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The Rhythm for Reading blog

Musical teamwork and empathy

28 February 2024

Image credit: S.B. Vonlant via Unsplash


There’s tension in teamwork! On the one hand there’s the idea that ‘teamwork makes the dreamwork’, pointing to the ideal situation in which everyone pulls together to attain goals that are shared and for the good of the whole community - for instance in a social enterprise. The maxim, ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team’ tells us that people sometimes contribute to teamwork with other intentions - perhaps they see it as an opportunity to outshine, usurp or even exploit the efforts of others.

Let us think for a moment about a community of traditional hunter gatherers, researched by anthropologist Jerome Lewis at ULC. They have life ways built on teamwork: - Women and men carry out their day-to-day roles in separate groups and the two groups alternate in terms of taking on the responsibility for leadership and decision-making. In this way, the community maintains a rhythmic balance, like the swing of a pendulum, between the perspectives of the men and then the women. The elders of the community, particularly the women, encourage everyone to ridicule any young person who wants to be louder, faster or smarter than others in the group.

The qualities of teamwork have also been studied by neuroscientists and there are no surprises here. Teamwork involves joint action, communication and empathy: people’s actions naturally fall into coordination with one another. We see this in social situations where there is obvious mirroring - one person sips water from a glass and then others at that table do the same, perhaps as a symbolic intention of unity.

On the one hand, there are distinct disadvantages to group behaviour and teamwork, because imbalances within the group can generate a false sense of security, potentially affecting many people:

  • ‘groupthink’ - when people are not able to discuss matters openly and one opinion dominates,
  • bias - when clear thinking is sidelined by ideology and the whole group loses touch with reality,
  • double standards - when a minority abuse the value system held by the group to dominate and repress the majority.

On the other hand, the advantages of teamwork and a sense of group membership are beneficial in the long term for our health and well-being. For example, it is easier for us to coordinate repetitive actions with others and to communicate regularly in small groups. This is because as humans, we are hard-wired to rely on group effort to guide both our day-to-day behaviour as well as our longer term goals. Teamwork is advantageous in the long term in the following ways:

  • it is economical in terms of energy expenditure,
  • coordinated actions look and sound impressive to outsiders,
  • predators will likely be deterred, and
  • people feel they belong and are safe.

Musical teamwork

In both contemporary western cultures and extant hunter gatherer societies, humans are coordinated in time by feeling a shared rhythm - whether that is via a physical action, a chant or a song. The repetitive nature of many actions means that the movement is not only coordinated in time but also refined in space.

This is a natural phenomenon that applies to most species - for example, bees secrete wax and form hexagonal cells in honeycomb because a hexagon shape allows for economic use of repetitive, rhythmic movement and energy, without compromising the stability and strength of the cell walls. We see a stylised version of this in formal military displays around the world, and a more relaxed version in informal crowd behaviour (such as a ‘Mexican wave’ or clapping in time) at cultural events for example at a sports stadium - whether enjoying a match or a pop concert.

The formation of a group identity in the context of working together involves mutual trust, respect, a desire to achieve results through coordinated precision and also the flexibility that is needed to achieve an optimal result. In musical teamwork, this level of cooperation is practised as a discipline ‘for its own sake’ because the people involved share joint musical goals. These might be modest such as journeying through a new musical score, or writing a new song together. The joint experience of traversing the musical ‘unknown’ is mysterious and requires coordination and coherence - similar to navigating a cave in the dark. Or, the goal might be more aligned with artistry, such as working together to balance all of the nuances of a known piece of music, so that the performance of a particular work comes across as a sublime entity of perfectly structured, balanced, ’architectural’ proportions, although in real time.

So, in describing different types of joint action in music - as in many things - it becomes obvious that some teams could be described as ‘elite’ and some as ‘inclusive’. In both groups (provided there is a sense of joint action, trust and positive teamwork) the neuropeptide, oxytocin (aka ‘the love hormone’) works quickly to build bonds between people and to form what are known among social psychologists as ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’ (a power imbalance usually favours the ‘in group’).

For instance, in the Rhythm for Reading programme, we uphold an inclusive ethos. This is very important as everyone involved must feel that they can play a meaningful role in contributing to the effort of their group, each week. When, on occasion, a teacher has tried to introduce a new child into a group of ten children, or to swap two children between different groups (there may be six groups of children taking part in one school), the trust and the bonds in the affected groups may be dissolved, probably because of the influence of oxytocin on group identification..

So, to sum up, teamwork is an important and impactful aspect of the Rhythm for Reading programme.

