The pupils who most need to improve in terms of reading fluency (the lowest twenty percent of children) require support from the most effective teachers. Teaching effectiveness is known to be a strong predictor of pupils’ progress throughout school and for these children, pedagogy that develops a sense of mastery through repetition, reviewing and building familiarity with new words, supports the development of confident and fluent reading.
Distinguished pedagogue Professor Marie M Clay is best known for her Reading (and writing) Recovery programme. Her research began in 1976 and hundreds of thousands of children have benefited from her work. Her expertise in fluency in reading is based on her detailed observations of the experiences of struggling readers. For example, in her ‘hierarchy of knowing words’ we can appreciate the varied experiences of the children she taught as they grappled with new words, and practised these until they became familiar. This hierarchy provides a six step process, which is helpful because the teacher can identify and monitor progress long before the child becomes a fluent reader.
The entry point in this hierarchy is as a ‘new’ word. Then, the word becomes ‘only just known’ as it still retains its novelty value and may protrude and not yet fall into its place with other words. As the word becomes more familiar, it is ‘successfully problem-solved’ by the child - in what Clay describes as one of a ‘repertoire of behaviours’. In the fourth iteration of this process, the word may be ‘easily produced, but easily thrown’ - in other words it might trip the child up and disrupt the flow of reading. The next level suggests that the word has become more integrated within the child’s lexicon, as a word that is ‘well known and recognised in most contexts’.
At this point, the child relies on context during the integration of external (print, illustrations and prompts from an adult) and internal processes (memory, including the sound and shape of the word in the articulatory system). Finally, when a word is ‘known in many variant forms’ it is likely to contribute to the fluent reading of a passage. This chimes well with the generative notion of language as recursive, with each word sparking a new stream of thoughts and ideas.
The meeting of the internal and the external aspects of decoding are described by Clay in terms of visual information (the ‘input’ from the eyes) merging with ‘vast amounts of information about that word gathered in past experiences’ so that the more familiar words are read ‘in a flash’.
Although, ‘new’ words are read slowly and it is appropriate for beginner readers to allow time to focus upon and to assimilate them, Clay was clear that the journey from slow word-by-word decoding to reading fast and with fluency was not about pace, but rather it was about the place of the word within a phrase:
“We have to think about phrasing in reading….To be more technical, the reader has put several words into a grammatical phrase (or into a grammatical context)” (Clay, 2005, p.150).
From a rhythm-based perspective, a musical phrase is also felt as a unit of meaning and context. And yet there is a broader context to consider. Let us pause to reflect for a moment on the importance of the context (and biographical narrative) of the child’s nervous system. This would include their perceptions of challenge, threat and fear versus those of safety, play and social engagement. We might ask to what extent does the emotional set-point of this child influence their capacity to engage with reading?
Reading at home every day with a parent or an older sibling fosters fluency through nurturing and social engagement. For children who have not had this level of input at home, co-regulation through one-on-one intervention may also be necessary to build the capacity that a child needs to engage with reading. After all, if their attention is disrupted by intrusive thoughts or if they are socially withdrawn, then they are likely to struggle with the level of cognitive processing that fluent reading demands.
The dynamic qualities of fluent reading are summarised by Clay here,
“When the reading is phrased as in spoken language and the responding is quite fast, then there is a fair chance that the reader has grouped together the words that the author has meant to go together….If the reader can do this easily then he attends to the letters, and the words, and the grammar ‘on the run’ and as a result he can give more attention to the messages.” (Clay, 2005, p.150)
From a rhythm-based perspective, the key words in this quotation are ‘attends’ and ‘attention’. The child’s capacity to sustain their attention determines the fluency of their reading. Attention is the cognitive ‘fuel’ necessary to ‘drive’ this fluency and to extract the author’s ‘message’ from the alignment of the letters, words and phrases as units of meaning.
For a fragile reader, reading ’on the run’ could describe a single layer of fast-moving unrelated syllables and words that do not generate meaning as they are read. Many children can read fast and yet they do not process words within well-defined phrases and therefore do not assimilate meaning from their reading.
