How do tunes and rhymes find their way into our heads? Although repetition seems to be important for any type of learning, patterns of words and tunes seem to have an almost magnetic quality in the way that they spontaneously stick in the mind. This type of learning is extremely powerful. It’s known as implicit learning as it appears to require no effort at all.
Scholars have identified the importance of implicit learning for infant language development. In fact, they have revealed that infants are naturally sensitive to the distribution and frequency of patterns. The power of this, so-called statistical learning was clearly demonstrated when infants responded to rhythmic patterns in language, even when the natural intonation or prosodic features in speech had been removed (Saffran et al., 1996).
It seems that implicit language learning is a natural response to regular occurrences such as rhythmic patterns and sequences in the sounds of language. Infants hear these in their everyday exposure to language and also by producing patterns through babbling. According to Vihman (2015), this is why the development of language is to a degree, individual for each infant. A virtuous cycle soon develops once infants have realised that things around them have names and begin to learn words more deliberately and explicitly, storing phonological representations of words as symbolic, semantic associations. Language learning continues as infants identify probabilistic patterns within words, again through implicit learning and this leads to sensitivity and production of grammatical structure. Isn’t the strength, power and universality of these processes absolutely remarkable?
Saffran, Jenny R., Richard N. Aslin, and Elissa L. Newport (1996). “Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants.” Science 274.5294, 1926-1928.
Vihman, M. (2015) Handbook of Language Emergence. MacWhinney, B. & O’Grady, W. (eds.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 437-457
The energy of a new school year is incredibly positive and also very demanding. Some students will begin the term refreshed, starting the year with high aspirations, new stationery in their new school bags, others will be anxious or even angry that the work ahead of them will be even more difficult to understand than it was the year before. Many will look forward to seeing classmates again, but socially less well-adjusted children, will dread a return to taunts and jibes and loneliness.
Many will be beginning the new school year with the best of intentions, wanting to please teachers, trying to better organise themselves and to contribute in lessons. Some will lack motivation, and for complex reasons, will continue to struggle, as despite everyone’s best efforts the school system does not really appear to help them.
I am frequently inspired by children who do not understand what they read, but trust that with more reading practice, their experience of reading will become more rewarding. Unfortunately, practising reading in this way is not going to help them to improve. Unless word recognition skills are fully integrated with the child’s understanding of language, a profound disconnection between these processes will persist.
Equally inspiring are the teachers and classroom practitioners who are faced with the enormous task of teaching children with extraordinarily wide-ranging attitudes to learning. I see consistently wonderful teaching in classrooms week after week, year after year. We really should celebrate that we have such a high calibre workforce in our schools.
There are new case studies on our website, illustrating how the Rhythm for Reading programme continues to support teachers in resolving the difficulties that children experience with reading comprehension. Click the link to read more.
At this time of year it’s good to feel that much has been accomplished. Programmes have been completed, training delivered, progress measured, reports read, certificates received and so on. However, educating children and young people is about so much more than ticking lists of to dos.
I’m so grateful to work with fabulous teachers in the schools that I visit and I’ve experienced close-up their boundless enthusiasm, interest in trying new things and dedication to supporting their pupils in every possible way. Accelerating progress and boosting wellbeing are important educational goals of course, but equally prominent should be the development of a very profound sense of social connectedness. A ten-year old boy explained this very clearly to me recently,
“It made me feel welcome to the group because everyone was doing the same thing. Everybody knew it. I didn’t feel left out because usually I feel left out in a group.”
For me, this suggests that some children respond particularly positively to highly structured group activities. The phrase, ‘Everybody knew it’ mirrors the emotional security that develops when the certainty of knowing exactly what to do and say, is complemented by knowing how to contribute with confidence. When the barrier of uncertainty has been eliminated, learning can be experienced as a limitless, virtuous cycle.
In this particular instance, the virtuous cycle was achieved through highly structured group sessions in which the synchronised response of the group was an intrinsic element of the pedagogy. The group grew in confidence week by week, as the tasks that they accomplished together became increasingly intricate, fast-paced and complex; consequently they enjoyed a profoundly social experience of learning.
I’m reminded by Hall, Curtin & Rutherford to mention Lave’s pertinent advice – which is so relevant here and now: Learning is not something in itself, it is part of social life. (Hall et al., 2014, p.166)
Hall, K., Curtin, A. and Rutherford, V. (2014). Networks of Minds: Learning, Culture and Neuroscience, London and New York, Routledge
Lave, J. (1996). Teaching, as learning, in practice. Mind, Culture and Activity 3(3): 149-164
The most important thing that I’ve learned in the past two years is not only to expect the unexpected, but to embrace it. I’ve noticed that the sharpest twists and rockiest turns along the way have often prompted some of the most intriguing insights into the integrated processes that contribute to reading and learning. Wearing my SENCO hat, I strongly believe that the principle of early intervention (as opposed to waiting to see whether a learning difficulty will ‘resolve itself’ over time), and a proactive approach, can narrow the gaps that undeniably exist when children enter primary school.
