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The Rhythm for Reading blog

Fluency and feeling in reading

22 March 2024

Image credit: CDC via Unsplash
Image credit: CDC via Unsplash

Fluency refers to the flowing qualities in the reading. And these flowing qualities are mercurial in the sense that it is difficult to measure and define them. In the Rhythm for Reading Programme, we use the metaphor of traffic flow to help us to monitor the development of fluency from week to week.

Traffic that is barely flowing stops and starts frequently, but there is still a general sense of moving forward on the journey to the destination. This feeling would apply to word-by-word reading.

Traffic that moves forward for a short period and then stops briefly has a sense of moving in undulating waves that lack real momentum, but despite this, there is a clear sense of moving forward. This feeling is fluent in short bursts, but not sustained enough to convey the shape of a phrase or a sentence.

The traffic that moves forward and then slows suddenly, but keeps moving has an undulating quality. This sense of movement is not yet strong, though it conveys some underlying momentum. This type of fluency communicates the shape and meaning of a phrase, but is not yet self-sustaining.

When traffic is flowing, it maintains a steady pace for the most part. This represents the fluency in reading that is self-sustaining and enjoyable. On occasion, there may be an unfamiliar word which needs a second look, but in the main, it flows well.

It is also possible to imagine the type of driving that is very fast and reckless. How might this sit within our traffic metaphor? Well reckless driving could be erratic, involve cutting corners and even jumping red lights. The same thing happens in reading that is fast but not fluent. Syllables, words and phrases are skipped over and punctuation is often ignored. The reasons for this can be seen in both reading and driving: there is a need to reach the destination, but this is achieved in an unstable, rather than a balanced way.

Balance in reading fluency

If balance is required, then we need to think about poise, stillness and patience. Recent posts have referred to the importance of conversation and social interaction in the early years before a child starts school. This same principle applies to reading fluency. The rhythm of a conversation involves an ebb and flow of turn-taking. This isn’t only about consideration and courtesy on both sides, it’s also about the child’s experience of balance as an integral part of social connection.

Social connection might be stressful, fun or even soothing. Each type of social connection generates its own rhythmic signature and has its own feelings.

  • Stressful conversations are likely to involve abrupt short phrases and there might be too little or no patience on both sides, generating frustration and imbalance.
  • Fun conversations are likely to involve ‘banter’ - everyone is playing along. The pace of the conversation is swift and the mood is buoyant. There is a heightened sense of timing. Explosive laughter punctuates the jokes, the quick-fire responses, the mystery and the punchlines. Phrases are sometimes long and sometimes short. The sheer variety is key to playfulness, with some unpredictability in the mix and all of this complexity is likely to elicit laughs, smiles and good cheer.
  • Soothing conversations are not meant to be entertaining. Rather, they offer reassurance and support, and there’s a timeless quality to these. The ebb and flow of phrases might drift in and out of focus, but momentum does not seem to matter at all. Sharing in the moment feels more important than what is said. In fact the words might be repetitive and uninteresting: tone of voice is key.

Different types of social connection and different types of driving are similar in one way. They require us to anticipate what is about to happen. The exception to this would be reckless driving, which is more erratic and therefore takes more effort to predict. Most of the time, however, it is possible to attune to the flowing qualities of traffic and conversations, and to make accurate judgments in terms of when and how to respond.

When children learn to read, they become fluent if they are attuned to the flowing qualities of the text. A text that encourages very short phrases and sentences will not support a child to read fluently, but one with longer sentences and a credible narrative will. This is because reading fluently requires immersion and a deeper level of connection with the text.

Anticipation in fluency, feeling and flow

To develop fluent reading, children are like drivers who can adapt to the flow of the traffic. It’s necessary to accommodate changes in the shapes and lengths of phrases. A good writer will vary these to maintain the reader’s attention. It is also important to anticipate what lies ahead. Failure to anticipate leads to loss of control for drivers and readers alike. What does anticipate mean? It is a very broad term, which involves projecting a number of possible outcomes at any one time.

For example, there might be a possibility that a lightweight lorry will overtake a heavier one. A driver anticipating this will already have prepared to move into a new road position: failure to do so would lead to braking and slowing down. In comparison, a fluent reader, aware that two characters are plotting against the protagonist might be looking out for small signs that something is about to happen. This sense of anticipation sharpens the involvement in the text, fluency intensifies and reading becomes more pleasurable and rewarding with rising levels of curiosity.