For a fluent reader however, reading ‘on the run’ would describe fast-moving syllables, words, and phrases that are grammatically and rhythmically aligned, and the message they convey is assimilated without additional effort.
When children process spoken language with ease and fluency, we must remember that this happens in the context of a social dynamic. The child takes into account the speaker, the context and the sounds of the language. This social dimension adds a lot of information. We could say that the speech stream is ‘gift-wrapped’ for the child. These outer layers of the sound spectrum convey three key signals about context of the message:
All of these outer layers of the speech stream are conveyed through the tone, timbre and rhythm of the speaker’s voice, and allow the child to feel the safety of their environment.
A child’s auditory environment is mapped out in utero from nineteen weeks gestational age and the home language is assimilated in an infant’s first year. Their emotional responses to the sounds of the care-giving environment are imprinted upon their nervous system, and embedded through a process called myelination. Myelin is a protective fatty coating that insulates nerve fibres and allows the information travelling along these fibres to move at lightning speed. The more these pathways are used, the faster they become.
The observations made by Marie Clay elude to this,
“It seems likely that if the learner develops faster responses racing around the neural circuits in his brain this will make reading more effective….” (Clay, 2005, p.151)
The emotional content of language processing has received little attention, though academics have studied the phonological, grammatical and semantic content of spoken language in depth. The ethical considerations when recruiting or identifying children with affective disorders relating to early childhood adversity are challenging, but studies of children in the care system and orphanages provide evidence of their difficulties with attention and reading. And of course, it is well-established that a warm, caring and sensitive environment in early childhood predicts strong educational attainment.
In Marie Clay’s original Reading Recovery programme (consisting of twenty ‘book levels’) there is an emphasis on the importance of a reading lesson every day for the children and she herself observed that a process of consolidation from one day to the next was important.
“If the child moves forward slowly, possibly missing lessons here and there, the end result is not as satisfactory as speedy progress through the book levels. It is as if the brain cells need to be involved tomorrow in what they explored today to consolidate some permanent change in their structure. This is a possible explanation.” (Clay, 2005, p.151)
Drilling into this a little further, if we consider the social dynamic between the specialist teacher and the child as a ‘dyad’ (an emotional pairing), then the continuity from one day to the next becomes more relevant in terms of the bond that accumulates from day to day and it is not surprising that the cumulative progress is described by Clay as ‘advantageous’.
Using the lens of child development, research conducted by Clay’s contemporaries Kuhn and Stahl (2003) showed that reading fluency was not limited to word recognition. The study concluded that among children in the first and second year of school, reading fluency was characterised by the prosodic features of language, which the authors defined as: rhythm, expression and perception of the boundaries of phrases in speech and text.
From a rhythm-based perspective, the expressive element of fluent reading is underpinned by the temporal structure of clearly defined phrase boundaries. When the phrase boundaries are well-defined, the rhythm of the narrative ebbs and flows - good storytelling also has this wavelike motion of tension and release. Of course, a child listening to a story is mesmerised by the rhythmic features of the language and the expressive flow of the narrator’s voice. There are also peripheral signals that are a valuable part of holding a child’s attention: the stillness and poise of the narrator’s posture establish an atmosphere of trust, whereas their animated face and gestures, use of silence and the expressive qualities of their voice all contribute to the ‘suspension of belief’, which help to bring the events of the story to life.
It is interesting that using a rhythm-based approach to boost reading fluency requires a tiny fraction of the time taken by Reading Recovery. As a small group intervention that only requires ten minutes per week, in the Rhythm for Reading programme, the children are out of the classroom for only one hundred minutes across the entire course, and yet they experience a deep and meaningful shift in their ability to process printed language at the level of the phrase. Word accuracy also improves because the context of the words becomes clearer.
If you would like to read about the impact of the programme on different schools and children, click here. And to read more about fluency, here are links to related posts.
All children from all backgrounds need to learn to read fluently so that they can enjoy learning and fully embrace the curriculum offered by their school. A key challenge for schools is identifying an appropriate intervention that effectively supports reading fluency. This is a necessary part of a coherently planned, ambitious and inclusive curriculum that should meet the needs of all children.
