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The Rhythm for Reading blog

Progressive action in schools

25 June 2017

The recent tragic events in London and Manchester have been deeply painful and have also been a sharp reminder of the importance of taking progressive action in education. In 2012, I embarked on an entrepreneurial journey because I wanted the benefits of rhythm-based learning to be available in classrooms everywhere, as well as to ensure that certain educational advantages that are available to the privileged who can afford high quality instrumental music tuition would be, in a condensed and concentrated format, available to all. We hear frequently about the importance of reading for the development of empathy, and in 2014, I decided to create a project which would combine the theme of empathy with rhythm-based activities, which enhance social cohesion, reading fluency, reading comprehension and engagement. With the help and support of the senior leadership teams of two neighbouring, but very different schools, Alleyn’s, an independent school, and Goodrich Community Primary School, we have established a bond based on empathy, cooperation, rhythm and reading.

The project has completed eight cycles so far. Each week a group of assured and enthusiastic Year12 Alleyn’s students have accompanied me to Goodrich School, where they have mentored wonderfully effervescent pupils in Year 3 and Year 4. Everybody benefits profoundly from taking part: the mentoring students quickly learn to build trust and communication with the younger children, who experience a remarkable transformation in their reading. I am very much looking forward to presenting on this topic on Saturday 1st July at the UKLA 53rd International Conference 2017 ‘Language, literacy and class: Connections and contradictions’ at Strathclyde University, Glasgow.

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On the importance of prediction in language processing

24 April 2017

In the past decade, several research papers on language processing have suggested that prediction is a necessary part of language comprehension.

In previous blog posts, I’ve referred indirectly to prediction by discussing work on statistical processing in infancy (e.g. Saffran, Aslin and Newport, 1996) and anticipation in ‘disappearing games’ (Ratner and Bruner, 1977).

Perhaps we could think of prediction as an idea that unifies probability, expectancy, anticipation, background knowledge, context and insight, not only in language processes such as listening and reading, but also in other forms of cognitive behaviour ranging from everyday activities such as preparing a meal to making complex executive decisions relating to long term planning and strategy.

Thinking for a moment about prediction in terms of linguistics, the traditional view favours generative models of language processing and these experts have assigned prediction a minor role or no role at all (for example, Jackendoff, 2007). However, since Giraud and Poeppel’s paper of 2012, there has been something of a shift towards the alternative view proposed by linguists interested in functionalist models such as computational modelling.

In discussing this topic, Heuttig and Mani (2015) have proposed a third way, which is that predictive processing may give language comprehension a ‘helping hand’. In their article they discuss findings which showed that the human brain’s beta rhythm activity is associated with a feed forward processing loop (Bressler et al., 2015; Friston et al., 2015) and an increase in beta rhythm activity in the brain when sentences are (i) syntactically and, (ii) semantically correct, (compared with sentences containing syntactic or semantic violations) (Kielar et al., 2014).

It is relevant therefore to note that during the Rhythm for Reading programme, teachers have noticed that pupils are better able to predict what is coming up in their reading, making a link between predictive processing and rhythmic processing highly plausible. In future posts I will delve deeper into this interesting topic.

References

Bressler, S. L., & Richter, C. G. (2015). Interareal oscillatory synchronization in top-down neocortical processing. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 31C, 62–66.

Friston, K. J., Bastos, A. M., Pinotsis, D., & Litvak, V. (2015). LFP and oscillations-what do they tell us? Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 31C, 1–6.

Huettig, F. and Mani, N. (2015) Is prediction necessary to understand language? Probably not. Language, cognition and neuroscience, 31 (1) doi:10.1080/23273798.2015.1072223

Giraud, A. & Poeppel, D. (2012). Cortical oscillations and speech processing: emerging computational principles and operations. Nature Neuroscience, 15(4), 511–517.

Jackendoff, R. (2007). A parallel architecture perspective on language processing. Brain Research, 1146, 2-22.

