“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.
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.
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.
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 everyday thoughts have engraved in our mind. We feel resistance when the initial impetus of the ‘new’ wears off and the familiar old way begins to reassert itself.
This is an uncomfortable topic as resistance is a potentially self-sabotaging behaviour. It has the power to divert our efforts to try new things, unleashing opportunities to face our old fears and stories. It is only when resistance is ‘released’ that the benefits of new behaviours become 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, teamwork, group teaching, moving in time with others and music. This has happened in a very short timeframe, as part of the process of developing reading fluency through the Rhythm for Reading programme.
Rhythm induces a state of flow and people often talk about getting into a ‘rhythm’ or a ‘groove’ as part of their creative process and also in relation to exercising. Language processing is also sensitive to rhythmic flow states, for example when we become absorbed by a book or when we write and find that the writing starts to flow.
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’ which included: a sense of unmanageable fear, the pressure to work to deadlines and clock-watching. There was a general orientation towards the final outcome rather than the process - in other words, the journey. A focus on extrinsic rewards and material gain and also social rewards also seemed to block people’s ability to find flow, which tells us something about effects of consumer culture of that time. Even at the turn of the century there was an awareness that becoming mentally distracted was a growing problem and people also reported a confusion of attention. Lastly, isolation from nature was described as a big factor in people’s loss of flow. Thankfully, almost twenty years later, we are now more aware of the therapeutic value of spending time in 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. Many of the items on this list pop up 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.