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  March 4, 2002

Reading, Motor Coordination
May Be Related, Says Carello
By Allison Thompson

Are motor coordination and reading related? Recent research by a psychology professor shows that the two skills may indeed be connected.

In an article to be published in the journal Psychological Science, Claudia Carello and colleagues find that when asked to perform a manual task, good readers are faster at it and make fewer mistakes than poor readers. Previous research looked at the link between reading and motor coordination in impaired populations, such as people with dyslexia or children with coordination difficulties, Carello says.

The recent study, "Movement Sequencing and Phonological Fluency in (Putatively) Non-Impaired Readers," was the first to look at the reading-coordination connection in reasonably unimpaired people, she adds.

Carello notes that children who have motor coordination difficulties often have trouble controlling their tongue and lips, which are the parts of the body that produce speech. If a child's pronunciation of a word is sloppy, then it's harder for him or her to make a connection between the written form of a word and its sound. The impairment of that ability could have an impact on reading.

"To the extent that speech production and skilled movement share the requirement of coordinating a variety of muscles over time and space, less fluid manual coordination may be a signature of less fluid productions which, consequently, are less supportive of fluent decoding," Carello and her co-authors write.

Carello and colleagues Valerie Marciarelle, a graduate student in psychology at UConn, and Richard Schmidt, an associate professor of psychology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., conducted two experiments to examine their theory that the connection exists in good readers.

In the first experiment, 50 undergraduates whose SAT verbal scores ranged from 500 to 710 were given two tests of reading ability. The first consisted of two lists - one of 20 long, regular words that are easily decoded and the other of 50 irregular words that are more difficult to decode - that participants were asked to read aloud. The second test used literal and interpretive questions to measure reading comprehension of eight passages.

To test motor coordination skills, participants were asked to tap keys on a computer keyboard. In one trial, they were asked to tap a single key as fast as possible for five seconds with fingers on both their dominant and non-dominant hands. In the second task, participants had to tap four keys in order as fast as possible for 10 seconds, again with each hand. In the final task, the students were asked to alternate between tapping one key with the left index finger and one with the right as fast as possible for five seconds.

"The nature of the relation between reading and movement was as expected: The fewer errors readers had made on the decoding task, the faster and more consistent they were at the sequential tapping task," the researchers write.

In the second experiment, 11 good readers and 11 poor readers were recruited from a pool of 500 undergraduates. The participants were asked to perform the same coordination tasks as in the first experiment. Carello and her colleagues found that poor readers tap more slowly than good readers in the sequential tapping task, in which they were asked to tap four keys in order.

According to the researchers, their results show there is a reliable relation between reading and movement.

"Clearly, manual dexterity does not cause phonological awareness, nor vice versa," they write. "Rather, some ... skill is assumed to underlie both."

Carello notes that the research has implications for all people, not just those who experience reading or coordination problems.

"If the link exists, early on we might want to spend more time on articulation practice, not just to help children speak better but to help them read better," Carello says.

While improving reading won't improve coordination, educators should consider spending more time working on older children's reading skills. "Reading is a highly learned skill that can be improved by practice," she says. "Anything we can do to help people read better would be a good thing."

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