The other day I was speaking to a mom of a six year old who was beside herself because her little one uses his fingers to follow the words on the page when reading. She asked if this suggested a developmental delay or if she should be looking for a reading tutor for her son. Here was my answer...

In a word, NO.

So here's the deal.

Children learn with their bodies first, so why should reading be any different? The common wisdom is that children should read with their eyes only and, for that matter, keep their fingers out of the counting. But this ignores the fact that young children learn just about everything else kinesthetically.

For early readers, the fingers often form a little scouting party for the eyes, helping keep the eyes on track and flowing from one word to the next. This actually helps him focus on the meaning of the words rather than on the physical mechanics of moving his eyes from one word to the next. As his eye muscles mature and become more familiar with the experience, they will naturally grow in proficiency and his fingers will no longer be needed.

Likewise, counting on his fingers is his brain’s way of physicalizing numeracy – a natural, multi-sensory entry into the amazing world of mathematics. And again, when he’s mastered counting, chances are he won’t need his fingers any more. And even if he does from time to time, it’s just his way of dimensionalizing and deepening the learning.

This is a great example of why eye tracking and eye/hand coordination are important to develop in the early years of life. Eye tracking, of course, is a necessary physical skill for reading... moving the eyes in a deliberate, and disciplined manner. And you can see it happening naturally as your child grows. For instance, when a child watches a balloon floating away, you might see him point up into the sky. This is his way of helping his eyes stay focused on the balloon.

Later on, the eyes will serve as the director for your child's best learning tools... his own hands.  Now this takes a lot of time and practice and little ones make a lot of mistakes along the way (spilled milk, anyone?). And again, you'll see it happening every day. For instance, try batting a balloon to your little one and you might see him shut his eyes tight as the balloon comes towards him. Or, if his eyes are open, his might entirely miss catching it because his hands are splayed out and not in position for the catch. With time and practice, he will be able to bring his eyes and hands together at will and do so without having to think about it. When that happens, his eyes and hands are now the tools he'll use for other, larger, deeper, and more complex pursuits... like reading.

Next time you've got a balloon around the house, try catching it in all sorts of fun ways.  For instance...

Catch it up high. 
(hands above your head)
Catch it down low. 
(hands below your knees)
Catch on your thumb.
Catch it on your toe!

Catch it with your wrists.
Catch it with your knees.
Catch it with your elbows.
Bounce it one, two three! 
(bounce on the tips of your fingers)

Catch it on your nose.
Catch it with your feet.
Catch it on your tummy.
Catch it with your seat!


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