Musical teamwork and empathy

An abundance of research findings point to the ‘prosocial’ impact of joint music-making (Hallam and Himonides , 2022). Being involved in music making requires sustained and coordinated joint action. For example, each person is aware of their own contribution, but they also have oversight of, as well as respect and responsibility for, the overall effect. In other words, each person would be listening and personally invested in the balance of the music in terms of its:

  • musical texture - anticipating and blending their own sound in proportion to the sounds of others,
  • pitch and melodic line - anticipating and aligning a single pitch or a melody with the pitch of others,
  • rhythm and tempo - keeping in time with others, anticipating and contributing to the vibrancy of shared rhythm, and
  • harmony - phrasing and blending their own sound within a shared ownership of harmony and structure.

In the anthropological work of Jerome Lewis, joint music making within the community of hunter gathers involved singing to their homeland - the nature around them in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Each level of richness of the equatorial forest was represented in their complex music, so that within communal music making, many rhythms and melodies were sung, balanced, and harmonised together. If one person protruded or was conspicuous, the precious balance of the musical ecosystem was lost and that person would be known as, ‘an energy thief’.

In music education in the UK, different types of music tend to require different kinds of musical interaction. These might include:

  • playing in time with others, focussing mainly on synchrony and tight coordination,
  • holding a completely different line and harmonising, with additional demands on cognitive control, or,
  • alternating with each other, with room for greater individual expression, improvisation and flexibility.

Each of these examples emphasises what could be loosely described as a different musical skillset, but at the heart of all of these examples is the need for: empathy and ‘theory of mind’ - being able to read the intentions of others and respond accordingly,

Musical notation, teamwork and empathy

  • If we feed a child nourishing food, we can say this has enhanced their health.
  • If we place a child into stimulating musical training, we can say this has enhanced their empathy.
  • If we place a child into an intervention which teaches them to read musical notation, we can say this has improved their reading skills.

There is a clear pattern of cause and effect, but millions of years of evolution have primed us to respond to optimal experiences that promote health, empathy and communication. This is why children are known to respond positively to an enriched environment (and why an enriched environment is also known to accelerate learning in animals, such as mice and rats).

A more worrisome situation arises when children from disadvantaged social backgrounds, whose fundamental needs of adequate nutrition, shelter and safety (physical, social and psychological), may not have been addressed, are placed into underspecified musical interventions where they are expected to thrive. This may be why many music education research studies have achieved such mixed results (see Hallam and Himonides, 2022 for a comprehensive review).

Closing thoughts

In the Rhythm for Reading Programme, the safety of the children is always the top priority, and this includes ensuring that on a weekly basis they experience a strong sense of:

  • belonging - through working as a team, and coordinating with the specially composed music in a consistent way,
  • fluency and ease - through reading simple notation enriched by patterns, repetition and novelty,
  • happiness and enthusiasm - through participating in shared moments of collective joy.

To read about the extraordinary impact of the Rhythm for Reading programme on children’s reading comprehension click here.

To book a call and discuss group teaching and the needs of children in your school, click here.

If you enjoyed this post, keep reading!

Rhythm, breath and well-being

Breath is an important part of the Rhythm for Reading programme. We use our voices as a team in different ways and this engages our breath. In the early stages of the programme we use rapid fire responses to learn the names of musical notes and our breath is short, sharp and strong - just like the sounds of our voices.

Confidence and happiness in the Rhythm for Reading programme

This post describes the tenth of ten Rhythm for Reading programme sessions. By this stage in the reading intervention, everyone in the group can sight-read both simple and comparatively complex music notation with ease and confidence. To do this, our eyes are glued onto the board, our voices are synchronised and we’ve gelled through teamwork.

The Joy of Teamwork

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’.

Learn to read music and develop executive functions: The exception rather than the rule

The Rhythm for Reading Programme creates an environment that allows pupils to focus their attention right from the start. They learn to read music by repeating, reviewing and practising key concepts each week, consistent with the principle of ‘spaced practice’. Consistent rehearsal of musical notes using visual images, as well as hearing and saying the note names, illustrates the principle of ‘dual coding’. The programme is built on a cumulative structure that prioritises fluency, as well as a light ‘cognitive load’ and there is a gradual increase in the complexity of tasks within the context of working together as a strong and enthusiastic team.


Hallam, S. and Himonides, E (2022) The Power of Music: An exploration of the evidence, Cambridge: Open Book Publishers

NB References to Jerome Lewis are from personal notes taken during public lectures given by Radical Anthropology Group, Department of Anthropology, University College London.

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Why empathy boosts reading comprehension in primary schools

23 February 2024

Credit image: Andrew Ebrahim via Unsplash
Credit image: Andrew Ebrahim via Unsplash

The importance of respect lies at the heart of school ethos and is the foundation for cooperative behaviour and positive attitudes towards learning. In practice, it is possible to cultivate these positive attitudes deliberately, particularly in early reading development if sufficient empathy and sensitivity exists. This means acknowledging cultural diversity - both in depth and breadth, and recognising the linguistic richness of the school community.