Kielar, A., Meltzer, J., Moreno, S., Alain, C., & Bialystok, E. (2014). Oscillatory Responses to Semantic and Syntactic Violations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1–23.

Ratner, N. and Bruner, J. (1977) Games, Social Exchange and the acquisition of language, Journal of Child Language, 5, 391-401

Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science, 274(5294), 1926-1928.

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The backdrop to reading is the space in the child’s mind.

31 March 2017

In a recent post, I referred to Ratner and Bruner’s (1977) article on ‘disappearing’ games such as peekaboo. The article is clear that play of this type contributes to an infant’s ability to engage and interact not only with the game, but with the world around them as well. The playful and even joyful energy of peekaboo accompanies each of these four stages of learning:

1. Maintaining focussed attention

2. Anticipating and predicting what will happen next

3. Synchronising with the game

4. Initiating the game.

Imagine for a moment that the infant did not respond at first. The adult would persist until the child’s attention had been captured, but in order to do this they would need to adopt a lighter tone and faster pace, achieving a playful and dance-like quality, key to achieving a state of alertness within relaxation.

What can we as educators learn from this?

A state of alertness within relaxation has been associated with flow, intrinsic rewards, growth mindset and even optimal experience. This state is desirable not only because it is pleasurable, but because it is highly stable and can therefore be maintained for long periods of time.

Stability in a state of mind suggests that mental poise can be thought of as a structure or scaffold and that this is essential to maintaining a state of relaxed alertness. Mari Reiss Jones (1976) proposed that attention was structured hierarchically around regularly occurring events. The regularity of the events (ie a rhythmic pattern of some sort) in turn builds up a sense of ‘expectancy’ of what will happen next at a specific point in time.

Understanding how to build stable patterns of attention is important for understanding how to support children’s learning.

In brain imaging studies, Merchant et al., (2015) have shown conclusively that attention is indeed organised in the way described in MR Jones and colleagues’ work on dynamic attending theory and that the brain’s reward system is involved in the cycle of correctly anticipating future events. Being able to anticipate what will happen next helps infants not only to develop ‘expectancies’, but also to experience human interaction as a rewarding and satisfying experience.

Peekaboo is important for another reason.

In the first few months, infants observe the movement of things in the world around them. They learn to differentiate between a person such as their mother and the stationary, unchanging (invariant) part of the scene, typically a room. The infant learns to perceive that a person is moving in a unified and coherent way through time and space in contrast to the unchanging backdrop of the room (Gibson, 1969).

However, in peekaboo games, the relationship between the figure and ground is disrupted by the disappearing and reappearing figure. Why does this matter? On the surface, peekaboo seems to cement the concept of object permanence through its concern with patterns of appearance and disappearance.

Superficially then, the backdrop of the room seems irrelevant.

When a disappearing game is viewed through a lens such as dynamic attending theory or theory of affordances (Gibson, 1950; Gibson, 1969), the backdrop of the room becomes more important. If the infant experiences the game as a pattern of events that can be predicted, then the backdrop of the room is a necessary constant against which the appearing and disappearing changes can be perceived and apprehended. In other words, the stability of the room provides a reference point, enabling the infant to gauge the game from the vantage point of the permanence and unchanging quality of the room, which enables a more sophisticated operation of extrapolation.

A similar judgement is made by a child learning to cross a busy road independently. To simply see whether or not traffic is moving along the road is insufficient. The child must learn to gauge how quickly the traffic is moving before deciding whether it is safe or unsafe to cross. As their experience of road safety accrues, the child becomes increasingly sophisticated in their ability to match what they see with their knowledge of the way that different types of vehicles move on different types of road (for example, approaching red versus green traffic lights, moving uphill versus moving downhill).

In terms of learning to read, the same distinction can be made. The print on the page conveys the sounds of language. Depending on how carefully phonics instruction has been delivered, the letters, b-i-r-d or b-ir-d may produce either ‘beard’ (unfortunately this is all too common) or ‘bird’. The structural cues of the unfolding, dynamic qualities of the sentence provide a grammatical framework against which the child inserts the decoded word. Of more use to the child though is the unchanging information that provides the backdrop to reading and allows the child to make accurate judgements about the nature and form of words to come.

