How to Improve Reading Skills: 50+ Sensory Strategies

Developmental OT Strategies to Improve Reading Skills

The best way to improve reading skills in kids is to make sure their bodies and brains are ready before reading instruction begins.  The reading process requires multiple strategies and working on different skills in several developmental areas. Developmental sensory and motor strategies are a fun way to help improve fundamental skills in children.  A free PDF download with over 50 strategies is available at the end of this post, Activities to Enhance Reading Skills. 

Reading is such a complex process.  So why is there is so much pressure for kids to learn to read at earlier ages?  

Why are schools pushing reading and focusing on reading scores instead of looking at body and brain readiness, especially in younger children?

I work alongside many great teachers in my role as a school-based occupational therapist.  Many schools are pushing to have better readers.  But instead of focusing on readiness skills, they start forcing reading sooner.  Some visual learners can memorize sight words and have success at earlier ages.  BUT, this success at an earlier age does indicate successful reading abilities when they get older.  

When we expect our kids to start reading before their bodies and brains are ready, we develop reluctant readers.  I’m not a reading expert, but with my background knowledge as an occupational therapist, I respect development.

Development matters.  A child’s brain, body, eyes and ears need to be ready in order to develop strong reading skills.  

Focus on Developmental Readiness Skills for Reading

Developmental readiness is an extremely important part of reading.  

The teachers I work with are blown away when they watch their students struggle with basic motor tasks for the body and eyes.  Or when they watch their kids have difficulty with auditory games and activities.  

They’re thankful for OT strategies they can add to their lesson plans to helo their students.

In this blog post, I’m going to share four key points and areas of development that are important to practice before your curriculum starts pushing and assessing reading.   

Check out these effective ways to make sure your students’ brains and bodies are ready for learning.  With a strong foundation of sensory and sensorimotor development, you will be able to better prepare your readers.  Because you focused on developmental readiness.  

Younger children need us to see where they are and help guide them with basic developmental activities.  This will help with their confidence and success with the reading process and to create better readers. 

If you’re already pressured to begin a reading curriculum too soon, please still incorporate all of these simple activities to your play and learning routines.   

This post contains important information and fun sensory activities that help support and improve reading skills.  I share reasons why auditory activities, visual activities, crossing midline activities, and balance activities are great for kids to improve reading skills.  Following the explanations in each area, there are lists of activities that you can easily embed into your daily routine and lesson plans to help with the learning process.   

A free PDF with the activities is available at the end of this blog post containing the 1) Auditory Activities, 2) Visual Activities, 3) Crossing Midline Activities, and 4) Balance Activities


1) Why Are Auditory Activities Important for Kids to Improve Reading Skills?

Good reading comprehension skills begins with learning how to process auditory information.  Younger children develop auditory memory, discrimination, and attention to a variety of sounds and words from the world around them.  

A language rich environment from the time of conception until a child enters kindergarten or first grade provides a child with a strong foundation for the auditory system and literacy skills.    

Music, songs, rhymes, books, story time, and conversations stimulate the auditory system and support auditory processing.  These are fundamental skills for the auditory system in the brain.  

Children’s brains pick up on sound patterns and the sequence of sounds and words with these language activities.  When these are naturally embedded into a child’s world, it supports cognitive development, language skills, and vocabulary development.   

Kids learn to process longer sequences of sounds and words in order to follow multiple-step directions.  Auditory activities are important for kids of all ages, no matter what reading level they’re on.  They should begin in infancy and continue throughout development in older students.

I know of a teen who still is working on strengthening auditory skills.  The added auditory activities help him to continue to strengthen auditory processing, language development and reading comprehension skills.

Even high school students and adults benefit from auditory activities and strategies as they study and learn. 

Stimulating the auditory system increases alertness in the brain.  Auditory activities help with listening, following directions, language development, reading, writing, and spelling. 

Sensory Activities to Improve Reading Skills in Young Children

Improve Reading Skills with Auditory Activities

Auditory activities help improve fundamental skills needed for the complex process of reading.  Activities for the auditory (hearing) system help improve attention, listening, phonics, memory, sequencing and vocabulary.  

Add these activities to your learning routines to help kids process auditory input for reading.  They’re fun games and activities that support whole brain learning and of course with the ultimate goal of reading.

