Archive for Thursday, February 23, 2006

Keeping eye on ball helps second-graders with reading

February 23, 2006

"Keep your eye on the ball."

It's a familiar phrase, but the context in which it was being used last week at Lansing Elementary School was entirely unfamiliar to most people.

While her students lay on the floor, Angie Grady, second-grade teacher at Lansing Elementary School, swung a tennis ball on a string through the air in front of the children's eyes. The students were instructed to follow the ball with their eyes without moving their heads.

Grady was giving her students diagnostic tests to check their eye tracking. The test will help her to implement a program she started this semester called Bal-A-Vis-X.

Bal-A-Vis-X, which stands for Balance/Auditory/Visual eXercises, was developed by Wichita teacher Bill Hubert. Hubert observed that students' lack of coordination was often related to problems with reading, Grady said. The exercises are meant to improve connections between brain hemispheres and, therefore, coordination and reading skills.

Grady began using Bal-A-Vis-X with her second-grade class last month and works on the skills for about 20 minutes each day. She purchased the materials - beanbags, racquetballs, a balance board and instructional videos - using money from the Lansing Educational Foundation Fund "Educate the Pride" mini-grant she received in November.

The diagnostic tests Grady performed with the tennis ball allowed her to see nuances in students' eye tracking that may cause them problems in reading. For example, some students' eyes darted ahead of the ball and waited for it to end its pass. In reading, that may translate to skipping words and lowered comprehension, Grady said. Students whose eyes reset, or go back to the beginning of the ball's path and start to follow it again, may reread words, which becomes frustrating for the student.

The exercises aim not only to connect the brain's hemispheres but also to strengthen students' eye muscles. Eyes can become fatigued like any other muscle, Grady said, but when the students bounce a ball or throw a beanbag and visually follow it, they give their eyes a workout. When the eye muscles become stronger, students can read for longer and potentially comprehend more, she said.

So far, Grady's students have learned just a few exercises. One is the Rainbow Throw, which follows the rhythm "toss, catch, slap." Students toss a beanbag in an arc from one hand to the other, then pass it back to the first hand.

"Watch the beanbag," Grady reminded the class last Thursday. "It's to exercise your eyes."

Speaking "toss, catch, slap" helps the students to stay in rhythm with one another, Grady said, which develops their sound discrimination. The sound of the bouncing balls also strengthens auditory discrimination, which is intended to help students become better able to tell sounds apart, such as similar vowel sounds.

In the bouncing exercises, students are supposed to listen to each other's bouncing with the goal of all students getting into the same rhythm. On Thursday, Grady's class hadn't yet mastered the synchronization, but last week was the first that they had worked with the balls, she said.

The Bal-A-Vis-X system also uses a board that functions like a seesaw to help students improve their sense of balance. Grady said the board helped students to steady their feet and use the correct posture for the other exercises because if they shift their weight, they will fall off. The board is particularly effective for hyperactive kids who want to move around more while tossing or bouncing the balls, she said.

However, the students won't get too far into the balancing exercises in Grady's class. Grady has only one balance board - at a cost of $90 each, she couldn't afford one for every student. Instead, one student gets to use the board each day during exercises.

Despite the limited resource, Grady said she had seen improvement in students who had used the balance board. Those students are learning to keep still even when not using the board, she said.

In the short time she has used Bal-A-Vis-X with her students, Grady said she hadn't yet been able to observe how it was affecting her students, but the parents she spoke to at parent-teacher conferences earlier this month seemed receptive to the concept. Some agreed to have their children practice the exercises at home.

Lucas Schaffer, one of Grady's students, said he had practiced some of the exercises for 10 minutes at home after school - and he's noticed results.

"Reading's easier and I can read longer," he said.

Grady learned about Bal-A-Vis-X by attending a seminar at Friends University in Wichita last summer, but with her experience so far with the program, she said she hoped to spread the word about it. To that end, she said she would consider applying for another grant to have a seminar for her colleagues.

"If I did another grant, I would like to have Bill (Hubert) come," she said. "I'd love to see it pick up."

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