Let’s Get Physical: Reading and Movement

We often assume that by the time they walk through our doors, middle school students know how to read well. Yet, that’s not always the case. And with the complex text requirements of the Common Core State Standards, middle school students need frequent instruction and practice in their reading comprehension skills.

A variety of teaching strategies can engage students in the reading process by incorporating movement and activities.

Just the Highlights

Using a road construction analogy, have students highlight text using a variety of colors to help identify areas of strengths and weaknesses.

Green: Students use this color for pre-reading strategies. As students are warming up their minds, they are examining the text features, including the title, pictures, charts, and captions. Students highlight each of these text features, including the first paragraph of the text, in green. After highlighting, they make inferences or predictions based on these features and the background knowledge they have about the topic.

Blue: Students use the blue highlighter (representing the blueprint of the road design) to establish the purpose of the selection. Just as the blueprint is the foundation for roadwork, the purpose—whether teacher-directed or student-directed—is the foundation for reading the text. A teacher-directed purpose may include reading a narrative and looking for evidence of suspense. A student-directed purpose may include answering a student-posed question based on the title and first paragraph. As students read the text, they highlight in blue, parts of the text that relate to the purpose. During a close-reading of the text, this step occurs during the first reading of the selection.

Yellow: The yellow highlighter represents the yellow of the stoplight, so students use it during the during-reading process when they pause to make inferences, ask clarifying questions, and examine the author’s tone or mood. In the margins, students may take notes as they interact with the text. During a close-reading of the text, students complete this process during the second reading of the selection.

Orange: The during-reading process also involves students working through several fix-it strategies to help them comprehend the text. Orange represents road construction in the analogy and identifies areas of the text where students need a “fix” in their comprehension. This process can be done at the same time as the during-reading process, or it can be done after the second reading of a close-read when students go back to the text and highlight areas they don’t understand.

Pink: Students use the pink highlighter to indicate analysis of the text—it actually represents the red of a stoplight. Once students have finished reading a text, they need to take a longer period of time to stop, reflect, and evaluate what they have read. During this stage, students analyze the text, make connections to other texts, examine symbolism, or identify themes. Students may also go back to areas of the text that were highlighted with multiple colors and analyze why these areas stood out compared to other parts of the text.

Throughout the highlighting process, teachers should model and explicitly teach the reading strategies emphasized during each phase. Teachers also should include opportunities for students to discuss the text. These opportunities can occur throughout the process, but are invaluable at the end of the reading as students analyze all components of the reading process and engage in the reflective process. Socratic Seminars can help foster the reflective process.

Get Up, Stand Up

Reading is an active process. The brain is engaged—and the body can be as well. Active reading can happen in seats with students quietly reading the texts in their hands, or it can be taken literally as students engage in physical activity during the reading process. Adding movement before intense moments of studying and providing physical activity breaks throughout a lesson can help students engage more with the lesson.

For example, to establish background knowledge as a before-reading strategy, prepare a list of questions associated with the content of the text. At the beginning of class, ask all students to stand. Then, call on students randomly to answer the questions. If the student answers the question correctly, he or she can sit down. Then ask another student to repeat the answer or build on the answer. If the student answers correctly, he or she sits down. This activity continues until all questions have been answered. However, at any time, you can tell all the students to stand again. The up-and-down movement helps warm-up students’ minds for deeper thinking later on.

Eric Jensen, in Teaching with the Brain in Mind, suggests physical activity helps students stay focused during instruction, which can increase their memory recall. Maintaining student focus through physical activity helps break the monotony of seated reading and helps struggling readers feel more confident and stay on-task.

To break up the monotony of seated reading work, call on students to create a visual tableau of what they have just read. Students think about a character or element of the plot. Then, working alone, in pairs, or in small groups, they create a frozen picture with their bodies. A whole-group discussion of the tableaus helps students recall key elements of the plot, setting, or characters.

Physical movement can help students deal with anxiety, reduce stress, and increase motivation. In a variation of the stand-sit activity, pose a question, have students perform an activity for 30 seconds, such as marching in place, then call on a student to answer the question. This builds wait time, allowing students to manage anxiety about the possibility of being called on to answer a question.

Movement, Large and Small

These are just a few of the many ways teachers can add movement to a reading classroom. The
visual and small movements involved with highlighting the text, and the larger physical movements of warm-up and brain breaks helps students focus, recall, and manage their emotional needs. In addition, physical movement helps struggling and unmotivated students experience more success as they tackle more complex texts.

John Helgeson is an English teacher at Canyon Park Junior High in Bothell, Washington. mr_jhelgy@hotmail.com

This article was published in AMLE Magazine, April 2014


  1. This article was so helpful! As a pre-service teacher, I am trying to imagine applicable ways that I can engage students with the reading process. The idea of having students use highlighters to mark and engage with the text in a variety of ways is nice, though I think I will need to start off with a smaller set of highlighters/ purposes, as it sounds difficult to start students off with 5 different ways of highlighting a text. Still, the idea of having students mark pre-reading strategies, the purpose for selecting the article, during-reading processes, and the analysis of the text sounds helpful! My favorite idea is having students move around (standing up to sitting down, creating tableaus) before and after the reading so that students engage with ideas surrounding the text. This is a great way to get students interested and engaged in the text. I can’t wait to try these strategies in my own classroom!

  2. This article is quite helpful in helping students learn how to engage with reading better and become better readers. I like the way the highlighters mark to engage students with the text in different ways. I also like the pre-reading strategies as well to help students get ready for more difficult text. This was a good article.