The backdrop to reading is the space in the child’s mind.

This space is where images are conjured up based on what the child already knows, supposes and believes. This space is the place where the subject matter of the text meets the child’s own background knowledge, creating a state which motivates the child to read on and learn more. This state is desirable not only because it is pleasurable, but because it is highly stable and can therefore be maintained for long periods of time.

References

Ratner, N. and Bruner, J. (1977) Games, Social Exchange and the acquisition of language, Journal of Child Language, 5, 391-401

Jones MR. (1976) Time, our lost dimension: Toward a new theory of perception, attention, and memory. Psychological review; 83:323–355

Merchant, H et al. (2015) “Finding the beat: a neural perspective across humans and non-human primates.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 370.1664, 20140093.

Gibson, J.J. (1950) The perception of the visual world. Boston, Houghton Mifflin

Gibson, E.J. (1969) Principles of perceptual learning and development, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts

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Gamification, Social Exchange and the Acquisition of Language

27 February 2017

Today ‘gamification’ integrates the reward-related and therefore motivational aspects of game-like participation, helping many people to achieve their goals or targets. Gamification appears in classrooms, businesses, The World Bank and lifestyle apps, and even in recruitment campaigns for the US Army (Stanley, 2014). It encourages increased engagement, productivity, motivation to succeed with a new project or development of a new skill, allowing individuals, employers and schools to monitor progress and promote competition between users and teams. The importance of games for human development first begins in early childhood when parents assist their children in the acquisition of language. In a study of the nature of early ‘disappearing’ games such as peekaboo and hide-and-seek played by parents with young infants, researchers discovered that although these games were entirely spontaneous in style, they tended to use the same restricted format and clearly repetitive structure (Ratner and Bruner, 1977). The motivation and purpose of early playful games appears to be driven by the sheer joy of human interaction. These positive experiences prove to be irresistible and highly rewarding and have likely contributed to the evolution of the human capacity for language.

Although Ratner and Bruner’s study was published forty years ago, their question about the ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games is still highly relevant today. According to an OECD published report, it is likely that learning environments, emotions and social interactions play an important role and combine to shape learning and memory processing, embedded in interconnecting neural structures (OECD, 2007, 37).

Interestingly, Ratner and Bruner concluded that parents’ practice of deliberately restricting and repeating the game provided opportunities for infants to anticipate what would happen next in the game, to initiate the game and even to generate a synchronised ‘boo’ response with the parent as the game developed during the child’s first year. During this period, the degree of restriction and repetition, combined with positive experiences of social and emotional interaction would have provided a rich and playful opportunity for focused learning and memory development.

According to neuroscientists, repeated use of specific neural pathways catalyses the maturity of the neural structures through a process known as myelination. Myelin, a fatty substance, insulates the axons of nerve fibres of frequently used pathways, and the insulating effect rapidly accelerates to a factor of 100 the transmission of signals between interconnecting neurons (OECD, 2007, 37). It is highly likely that the restrictive and repetitive ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games described by Ratner and Bruner (1977) would have triggered the myelination process. Therefore, in, referring back to Ratner and Bruner’s question about the ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games, it appears that language learning during infancy and early childhood coincides with spontaneous and joyful social interaction with an accompanying sense of intrinsic reward. This arguably contributes to successful social interaction throughout life.

References

OECD (2007) Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development, Center for Edonomic Research and Innovation, understanding the Brain: the Birth of a Learning Science (2nd Edition) Paris: OECD CERI

Ratner, N. and Bruner, J. (1977) Games, Social Exchange and the acquisition of language, Journal of Child Language, 5, 391-401

Stanley, R. (2014) Top 25 Best Examples of Gamification in Business, accessed on 27.2.2017, 19.40 https://www.clicksoftware.com/blog/top-25-best-examples-of-gamification-in-business/

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“What is the single mechanism underlying the impact?”