Confidence in learning is one of the greatest gifts that education can offer children, but this too requires empathy. Advantaged children start school socially well-adjusted and ready to learn, whereas disadvantaged children lag behind their classmates in this respect. For example, effective teaching that models thinking and reasoning is essential for disadvantaged children, when their attainment is behind age expectation in early reading development. In this post I look at ways in which a focus on empathy breaches social disadvantage and boosts reading comprehension.


Let us remind ourselves that the first relationship that infants have is critical to development, because it precedes their own character formation and the sense of self. The primary caregiver is usually the mother in the first weeks of life, but not always. These early weeks of engagement with the infant are thought to influence the child’s development based on two types of maternal caregiving: sensitivity and intrusiveness.These qualities exist at opposite ends of a continuum and there is a general consensus that if the primary caregiver is sensitive about one third of the time, then the child will be socially well-adjusted and attach securely to the mother-figure. Sensitivity refers to the mother’s ability to empathise with her child, to infer her child’s basic requirements, as well as to respond to the child’s need to be soothed or to engage playfully. Traditionally, mothers have responded to their infants’ needs and desires by singing to them, playing peek-a boo style games and reciting stories. The effects of these activities on the developing brain of the infant have been researched and may help us to understand how to support the young children who struggle with early reading when they start school.

Reading Comprehension

The effect of storytelling on the human brain was first reported in 2010 by Silbert and Hasson. The research used a brain scanner to record brain activity as each participant listened to a story. The findings showed, perhaps unsurprisingly that in the auditory areas responsible for processing sound, the brain waves tracked the voice of the person reading the story. However, language areas of the brain and the areas responsible for the sense of self and others, lagged behind the auditory areas. The authors thought that the meaning of the story was being shaped by these slower processes. Further research showed that inserting nonsense words into the story scrambled the areas of the brain, assumed to be involved in processing context and comprehension (Silbert and Hasson, 2010).

According to the well known Simple View of Reading Model (Gough and Tumner, 1986), two foundational skills: linguistic comprehension and decoding are essential for the development of reading comprehension. Decoding is complex: it involves sounding our letters (transforming graphemes into phonemes and syllables) and then blending these into words (Ehri 1995; 1998). Even though individual differences affect the development of decoding, researchers assert that ability in decoding is closely aligned with reading comprehension skill (Garcia and Cain, 2014).

However, individual differences in terms of control of working memory, control of inhibition and the ability to update and adapt with flexibility to the development of the text affect children’s reading comprehension and researchers now think that these abilities also account for the difficulties with decoding as well (Ober et al., 2019). How might teachers make use of this information in a classroom scenario?

Empathy and comprehension in child development

Imagine for a moment that two children have been playing together with a spaceship. The adult supervising them hears that one child has monopolised the toy and the other child is crying in protest. To contain the situation the adult acknowledges and describes the feelings of each child and invites the two children to:

  • read one another’s feelings by looking at their facial expressions,
  • ask why their friend is feeling this way,
  • imagine how they could make this situation better, and
  • figure out a way to share the spaceship.

These are important steps because the children then take on a deeper sense of responsibility for:

  • self-regulating their own behaviour,
  • monitoring their friend’s feelings as well as their own, and
  • planning how they might play together to avoid this happening again.

Through playing together, under sensitive professional guidance, these children are able to develop important life skills such as cooperation, learning to adapt to each other’s feelings, as well as planning and executing joint actions in the moment.

It’s also important to recognise that many children do not receive nuanced guidance from adults. Investment in early years provision and training is vital to address the effects of an exponential rise in social and economic disadvantage, but also, sensitivity to culturally and linguistically diverse children for example of asylum seekers and refugees is just as important. Children and adolescents who receive empathic guidance from adults, would for example need to be trusted by the parents of those children, and need to be appropriately culturally and linguistically informed (Cain et al., 2020).

The most important attribute of empathy is that it involves one person being able to connect their personal experiences with those of another individual. Learning about empathy under sensitive adult guidance promotes the development of inhibitive control. Control of inhibition strengthens working memory. Stability and strength in working memory fosters flexibility in thinking. Each of these executive functions lays strong foundations for the development of inference, fluency, and comprehension in reading behaviour, as Maryanne Wolf says,

An enormously important influence on the development of reading comprehension in childhood is what happens after we remember, predict and infer: we feel, we identify, and in the process we understand more fully and can’t wait to turn the page. (Wolf, 2008, p.132)

The adaptive benefit of empathy

The social benefits of empathy are wide-ranging and in terms of human evolution, the ability to act collectively, maintain social bonds and close ties with others has most likely helped our forebears to envision and execute large scale plans for the benefit of a whole community. For example, collections of animal skeletons have led researchers to conclude that more than 20,000 years ago, parties of hunter gatherers had developed killing techniques, honed over generations to take advantage of the seasonal movement of horses. In one site in France, more than 30,000 wild horses were slaughtered, some were butchered, but many were killed unnecessarily and were left to rot (Fagan, 2010).

