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The Rhythm for Reading blog

Rhythm, punctuation and meaning

1 February 2018

The comma, according to Lynn Truss, clarifies the grammatical structure of a sentence and points to literary qualities such as rhythm, pitch, direction, tone and pace.

Truss says that careful use of the comma announces ‘an ear for sense and rhythm, confidence in your style and proper respect for your reader’ (p.70). The title refers to a well-known joke, which plays on the ambiguity of ‘shoots’ and ‘leaves’ as homonyms. To the ear and eye these words appear the same, but in different contexts their meaning changes. So, in the joke, ‘A panda walks into a bar…’, contexts collide, meanings are superimposed, but the punctuation rescues the reader.

This shows us exactly why reading for meaning is a multi-layered affair. To read the phrase ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ with understanding involves observing the comma as a formal separation of the first two verbs in a series of three, as well as inhibiting a miscommunication of meaning. From a rhythm-based perspective, the comma prevents ‘eats shoots’ from being read as a verb-noun pair. Verb-noun pairs are rapidly processed, high-frequency phrases that provide immediate understanding, such as ‘drives cars’, ‘writes books’, ‘plays games’ and ‘buys drinks’.

Remarking on the similarity between punctuation and musical notation, Truss observed that ‘punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart’ (p.20). Although there are different patterns of emphasis (prominence or stress) in different languages, dialects and indeed regional variations of any given language, what is important is that rhythmical cycles operate at several levels in both language and music. Remarkably, we generate these highly organised, intricate and geometric relationships of time and meaning automatically at a subconscious level of awareness.

At a conscious level, we are more likely to realise how involved or engaged we feel with the meaning of the story or song. Once our attention has been captured, we as an audience can become phase-locked into an experience of heightened awareness, which is effortlessly stored by the memory. In fact, laws, myths, legends and cultural histories have been preserved across generations in this way. This form of group learning via listening feels somewhat mysterious and therefore has often been vaguely described in phrases such as, ‘you could have heard a pin drop,’ ‘having the audience in the palm of your hand’ or ‘sitting on the edge of your seat’. The phase-locked experience is not unique to humans as most living things synchronise with cycles of light intensity. There are also patterns of synchronised sound among insects and synchronised movement in flocks of birds, shoals of fish and herds of cattle.

Through language and music our collective response to sounds (in the air or on the page) naturally predisposes us to become attuned to the recurring cycles of phrases, patterns within phrases and the overarching structures within which phrases are meaningfully grouped. I am not suggesting that we humans are mindless creatures, intrinsically satisfied by the hypnotic pull of recurring rhythmical patterns. No, we are very complex and capable of a vast range of behaviour from incredible subtlety in our rhythmic awareness to tremendous violations of natural rhythmical cycles. In general, our desire for novelty and our urge to create, to surprise, to shock, to satirise and push against outdated institutions, is expressed through rhythm. We have archived our experiences through storytelling and music with the resonance of an authentic human voice. The elasticity of congruent rhythmic structures accommodates newly-combined patterns, reminding us that far from being hypnotised by our own sounds, we are dynamic communicators with the ability to express, create, share and reflect upon our experiences.

Truss, L (2003) ‘Eats, shoots & leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation’ Harper Collins

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Inclusive Roots

1 January 2018

The reason that Rhythm for Reading exists at all can be traced right back to a brief moment which was absolutely life changing. This is how it happened… I was working for the very first time with a group of nine year old children who had fallen so far behind their classmates over the years, that their class teacher feared for their future. I found them to be exactly as she had described, constantly misbehaving, very impulsive and unable to concentrate for longer than two seconds. The more important discovery however, was that my teaching techniques, which had until that point always been effective, had failed to engage these children.

Stepping into an inclusive mindset at that moment meant leaving the security of the ‘known’ behind. The first step for me was to acknowledge that I needed to know how to help these children. The second step was to pause for a moment and listen to the children, asking them about the things that they loved to do so that I could teach them more effectively. The third step was to find a way forward from that conversation.