23 January 2017

“What is the single mechanism underlying the impact?” is the question that I am asked most frequently.

This question speaks to the idea that a process can be broken down into its components: understood, isolated, manipulated, digitalised, scaled-up, patented and so on. However, language processing, like learning is not static, but dynamic and highly influenced by context. The more interesting question is:

“What is the single process underlying the impact and what conditions ideally support this?”

The ideal conditions for the Rhythm for Reading programme are those in which pupils and teachers reinforce a culture of high expectation around self-respect and respect for each other. Inclusive approaches in teaching and learning are important too, but without a culture of high expectation around self-respect and respect for each other, inclusive approaches to learning are impeded.

Many pupils who are struggling to access the curriculum because they have low or middle attainment (with or without special educational needs / disability) are often those who are limited by working memory capacity or fragmented attention or both. On top of this, stressful conditions can interfere with efficient functioning of working memory and compromise learning. From background noise levels, to bullying, to the pressure of exams, various stressors interfere with efficient functioning of working memory.

Of course, some children (and adults) are more sensitive to stress than others. There may be high levels of stress and adversity at home, with a knock-on effect at school. However, having interviewed many teachers and parents on this topic, it’s certainly easier to build trust with parents at a school in which an ethos of high expectation around self-respect and respect for each other is rigorously practised. Interestingly, there is a difference between a ‘caring’ atmosphere and a school culture, which relentlessly pursues self-respect and respect for each other. A ‘caring’ atmosphere bends and sways in response to individuals and their circumstances, but this approach is not sustainable and leads to burned out staff. A culture of high expectation around self-respect and respect for others that is rigorously maintained is more effective because it provides a universal level of consistency and clarity in which everyone’s circumstances are supported.

The notion of ‘high expectation’ vibrates at the heart of an attitude of self-respect and respect for others. The practice of ‘high expectation’ does not succeed because it is simply ‘enforced’, but because it is embedded in the attitude of all of the adults in the school. The most extraordinary headteachers that I’ve worked with are those that practise an attitude of generosity in their vision for the school. They tend to look for opportunities to develop teachers as individuals with bright careers ahead of them and also to support those that may flounder from time to time. The commitment between each member of the teaching team and the headteacher is essentially a vibrant one in which the head might say, “I help you to help me”. This reciprocal approach demands that high expectations around self-respect and respect for others flourish, because it is in everyone’s interest that they do so.

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Fifty years ago, Derrida wrote ‘Of Grammatology’

14 January 2017

Researchers are in agreement that sensitivity to rhythm predicts phonological awareness and reading attainment. In everyday life, we may be aware that slogans are ‘catchy’ because their rhythm captures our attention, but most of us are unaware that rhythmic structures help to organise the way in which we hear, speak, read and think.

Philosophers have studied the organisational function of rhythm in language through the ages. Fifty years ago, Derrida wrote about the importance of accents and contours in spoken language in ‘Of Grammatology’. The contour may be understood as the intonation, or rise and fall of the voice in spoken language. Accents may be described in terms of expression or structure. They convey meaning through prominence, increasing the intensity or length of a particular sound within the rhythmic pattern of an utterance. Teachers of reading may be reminded of prosody.

Derrida referred back to Rousseau (EOL, 1781), particularly Strabo’s (65BC-23AD) account of the grammarians, Architas and Aristoxenus, emphasising their method of teaching their subject through music. The description outlined a form of language, more eloquent and expressive than our own. Clearly, the ancients were highly aware of the rise and fall of melodic contours and the patterning of rhythms. In fact, there was little separation between speaking and singing. The first stories were retold in verse and the first laws were solemnly sung.

A relationship between rhythm and learning is found across cultures. For example, Samatar’s description of ‘Sarbeeb’ in Somalia detailed important events committed to poetic form to emphasise their significance for the community.