We can see from these examples that a sense of anticipation is fundamental to fluency. An involvement in the text sparks a degree of engagement and a guessing game begins. The text may be factual or fictitious, but once ignited, the reader needs to satisfy their appetite for information. And yet, if anticipation and igniting interest were all that was required to achieve reading fluency, there would be no need to write this post. After all, children are surrounded by adults who are helping them to become more involved and to think about what might happen next.

The missing piece of the puzzle

Like driving, reading fluency is in part, about safety. How safe is this child feeling in this situation? Are they willing to let their guard down? Are they ready to surrender to the power of the text or do they need to maintain their sense of control of their learning situation? Remember that fluent readers are able to ‘get lost in a book’. When children consider themselves to be vulnerable to educational failure because they are being judged as weak, fragile or struggling readers, they are unlikely to relax sufficiently to trust the process of learning and interacting, and are at greater risk of falling behind.

On the positive side, neuroscience has shown that when humans listen to someone speak, they are able to understand them (even as they talk at a pace of 250 words per minute) because they anticipate what they are likely to say. The details of the conversation are the ‘unknowns’, but the subject matter and all the related experiences of that topic are used to anticipate what is coming up in the conversation.

Selecting a topic of conversation opens up a ‘reference library’ of past experiences. If the conversation turned to attending a recent wedding, relevant information might include anecdotes about wedding cakes, family dynamics, embarrassing speeches and beautiful dresses. It would be possible to toggle between these for variety. In this way, the conversation is anticipated and enjoyed with ease.

Given that anticipation is an important part of our ability to predict and understand what is likely to happen next in different types of social interaction, we don’t need to teach this to children, but we do need to help children attune to an aspect of this process. This is known as ‘mentalising’ (or theory of mind) when they read. In other words, to be willing to figure out what others, such as characters or even the writer are thinking.

To return to the analogy with traffic as an example of mentalising, if a driver anticipates what another driver may do, they have also processed this in relation to the broader context. They are likely to avoid a collision and therefore feel safer when driving. If a driver fails to anticipate, they are unlikely to have fully processed the context of the situation. They may misinterpret the other driver’s signals, with a greater risk of an accident. This shows that anticipation and theory of mind are ‘life skills’ as much in reading the road, as in reading a book.

“The most effective teaching of reading is that which gives the pupil the various skills he or she needs to make the fullest possible use of context cues in search for meaning (The Bullock Committee, 1975, Recommendation 73)

It is not difficult to appreciate that making the fullest use of contextual cues involve a certain amount of integration. The information can only make sense if there are logical relationships between the different levels of information.

So, in terms of driving, knowing about the driving conditions would allow the driver to anticipate the flow of the traffic, such as whether

  • visibility is poor or good,
  • the road slopes uphill or downhill,
  • the surface of the road is dry or wet.

Conditions that change affect the speed of heavy vehicles such as lorries also affect the action a car driver takes to avoid slowing down or risking a collision. Thinking well ahead would allow time to process all the information, while at the same time, maintaining control of the car.

In reading, a change in a character’s behaviour might only make sense to a reader if the context has been fully understood. Anticipation of different possible outcomes would help them to adjust to the twists and turns of the storyline. Just as a speaker can anticipate topics and subtopics in a conversation, a reader co-opts this same behaviour when engaging with a text. The more at ease the reader is with that topic, the more integrated the context feels and making it easier to anticipate what is about to happen.

Fostering fluency and feeling

Humans have adapted to their environment, partly by harnessing the power of communication and by acquiring the perfect balance between curiosity and inhibition. Too little inhibition and we become reckless, putting ourselves and others at risk. Too much inhibition and we are unlikely to engage meaningfully with the social world at all. The point in between is where the ease and joy of learning and reading fluency exist.

According to educators, Purvis and Greenwood (1996), a ‘process approach’ can help children in the early years find safety in learning and to move beyond the boundaries of the immature, egocentric self.

The process approach involves assuming the role of a detective and practising eight different skills:

  • Describing,
  • Investigating,
  • Communicating,
  • Sequencing,
  • Explaining,
  • Observing,
  • Questioning
  • Hypothesising.

To put this into practice, they suggest that children sit in a circle and take turns to handle an unfamiliar object - such as a toy from the past, offering their impressions and ideas about this object. This approach promotes positive attitudes towards learning such as:

  • Motivation,
  • Curiosity,
  • Interest in people,
  • Concern for the environment,
  • Tolerance,
  • Self-esteem.