  • Listen to music (without a video) or play classical music
  • Sing songs or nursery rhymes
  • Rhyming games and sound games
  • Telephone game
  • Following directions (Cranium’s Hullabaloo, “Mother May I”)
  • Podcasts of short stories or short books – ask questions that have many different answers
  • Caregiver reads a book to teach new vocabulary words
  • Conversations that increase vocabulary and directional concepts during arts & crafts
  • Memory, sequencing and recall games
  • Scavenger hunts with verbal clues (using positional words)
  • Left-right games (Hokey Pokey, Simon Says with 2-3 steps)
  • Story telling

*For more auditory games and activities, check out Simple Auditory Activities to Improve Learning and Reading.  You will find additional activities to help improve listening and following directions.  

2) Why Are Visual Activities Important for Kids to Improve Reading Skills?

Visual processing is a really important part of reading.  Our eyes just don’t see things clearly near and far.  The brain has an important job of quickly processing what is seen.  

Visual learners can quickly memorize the shape of sight words.  But when new vocabulary words are presented for reading, higher level learning skills are required.  Visual discrimination and phonemic awareness are needed to figure out each letter and letter combination for the sounds. 

Additionally, for just basic reading skills, the eye muscles need to visually focus on text in one area.  

I have an exercise for kids that absolutely shocks the teachers. Most students can’t even focus on their own finger held out in front of them for a short amount of time.  NOR can they follow their finger when they move it… But they’re expected to start to read! 

The teachers feel awful watching this.  

For reading, kids have to fix their eyes on certain areas. Then the eyes then have to scan text in proper sequence when reading a written word, sentence or consecutive sentences.  The eyes also have to smoothly move across the midline of the body. 

This is so difficult for students who haven’t developed eye muscle control. 

If these basic visual and motor skills aren’t developed, reading becomes so challenging for these kids.  

Furthermore, if kids are being expected to read before they develop good visual discrimination skills, it causes even more frustration.  The child struggles (understandably) because their brain is working so hard to take in and process so much information before it is ready.  If they can’t consistently identify and discriminate between letters (b’s from d’s, p’s from q’s, r-m-h-n-u, etc) then reading is difficult.    

Visual activities, games and basic exercises are so important for kids to support reading.

Improve Reading Skills with Visual Activities

Visual activities are easy to add to any part of a child’s day.  Every part of the day has opportunities for visual exercises. And so many games strengthen visual skills for children that support reading.

Using picture books with babies and toddlers is a great early literacy activity.  Play with a variety of building structures, blocks, puzzles, bubbles, balls, cars, etc build visual skills for kids.

Improve visual perception, position in space, memory and visual tracking with this list of visual activities.

  • Puzzles, tangrams, or pattern boards – build from memory
  • Mazes or magnet mazes
  • Ball play (catch, rolling, bouncing, bowling, target toss)
  • Memory (match letters or words)
  • Sequencing games (re-create patterns from memory)
  • I spy games
  • Tracing or dot-to-dots
  • Hidden pictures or word finds
  • Left-right games (Twister)
  • Scavenger hunts (inside or out)
  • Visualize objects, places, people, ideas
  • Word building games (boggle, scrabble)
  • Read a book by only looking at pictures – talk about what’s happening
  • Bingo games, dominoes

*For more visual skills activities for kids, check out 

1) Visual Perception Activities (this blog post focuses on 7 areas of visual perception with 42 activities to help kids develop visual perceptual skills)

2) Visual Skills Activities for Kids (this post shares activities to help strengthen visual attention for reading) 

3) Easy Visual Tracking Activities Using the Infinity Loop (help kids improve their ability to track a moving object AND to help the eyes cross midline)  

4) Fun Visual Motor Activity Using Magnets (this post shares an easy kid favorite activity; improve visual tracking, visual memory, visual attention, and letter identification)

How to Improve Reading Skills

3) How Crossing Midline Activities Help Improve Reading Skills

Crossing the midline of the body with a hand, foot, or the eyes helps both sides of the brain communicate and work together.  These important movements help with gross and fine motor skills, writing, and reading.  Midline crossing activities help the brain learn directional concepts such as position in space and right and left, and it helps the brain make sense of letter positions.     

Crossing midline activities helps kids develop hand dominance and writing skills (part of the reading process) and it decreases the frequency of letter reversals.  

Kids should start to naturally cross the midline of their body when they are two years old.  Sadly, I see many kindergarten, first, and second graders who do not automatically cross the midline of their body with their hands, eyes, or feet. They continue to use the basic parts of the brain which does not allow higher level connections to be made for learning.  Every preschooler and grade level student can continue to benefit from these movements.  

Moving the body in certain ways with intention helps make new connections in the brain for learning. Paul Dennison’s Brain Gym® movements supports this with substantial research and success with the program.  