Humans are like other mammals in the way that we are able to synchronise and move together. When humans gather socially and dance together this behaviour fosters empathy and social cooperation (Huron, 2001;2003).

Indeed, these types of activities have been shown to enhance the development of empathy and school readiness in young children (Ritblatt et al., 2013; Kirschner and Tomasello, 2009;2010), children in primary school (Rabinowitch et al., 2013), and after only six weekly sessions of ten minutes of synchronised movement, entrained to background music, research findings showed significant improvements in reading comprehension and fluency (Long, 2014).

Bringing this back to empathy again, a large scale study involving 2914 children showed that the benefits of shared musical activity were associated with the development of inhibitory control and a reduction of behaviour issues, particularly among socially disadvantaged children (Alemán et al., 2017).


Our human brains are wired to be social. Our ancestors worked cooperatively and were able to read their environment and infer the seasonal movements of animals. They planned, coordinated and executed hunting plans with devastating precision. Our ability as modern humans to read printed language with fluency, ease and comprehension is perhaps the most advanced act of human social collaboration of all, as it allows us to receive an enormous volume of information from each other about challenges that face us as a global collective. To what extent are we willing to empathise, to infer, to plan and to work together for our common good in an era that demands we now find our common purpose and act upon it?

Why not read about case studies of the rhythm-based approach in schools? Then click here to find out more about the Rhythm for Reading Programme and discuss it with me in person.

If you have enjoyed the themes in this post keep reading.

Conversations and language development in early childhood

Spoken language plays a central role in learning. Parents, in talking to their children help them to find words to express, as much to themselves as to others, their needs, feelings and experiences.

‘As well as being a cognitive process, the learning of their mother tongue is also an interactive process. It takes the form of continued exchange of meanings between self and others. The act of meaning is a social act.’ (Halliday, 1975: 139-140)

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

In their highly influential study of vocabulary development in the early years, Hart and Risley (1995) showed that parents in professional careers spoke 32 million more words to their children than did parents on welfare, accounting for the vocabulary and language gap at age 3 and the maths gap at age 10 between the children from different home backgrounds.

Rhythm and connection 3/5

Mythical tales of abandonment, involving fear of the jaws of death followed by the joy of reunion are familiar themes in stories from all around the world. Sound is a primal medium of connection and communication via mid brain processes that are rapid, subjective, subtle and subconscious. Similarly, the telling of stories, the recitation of poems and songs are also examples of how auditory signals are woven together to communicate for example fear, distress and joyful reunion, or other emotions.


Alemán et al (2016) The effects of musical training on child development: A randomised trial of El System in Venezuela, Prevention Science, 18 (7), 865-878

Cain, M. et al (2019) Participatory music-making and well-being within immigrant cultural practice: Exploratory case studies in South East Queensland, Australia, Leisure Studies, 39 (1), 68-82

Ehri , L.C. (1995) Phases of development in learning to read words by sight. Journal of Research in Reading, 18 (2) 116-125

Ehri, L. C.(1998) Grapheme-phoneme knowledge is essential for learning to read words in English. In J.L. Metal & L.C. Ehri (Eds.), Word recognition in beginning literacy (pp.3-40). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Fagan, B. (2010) Cro-Magnon: How the ice age gave birth to the first modern humans, New York, Bloomsbury Press.

Frith, U. And Frith, I (2001) The biological basis of social interaction. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 2001, 10, 151-155.

Gough, P.B. and Tumner, W.E. (1986) Decoding, Reading and Reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7 (1), 6-10

Huron, D. (2001) Is music and evolutionary adaptation? ANYAS, 930 (1), 43-61

Huron, D. (2006) Sweet anticipation. The MIT Press

Kirschner, S. & Tomasello, M. (2009) Joint drumming: Social context facilitates synchronisation in preschool children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 102 (3), 299-314

Kirschner, S. & Tomasello, M. (2010) Joint music-making promoted prosocial behaviour in 4-year old children. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 31 (5) 354-364

Long, M. (2014) ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read.’: An exploratory stud investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading. RSME, 36 (1) 107-124

Ober et al (2019) Distinguishing direct and indirect influences of executive functions on reading comprehension in adolescents. Reading psychology, 40 (6), 551-581.

Rabinovitch, T., Cross, I. and Bernard, P. (2013) Longterm musical group interaction has a positive effect on empathy in children. Psychology of Music, 41 (4) 484-498.

Ritblatt, S. et al (2013) Can music enhance school readiness socioemotional skills? Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 27 (3), 257-266.