It was obvious that football was hugely important to these children. They spoke about their footballing skills with a confidence that was so sincere, I felt that their commitment to movement could help me to teach them. At that time, the notion of learning through movement and rhythm was extremely unorthodox, but for these children, rhythmic exercises beginning with the feet proved to be extremely beneficial.They were soon better able to concentrate and their behaviour in class became calm and industrious.

Now, some twenty years later, neuroscientists have established the correlation between rhythmic awareness and reading and have shown the importance of movement for learning and memory. Those early steps in particular have been researched, evaluated and formalised into the own online teaching programme Rhythm for Reading.

An inclusive and equitable approach often demands courage and faith, but above all it specifies that teachers put learning first and take the necessary steps to teach children in the way that they can learn. The effects of inclusive teaching and learning have wide ranging benefits. Not only does an inclusive approach transform educational outcomes for all children, but it also reinforces the caring ethos of the school community, as well as deepening knowledge, expanding expertise and empowering teaching.

Through the analysis of data, our educational system has successfully identified inequalities and the influence of these on the future lives of disadvantaged children; but what is urgently needed now is a bold strategic vision with which to implement appropriate approaches that will support individual children, build cohesion within schools and strengthen the communities that they serve.

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Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

3 December 2017

In their highly influential study of vocabulary development in the early years, Hart and Risley (1995) showed that parents in professional careers spoke 32 million more words to their children than did parents on welfare, accounting for the vocabulary and language gap at age 3 and the maths gap at age 10 between the children from different home backgrounds.

A critique of the study pointed to a language deficit perspective, social stereotyping and methodological flaws such as selection bias (Dudly-Marling and Lucas, 2009). Some of the points that were raised about language style such as length and tone of an utterance, (comparing longer and more persuasive utterances in middle class homes with shorter, more direct utterances in welfare homes) may indeed highlight cultural differences rather than deficits. However, according to the theory of dynamic attending, shorter utterances, a more direct tone and more abrupt exchanges may influence a child’s attention (Jones et al., 2009), but of course the difference only becomes a deficit if as the child begins pre-school, their attention is too fragile to assimilate the curriculum.

Although the richness of vocabulary was hugely advantageous for children from better-off homes in the Hart and Risley study, researchers have discovered that the opportunities for conversational turns between parents and their children, for example when sharing a book, were even more beneficial than vocabulary development. Conversations have also been identified as a marker for maternal responsiveness, positive emotional exchange and social engagement (Paul & Gilkerson, 2017). From a rhythm-processing perspective, conversations nurture the child’s ability to listen, to engage, to respond and to reciprocate at precise moments in time. Feed-forward systems known to support language acquisition are rhythmically sensitive (Saffran et al., 1996) as are language generating processes such as associative priming (Jones & Estes, 2012).

In pre-school classrooms of societies which have relatively high levels of social inequality, it is unacceptable that an attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers still persists twenty years after the publication of the Hart and Risley study. Simply obtaining and critiquing data on attainment and home background is an inadequate response to a persistent problem. As educators we have a responsibility to close the attainment gap and to do so systematically, using a child-centred and holistic approach that is sufficiently bold and rigorous to ensure effective change.

Children who arrive at pre-school with fragile attention and are not yet ready to learn are not difficult to identify. Some children may demonstrate flat attention - generally they are difficult to engage. Some children may have a scattered pattern of fragmented attention - they demonstrate mainly impulsive behaviour. Some children are able to focus their attention, only to find that it fades before they have completed the task. Regardless of whether these children have missed out on the everyday conversations and interactions that systematically nurture cognitive attention during infancy and early childhood, their learning is supported by stable attention, and according to dynamic attending theory (e.g. Jones et al., 2009), stable attention is supported by rhythmic awareness.

