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The Rhythm for Reading blog

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.


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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