This approach is directly related to reading fluency because it supports vocabulary development, but more importantly, it models for the children the idea that exploration of an unfamiliar object or an irrelevant context may feel uncomfortable, but is perfectly safe.

Achieving a sense of safety when encountering unfamiliar objects in the classroom will help all the children to feel more in alignment with others. This improvement in social cohesion will help them find greater ease and fluency when reading and learning. Of course, the unfamiliar object would need to be so unusual that none of the children in the classroom would recognise it.

To a large extent, socially disadvantaged children are expected to take part in activities that feel alien to them, whereas these same activities are safe and familiar to more advantaged children in that classroom. It is likely that these early experiences of school life are reciprocated by the children’s learning behaviour and attitudes towards learning. Those who feel safe will learn, while children who feel unsafe will put up barriers to learning. If the dynamics of inequality were not reinforced by subtle cues in the classroom in day-to-day activities, disadvantaged children would feel safer and that they had a fairer chance at school.

In the Rhythm for Reading Programme, safety in learning lies at the heart of our ethos. Everyone learns to read a musical notation system that they are unfamiliar with, as we use the bass clef, which is largely new to everybody. The rhythm-based actions that we use are also novel as they are unique to the programme. This sense of fairness - genuine team working in which everyone feels equal - is an important element of the programme. Working as part of a team therefore, and in the context of equality, each child succeeds in reading simple musical notation fluently. Once this is established in a matter of five minutes, the programme builds on fluency and feelings of safety by cultivating ease, engagement and empowerment in the children’s reading skills.

To find out more about the Rhythm for Reading Programme, click here.

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If you enjoyed this post, I’ve picked out a few more!

Fluency: Finding flow in early reading

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.

Rhythm, flow, reading fluency and comprehension

There’s evidence to show that feelings of cooperation and safety are experienced when humans sing and dance together and many people report being able to sustain hours of music making, when in a group. Other species such as birds and fish also deter predators by forming a large mass of synchronised movement patterns. Murmurations form before birds roost for the night and shoals of herrings achieve the same mesmeric effect when they are pursued by predators such as sea bass.

Fluency is not just our goal, it’s our foundation

I believe that together, as educators on a mission to make a difference, we can raise standards in reading. The Rhythm for Reading programme offers a mechanism to achieve this. The programme provides a cumulative and structured approach that supports inclusive teaching and learning.

For instance, in the programme, there is absolutely no need to break down tasks. We strive to lighten the cognitive load on working memory and a light cognitive load is an inbuilt feature of the programme. This is why pupils experience the satisfaction of reading musical notation fluently in the very first week of the programme.

Considering reading fluency

Earlier this year, we started to measure our impact in a slightly different way. 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.


Purvis, S. and Greenwood, J. (1996) ‘Mrs Rainbow told us what things were like when she went to school.’ History in the early years. In:D. Whitebread and P. Coltman, Teaching and Learning in the Early Years, London and New York, Routledge.

The Bullock Committee (1975) A Language for Life. (The Bullock Report). London. Department of Education and Science.

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Has the teaching of synthetic phonics addressed ‘Matthew effects’?

15 March 2024

Image credit: Marisa Howenstine
Image credit: Marisa Howenstine

‘Matthew effects’

Given everything that educational researchers have uncovered about reading and the attainment gap between socially advantaged and disadvantaged children, it is dismal that the ‘gap’ has widened, even though the teaching of reading has been delivered in a specific way, across the nation for the past fourteen years.

Historically, there was a concern that an emphasis on independence in the early years classroom (e.g. Whitebread et al., 1996); and a ‘loose framing’ of learning worked rather well for children from middle class backgrounds, but less well for disadvantaged children. Going back a little further, to Hart and Risley’s (1995) research on the ‘vocabulary gap’ we can see that fundamental inequalities in educational outcomes pointed to differences in exposure to language itself in the child’s home environment.

The link between the attainment gap in reading and Matthew effects (Stanovitch, 1986) in which the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, has been shown to play out not only throughout a child’s school career, but also in adult life as well. For decades, researchers from different nations have used ‘Matthew effects’ to explain the achievement gap in reading and eventually identified ‘school readiness’ as key (Duncan et al., 2007).

A more structured, tightly-framed and traditional form of pedagogy was proposed, but the allocation limited educational resources is always a matter of debate. Intergenerational cycles may influence these decisions, such as persisting patterns of aversion toward school. Within schools, some families have complex needs, such fundamental push and pull factors influence opinion on whether it is even feasible to reverse ‘Matthew effects’.

