Want to Improve Students’ Math & Reading Scores? Add Physical Activity

Beefing up instructional time may not be the best way to boost students’ academic skills. According to a new study in Pediatrics, adding physical activity to academic instruction can dramatically increase students’ math and language skills.

The Pediatrics study, “Physically Active Math and Language Lessons Improve Academic Achievement: A Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial,” examined the effects of active academic instruction. Elementary students at five schools in the Netherlands were randomized to either the control group, which received usual academic instruction, or the intervention group. Students in the intervention group received “Fit & Vaardig op School” (Fit and Academically Proficient at School, or F & V) lessons three times per week. The F & V lessons covered the same academic content but also included physical activity. For instance, students jumped on the spot eight times while studying 2 X 4.

Physical Activity Improves Academics

Students in the control group received 20 to 30 minutes of activity-laden instruction three times per week. That time was divided between math and language arts, with approximately 10 to 15 minutes devoted to each. The main focus, the study authors wrote, “was on constant practice and repetition.”

What the study found

Researchers followed students for two years and discovered that students in the intervention group scored significantly better on math speed tests than students in the control group. This, the authors wrote, “equates to >4 months more learning gains after 2 intervention years compared with the control group.” Students who participated in the physically active lessons also did better on general mathematics tests and spelling tests. The gains in spelling were also estimated to be equivalent to about 4 months of learning gains.

The reading scores of students in both the intervention and control groups were similar. “This discrepancy,” researchers wrote, “might be caused by the content of the intervention program and the academic tests. The F & V program mainly focused on repetition of concepts that children had learned in earlier classes and memorization of these concepts. More concretely, the main focus was on solving arithmetic problems and the spelling of words and less on reading speed.”

This study is the latest to highlight the benefits of physical activity on learning, and it calls into question the practice of increasing seat time to boost instructional time (and test scores). According to a survey by the Center of Education Policy, nearly half of the surveyed districts increased instructional time for math and English/Language Arts from 2001 to 2007. At the same time, many districts also cut or decreased recess time; many slashed PE as well.
Yet the Pediatrics study and others suggest a strong link between physical activity and academic learning. “How we interact with the environment physically is incredibly important for cognitive development and learning,” says Indiana University researcher Karin H. James.

Dr. James was one of the first to notice the link between the motor systems of the brain – the parts of the brain that become active when the body is moving – and reading. She found that when literate adults and children look at printed words, the part of the brain that normally handles motor activity “lights up.” She further discovered that the physical process of writing letters by hand activates the same area of the brain. And while no one yet fully understands the link between motor activity and cognition, it’s clear that “those systems are highly connected, so it’s very important for teachers to keep in mind that doing with the hands is important,” Dr. James says.

How to add movement to instruction

Of course, adding in physical activity can seem nearly impossible when you’re already facing an over-stuffed schedule. The beauty of the Pediatrics study and F & V lessons is that it suggests ways to seamlessly weave activity into academic instruction. The teachers of the intervention group did not add periods of physical activity to their day. Instead, they included physical activity with their academic instruction.

Such an approach can actually save time, says Kelley King, an educator with 25+ years of experience in public and private schools and author of Writing the Playbook: A Practitioner’s Guide to Creating a Boy-Friendly School. “You get more bang for your instructional time in the end because kids are more engaged and more focused,” King says. “They’re not zoning out, and you’re not dealing with discipline as much.”

Teachers can concentrate the benefits of physical activity while minimizing the potential for distraction by setting guidelines in advance. Let students know, “if we do this activity, you have to stay on your feet. Or, you can’t touch anybody else while we do it. Or, when the music goes off, you have five seconds to be back in your seat,” King says.
Increasing the amount of activity in your classroom, even a little bit, can dramatically improve your students’ learning. “All ships will rise on the tide of movement in a classroom,” King says. “Right now, most of us talk at kids too much. We need to have direct instruction that’s frequently broken up by opportunities for kids to stand up, find a partner, process and move.”

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

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