Prosody is closely associated with skilled reading, being integral to fluency and a predictor of achievement in reading accuracy and comprehension. Prosody is not taught, but it is a naturally occurring feature of competent reading. The words on the page may be arranged in horizontal lines, but a good reader transcends the visual appearance of the words, allowing them to take on a natural, flexible and speech-like quality.
Many teachers and head teachers have remarked on the improvement in their pupils’ reading fluency, so it seemed important to try to capture what has been happening. Of course, there are different ways to define and to measure reading fluency, but here is a snapshot of what we found when using two types of assessment.
Schools ensure that all children become confident fluent readers, so that every child can access a broad and balanced curriculum. Fluent reading underpins a love of reading and is an important skill for future learning and employment and it also enables children to apply their knowledge and skills with ease.
Clay, M.M (2005) Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals: Part Two Teaching Procedures, New Zealand, Heinemann Education.
Kuhn, M.R. and Stahl, S. (2003) Fluency: A review of developmental and remedial practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 1: 3-21.
Tomorrow night is the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere and here in London, the heavy grey clouds and the weight of the damp atmosphere have added a dense layer to the fatigue we are all feeling right now.
So as the school term draws to an end, I thought I’d share reflections on one of my favourite picture books: “A Seed is Sleepy,” by Diana Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long, published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California.
‘A seed is sleepy.
It lies there, tucked inside its flower,
On its cone, or beneath the soil, Snug, Still.’
This is the time to reclaim our need to sleep, and to sleep long and deeply. This is the season for rest, and teachers, having given out so much energy every single day, need this. Nothing is more important than rest and recovery after a long term of thirteen or even fourteen weeks. This is the time to be still and snug in the dark and the quiet of the longest winter night.
The time that a seed may take to reveal itself is encoded in its DNA. Each seed needs its own allotted period of time. There is no rushing this process. Some seeds need ten years and some need even longer.
‘Not all seeds are eager to germinate.
Some have lain dormant, or slept undisturbed,
For more than a thousand years.’
We need sufficient time to replenish our own physical energy and this applies to each and every cell. There might be a feeling of numbness. We might feel a little spaced out because of sheer exhaustion - a bit like being jet-lagged. We might feel tearful and emotional, or jittery and struggle to unwind. This is especially true if we have been chronically overstretched and have strained our nervous system without having a chance to recover. The seed shows us what to do.
‘Part of the seed, the root,
Feels the tug of gravity and
Digs down deep.’
The work of the seed is nourishment. Resting and recharging is also about spending time on replenishment. Just like a seed, our nervous system seeks out minerals and hydration. Little by little, as recovery progresses we realise that we are ready to receive light and love from our friends and family. There is, however no rush in the life of the seed. It can take time to reach upwards.
‘It knows to seek the sunlight
To push itself up, up, up
Through the soil But it must
Wait awhile before that happens.’
Each seed takes its own time. The diversity of seeds is part of the great mystery of nature. The tallest trees grow from the tiniest seeds and the most exquisite fruit of all (coco de mer) sprouts from the largest pod. Every shape and size in between has been designed through millions of years of evolution, adaptation and plenty of rest.
Happy Christmas! Rest well dear friends!
Danna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long (2007) A Seed is Sleepy, Published by Cronicle Books, San Francisco, CA
I’m often asked whether the Rhythm for Reading Programme helps children ‘diagnosed’ with dyslexia. As I have not done a study - and by this I mean a randomised controlled trial - with children ‘labelled’ with this specific learning difficulty, I rely on anecdotal evidence to answer the question. Every time a child, identified with dyslexia asks me whether I can help them, I ask them to tell me if and when they notice a change in their reading. To date, the children diagnosed with dyslexia have told me that they have seen improvements in reading, writing and even spelling. Some have reported that they are better able to focus in class and some have also noticed an improvement in their ability to ‘understand the question’ in maths lessons. These anecdotal data are a positive indication that Rhythm for Reading does indeed help children with a diagnosis of dyslexia.