High standards for all children

Viewing education through the lens of equality - every child should be offered the ‘same chance’ at learning. An equitable viewpoint would offer a more nuanced approach - every child should be given the opportunity to learn in the way that is most appropriate to them. Offering every child the ‘same chance’ is too blunt a tool, whereas the equitable approach is too individualised. The nature of learning is related to the nature of everything because the set point and state of a child’s nervous system is set by their environment, and it is this that has a direct impact on a child’s capacity to learn. By improving the early environment of the child, therefore, there was a good chance that ‘Matthew effects’ could be addressed.

Policies that have improved the early environment for disadvantaged children have provided security and safety, and enabled parents to move out of a fear-based state of pure survival. Initiatives such as ‘Sure Start’ supported the early life experiences of children through a range of services that were tailored to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged families. Single parent families in particular needed support not only to budget carefully, to make healthier choices for their children’s nutrition, but also to cope with depleted reserves of energy and low levels of emotional well-being. Since austerity measures were put in place, however, many ‘Sure start’ centres lost considerable amounts of funding or were closed. In addition to losing those resources, disadvantaged families were forced to choose between heating and eating. For families who chose to eat, the growth of black mould has impacted their children’s respiratory health, whereas families who chose to heat their homes have had hungry children and have relied on free school meals and food banks.

The Rose Report

If addressing the basic needs of disadvantaged families through the ‘Sure Start’ scheme was a first step in reversing ‘Matthew effects’, the second step was a recommendation by the House of Commons Education Select Committee, that the government commissioned an enquiry into the teaching of reading. It was led by Sir Jim Rose, former Director of Inspection for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. The report recommended that the ‘Simple View of Reading’, wherein reading was the product of ‘word recognition’ and ‘language comprehension’, as proposed by Gough and Tumner (1986), would serve as a model for reading development. An approach known as synthetic phonics became statutory, amid reservations from many influential educationalists, but this was deemed the most appropriate solution to the issue of the decade: the ‘long tail of educational underachievement’.

Gough and Tumner’s theoretical model, like most strong theories is remarkably simplistic and thus, robust. The ‘Simple View of Reading’ was proposed some ten years before the so-called ‘vocabulary gap’ had been identified by Hart and Risley (1995). Viewed through the lens of the ‘vocabulary gap’ it is not difficult to appreciate that socially advantaged children were more likely to find the vocabulary in books to be relevant and relatable. They were also more likely to have longer attention spans, constructed through years of experience ‘conversational turns’ in day-to-day life, and would be expected to sustain their attention from the beginning to the end of a story.

Perhaps most important of all, advantaged children were more likely to have had stories read to them in a nurturing environment and therefore would readily associate reading within an atmosphere of comfort and security. I would imagine that this feeling would predispose them to approach learning with ease and confidence.

Do schools widen the attainment gap?

Arguably then, children from advantaged backgrounds would experience school as an extension of home, as evidenced in Whitebread and colleagues’ chapter, “Our classroom is like a cosy little house,” (Whitebread et al., 1996) and that access to books and enrichment would be a strong part of the continuity between the two. Contrastingly, some children from disadvantaged backgrounds start school with only 30-40 words in their vocabulary according to an Ofsted Report, (2014). And according to child development experts, children would be expected to have fifty words in their vocabulary by their second birthday (Wise and Bradford, 1996).

If a child from a disadvantaged background was already struggling with a fragmented attention span and a style of language comprehension that had been forged in a stressful environment, then listening to stories, would prove challenging, (particularly if the child was also hungry). Imagine also, that this socially disadvantaged child must then cope with learning words that are deliberately nonsensical, such as ‘vol’, ‘teg’, ‘jat’ and ‘ind’ (Standards an testing Agency, 2014). This type of teaching has always been controversial, but in the context of social disadvantage it is arguably unethical and presents struggling children with an unnecessary educational hurdle, adding insult to injury to a child with an already strained nervous system.

Verifying ‘Matthew effects’

Educational policy alienates all children, through the Year 1 Phonics Check, which tests children’s knowledge of phonemic-graphemic correspondence by including pseudo-words. Perhaps this amounts to nothing more than a playful ‘curved ball’ for some children, but by Year 1, teachers have already identified those at risk of failing the phonics check and have informed their parents to this effect.