In 2013, I adapted the Rhythm for Reading programme so that I could put in place urgently needed support for a group of Year 1 and Year 2 children, who struggled with phonics. Their school had already seen impact of the programme on key stage two children, so the leadership team were keen to extend its reach. At that time, I saw the programme as ideally placed to support older children, a body of research evidence has established the relationship between rhythmical awareness and phonological awareness in young children. The research argues that a strong awareness of rhythm is a reliable predictor of phonological awareness, which in turn is a strong predictor of reading attainment (see Hallam, 2015, for a comprehensive review).
However, since 2013 I’ve found that the most obvious barriers to learning for the key stage one children that I’ve worked with are fragmented, scattered attention, weak inhibition and a very short attention span of only a few seconds. Unsurprisingly, emotional insecurities are very common as well. As you may realise, children experiencing these particular difficulties would certainly struggle to discern, to retain or accurately produce a rhythmically aware response. It’s clear too, that when elevated or low arousal levels have been alleviated during Rhythm for Reading sessions, dramatically improved levels of attention, awareness of rhythm and phonological awareness soon follow.
In the context of the Rhythm for Reading programme for key stage one children, the most important adaptation has involved developing simple, fast-paced team-building games which focus on ears, eyes and voices. A subtle form of metacognitive training, these help the children to deepen and extend their attention. Combining the games with music and rhythm-based approaches to reading make it possible, in a few short sessions to support them in reading music fluently and inhibiting inappropriate responses, whilst enjoying working together as a team.
Hallam, S. (2015) The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Music Education Research council (iMERC)
As we move deeper into the digital era, we are faced with new challenges for the future of our education system. Independent online learning and unlimited access to information is our new reality. We are striving to adapt to innovative new ideas, to release familiar old ways, and to step up and out of comfort zones into dazzling new ways of thinking and responsiveness in a faster-paced world.
In an age in which skilled manual labour is increasingly being replaced by robots and highly sophisticated technology, reading at a ‘functional’ level has become a massively out-dated concept. Similarly, the widespread practice of training children to answer a question about a written passage by identifying a key word in the question, locating it in the text and then writing out the sentence that surrounds it, is not only a waste of time, but this sham practice is harmful: it allows children to assume that reading is nothing more than a mundane word search exercise.
A specific and urgent challenge for educators today is this: to find new strategies that will equip children to read with understanding. The current emphasis on systematic phonics is disproportionate. We must remember that because phonemes are the smallest sounds of language, each phoneme occupies only a tiny proportion of any sentence, amounting in natural speech to only a fraction of a second. This is why a disproportionate amount of time spent on phonics can interfere with the development of reading with ease, fluency and good comprehension.
Reading well is a feat of delicate coordination between the reader’s eyes, ears and mind in alignment with the ‘voice’ of the author. Achieving this alignment is the process that allows the reader to assimilate meaning as it ‘flies’ off the page (or screen) into the reader’s consciousness.
Reading well depends on an intuitive response to the underlying binary relationship between the subject and predicate in every sentence. The syntax determines the rhythmic structure of the sentence. Consequently, the rhythmic ebb and flow of written language should be felt as intuitively as the rhythmic ebb and flow of speech, even though styles of writing and of speech vary widely. The sentence as a whole and coherent unit is vibrant, elastic and flexible with its meaning perceived not through the synthesis of its many phonemes, but through its overall rhythm and structure.
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As educators we are required to make thousands of small but important decisions everyday. Striking the right balance involves blending professional judgement with our integrity and experience. Through reflection perhaps with colleagues, we are constantly learning from our experiences.
I have been thinking hard about special education (SEND) recently. Rhythm for Reading is an inclusive programme. Students with learning differences are fully involved alongside their classmates and the programme is accessible even to those who cannot yet read simple words such as ‘cat’. This is what a child said recently to me about the programme: “I liked how we had to keep it in the team at the same time. I felt more surrounded. I had people to keep me upright.” So, when a pupil shows absolutely no desire to contribute to even the most basic of Rhythm for Reading exercises, whilst all around him others are learning rapidly and having fun, my own personal learning journey fires up in a big way.
Each Rhythm for Reading session is only ten minutes long and so every second is precious. Is this child withdrawn, overwhelmed, lacking in confidence, lacking social skills, frightened or generally resistant to new things? What is clear and of concern to me is that he is ignored by the other children and hardly responds to anything I say or do. His teachers are highly protective of him and they can recite a list of issues and medical problems: he is a special child.