Awareness of rhythm in terms of the conscious perception of words, music, movement and gesture is only the tip of the iceberg, as rhythm is processed to a large extent subconsciously. This subconscious element of rhythmic processing is difficult to teach without specialist training; for example, fragile attention cannot be addressed by simply chanting nursery rhymes or shaking tins of rice in the classroom. However, with a little training and knowledge of the mechanisms that are involved, it is possible to work effectively with both the conscious and subconscious aspects of rhythmic awareness in the classroom, to achieve transformational effects on reading attainment and to do so over a very short period of time (Long, 2014).

Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K. (2009). Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children. Language Arts, 86(5), 362.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.

Jones MR, Johnston HM, Puente J. Effects of auditory pattern structure on anticipatory and reactive attending. Cognitive psychology. 2006;53:59–96

Jones, L. L. & Estes, Z. (2012). Lexical priming: Associative, semantic, and thematic influences on word recognition. In J. S. Adelman (Ed.), Visual Word Recognition, Volume 2. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Long, M. (2014). ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading. Research Studies in Music Education, 36(1), 107-124.

Paul, T.D. and Gilkerson, J. (2017). The Talk Gap, In R. Horowitz and S.J. Samuels, The Achievement Gap in Reading: Complex Causes, Persistent Issues, Possible Solutions, Routledge.

Saffran, J.R., Aslin, R.N. & Newport, E.L. Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science 274, 1926–1928 (1996).

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How does the Rhythm for Reading programme actually work?

5 November 2017

The Rhythm for Reading programme helps teachers to support children’s reading-related skills in a dynamic way, which complements the conventional bottom-up phonics-based approach. The programme simultaneously sharpens phonological awareness, reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension. A remarkable impact: a 20 month average gain in reading comprehension, has been achieved in 10 weekly sessions of 10 minutes.

How does it work?

Right from the start, the programme harnesses the children’s attention through a series of fast-paced games and routines. These have been developed in classrooms over several years to ensure that rhythm-based approaches are assimilated efficiently, particularly by those with weak cognitive control. Each tiny step has been selected, analysed and organised into sequences as part of a system of Prepsteps. Teachers can view these on our learning platform as videos and read the accompanying fact sheets, which explain how and why each tiny step impacts on children’s cognitive control. Most of these tiny steps take less than 30 seconds to apply.

How do they work?

A light-hearted and fast-paced delivery style, as well as a rhythm-based approach entrains (synchronises) children to respond, to anticipate, to expect and to predict what is about to happen next. Consequently, there is an immediate improvement in children’s precision, self-control and engagement while encoding (taking in) new information. This level of involvement automatically inhibits unhelpful habits of learning, such as mind-wandering, distraction and interruption. At the same time, the children’s efforts are generously rewarded by both the musical engagement as well as by the socially-satisfying experience of being part of a team.

Why use music?

Musical notation is an extremely effective tool for boosting reading fluency. Why is this? Let’s begin by comparing musical symbols with letters of the alphabet. Children learn to recognise the letters of the alphabet (graphemes) by associating the detail of their shapes, consisting of loops, lines, curves and even dots, with the sounds of the smallest units of language (phonemes). These details must be processed automatically before fluent reading can develop. Musical notes, on the other hand have a uniform shape, consisting simply of a head and a stem, similar to a flower, or a lollipop. The uniform appearance of musical notes lightens the cognitive load involved in reading and allows children to read rhythmical patterns with fluency and ease.

Why should fluency in reading musical notation transfer to the reading of language?

Our own work in schools across England and Wales indicates that teaching children to read musical notation in a rhythm-based approach significantly accelerates reading accuracy and comprehension (Long, 2014). A possible explanation for this may be that the uniformity of musical symbols reduces a processing bottleneck, first identified by reading experts as a barrier to efficient reading forty years ago (Cutting et al., 2009). This issue persists even today and is described in terms of a cognitive trade-off between the decoding of print and the ability to process coherence between words, given limited cognitive resources (Oakhill, Cain and Elbro, 2014).