Thus, ‘Matthew effects’ are verified, even at this early stage. One of the functions of baseline testing is to place the children on trajectories of predicted progression, and to hold schools accountable to realising those outcomes. An idealised view of an education system would include the aspiration that it mitigates social disadvantage. The current system however, does not appear to aspire in this way. Typically, it is the children in need of the most support who spend the most time out of the classroom, working with the least qualified members of the teaching team. The most qualified members of the team meanwhile stay in the classrooms, working with socially advantaged children.

The pandemic has widened the attainment gap. Children are still suffering and CAHMS is overstretched, with long waiting lists, with high levels of risk of self-harm placing children and adolescents in urgent need of professional help. At the same time, the culture of scrutiny, and accountability in schools has intensified, and now more than ever, there is an urgent need for balance in education.

Children are more likely to recover their equilibrium and confidence following the pandemic with regular access to opportunities to develop their self-expression. The mode of self-expression would of course vary from child to child and might include sport, martial arts, storytelling, pottery, art, music or dance. As a nation with a strong creative sector, we have ample resources to support children in this way. Time spent in nature, nurturing friendships, and in recreational play is also necessary for well-being, and will help children to gain a sense of safety in the wider context of social life.


Together, children with their capacity for play and self-expression can help each other to feel a renewed sense of safety and belonging through friendship, creativity and self-expression. Most importantly, when children feel safe, they begin to focus their attention. This enables generalised states of vigilance and anxiety to stabilise and move towards a more balanced state. When children realise that they are able to learn, their desire to learn grows.

The sense of relief that follows, relaxes their muscles around the shoulders, the voice and the neck. They perceive phonemes more clearly and begin to enjoy their learning journey. A structured, small group teaching environment is highly effective in this context and resets a child’s feeling of ease in their social environment. The Rhythm for Reading Programme has a strong track record in helping children to feel happy at school (in mainstream and special schools alike) as well as improving their early reading skills and phonological processing.

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If you enjoyed this post, keep reading!

Conversations and language development in early childhood

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.

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

Although the richness of vocabulary was hugely advantageous for children from better-off homes in the Hart and Risley study, researchers have discovered that the opportunities for conversational turns between parents and their children, for example when sharing a book, were even more beneficial than vocabulary development. Conversations have also been identified as a marker for maternal responsiveness, positive emotional exchange and social engagement (Paul & Gilkerson, 2017).

It’s anti-bullying week: How does fear affect learning?

Recently, I read that an act of aggression is a natural ‘active coping strategy’ and is rewarded by a dopamine hit. Conversely, a submissive, ’passive coping strategy’ results in stress-induced withdrawal and even generates a ‘shutdown’, an immediate energy-conserving behavioural response. The setting for these social experiments was a laboratory. The brains of mice and rats were dissected following each behavioural task. Slices of tissue were examined to determine the levels of reward and stress induced by each type of ‘social situation’ manipulated by the researchers.

How does this relate to anti-bullying week? Well, in terms of brain structure, neurochemistry and behavioural responses, mice and rats are considered to bear a close enough resemblance to humans to deem such work ethical, justifiable and relevant.

Child development in 2024: Learning versus hunger

In recent weeks, there has been coverage on the rapid rise of ‘baby banks’ (Chloë Hamilton, The Guardian Newspaper). These are like food banks, but specialise in providing free nappies, baby formula, clothes and equipment. We have 200 branches in the UK and just as the Christmas holidays were about to start, there was also a piece about headteachers reporting malnourishment among their pupils (Jessica Murray, The Guardian Newspaper).

Having delivered the Rhythm for Reading programme in schools that also function as community food banks, and having seen children faint from hunger while at school, I am in no doubt that nothing can be more important to a civilised and caring society than children’s physical well-being - hungry children cannot learn anything at all.


Duncan et al. (2007) School readiness and later achievement, Developmental Psychology, 43 (6), 1428-1446.

Gough, P. and Tumner, W. (1986) Decoding, Reading and Reading Disability, Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6 -10

Hart, B. and Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American Children, Baltimore, M.D., Brookes.

Office for Standards in Education (2014) Are you Ready? Good Practice in School Readiness, London

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (The Rose Report). London Department for Education and Skills.

Standards and Testing Agency (2014) Phonics Screening Check: Children’s Materials. London: Standards and Testing Agency

Stanovich, K. (1986) Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy, Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407.

Whitebread, D. Et al., (1996) “Our classroom is like a little cosy house!” Organising the early years classroom to encourage independent learning, In D. Whitebread and P. Coltman, ‘Teaching and Learning in the Early Years, London and New York: Routledge.

