When a child is able to focus its attention, it is able to learn. When attention is fragmented or fades too quickly, little learning takes place. In this post I will explain why rhythm has a strong role to play in strengthening working memory, self-regulation and cognitive switching. These three aspects of cognitive control influence the way that attention supports learning. A weak working memory is frequently described as an invisible ‘barrier’ to learning and is prevalent in specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia. Working memory is the blackboard of the mind - the mental space upon which mental calculations, tasks, plans or lists can be reordered, manipulated and stored for a short period of time. Children with a weak working memory are able to manipulate and recall a span of only three information units, whereas those with a stronger than average working memory have a span of nine or more information units. However, the ability to manipulate and store information need not be limited by working memory span.
Infants acquire their mother tongue by detecting the rhythmical patterns in the overall stream of speech utterances (Saffran et al., 1996). Sensitivity to rhythm expands working memory by ‘chunking’ the information into rhythmical groups, which is why it is often easier to recite a phone number by clustering the digits together in threes or fours. This chunking strategy probably extends way back through thousands of generations. Preliterate societies have transmitted and conserved cultural practices through singing and storytelling, but also via rhythmical chanting and reciting of verses.
Now that we are a predominantly literate society, we are a little out of touch with the ancient tradition of rhythmically chanting of large amounts of information. However, memory experts show that it is possible to extend the natural span of working memory substantially and to recall information reliably by using chunking strategies (Mathy et al., 2016). For example, Rajan Mahadevan memorised at least 30,000 digits of pi by chunking the digits into groups of ten, he practised recalling the digits and extending the list further day after day (Ericsson & Moxley, 2014).
In classrooms, some children struggle to concentrate. Their attention is scattered rather than focused, or may fade before they can engage with learning. Failed attempts to focus are frustrating for them and often spark a negative spiral, which leads to low self-esteem. Mindfulness training has shown that focussing on the rhythm of the breath is an effective way to overcome distracting, negative thoughts (Siegel, 2007). However, teachers of children who have completed the Rhythm for Reading programme comment on visible improvements in concentration, which indicates that a ten-minute burst of rhythmic activity per week reinforces focussed attention and strengthens cognitive control.
Children lacking cognitive control are usually impulsive and struggle with interpersonal skills. They are low in self-regulation, a form of cognitive control that involves willpower and the perseverance to resist distractions and inhibit impulses, particularly while working towards a particular goal or target (Zimmerman, 2000) and usually emerges in very young children prior to starting school (Rothbart et al., 1992). The rhythm-based activities of the Rhythm for Reading programme, which were first designed for a group of children with little or no inhibition or self-regulation, are immensely effective in cultivating self-awareness and self-regulation in line with increased sensitivity to rhythm. There is also a deeper engagement with reading towards the middle of the programme. Being better able to detect the rhythmic ebb and flow in the text, the focus of attention narrows during the process of reading, effectively blocking out distractions. Self-regulation becomes a form of metacognition as the children monitor their awareness of their reading experience. Their information processing becomes sharper, enabling a natural ease to emerge in both self-awareness and cognitive control of the reading process (Long, 2014).
While self-regulation filters out distractions during reading, cognitive switching builds flexibility into reading behaviour. An obvious example would be that if the reader detected an error, they would need to be sufficiently flexible to stop the flow of information, backtrack in the text and then restart without losing the overall thread of the passage. A less obvious example might involve the reader in alternating their awareness between different points of view in a dialogue. A degree of cognitive switching would be involved until these points of view had been securely assimilated and integrated into the overall comprehension of the text. Sensitivity to rhythm assists flexibility during reading by supporting the overall security, stability and assimilation of the text, however demanding it may be.
Cognitive control supports focussed attention and improved sensitivity to rhythm contributes to cognitive control in several ways: (i) organisation of information in working memory, (ii) inhibition of distracting thoughts and (iii) security during cognitive switching. Taken together, these functions support focussed attention, the development of skilled reading and independence as a learner, all of which are required to mitigate the effects of disadvantage (Heckman, 2006).
A newly published paper on a randomised controlled trial shows the statistically significant effect of rhythmic training on disadvantaged children’s reading comprehension. Read more here.
Ericsson, K. A., & Moxley, J. H. (2014). Experts’ superior memory: From accumulation of chunks to building memory skills that mediate improved performance and learning. In T. J. Perfect & D. S. Lindsay (Eds.), SAGE handbook of applied memory (pp. 404-420). London, UK: Sage Publishing
Heckman, J.J. (2006) Skill formation and economics of investing in disadvantaged children, Science, 312, 1900-1902.
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.
Mathy, Fabien, et al. (2016)Developmental abilities to form chunks in immediate memory and its non-relationship to span development.” Frontiers in psychology 7: 201.
Rothbart, Mary K., Hasan Ziaie, and Cherie G. O’Boyle. (1992) Self‐regulation and emotion in infancy.New directions for child and adolescent development 55: 7-23.
Saffran, Jenny R., Richard N. Aslin, and Elissa L. Newport. (1996) Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants.” Science 274.5294: 1926-1928.
Siegel, D. (2007) The Mindful Brain New York: Norton
Zimmerman, B.J. (2000). Attaining self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In M. Boekaerts, P.R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds) Handbook of self regulation (pp. 13-39). San Diego: Academic Press