILT 1 course on the website www.ilt.co.za or write to us for information at info@ilt.co.za.. This course is suitable for teachers at all levels – from preschool through to High school.


Here is some information about a new course that we have put together – mainly for preschools and teachers in Grades 1 and 2:


Readiness to Learn: A practical, ready to use programme to develop learning readiness in children aged 4 – 8.


This course is aimed at helping classroom teachers or teaching assistants address or prevent learning difficulties in pre-school or early primary school.  The course consists of two sections: 

  • Section 1 provides important theory about the reasons why children may enter school without being ready to learn and explains how these may be addressed.
  • Section 2 provides a 30 week programme of daily activities designed to help children achieve learning readiness. The handbook contains guidelines for the use of the activity programme, a list of very simple equipment that will be needed and the programme to be followed.  The daily activities require 15 – 20 minutes per day.


All course materials are sent electronically, so can be downloaded to your computer.

A certificate is issued on successful completion of the course.


The cost of the course is R2000 all-inclusive.


Reasons why moving in a classroom helps learning

Even though we know a lot more these days about how the brain develops and how it functions, many teachers lack useful knowledge about the role of movement in learning.  Movement is responsible for developing the brain in the first place (through the primary reflexive movements) and remains central to efficient learning during the early years of growth and schooling.  Without knowing how to recognise signs that a child may have signs of neurodevelopmental problems (meaning that the nervous system with all its component parts), we concentrate rather on the psychological problems of the child, or the socio-economic environment. 


A far better approach would be to ask the question, does the child have the equipment she needs to succeed at the educational level asked of her and the methods imposed on her?


The answer is related to the fact that there is often a physical basis for learning disabilities.  Not physical in the sense of body growth or health – often children’s physical development is good, yet the foundations on which learning is built and made strong are weak.  This results in them struggling to succeed at school.  Indeed, some do succeed, but they have to put so much extra effort into their learning and performing.  This can continue until adulthood. How many of you know of a colleague who is really good at what he or she does, but pays the price through extreme fatigue at the end of every workday?


So the approach of Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) is to evaluate a child for possible neurodevelopmental delays and other adverse conditions arising from the environment and then helping them.  The tools used are largely movement activities.


While this works for children with learning disabilities or learning difficulties, using movement in the course of learning can benefit all children.


Here are three evidence based, very sound reasons why children can thrive in a classroom where the teacher introduces regular periods for a little movement:


  1. Movement helps to increase learner interest, motivation (Vazou et al., 2012), and learning (Braniff, 2011).
  2. Movement improves content knowledge, skills, and test scores in core subjects such as mathematics and reading fluency (Adams-Blair & Oliver, 2011; Erwin, Fedewa, & Ahn, 2013; Browning et al., 2014).
  3. Movement may help children meet the recommendation to complete the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day.


Do consider the significance of these research results.  It is difficult to introduce movement into crowded classrooms, to avoid children becoming disruptive and finding it difficult afterwards to settle down.  The key is to have short, quick ‘movement moments’ as an integral part of the school day from the lowest grades.  This teaches the children that these are part of school and they become so used to it that they don’t see it as an opportunity to get out of hand.


In future posts, I’ll be including some ideas for short ‘movement moments’.  If you would like to learn more, consider enrolling for our Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) courses.  They are accredited with SACE so will earn you CPTD points while you’re enhancing your knowledge and skills.  Read more on www.ilt.co.za or write to us at info@ilt.co.za.




Adams-Blair H., Oliver G. (2011). Daily classroom movement: Physical activity integration into the classroom. International Journal of Health, Wellness, & Society, 1 (3), 147–154.

Braniff C. (2011). Perceptions of an active classroom: Exploration of movement and collaboration with fourth grade students. Networks: An On-line Journal for Teacher Research, 13 (1).

Browning C., Edson A.J., Kimani P., Aslan-Tutak F. (2014). Mathematical content knowledge for teaching elementary mathematics: A focus on geometry and measurement. Mathematics Enthusiast, 11 (2), 333–383.

Erwin H., Fedewa A., Ahn S. (2013). Student academic performance outcomes of a classroom physical activity intervention: A pilot study. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 5 (2), 109–124.

Vazou S., Gavrilou P., Mamalaki E., Papanastasiou A., Sioumala N. (2012). Does integrating physical activity in the elementary school classroom influence academic motivation? International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10 (4), 251–263.



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