Consequently, musical processing provides a form of ‘buoyancy aid’ for reading with ease, fluency and comprehension, when cognitive resources are limited. Released from the ‘bottleneck’ associated with inefficient processing of alphabetic code, children decode musical notation instead and are immediately immersed into the regularity of rhythmic processing. The logical forms and hierarchical structures that are integral to the Rhythm for Reading audio-visual resources automatically train children to recognise grammatical structures, align with phrase contours and activate the associative priming mechanism (Jones and Estes, 2012) while they read printed language (Long, 2014).

What is associative priming?

1. Associative priming is activated by relationships between words, for example between ‘water’ and associated words, ‘drink’, ‘swim’, ‘wash’, ‘fish’. The context for ‘water’ would influence the salience of possible candidate words. So, a story about having fun in the water on a visit to a river would activate one group of words, whereas a story about finding water in a desert would activate a different set of words.

2. Associative priming is also influenced by syntax, so if the word ‘hit’ occurs in the ‘root’ (first part) of the sentence, word candidates such as ‘hammer’, ‘tennis ball’ or ‘nail’ could assist with decoding the ‘stem’ (next part) of the sentence.

3. Associative priming is a mechanism that drives the internal cohesion between words in utterances as well as in fluent reading, enabling several hundreds of words to be understood per minute.

4. Associative priming is in fact a natural part of language processing, (working equally efficiently for regularly and irregularly spelled words). Consequently, it offers promise as a supplementary reading strategy for low and middle attaining students and is far more efficient than the laboured phonological decoding, which is a characteristic of fragile reading.

The Rhythm for Reading programme has substituted words with musical symbols and offers an elegant solution to persistent verbal inefficiency and processing bottlenecks. Find out more here.

Cutting, L. E., Materek, A., Cole, C. A., Levine, T. M., & Mahone, E. M. (2009). Effects of fluency, oral language, and executive function on reading comprehension performance. Annals of dyslexia, 59(1), 34-54.

Jones, L. L., & Estes, Z. (2012). Lexical priming: Associative, semantic, and thematic influences on word recognition.

Long, M. (2014). ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading. Research Studies in Music Education, 36(1), 107-124.

Oakhill, J., Cain, K., & Elbro, C. (2014). Understanding and teaching reading comprehension: a handbook. Routledge.

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The importance of timing for self-regulation: The tale of the tortoise and the hare

29 October 2017

From the age of three years, children spend much of the school day honing their capacity for effortful-control and mental focus. These efforts help to build foundations for self-regulation and goal-directed behaviour, which gain momentum from four years of age (Rothbart, Sheese, Rueda and Posner, 2011). Self-regulation involves the use of behaviours and strategies that support a desired outcome, as well as the suppression of any unhelpful impulses that would divert attention away from the desired goal.

It is unsurprising therefore that self-regulation, characterised by cognitive control, perseverance and self-discipline predicts academic attainment, and it is fascinating to find that this topic chimes in an interesting way with Aesop’s Tale of The Tortoise and the Hare. The fable tells of a boastful hare, who when challenged to a race by a tortoise was so confident in his ability to outrun the tortoise at the very last minute, that he went to sleep. The hare failed to wake up in time and the tortoise won the race.

Just as Aesop’s hare misjudged the timing of the race and underestimated the perseverance of the tortoise, so too are children with poor self-regulation prone to problems relating to social communication and overcoming procrastination. The underlying problem is this: unless attention is rhythmical, all of the child’s efforts to concentrate are spent on suppression. This is why a meaningful deadline appears to be helpful; it generates a target that enables the child to organise their attention ‘in time’. In truth, the systematic use of sanctions and rewards to manage difficulties with self-regulation and social communication may appear to ‘work’, but the danger of this type of approach is that it simply trains the child to become increasingly dependent on the intervention of a specific teacher, further decreasing their capacity to self-regulate.