Improve Reading Skills in Kids with Crossing Midline Activities

Crossing midline activities engages more parts of the body and the brain. Reading success in kids is dependent on motor skills.  The eyes have to move independently from the head and smoothly cross the middle line of the body.

Crossing midline activities improve the communication between the two sides of the brain.  They strengthen the eye muscles and help them move smoothly across the midline of the body.  

  • Wave large bubble wands or ribbons in the air using big movements
  • Swing jump ropes in large circles or side to side using large movements (for older students, jump rope with a crossing pattern)
  • Toe touches and windmills stimulate the vestibular system to increase alertness in the brain and to encourage crossing midline
  • Sport activities such as baseball, golf, tennis, rowing, or hockey games that encourages the arms to cross the midline of the body
  • Dance moves that require the arms to cross to the other side of the body (recite rhymes and songs as kids move their arms and legs) 
  • Large magnet mazes or chalk activities that use big movements (the large infinity symbol is a great one, see the link below these activities)
  • Wash self during bathing and rub lotion on arms, legs, back

*For more fun and easy crossing midline activities, check out 18 Quick Midline Crossing Activities for Academic Tasks.  

Additionally, consider the following posts with brain break exercises to help with attention and school skills:

1) Best Educational Brain Break Exercises (this blog post lists a sequence of quick brain break exercises that incorporate crossing midline, movement and postural skills) 

2) Classroom Exercise Breaks – 8 Week Series (get an 8 week sequence of class exercises that includes crossing midline, movement, proprioceptive exercises, core stability, fine motor skills, and more) 

4) How do Balance and Movement Activities Help Improve Reading Skills?

Balance activities stimulate the vestibular (movement) sensory system.  Balance tasks help improve core stability.  A strong core and adequate processing of movement input supports postural muscle development and eye muscle control.  

If a child does not have a strong core, they tend to sit with a slumped or sideways posture.  Whatever posture younger children develop (good or bad,) the eye muscles automatically adjust so that the brain can properly take in information.  If kids hold their heads to the side, these kids develop a dominant eye with eyes that are not aligned which can make reading really difficult.  

Core stability exercises, proper sitting posture and movement activities are all important to strengthen the eye muscles for reading. 

Balance Activities to Improve Visual Skills are important for muscle development. They improve core postural muscles and eye muscle control needed for reading. 

Additionally, balance and movement activities give powerful sensory information to the central nervous system so that is is ready for learning.  

Improve Reading Skills in Kids with Balance Activities

Movement and balance activities stimulate the vestibular system.  These activities improve postural control, eye muscle control and improve attention and focus.  These are all really important developmental skills that need strengthened for reading success.  

Easily add these balance and movement activities to your daily life routines with kids. 

  • Balance beam
  • Jump with 2 feet onto targets (recite alphabet or spell words)
  • Hop on 1 foot onto targets
  • Hopscotch
  • Balance poses (yoga)
  • Ride a bike or scooter
  • Swinging
  • Ring-Around-the-Rosie
  • Spin on a swing 
  • Merry-go-round 
  • Sit-n-spin
  • Log roll (flat area or down a hill!)
  • Somersaults
  • Cartwheels
  • Charades
  • Dance 
  • Dramatic play

For more movement, balance, and core activities and exercises, check out:

1) 30 Fun Movement Activities for Kids  

2) 40 Core Exercises for Kids

3) 43 Occupational Therapy Motor Coordination Activities 

Free PDF Printable: Sensory Activities to Enhance Reading Skills

For more understanding of how the sensory systems and sensory activities are the foundation for learning, check out the blog post Taylor Trott Sensory Pyramid of Learning.  

And please don’t use screens with learning apps and reading apps with kids.  Screens cause more disruption to the sensory systems and learning process.   Find Screen Time Alternatives for Kids (read this post to find out how screens negatively interfere with all areas of development.)    

Finally, the activities listed in this post are on a one page PDF handout (FREE Printable: Activities to Enhance Reading Skills) as a reference for you.  

Easily add these activities during play and learning.  They’re effective ways to build foundational skills needed for reading.  

MORE Fun Learning Activities for Kids Using OT Sensory Strategies:

School-Based OT

Amy Hathaway MOT, OTR/L, CIMI-2 is a licensed and registered occupational therapist.  She is the founder of Develop Learn Grow. 

Amy has 22 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist.   She enjoys collaborating with teachers, parents, therapists, administrators, and support staff in preschools & schools, as well as coaching and guiding parents of infants and toddlers in their homes.

She is married and has three children.  Click to read Amy’s bio.  

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