Silbert, G.J. and Hasson, U. (2010) Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proc. Nate Acad. Sci. USA 107, 14425-14430

Wolf, M, (2008) Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, London, UK, Icon Books

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Conversations and language development in early childhood

14 February 2024

Image credit: Mark Zamora via Unsplash
Image credit: Mark Zamora via Unsplash

The child’s task is to construct the system of meanings that represents his own model of social reality. This process takes place inside his own head; it is a cognitive process. But it takes place in contexts of social interaction, and there is no way it can take place except in these contexts. As well as being a cognitive process, the learning of their mother tongue is also an interactive process. It takes the form of continued exchange of meanings between self and others. The act of meaning is a social act. (Halliday, 1975: 139-140)

Echoing Halliday’s beautiful description of a child’s construction of a model of his social world, the link between talking, the development of vocabulary and reading comprehension was made by Hart and Risley in their book, ‘Meaningful Differences in Everyday Experience of Young American Children’ (1995). In these studies, they focused on word frequency counts and the number of conversational turns between adults and children. It was ten years later when researchers showed the importance of the quality of the interaction between adults and children for the development of language skills, and thus established that educational outcomes for children were built on the foundations of both speaking and listening.

Language development

Decades before Hart and Risley’s landmark study, the Plowden Report had emphasised the importance of spoken language in learning.

Spoken language plays a central role in learning. Parents, in talking to their children help them to find words to express, as much to themselves as to others, their needs, feelings and experiences. Through language children can transform their active, questioning response to the environment in a more precise form and learn to manipulate it more economically and effectively. The complex perceptuo-motor skills of reading and writing are based in their first stages upon speech and the wealth and variety of experience from which effective language develops. (The Plowden Committee, 1967, paragraph 54).

More recently, researchers have measured natural language in the homes of young children using a voice recorder that selected adult words spoken directly to the child, conversational turns - the back and forth of a conversation, the child’s voice and also sounds from televisions and electronic devices.

Whilst the Hart and Risley study showed that the number of words that parents speak to their child, and the number of times adults respond to their child’s voice are of critical importance to language development, a new study was commissioned (Zimmerman et al., 2009) to ask which type of exposure: words, interaction with parents or television, would best predict language development.

The findings showed that exposure to words and interactions with the parents had a significant and positive relationship with language development, whereas exposure to television had a significant and negative association with the development of language skills. When television, words and interactions were analysed together, in order to isolate the most important of these three, it was the interaction with the parents that carried the most influence - the other two variables, word frequency and television were no longer statistically significant.

Parenting styles

In the study, Zimmerman measured Interaction between the child and the parents by ‘turn count’ - in other words: the number of times that the conversation passed between the parent and the child. This metric would probably have been influenced by parenting style. For example, an ‘authoritarian’ parent would be more likely to shut the conversation down using a comment such as, “Because I say so.” Contrastingly, a more ‘authoritative’ parent would be more likely to encourage their child to develop self expression, using language to sustain attention and to develop self-confidence.

In addition to parenting styles, researchers have also considered two important factors which are known to have a positive impact on language development, as well as social and emotional health:

  • maternal responsiveness (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2001), and
  • a positive social and emotional environment (Knudsen et al., 2006).

Television and electronic devices occupy children far more now in 2024 than they did fifteen years ago when Zimmerman’s study was published. As ‘digital natives’ children are introduced to screens from the age of four months, and hours of exposure to screens continue to accumulate not only in the home, but also in the classroom, once the child starts school.

Screen time

According to recent research (Muppalla, 2023), children who engaged in screen time for more than two hours per day were associated with an increased chance of developing behavioural problems and a poorer vocabulary. Other factors such as a decrease in young people’s engagement with nature and the outdoors may account for increased concerns about mental health and well-being. However, among children of primary school age, concerns about anxiety, depression and aggression have been associated with excessive use of gaming, general screen use and television respectively.

There are various factors to consider, but particularly so if parents use ‘screen time’ as a reward, as there is the additional ‘specialness’ that comes with attaching a high symbolic value to a device even before the child engages with it. The fast-paced and noisy content of certain games, films and TV shows encourage an abrupt level of cognitive and emotional stimulation, which impacts the reward circuitry of the brain (in a similar way to ingesting an addictive substance). The spike in dopamine disrupts the sensitive balance of this brain circuit and can lead to craving behaviours that are associated with addiction. In terms of motivation and attention, the child may withdraw from everyday forms of social engagement with family and friends and their habit may develop into a compulsion, disturbing the delicate balance of the dopamine system even more.

This picture develops further in terms of its complexity if we factor in homework assignments that involve researching a topic on the internet. Children with a gaming habit are likely to struggle to focus on an assignment that does not consummate their ‘need’ to satisfy the gaming compulsion. If siblings share a device at home, one of them may have no choice but to complete the task late into the evening. As screen exposure at night is known to disrupt the wake-sleep cycle, homework assignments that involve using screens may also frustrate parents who are trying to limit their child’s screen time.

