Swimming and Reading Go Together Like Cookies and Ice Cream

The right balance of direct instruction and independent practice builds children’s confidence and joy

Dr. Mary Riordan-Karlsson

Curriculum and Implementation Manager, North West Region

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream! Swimming and reading are not just summer indulgences. Learning to swim and learning to read require the same amount of patience, endurance, and curiosity. The rewards are similar too: confidence, freedom, and pure joy. It would be nice if learning to read or swim happened overnight, but in reality, they are both complex processes that can challenge a young learner’s confidence and stamina. When we recognize this, we can make more informed choices about how to guide our students and children through the learning process.

Louise Rosenblatt, literacy theorist and researcher, eloquently describes the teacher as a “guide on the side” as opposed to the “sage on the stage.” [i] Teaching is a delicate balance between demanding rigor and inspiring joy. Finding the right rhythm and pace while providing time for direct instruction as well as independent practice is essential. Children will gain confidence in their ability to try and swim across the pool or read a favorite book after they have a foundation of knowledge laid by their teachers’ modeling and guidance, allowing them, as Rosenblatt indicates, to step aside.

As a literacy/reading specialist and a swim teacher I use the gradual release of responsibility model to inform my approach.[ii] I provide extensive support and scaffolding, encouragement, and celebration of each step of the journey. In the end, I see the same results year after year: happy children and happy parents.

Here are some parallels between learning to swim and learning to read.

Repetition.

In the emergent classroom we read aloud favorite stories focusing our attention on meaning, play word games in Smarty Ants to highlight our phonics skills, and create our own stories as we draw and write. Repeat. In the pool, we practice streamlining (prone floating), kicking and blowing bubbles, swimming out to the “castle” (floating platform) and swimming back to the steps. It is all about repetition and pushing a little bit further each time.

Brain Development.

Children learn best through multisensory experiences integrating visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile learning activities. A multisensory teaching method is the best method to teach reading since it enhances memory and learning of written language.

What’s better than jumping in the pool and waking up all of your senses? Research by Dr. Ruth Rice determined that babies make “significant gains in neurological development, weight gain and mental development” from the tactile stimulation of the nerve pathways of the skin — and swimming does the trick! [iii] This type of stimulation is wonderful for all children.

Making Connections.

Children do not learn to swim by learning just one skill, rather it is the coordination of many skills, arm strokes, kicking, and breathing, focusing on rhythm and pace. Similarly, in reading, children use all of the cueing systems to make meaning, not just phonics.

When children are learning to read and write in our classrooms, we must give them the room to grow, explore, and discover the world around them. By providing myriad of opportunities to make connections and construct meaning, we encourage all children to make sense of their world.

Communication and Group Dynamics.

Reading and constructing meaning are social activities. During a literacy event, children are constantly sharing authority, negotiating meaning among friends or in cooperative learning activities, and creating completely new ideas from a combination of minds.

Swimming is usually associated with vacations and celebrations. Swimming helps teach children how to take turns, listen, and adapt to new social situations more easily because they learn self-discipline and self-esteem enabling them to feel more comfortable, especially around water.

Self-Confidence and Joy

Our goal is to provide extensive support and scaffolding when teaching children how to read or swim. In the classroom we use a repertoire of instructional literacy strategies, such as rhyming songs and games, invented spelling, and interactive storybook reading. In the pool we use concrete props, such as kickboards, platforms, and the pool steps. And then, there is the moment when the students are ready to leave the props behind and exclaims, “I’m ready to do it by myself!” It’s about inspiring confidence, freedom, and joy.


[i] L.M. Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1978).

[ii]P. D. Pearson and G. Gallagher, “The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model of Instruction,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, no. 8 (1983): 112–23.

[iii] R.Rice, “Neurophysiological Development in Premature Neonate Following Stimulation, Developmental Psychology, no. 13; (1977): 69-76.