1. Introduction

Now we do more repetition on the word, adding spelling to make a deeper cognitive impression. The arm-tapping motions stimulate the kinesthetic sense and provide tactile feedback.

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2. Procedure

Video: Technique Three: Arm Tapping

Be sure to hold the flash card at arm’s length from your body, and at arm’s length from the child. The flash card also needs to be held at the child’s eye level. We want to make sure that the child is simultaneously focused on tapping out the word and looking at the written word on the card.

The first step of arm-tapping a word is to say the word while slapping your left shoulder with your right hand. Then, as you say each letter, you use two fingers (index and middle finger of right hand) to tap your left arm, gradually progressing down the arm from shoulder to wrist. Then say the word again while sweeping the two fingers along the left arm, from shoulder to wrist, a variation on the “underlining” motion of previous exercises. The child will copy your motions exactly, using their right hand to tap out the word on their left arm.

Here is a sample script for you to follow:

Adult: Let’s arm-tap the word.
            My turn. Ready? SAID. S-A-I-D. SAID.
            Again: SAID. S-A-I-D. SAID.
            Your turn. Ready?

Child: SAID. S-A-I-D. SAID.
Adult: Again.
Child: SAID. S-A-I-D. SAID.
Adult: One more time.
Child: SAID. S-A-I-D. SAID.
Adult: Good job!

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3. Frequently Asked Questions

Q: My child is left-handed, and she keeps using her left hand to tap out the word on her right arm. Is that OK?

A: No, it is not! Except for the Air Writing and Table Writing exercises, left-handed students should do all of these lesson activities with the right hand. Particularly with the arm-tapping exercise, a child who does it with their left hand will be tapping out the letters backwards, going from right to left instead of from left to right. This can create unnecessary confusion in a child who is in the process of learning to read and write.

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10 Responses to “Technique Three: Arm Tapping”

  1. Judy

    I am going to be working with a child that is at an intermediate level in using an AAC. Is there anyway she can use her AAC to say the letters and the word and still do the Arm Tapping procedure. She needs to use her hand to “say” the letters and the word. I don’t know how to have her do the arm tapping and still activate her devise in a timely manner. Any suggestions?

    ADMIN – Hi Judy,

    For a child that is using an AAC device, they are already getting some kinesthetic feedback from their fingers tapping the device. As such, they don’t need to do the arm tapping exercise – they are already getting the benefit from using the AAC.

    For readers wondering, an AAC (Augmentation and Alternative Communication) device is used by people with speech pathologies to help them communicate. They press a button (or series of buttons) on the AAC and the AAC says a word.

  2. Claude

    Arm tapping technique : interesting. I’m interested in knowing why that works. What is the scientific reason behind that technique?

  3. Julia S

    Can you please link to some research that supports the practice of arm tapping in spelling?

    ADMIN – Hi Julia,

    Barbara Wilson, who developed Wilson Reading – a derivative of Orton Gillingham – uses it as a core technique in her program. It is generally in keeping with the multi-sensory approach in Orton Gillingham.

    For what it’s worth, we all use it in our classrooms, and have had great results.

    • Julia S

      The arm tapping while saying letter names comes from the IMSE version of Orton Gillingham. Anna Gillingham herself pretty much only mentions sight words to say how teaching words that way is harmful to students. In the Wilson method phonemes are tapped out on fingers and then blended into a word.
      I have been looking for any studies or research that supports saying letter names while doing the tapping and have been unable to find any. I have found plenty of evidence showing that teaching spelling and reading with an emphasis on phonemes is far more effective than teaching with letter names and sight words.

  4. Cristina

    Do you suggest doing ALL of these techniques in one lesson for each word? Or one technique a day?

    ADMIN – Hi Cristina,

    I would do all techniques or at least multiple for each word. Each technique tickles their brain in a different way, and that novelty helps to make the word stick.

    When you use only one technique, it gets repetitive – the kids start to tune out, and the rate of learning slows.

  5. nora

    Hi there. I would like to check with you if this step is necessary? Can we forego it? And/Or is there any other activity that can substitute for this?

  6. Andrea Domergue

    Q: My child is left-handed, and she keeps using her left hand to tap out the word on her right arm. Is that OK?
    As per the IMSE manual this is OK. Left handed students “place left hand on wrist (right one) and tap to shoulder.”

  7. Viktorija Spencer

    Based on my Orton Gilligham, ISME training, it is incorrect that a lefty should not use their left hand to arm-tap. In fact, they SHOULD use the hand they write with to do the tapping (for a left-handed child, you’d start at your right wrist and go up to your shoulder so you’re still going in a left-to-right direction, just like when you write).

    • Sight Words Admin

      Thanks for your comment. It is correct that an unequivocal left hander can do the arm tapping technique using the left hand to tap on the right arm AS LONG AS the person starts at the right wrist and moves up toward the shoulder. A left handed person should raise their fisted right hand, shoulder high, arm fully extended, palm down. Then, they should use their left hand to grab their right wrist with their right thumb underneath and four fingers together on top while simultaneously reading/repeating the sight word. After uttering the sight word, they should use their left pointer and middle fingers together to arm tap the word, letter by letter, and then sweep their two fingers upward from the wrist to repeat the whole word. This procedure mimics the “whole word, spelling , whole word” steps seen in the video. The procedure described above is appropriate for true left handers. If a child is not clearly left-handed, use the right hand for arm tapping as shown in the video. Approximately 90 percent of individuals are right handed. Interestingly, recent fMRI research findings have identified patterns of neural connectivity both in the left hemisphere and throughout the entire brain, including previously unrecognized left frontal lobe attention areas that are activated in good, efficient word recognition ( Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2020, pg. 81-84). These new findings as well as others on the horizon will undoubtedly improve and refine present multi-modal techniques and practices that are based on Orton-Gillingham methods used to help children learn to read more efficiently and effectively.


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