Sharing a book

One way to offset the disruptive effects of screens is to put them away and reach for a book. The interaction between a parent and child when sharing a book extends way beyond the narrative - (the telling of the story). In fact, this is an opportunity for the child and parent to get lost in the book together, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Exploring the illustrations, experiencing the build-up of tension of the structure and the suspense that this evokes offers parents a chance to accompany their child into a new world of ‘firsts’. Perhaps this story will be the first time the parent sees their child:

  • feel empathy for a character,
  • consider different possible directions for the plot,
  • detect the wicked intentions of the villain before these have been revealed in full.

Drilling into the detail of the text, the child might ask their parent about the meanings of words. This could develop into a guessing game or trigger a shared memory that helps a new word to make sense.

When researchers compared two consecutive days: one with and one without book reading, there was a 148 percent increase in the number of parent and child interactions which were specifically related to sharing a book. This concentrated period of interaction with the child is not only very nurturing for their well-being, but it also provides opportunities to share a different pace and style of language.

The language in a book may well be more descriptive and make use of phrases that would not naturally arise in everyday conversation, and would support children in the development of a broad and rich vocabulary. Not only that, but the length and complexity of sentences are more likely to sculpt a child’s attention in a way that everyday spoken language may not (Saracho and Spodek, 2010).

Key points

The Hart and Risley (1995) study showed perhaps surprisingly that infants initiate conversations with their parents more than the parents do. This may happen at the most inconvenient moments for the adults, but if parents are aware that their child needs to interact in order to develop language skills, that would set them up for life: they would probably pay closer attention to these subtle attempts to initiate interaction. The researchers found that the factors most likely to distract the parents included:

  • noise from the television,
  • the parent using a mobile phone,
  • depression and metal health issues.

The type of speech that parents use with their children actually stimulates the middle ear and changes the physiology of the muscles of the child’s head and neck, allowing the face to move in response to the parent’s voice. This beautiful and congruent system of social engagement is hard-wired into humans and all other mammals. It is through interaction between parent and child in the pre-school years that secure attachment bonds and well-adjusted character formation create the foundations for reading well and academic attainment at school.

In the past five years, researchers have found that conversations require active prediction as speech unfolds over time. Listeners anticipate what is coming up in the speaker’s voice as they infer the most likely content and meaning. Listening is very much an active process and involves entraining (matching) rhythmically with the speaker’s voice. This natural aspect of speech is a relatively new area of research in neuroscience (Lakatos et al., 2019) and allows us to understand the role of rhythm within the deeper structures of language and communication.

If this is of interest, click here to discover the impact of a rhythm-based intervention on reading comprehension.

If you have enjoyed this post, keep reading!

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

In their highly influential study of vocabulary development in the early years, Hart and Risley (1995) showed that parents in professional careers spoke 32 million more words to their children than did parents on welfare, accounting for the vocabulary and language gap at age 3 and the maths gap at age 10 between the children from different home backgrounds.

How we can support mental health challenges of school children?

The waiting lists for local child and adolescent mental health services- ‘CAMHS’ are getting longer and longer. Teachers and parents are left fielding the mental health crisis, while the suffering of afflicted children and adolescents deepens with every day that passes. Young people’s mental health challenges cannot be left to fester, as they affect their identity, educational outcomes, parental income and resilience within the wider community. Here are 10 key strategies that parents and teachers can use to support children and adolescents dealing with distressing symptoms of mental health challenges while they are waiting for professional help.

Narrowing the attainment gap through early reading intervention

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 reading 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.


Halliday, M. (1975) Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. London: Edward Arnold

Hart, B. and Risley, T.R. (1995) Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children, Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.

Knudsen, E. I. et al., (2006) Economic neurobiological and behavioural perspectives on building America’s future workforce. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103 (27) 10155-10162

Lakatos, P., Gross, J. and Thut, G. (2019) A new unifying account of the roles of neuronal entrainment, Current Biology, 29, R850-R905

Muppalla et al (2023) Effects of excessive screen time on child development: An updated review and strategies on management, Cureus 15 (6) e40608. Doe:10.7759/ cures.40608

The Plowden Committee (1967) Children and their primary schools (The Plowden Report). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Available at: http://www.educationendland.org.uk/ plowmen Accessed 8.12.14.

Saracho, O.N. and Spodek, B. (2010) Parents and children engaging in storybook reading, Early Child Development and Care, 180 (10)1379-1389

Tamis-LeMonda et al., (2001) Maternal responsiveness and children’s achievement of language milestones, Child Development 72 (3) 748-767

Zimmerman F. J. et al. (2009) Teaching by listening: The impact of adult child conversations on language development paediatrics, 124 (1) 342-349.