Although the melodic and rhythmic qualities of speech are no longer a prominent part of our everyday life, we certainly need to assimilate information efficiently. Consequently, sensitivity to rhythm remains highly relevant today. Rhythmic sensitivity not only strengthens the ability to read with ease, fluency and understanding, but also supports sustained focus and concentration.

Derrida, J. (trans. Spivak) [1997 (1967)]: Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Strabo, (trans. Jones)[1916 (65BC-23AD)] Geography I, Heinemeann, (pp.300-303)

Samatar, S. (1997) Sarbeeb: The art of oblique communicationin Somali culture In J.K. Adjake & A.R. Andrews (eds) Language, rhythm & sound, University of Pittsburgh Press.

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Discover the heartbeat of reading

7 January 2017

BETT 2017 is just around the corner! In a few weeks, Rhythm for Reading will be taking part in The Great British Trail in partnership with the Department for International Trade (Stand D30). We will be sharing our ideas and vision with visitors using audio and video clips and other goodies. We’ll be on stand C62 and look forward to saying hello.

The Rhythm for Reading programme helps teachers and students to activate the rhythmic aspect of reading, which researchers are discovering is so important for fluency and understanding.

Why not think of rhythm as the heartbeat of reading?

Just as a heartbeat is dynamic, adjusting to our every need, rhythm in reading is the adjustable quality that provides strength, responsiveness and flexibility as sentences of all shapes and sizes flow through the text.

Just as a heartbeat is organic, supporting life in each part of the body from the smallest cells to the largest organs, rhythm in reading reaches systematically into every part of language. Like a heartbeat it spreads both upwards, supporting the structure of phrases and sentences and also downwards, energising and sharpening the edges of syllables and phonemes. Rhythm therefore brings the different grain sizes of language into systematic alignment with each other.

Sensitivity to the rhythmic cues in reading can be developed very easily. In fact, we already use rhythm in everyday life to coordinate activities that we take for granted such as walking, talking and even in our breathing. However, as reading is a socially learned activity, the rhythmic quality that is naturally present in language processing does not always map with ease onto decoding skills. This is why for some children reading does not become increasingly skilled over time, even when decoding skills are secure. Fortunately, sensitivity to rhythm in reading can be improved very quickly as these case studies show.

Look out for the next post in this series on rhythm at the heart of reading.

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Releasing Resistance

1 January 2017

​It may seem odd to post on the topic of resistance on the first day of the year, but let’s not forget that the flip side of a new resolution involves effort to override old patterns.

Resistance is the entrenched furrow that our habitual thoughts have engraved in our mind. We feel resistance when the initial impetus of the new wears off and the familiarity of old patterns begins to reassert itself.

This is a fascinating and an uncomfortable topic. Why? Resistance is a potentially self-sabotaging behaviour. It has the power to divert our efforts to try new things, unleashing mainly unwelcome opportunities to face our old fears and stories. Overcoming resistance can only achieve short-term gain, but it is when resistance is ‘released’ that the benefits are permanent and lasting change becomes possible.

In fact, some of my most rewarding and meaningful experiences in teaching have involved releasing children’s resistance to reading, to teamwork and to moving in time with others and with music. This has happened in a very short timeframe, as part of the process of developing fluency and flow states through rhythm.

Interviewed about the factors that interfered with flow states, (see last month’s post for more on this) Csikszentmilhalyi’s informants described, ‘aspects of normative life’ (2000, 96) which included: unmanageable fears, slavery to the clock, orientation towards ends, extrinsic material and social rewards, distraction / confusion of attention and isolation from nature

From this list, it seems that the conditions of contemporary life may not only impede the development of flow states, but also reinforce the experience of resistance. Sadly, many of the items on the list can be recognised in our homes, places of work, schools and classrooms. As we move forward into 2017, perhaps, a fresh look at our everyday lives could help us to find and maintain flow states and make time for opportunities to gently release resistance.

Csikszentmihalyi: (1975; 2000) Beyond boredom and anxiety: Experiencing flow in work and play, 25th anniversary edition San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Inc.

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