What is required is a programme that realigns the child’s inherent sensitivity to timing in terms of (i) language and reading skills, (ii) selective attention and (iii) social group skills. Realigning a child’s sensitivity to rhythm at several levels simultaneously achieves an integrated result and lasting impact on several domains: phonemic awareness, cognitive control, inhibition, reading accuracy, reading comprehension, reading fluency, a sense of self-worth and a sense of social belonging. Addressing the underlying issues of weak self-regulation in this comprehensive and natural way, resets the child’s educational outcomes in alignment with an emotionally healthy and academically positive path. Read more.

Rothbart, M.K., Sheese, B.E., Rueda, M.R. and Posner, M.I. (2011). Developing mechanisms of self-regulation in early life, Emot rev: 3 (2) 207-213.

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What are metaphors for?

22 October 2017

As we hurtle ever-faster into the age of digital communication, I find myself wondering whether metaphors are still useful in everyday life. Skilled journalists have always produced headlines using sharp, snappy metaphors to sensationalise, to ridicule and to frame an event, generating huge ripples of influence and instant impact. The pacy style of tabloid newspaper headlines is absolutely aligned with the short staccato formulaic styles of digital communication in everyday life. However, the sheer volume of electronic communication allows insufficient space and time for a metaphor to unfold. Far from allowing details to clutter the basic outline, the message must be brief, clear and direct. Any potential for misunderstanding can therefore be circumvented in advance.

We all share a common heritage that stems from traditional pre-literate societies in which metaphors have been extraordinarily important tools of diplomacy and ingenuity. Using the richness of imagery, they allowed delicate messages to be conveyed indirectly, thereby fortifying relationships between different groups of people. The use of metaphor assisted the settlement of disputes because grievances could be powerfully expressed in novel and flexible ways. The free-floating nature of a metaphor enabled negotiations to ebb and flow within a conceptual framework and for objections to be recanted without fear of recrimination or loss of face (Samatar, 1997).

Naturally, a beautifully-crafted metaphor, enhanced by a heartfelt and expressive delivery could be highly persuasive and help to establish trust between all parties. The power of the metaphor has been driven by cultural traditions infused by intricate systems of symbol and superstition, which in historical terms have played an important role in everyday language. However, in the digital age of mass communication and scientific method, we seem to be leaving those magnificent days of rich and flexible communication behind. Perhaps the omniscient light-hearted face of our diminutive electronic emissary Mr Emoji is a direct descendant of the metaphor, arguably the greatest literary device of the ancient scribes and archive of oral folk-lore.

Samatar, S (1997) Sarbeeb: ‘The art of oblique communication’ In J.K. Adjake & A.R. Andrews (Eds) Language, Rhythm and Sound, University of Pittsburgh Press.

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Journeying into Research

2 October 2017

About twenty years ago, on a wintry Saturday afternoon in one of London’s most beautiful churches, I stood with a few musicians during a tea-break chatting about my ideas on rhythm and then someone mentioned educational research. The idea that research might answer some of the questions that had been buzzing about my brain for a few months seemed magnetic and I wondered how on earth I would meet the ‘ideal’ person who would actually do this research.

Eventually, it dawned on me that the researcher that I so desperately needed to meet, might one day be me. For a while it was difficult to reconcile the hard-working musician (who knew a lot about only one discipline) with a projection of myself as a researcher, who had amassed decades of specialised reading on the brain, had a broad skillset, produced presentations, publications and documents, but most importantly could answer my own questions about rhythm.

The journey from musician to researcher had very ordinary beginnings. Once I had read every relevant book in my local library, I took two post-graduate courses in the evenings (after work) and then I began doctoral research, travelling regularly to London, this time during the day. At that time I had more than five part-time roles in schools, as well as my work as a professional musician and also a research officer role at the Institute of Education – quite the plate spinner.