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Clowns and Chameleons on World Read Aloud Day

7 February 2024

Image Credit: Eder Pozo Perez via Unsplash
Image Credit: Eder Pozo Perez via Unsplash

World Read Aloud Day sounds like a lot of fun! Reading aloud in pairs for example, can really encourage expression and fluency, as well as enhance the joy of reading. When children share book together they are more likely to connect more deeply with the ‘voice’ of the author. This is amazing! Pairing up with a book creates the opportunity to open up to the narrative in a completely new way.

There is however, another side to World Read Aloud Day that is more complex. Some children are not able to ‘open up’ to sharing a book or to being part of a group. They are dealing with challenges of various kinds and the social expectation to ‘enjoy’ reading aloud might be too much for them. As educators, we can help these children to feel more ‘centred’ by letting them know that they are safe - for example by choosing to look at a picture book in a quiet space. Read on to find out why this is so important.

Making allowances for emotional, mental and physical health when teaching reading

Symptoms of anxiety and depression correlate with difficulties with reading, including processing speed, focus and concentration among children aged nine and eleven. To make matters worse, researchers have found that not only do these symptoms make reading difficult, but that experiencing trouble with reading and other academic skills affects children’s sense of self-worth and drives anxiety levels up (Lundy et al., 2010).

The stress associated with early childhood adversity can have a profound and substantial effect on the development of adequate reading skills as well as functions such as memory and verbal ability. Associated factors such as changing schools frequently, can exacerbate these learning differences. Taken together, the lack of structure in the child’s life can affect their ability to comprehend on-going themes while reading, and also their motivation to read (Yasik et al., 2007).

Physical challenges are no less valid. Children with glucose dysregulation, perhaps due to diabetes or hyperglycaemia are more likely to have an increased risk for difficulties with cognitive skills such as reading (Naguib et al., 2009). Physical health issues can disrupt learning through fatigue, and there may be multiple appointments and low school attendance.

All of these factors can build up to generate anxiety about falling behind, and it is this anxiety that is most likely to interfere with reading. Many studies have produced mixed results, so it’s not possible at present to generalise widely about the relationship between child health and reading development. However, it is good practice to assess physical and emotional health when identifying children with fragile reading, so that any underlying issues are not overlooked.

When children buck the trend

There are many wonderful teachers who are keen to protect children from stress. Child-led activities such as reading aloud, in which everyone muddles through are not always the answer, however. A more structured approach can be more helpful for disadvantaged children as it allows them to find an obvious path on which they can make clear progress. And yet progress, in the face of challenges requires grit!

There are children who exude grit - and grit is the strongest predictor of educational outcomes. Grit outperforms other factors - even the child’s age and IQ, which is amazing. Grit has been defined by Duckworth and colleagues (2007; p. 1087). as:

Perseverance and passion for long-term goals…[grit] entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over the years, despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress

The paradox of bilingualism

Of course, language skills are also among the strongest predictors of children’s reading development (Dickenson et al., 2010).

Interestingly, according to Siegal and coworkers (2011) when compared with monolingual children, bilingual children display:

  • better control of attention,
  • greater maturity and insight when understanding the meaning of spoken language, and
  • a more adult-like moral reasoning.

In my own experience of interviewing parents, who did not speak English, their bilingual children were able translate for them. I learned that these children helped their parents with ‘life-admin’ such as completing official documents and forms. Despite these responsibilities, or perhaps because of the stress of these experiences, these bilingual children struggled to achieve age appropriate levels of reading comprehension and academic attainment. Factors such as poverty and family mobility are thought to explain this paradox (Melby et al, 2014).

The challenges that children with ‘dyslexia’ face when reading aloud

Although I love the idea that reading aloud is fun, for some children reading aloud puts them at risk of ridicule. An unstructured activity may lead to them feeling anxious and unsafe. When children with specific learning difficulties are asked to read aloud in class, potential exists for a downward spiral to begin. Shameful feelings that begin in this way have the potential to shape a child’s future.

  • Teasing by classmates leads to social isolation
  • Inappropriate teaching such as memorising lists of words gives way to to frustration
  • Substandard work in class generates a label of laziness, followed by truancy and disaffection
  • Risk-taking behaviour develops into petty crime and
  • Poor choices over time lead to juvenile court and a possible conviction.

Dyslexia is an umbrella term for a wide range of specific learning perceptual difficulties with words, which might affect reading, writing or spelling. Some children manage to compensate for their dyslexia by developing coping strategies, whereas others do not achieve this. Stress affects the symptoms associated with dyslexia such as the visual illusion of the print wobbling or fading in and out. This instability also plays out in the child’s working memory.

Michael Thompson (1982d; cf 1990) compared a group of children identified with dyslexia with two control groups:

  • reading age controls, and
  • chronological age controls.

