Foundational Milestones for Reading: Development of the Eyes, Ears and Neck
This article discusses important foundational milestones for reading and writing. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
At one month old, an infant has already adjusted to numerous sensations and has started to formulate responses to these sensations. One of the more important sensations that a baby learns to respond to is the sensations from their own body and the pull of gravity. The nervous system is formed so that the child can immediately start to feel movement and gravitational pull, which is how the body starts training muscles for appropriate responses. Without the integration of these important motor responses, proper development and academic skill, especially reading, will be impossible later in a child’s life.
Developmental Skills that Build the Foundational Milestones for Reading
An infant’s motor functions typically develop from the top to the bottom, meaning the baby starts to control the head first and then works on other movements to follow. Three of the most important body functions that a child develops in the first months are: eye control, neck muscle mastery and integrating the sensations from the inner ears.
The eyes and the neck are the first body parts that a baby learns to control. The child must adapt quickly because learning to keep the eyes stable is a survival skill. Their visual perception, along with the neck holding the head still, allows the eyes to look at an object and keep a steady image of that object. If the eyes cannot track, and if the neck cannot hold the head still, objects and people will appear blurry. This is a prime example of why posture and eye movements are important milestones for reading. Some students don’t have enough muscle to lift their head to read the chalkboard and their eyes jump, jiggle or see double because their visual motor skills aren’t fully developed for reading.
This is normal when the infant is first born. However, by the end of the first month, babies should be able to focus and have a clear image of an object that is about 12 inches away from their face. By the end of the third month, babies can focus on smaller objects and can more easily track movement. The infant is constantly scanning the room with his eyes to gain sensory information about his surroundings.
Along with the eyes, the neck muscles are one of the first body parts that an infant learns to control. Rising the head up from being on the ground while on the tummy, is a small, but important developmental skill that many people don’t realize is critical for reading as the child gets older. Think about how powerful and consistent gravity is. The baby must build strong neck muscles to lift the head up and then soon after, use their upper back muscles and arm muscles to lift the chest off the floor. Where does the urge come from for babies to lift themselves off the ground? It comes primarily from the sensations of gravity. Not only do the neck muscles allow the head to be lifted, but the child learns to balance the head.
Deep inside the baby’s ear, the vestibular system is whirling with new sensations that are being sent to the brain to integrate into new movements and new knowledge.
Deep inside the baby’s ear, the vestibular system is whirling with new sensations that are sent to the brain to integrate new movements and new knowledge. Gravity is a new sensation for the baby and the many different movements are all being noted and deciphered in the inner ear. Because the vestibular system acts as our internal GPS system, if it becomes underdeveloped, this is where you may begin to notice attention issues in your child, behavior trouble in the classroom and constant fidgeting.
The vestibular system also detects slighting movement or gravitational pull. All of these sensations allow the brain to start integrating other pieces of sensory information coming from the eyes, skin and other muscles to allow the baby to begin learning key movements and motor patterns. These motor patterns and movements are the foundation for future academic skills.
3 Body Components for Reading Development
The three key components of an infant’s body (Eyes, Neck and Ears) are key to how a child’s reading foundation is built. In Sensory Integration and the Child, Jean Ayres writes:
“…the brain must integrate three types of sensation: one, gravity and movement sensations from the inner ears; two, the sensations from the eye muscles; and three, the muscle sensations from the neck. The brain puts these three types of sensations together to know how to hold the eyes and neck steady…This development will continue for several years and is a vital building block for learning to read. It also, helps the child learn balance and overall body movement.”
How the Eyes, Ears and Neck Influence Reading
Babies learn to investigate their environment by moving around. They are constantly gathering sensory information by rising up from the prone position (tummy time), rolling over, sitting up and crawling. Natural curiosity is very important for the child so they can discover and practice essential motor movements that will help build those foundational blocks for later academic skills such as reading and writing.
The muscles of the eye and neck, along with the inner ear, play extremely important roles in organizing the vestibular system. Jean Ayres describes that some children with poor vestibular processing have difficulty tracking an object that is moving right in front of them, or transitioning their eyes from one spot to another. If the child can’t track objects in front of them or if they can’t transition their eyes from one spot to another, reading words across the page and tracking from line to line, paragraph to paragraph, is almost impossible.
Many times these kids also struggle with balance and coordination, which makes playing a game, running, drawing a line or reading very hard to do.
Sometimes, it’s like a traffic jam with tons of different sensations and nothing will get through that makes sense…so we crash.
Without a functioning vestibular foundation, it is very difficult for a child to sit at a desk in school and copy what the teacher just wrote on the board. It can be quite frustrating for the student to try and read lines on a page because her eyes won’t track. Another aspect of vestibular problems is sensory over-stimulation. When a child “loses it” and cannot focus or function because there is too much stimulation around him or her, a “traffic jam” takes place in their brain. There are too many different sensations causing the child discomfort so they can’t concentrate, sit still in class and they can’t listen to the teacher or retain information. These sensory sensations are often so jumbled up within the child, nothing makes sense and the child can’t academically make it to the next level.
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