Dyslexia is a broad umbrella term that is often associated with other specific learning differences, such as (but not limited to) dyspraxia and ADHD and ADD. These so-called ‘co-morbidities’ make it difficult to study dyslexia at scale in a scientific way because there are so many differences among children labelled with this particular specific learning difficulty.
Having supported many children with specific learning difficulties in my role as special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) in two secondary schools and one junior school, it became obvious that every child I worked with had a specific learning difficulty that was unique to them. And yet, practitioners and teachers in these schools were able to support a wide range of learning differences, by using a particular set of ‘dyslexia friendly’ tools. This was made possible because all of these children had one issue in common - their limited working memory capacity.
Working memory capacity describes the extent to which a person can hold and manipulate information in mind. Saying the alphabet backwards is a simple example of a task involving working memory. Removing the ’t’ sound from the word ‘winter’ (to make the word ‘winner’) is another simple example of a task that involves maintaining and manipulating information in working memory. A person with dyslexia would find such a task tiring and also frustrating. Imagine how challenging it would be to hold only three words in working memory when faced with a task that involved ‘writing in sentences’. Children with a specific learning difficulty often find that as they start to make marks on the page, the words in their mind fade or fragment. For these children, every hour of every day spent in the classroom, presents a new mountain to climb. Their working memory capacity always lets them down, no matter how hard they try to focus their attention. As a child, I experienced this too, but all of these problems disappeared when I was about eleven years old and joined a children’s orchestra.
The diagnosis of dyslexia came in my early forties when I faced a sharp increase in stress in my personal life. Many people with dyslexia describe having ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ and the effect of stress on working memory in particular would account for this. One morning, at 7.45 am, as I was about to begin teaching, to my astonishment I discovered that I could not read. The middle three letters of every word were superimposed and all I could see were smudges of ink on the page. Unable to read a single word, I assumed that this was a visual convergence problem and managed to squint out of the corner of my right eye for a few days until I was seen by an ophthalmologist. One week later, I was able to read again with the help of a conspicuous pair of dark green lenses.
A well-qualified psychologist conducted my dyslexia assessment one month later and declared in her report that I would struggle to complete secondary level education. This was nonsensical as I had a PhD and soon after that point had papers published in academic journals. A good psychological assessment on the other hand, can be a helpful guide. It can identify areas for particular focus and can empower an individual as they learn to manage their specific learning difficulty - otherwise what is the point? After four months, my eyes had returned to normal and I was able to read without the special spectacles, but I still have them tucked away in a drawer.
If we turn to auditory problems faced by people with dyslexia, there are two interesting things to consider. One is fuzzy phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest sounds of language. If we break the sound wave of a phoneme down into its beginning, middle and end, this can help us to think about the very first part of the sound. Among children with dyslexia, there is a lack of perceptual clarity at the front edge of a phoneme, which scientists refer to as the ‘rise-time’. This means that children with dyslexia are significantly slower to detect the differences between phonemes. This is why rhythm can provide what is needed. Improving rhythmic awareness involves shifting the child’s attention to the front edge of each musical sound of a rhythmic pattern, and as the children are chanting, there is increased emphasis at the front of the phonemes too.
Here are a few of the phonemes that children with dyslexia struggle to differentiate. Looking at this list, it is obvious that there is insufficient sensitivity to the timbral qualities of the sounds as well as the ‘rise time’.
The second thing to think about is a tendency to conflate the sounds of words and similar concepts. Conflation is a reasonable and even logical coping strategy. It is a smart way to ‘cut corners’ as an efficiency drive within the context of a limited working memory. Many children with dyslexia conflate the colours black and brown and name those colours interchangeably. I worked once with a child who had conflated green, black and brown and referred to all three at ‘grown’ (rhyming with brown).
Essentially, the label refers to a specific difficulty regarding the processing of words. It is described as ‘specific’, because it exists even though the individual has sufficient verbal and non-verbal intelligence to read and write and spell words and has been taught appropriately.