Both control groups outperformed the group with a diagnosis of dyslexia.

Reading age controls were four years younger than the ‘dyslexic’ group, but scored higher on reading rate. Chronological age controls matched the ‘dyslexic’ group on age, but they were more than four years ahead of the dyslexic group in reading.

The scores for the dyslexic group were approximately five years behind those of their classmates on reading rate and accuracy. Imagine for a moment how these children would have feltl when reading aloud in class, knowing that their peer group who were able to read with far more fluency and ease, were listening.

As is often the case, the dyslexic group had a very uneven performance on reading. Their understanding of the text was two years behind their actual age, and thirty months more advanced than their reading rate score. Being able to understand the text in this sketchy way would have felt limiting and frustrating, and at the same time they would have known that ‘reading’ as a developmental ‘milestone’ had not been met.

In the classroom setting, stress, shame and anxiety can send the struggling child into a downward spiral of low-self-esteem. Some children manage these heavy feelings by ‘performing’ for their classmates. They want to reclaim their identity and to normalise their reading situation as ‘a bit of a joke’. Playing the ‘fool’ or ‘clown’ to distract everyone enables them to find their place among their peers once again. This is amusing for classmates and dissipates any temporary feelings of humiliation or ‘loss of face’. And yet, deeper down, the unprocessed shame is stored and slowly builds up day by day. The teacher might go along with the humour, perhaps not quite aware of the pain it attempts to conceal, before settling the class into a new task.

An alternative strategy adopted by other struggling children is to become ‘invisible’ all of the time. Their goal is to become so quiet that they are overlooked. They hide behind a mask of silence, stillness and impeccable behaviour. They are so successful that no one really notices that they are left behind. In fact, the more conspicuous ‘clown’ posturing of the extrovert members of the class helps these quiet chameleons to blend into the background with even more ease.

As increasing numbers of children become vulnerable to poverty, as well as emotional and mental health challenges, it is even more important for schools to consider the emotional well-being and safety of children who struggle with reading aloud. Sadly, a child’s trajectory of self-worth and emotional balance can be changed permanently through reading aloud, with devastating effects going forwards into adolescence and adult life. Dyslexic children do learn to read, but it takes them significantly longer than other children. Supportive strategies can definitely help them to accelerate along their reading journey.

Read our case studies - we’ve helped so many children who struggled to learn to read. Book a discovery call to discuss you school’s needs.

If you enjoyed this post, keep reading!

Supporting children with a ‘fuzzy’ awareness of phonemes and other symptoms consistent with dyslexia

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.

Fluency! Finding Flow in Early Reading

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.

‘Temenos’ and safety in school

We often hear about the dangers of cyberspace, where cyber-bullying is rife and children are vulnerable. Now imagine for a moment the relief of reaching the ultimate refuge. Temenos is a Greek concept that describes a sanctuary, a space of absolute safety and harmonious balance, where individuals uphold an immutable self-respect and where criticism and judgment are suspended.

Ears, Eyes, Voices and Early Reading

The development of early reading depends on the efficient coordination between the ear and the eye. Strong associations between letters and their sounds help children to learn to recognise words on the page. Voices matter too. Educators have realised that poor oral language skills are a strong predictor of poor literacy (Stackhouse & Well, 1997) and that socially disadvantaged children are more likely to lag behind in their vocabulary development when compared with more affluent peers (Fernauld et al, 2013) and require a reading intervention. Indeed, research indicates that sharpening rhythmic awareness supports children’s ability to process information (Long, 2016), better perceive the sounds of language, to read more fluently and with more understanding (Long, 2014).


Dickenson et al., (2010) Speaking out for language: why language is central to reading development.Educational Researcher, 39, 305-310

Duckworth et al., (2007) Grit, perseverance and passion for long-term goals, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92 (6), 1087-1101

Lundy et al., (2010) Cognitive functioning and academic performance in elementary school children with anxious / depressed and withdrawn symptoms, open Paediatric Medicine Journal, 14, 1-9

Melby-Lervåg, M. and Lervåg, A. (2014) Reading comprehension and its underlying components in second-language learners: A meta-analysis of studies comparing first and second-language learners, psychological Bulletin, 140 (2), 409-433

Naguib et al., (2009) Neuro-cognitive performance in children with type-I diabetes: A meta analysis, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 34, 271-282.

Siegel et al., (2011) exploring the effects of bilingualism on children’s conversational understanding and moral sense. In M. Siegal and L. Syrian (Eds) Access to language and cognitive development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, M. (1982) Reading and spelling errors in dyslexic children: delayed or deviant?

Thompson, M. (1990) Developmental Dyslexia, third edition, Cole & Whurr Ltd: London

Yasik et al., (2007) Posttraumatix stress disorder: Memory and learning performance in children and adolescents, Biological Psychiatry, 61, 382-388

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