I believe that if a child processes and performs tasks more slowly than his classmates, as educators we must help him to develop the strategies that he needs to adapt to different settings. Self-regulation strategies for example, are key for learning road safety skills: learning to judge the speed of traffic, inhibiting the impulse to wander into the road, as well as being able to find a safe place to cross are essential to every child’s survival, no matter how special that child’s needs might be. While road safety lessons are clearly a matter of life and death, it is the quality of life of each child that is determined in the classroom. To teach a special child to cope with a broad range of settings with confidence is a highly worthwhile investment of our time and energy. There are so many benefits of joining in with others in a structured group activity. It is enormous fun and a profound sense of belonging and unity develops through cooperation. Of course, this outcome can only be fully enjoyed by everyone, if everyone has contributed wholeheartedly to the success of the task.
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By nine years of age, children have assimilated a vast amount of information about their culture simply by learning through experience. Enculturation is a particularly powerful form of deep learning that shapes children’s attitudes and perceptions of the world in which they are growing up. Through working in many schools, I’ve observed that by the age of nine years, children have, through this process of enculturation developed a strong emotive response to the concept of ‘teamwork’.
A few months ago, I sat down on the floor of the school hall with ten children as they embarked on their first Rhythm for Reading session. I explained that we would be doing lots of teamwork. Four of the children said “Yessss” in a loud stage whisper and wriggled in delight, huddling cosily together. The others looked at me in complete horror. Although they sat quietly, their sharply drawn breath, their tense shoulders and stunned faces communicated their utter dread of teamwork clearly enough.Obviously, when a teacher chooses two team captains and tells them to pick teams in front of the class for a games lesson, each child’s worth or ‘value’ to their peers is revealed. To be picked first for a team is a deep honour and to be picked last, a deep humiliation. Presumably, these feelings have an enhancing or diminishing influence on the child’s performance in the team, but these experiences will over time impact on a child’s self-esteem. This harmful practice can be avoided by asking the team captains to privately pick their teams from a list of names at the teacher’s desk.
Musical teamwork on the other hand is highly inclusive and ensures that nobody is first and nobody is last. In the same way that every fish in a shoal will suddenly change direction at exactly the same time, musical teamwork requires that all students contribute in the appropriate way and at exactly the right time. In the Rhythm for Reading programme, the main priority is that the students work together confidently, collectively and synchronously, an approach that is underpinned by published research (Long, 2008; Long & Hallam, 2012; Long, 2014). Neuroscientists (Bhide, Power & Goswami, 2013) confirm that learning collectively in this way, i.e. via ‘entrainment’ has a statistically significant and powerful impact on academic attainment, as detailed in this recently published report by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. http://tscouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/COMPLETE-REPORT-Goswami-Childrens-Cognitive-Development-and-Learning.pdf
Bhide, A., Power, A.J., & Goswami, U. (2013). A rhythmic musical intervention for poor readers: A comparison of efficacy with a letter-based intervention.Mind, Brain and Education 7(2), 113-23.
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.
Long, M and Hallam, S. (2012). Rhythm for Reading: A rhythm-based approach to reading intervention, Proceedings of Music Paedeia: From Ancient Greek Philosophers Toward Global Music Communities, pp.221-232, 30th ISME World Conference on Music Education, 15-20 July, Thessaloniki, Greece.
Long, M. (2008) A Rhythmic View of Reading: From word recognition to reading comprehension, A submission to ippr’s Britain’s Got Brains Competition, Institute of Public Policy Research. www.ippr.org.uk/researchthemes/education
The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people, by internationally renowned Professor Susan Hallam MBE, University College London, Institute of Education was published at the end of January 2015. The review brings together more than 600 scholarly publications, which provide compelling evidence of the positive effect of music on literacy, numeracy, personal and social skills to support the argument for the inclusion of music in the education of every child and young person.
Music, more than any other discipline consists of ways of doing things (techniques and methods) and ways of being (empathy, intention, style etc). Perhaps, the most important of these is how to listen well. Children, immersed in their family and home environment from pre-birth to school age, have learned nearly everything they know about their language and culture through listening. A high quality musical education develops listening far beyond the everyday level by enhancing and deepening communication; it also refines physical coordination skills far beyond what can be achieved through sport. The unique combination of these elements contributes immensely to pupils’ wellbeing and to learning more efficiently.
The value of a high quality musical education in primary school, consisting of the integration of listening skills with singing, physical coordination and notation reading skills cannot be overstated. As musicians we have a huge responsibility to equip primary teachers with great tools, and training of the highest quality so that they feel confident, secure and empowered in this exciting and creative role. With the tools and training in place, all primary teachers can deliver a high quality musical education, bringing the power of music into their classrooms and witnessing the profoundly vibrant effects of music education.