Attempts to classify types of dyslexia as ‘deep’, ‘superficial’, ‘phonological’ and so on are interesting, because all of these manifestations of dyslexia can be found in schools, but at the heart of this, children who have symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of dyslexia lack sufficient sensitivity to rhythm and phonemes. The idea that rhythm is a cure for dyslexia oversimplifies the complexity of this specific learning difficulty. The anecdotal evidence indicates that a rhythm-based intervention can support dyslexia, but I would add the caveat that it must be delivered in a supportive learning environment that also nurtures the child’s self-esteem. The child’s emotional safety must be established before sensitivity to rhythm and the smallest sounds of language can develop.
It is also important to adapt lessons to be more ‘dyslexia friendly’. For example, younger children can benefit from using holistic, multi-sensory approaches, such as the activities that underpin the structure of the Rhythm for Reading Programme. Here are some case studies to illustrate progress made by children, identified by their school as requiring additional support in reading.
It is essential to identify any pupil who is falling behind the pace of the school’s phonics programme and to put effective support in place, but the quality of such support must withstand scrutiny. A certain amount of cognitive bias has been identified and found to disadvantage the lowest attaining children.
A child with sensitivity to rhythm is attuned to the onsets of the smallest sounds of language. In terms of rhythmic precision, the front edge of the sound is also the point at which the rhythmic boundary occurs. Children with a well-developed sensitivity to rhythm are also attuned to phonemes and are less likely to conflate the sounds.
Vowel sounds carry interesting information such as emotion, or tone of voice. They are longer (in milliseconds) and without defined edges. Now imagine focussing on the onset of those syllables. The consonants are shorter (in milliseconds), more sharply defined and more distinctive, leaving plenty of headspace for cognitive control. If consonants are prioritised, information flows easily and the message lands with clarity.
There is no doubt that the foundation of a good education, with reading at its core, sets children up for later success. The importance of phonics is enshrined in education policy in England and lies at the heart of teaching children to become confident, fluent readers. However, young children are not naturally predisposed to hearing the smallest sounds of language (phonemes). Rather, they process speech as syllables strung together as meaningful phrases.
Some of the most sublime music is remarkably simple to read. Just as the balance of three simple ingredients can make your taste buds ‘pop’, a few notes organised in a particular way can become iconic themes. The opening of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and the beginning of the ‘Eastenders’ theme by Simon May are examples of this - as is ‘Jingle Bells’ - (as we are now in December). The point I want to make is that music, like nature, requires balance if it is to feel and sound good. We humans are part of the natural world and our music - varied as it is - is an important part of our natural expression. By this I mean that like other species, we use our voices to attract, bond with, (or repel) each other, socially. In the past two thousand years, music has been written to represent the full range of our social behaviours: from the battleground to the banqueting hall, from the wedding to the funeral, the shop floor to the dance floor, the gym to the sanctuary. We use music to regulate our emotions, to develop our stamina and to motivate ourselves as social groups which behave in particular ways.
We don’t need to read music to enjoy singing with friends at a party or to chant with fans at a sports stadium or to create our own music in the quiet of our own homes. However, if we want to share our own process of creating or performing music, we need to notate it (to write it down) so that we are literally ‘on the same page’ and therefore are able to collaborate more efficiently.
It is very easy to learn to read music ‘without an instrument’ because our voice is our natural instrument. It is also possible to imagine a sound - in the same way that one can imagine a colour or a shape. Musicians can ‘read’ a sheet of music and use the ‘inner ear’ to hear the sounds. When we read a book, our inner voice reads the words in a similar way.
A debate raged for a long time in music education around the idea of ‘sound before symbol’. Some people believed that children were a ‘blank slate’ and needed to learn musical ‘sounds’ before they saw musical symbols in notated form. Others argued that children knew songs before they even started school, and could a manage a more demanding approach such as, ‘sound with symbol’. Fortunately, the era in which ‘sound before symbol’ dominated is now over and teachers can teach musical notation without being regarded as deviant or backward looking. Expensive musical instruments are not necessary for learning to read music. Each child’s voice is a priceless musical instrument, and every child can benefit by developing its use.