In education, there are powerful overlaps in the way that research is done by researchers, teaching is done by teachers and learning is done by learners. When these roles genuinely intersect and flow together, when thinking is shared, when communication is effective, innovation can be explored with potentially powerful impact. Recently, the journey into research came up in conversation with an enthusiastic teacher, who was keen to answer her own research questions. She mentioned to me that it was difficult as a parent to fit research into her hectic schedule. I could sympathise because a shortage of time is something that we all share. My own experience had been that limiting all trivial tasks to a ten minute ‘quick-zoom’ of frenetic activity turned out to be the most ridiculously satisfying way to create quality time. Most importantly, because time for studying was so precious, it was important to plan exactly what had to be accomplished in that time.

It’s my personal belief that a parent’s care and concern for their own intellectual development benefits their children hugely. It sets a calm atmosphere in the home as well as a deeply and sincerely-shared focus on curiosity and wonder. My children have only known me as someone with a pile of books, ideas and goals ‘on the go’ and have seen close-up, the importance of perseverance and consistent effort for generating an impact on the lives of others. They also know that the journey from musician to researcher started small, but with plenty of conviction. The librarians at our local library checked the maximum number of books that could be borrowed for one adult and two children every Wednesday afternoon. That weekly library routine certainly provided plenty of momentum for our reading habits and I’m pleased to say, has vastly transformed our lives.

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Sensitivity to Rhythm is a State of Mind

6 September 2017

Back in July I accepted an invitation to lead a workshop at the Music Mark North West Teachers’ Conference. The event took place yesterday and it was fantastic to have a chance to share much of the philosophy underpinning Rhythm for Reading with so many receptive music educators.

I have had first hand experience of teaching and researching in several parts of the North West region including Bradford, Keighley, Bolton, Oldham and The Wirral. Each of the schools I have worked in was situated in a complex community and I recall being so impressed firstly by the professionalism and resilience of the staff working in these schools and secondly, by the parents who were coping with economic hardship, mental health problems and family difficulties.

When I started to devise this workshop, I thought it would be interesting to pose the question: should rhythm be counted or felt? In dance and music and also acting, it is not difficult to find instances when counting is used as a device for organising choreography or the duration of time in the interplay between musical ideas or characters in a drama. Yet, audiences will agree that the best performances in any medium contain exquisitely sensitive moments, which certainly are not counted, but are felt with such intensity by the performers that a ‘moment’ of sensitivity can take on a particularly enhanced quality that is felt collectively by everyone in the room.

Similarly, most poetry ebbs and flows with the pulsations of thinking and breathing, which unfold naturally with the development of the poetic idea. Some poems are deliberately written so that the words emphasise a particularly regular metre. As a ‘device’, this is sometimes used lightly for humour, or when the syllables carry greater weight, to create a darker, fear-inducing atmosphere of suspense. Indeed, our awareness of rhythm can quickly evoke fear: the relationship between primary emotion and rhythm is a deeply rooted one.

It is certainly easier, in my opinion, to nurture sensitivity to rhythm in schools where the cultural ethos is strong. In such schools, pupils know that their ideas and contributions will be acknowledged and treated respectfully and they will therefore feel secure when trying something new in front of their classmates. On the other hand, in schools where the culture is relatively weak, pupils maintain a state of vigilance, attending to and monitoring their own safety whilst learning. It is far easier for pupils to cultivate sensitivity to rhythm in a supportive and safe school environment that ensures a consistently-strong culture of respect throughout the community. Sensitivity to rhythm could also be described as a flow state. Flow states are highly desirable as they nourish intrinsic motivation, resilience and self-esteem, which support a life-long love of learning (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).

So, yesterday’s workshop was a behind-the-scenes view of Rhythm for Reading in which we considered the emotional and cultural challenges that pupils might be facing in NW schools, including newcomers to the region, pupils with SEN, pupils with EAL and how rhythm can support these pupils to cope with their challenges. The impact of increased sensitivity to rhythm is apparent in various ways. Teachers have rated improvements in social behaviour, learning behaviour and reading behaviour. Each of these domains is served by the attention system, which of course is highly influenced by state of mind and constantly attuned to the regularities in environmental sounds that envelop our everyday lives.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness, London: Rider, Random House Group

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