Regardless of which country and school system you grew up in, chances are you have heard this sentence at least once from one of your teachers. I, for one, remember my elementary school teacher rebuking pupils who were pointing at the lines of words in their books. And thirty years later, as my son just confirmed to me, this hasn’t changed a bit. At a certain age, students are told to not read with their fingers anymore.
The idea behind this is that fluent readers don’t have to rely on their fingers anymore and that pointing will slow students down and prevent them from growing into fluent, expressive readers. So while almost all children learning to read will naturally use their fingers as training wheels to not lose focus and to stay in line, the same behavior is later often seen as an indicator for poor reading abilities and, sometimes, even a reason for concern. If little Jack can’t read properly without using his index finger as a pointer, he probably has some reading difficulties, right?
Imagine my astonishment, when I listened to an interview with Jim Kwik in which he said (I’m paraphrasing):
And indeed, as a quick online search revealed, this seems to be a well-known fact in the speed reading community, which I am – obviously – not a member of.
But why does it work?
As Jim explains, our brains are wired to detect and be attracted by movement. If anything moves in our field of view – let’s take a saber-tooth tiger in a bush as an underused example, or a lightsaber, if you like – it is hard to not let your attention be grabbed by it. By using our finger, we force our brain to focus on the movement right in front of us. More focus means less distraction and this faster reading. Another reason is that our visual and tactile senses are closely linked. What does a baby do when you rattle with a key or a colorful toy in front of her eyes? She grabs for the toy. You can see and grab the thing? Now, that must be real.
All this is also backed up by scientific studies: as one study by researchers at the University of Sydney showed, for example, finger tracing even makes learning in general easier and more motivating. Associate Professor Paul Ginns provides an additional explanation:
“It seems that humans are biologically wired so that we pay closer attention to the space near our hands. So, when using an index finger to trace visual stimuli, these elements of a lesson receive processing priority. Tracing can also assist learning because it ‘chunks’ all the important elements of new material into one piece of information, making it easier for us to learn.”