Humans have been using music for self-expression for thousands of years. It has been used by people to manipulate perceptions of potential competitors or predators. In situations where people have felt threatened, singing together has helped them to feel strong and brave. Sea shanties are an example of this and in traditional societies people sing through the night to make themselves appear ‘larger’ to predatory animals. To regulate and balance the nervous system, people all around the world soothe themselves through music when they are dealing with grief, using elegies, dirges and laments. When parents comfort infants and young children they sing lullabies to them and also provide a rocking motion, which can ‘lull’ them to sleep.
The human voice can signal alarm through a blood-curdling scream, but it can also provide comfort through well chosen words. Musical expression mirrors this wide range of functions, but it goes much further than language by making use of the exhaling breath. Manipulating the slow exhale, humans have discovered how to shape the voice into elaborate patterns. We can hear this particularly in gospel and operatic traditions - where the feel of improvisation involves an outpouring of emotion. Is it possible to notate these beautiful elaborations? Yes they can be transcribed, but their beauty lies in their spontaneity and the feeling that they emerged from an impulse in a moment of inspiration.
This is a great question. Given that I’m arguing for music as the natural ‘song’ of our species, why would this natural behaviour flow more easily through some people than others?
Reading as a skill is quite a recent addition to our repertoire of social behaviours. Music and language are natural to us and are ‘hard-wired’ into our nervous system, whereas reading is not - but we are able to learn to read. This skill is well-practised as humans have been using various signs and symbols to communicate for tens of thousands of years.
The main difference between reading music and reading words is that the rhythmic patterns in music are relatively inflexible, whereas printed language is rhythmically malleable. A three word phrase in a printed conversation, such as, ‘I don’t know’ can be reinterpreted by adapting the rhythmic qualities to convey a full range of emotions from exasperation to mystification. When we read, we are guide by the context of the passage. The context would help the reader to identify the most appropriate rhythm for the words. In this respect, rhythm in language reflects context as much as it does the underlying grammatical structure of the sentence.
When reading music, the prescribed rhythmic element reflects the musical context and style. A march, a samba and a ballad each have their own distinctive rhythmic feel. Repeated patterns need to be rhythmically consistent to sound ‘catchy’ or convincing. In this way, rhythm is the stylised and ritualised aspect of music and it can even be hypnotic. This quality in rhythm is the reason it is used by people as a motivational tool, or for self-regulation when the nervous system feels dysregulated.
When reading music, some people struggle to process the rhythmic element. The same people may struggle to move in time with the beat, but this is certainly not an insurmountable problem. It is a question of placing an emphasis on feeling the rhythm first, and then reading the rhythm, once the feeling has been established. This is not always easy because people sometimes feel anxious and believe that they are not ‘rhythmical’ enough.
Children who struggle to read printed language, have learned to read simple musical notation with ease and have responded very well to the Rhythm for Reading Programme. There is a remarkable shift in these children when they realise that by reading musical notation as a group, and through a very profound experience of well-being, belonging and togetherness that this brings, their reading fluency and comprehension also improve.
Our very simple introduction to musical notation involves:
It takes only a few minutes to learn to read simple musical notation. Even children with very weak language reading skills can achieve fluent reading of musical notation in only ten minutes. We focus on integrating each sensory aspect of reading music: the children’s eyes, ears and voices. Children are able to bring their attention into sharper focus when they read musical notation because the rhythmical element, which for them represents emotional safety, has been addressed through our highly structured approach.
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Discover more about the impact of Rhythm for Reading on children’s reading development in these Case Studies
These posts are also about musical notation
A Simple View of Reading Musical Notation Here are some very traditional views on teaching musical notation - and the Rhythm for Reading way which avoids loading the children with too much information at once.
Fluency, Phonics and Musical Notes Presenting the sound with the symbol is as important in learning to read musical notation, as it is in phoneme-to-grapheme correspondence. Fluent reading for all children is the main teaching goal.
Musical notation, full school assembly and an Ofsted inspection Discover the back story…the very beginning of Rhythm for Reading - this approach was first developed to support children with weak executive function.
Empowering children to read musical notation fluently The ‘tried and tested’ method of adapting musical notation for children who struggle to process information is astonishingly, to add more markings to the page. Rhythm for Reading offers a simple solution that allows all children to read ‘the dots’ fluently, even in the first ten minute session.