I have read the work of researchers like Louisa Moats, Stanislas Dehaene, and Linnea Ehri and have an understanding of how reading works in the brain. I understand the critical role of connecting graphemes to phonemes. My question is what is the true role of the kinesthetic activities promoted in many intervention programs? In a webinar that I watched the speaker mentioned several times how critical it was to have students trace the words because this created neural pathways. What does the research say about this?
The idea of tracing words to improve literacy has been around for a century. You’d think in that amount of time, we’d have a clear idea on whether or not tracing (and all of the other haptic and kinesthetic responses to letters and words) helps and, if so, how and why.
But you’d be wrong.
This method was first described by Grace Fernald and Hellen Keller in 1921. Fernald, a clinical psychologist, with a practice focused on reading improvement, applied the method with severely disabled readers. By all accounts, she was a remarkable teacher and her article described what she did and how well it worked (the boys and girls that she worked with learned to read). She didn’t devote much space to why she thought tracing was such a boon.