Wise, D. and Bradford, H. (1996). “You’re supposed to tell me your name now!” Speaking and listening in the early years. In D. Whitebread and P. Coltman, ‘Teaching and Learning in the Early Years, London and New York: Routledge.

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Sharing Stories: Reflections on World Book Day

8 March 2024

Image credit: Steve Libralon via Unsplash
Image credit: Steve Libralon via Unsplash

Our love of stories, whether fiction or non-fiction creates an appetite for more information. Stories are irresistible to us because they reward our curiosity about others’ experiences. They inspire us and invite us to consider the unimaginable possibilities that exist outside our familiar day-to-day lives.

According to psychologists we are hard-wired to enjoy stories. This is for reasons that are inextricably linked to our survival. Our instincts interpret day-to-day events as stories and the majority of these never reach our conscious awareness; but on the other hand, the most salient moments stand out because they were unusual in some way: it is that that made them memorable.

Narrative and the nervous system

About twenty years ago, I remember riding on a small, rickety electric train. Like most trains, it had seats, mini carriages and wheels, but no sides and no roof. It jolted as it carried us on a miniature railway deep underground. The air became colder and everyone was chattering quietly as we rumbled deep down into the limestone rocks. We were on our way to see prehistoric cave art. In the distance a low murmuring caught my attention. I hoped it might be an underground flow of water, but suddenly our train stopped and the low vibration became louder as it approached us. I had no idea what to expect. The noise was deafening and the lights went out. We sat not only in silence, but in dread.

This is a true story based on the uncertainty that we, the tourists, all experienced in an unfamiliar place, cut off from the outside world and in fear of impending doom! As it turned out the trains always passed each other in this way and the matter of altering the points on the tracks was done manually. Once the lights came back on, and having experienced an immense surge of relief, I think we enjoyed the cave art even more.

Perhaps the drama of the half hour ride into the hillside put us all in touch with the deepest feelings of terror that the nervous system is primed to deliver. There was nowhere to hide during that unusual experience and we all felt vulnerable for about ten minutes. Perhaps it was by design that we experienced what the early artists may have felt when they made the cave art at ‘Grotte de Chauvet’, so far away from the familiarity of mundane life on the surface.

And as today is International Women’s Day, I’d like to acknowledge that the cave art at Chauvet, was most likely made by women. It was executed in red and depicted the female form in relation to sacred animals, as well as handprints of red ochre (Fagan, 2005).

Reflecting on the life ways of ‘Cro Magnon’ man at the end of the Ice Age, Brian Fagan acknowledged the importance of music and stories when he described the challenges of living within the natural world. There were long hard winters and an unpredictable supply of food; but the rhythm of the seasons remained unchanged:

‘People thought of themselves as part of a living world, where animals, plants, and even landmarks and inanimate objects had lives of their own. The environment lived and surrounded one, defined by intangible forces and personalities, whether human or not. To live in such a way required a powerful imagination, the ability to conceptualise, to chant, to make music, and to tell tales that validated human existence and explained the natural order of things.’ (Fagan, 2005, p.142)

However, only a few thousand years later human societies experienced a technological revolution. They harnessed the cyclic seasonal rhythms of nature and through the advent of farming, created a more predictable supply of food. In the transitions from hunter gatherers to farmers, and then into city dwelling civilisations, the functions of storytelling also changed to reflect the new challenges that humans faced. Living in closer proximity, humans experienced profound changes in terms of sanitation and disease.

In his ‘Selfish Gene Theory’, Dawkins (1976) proposed that humans were susceptible to stories, particularly those that involved supernatural powers, (not because our sensibilities were finely attuned to the natural environment throughout our evolution), but because they were gullible and self-delusional. In a similar vein, Humphrey’s ‘Machiavellian Theory’ (1976) acknowledged that as humans became more socially sophisticated, they were better able to deceive and outwit each other. This would involve inferring and anticipating the thoughts of another and also an ability to envision imaginary scenarios. The creation of fiction and story-telling may well have become more important for navigating social structures in the new villages and first cities - anticipating an unpredictable supply of food was no longer society’s primary concern.

Before the first books were written

Before the first books were written, people would share the most iconic stories in verse form or as ballads. The couplets of verse and the regular structures of songs helped with learning and recalling all the details, and this was important for maintaining the integrity and credibility of the narrative with each retelling. The most important information, such as the early laws in Ancient Greece for example, were recited in verse for this reason.

According to Thucydides, the citizens of Ancient Greece were schooled in a rich oral culture through the recitation. These were later written down by Homer as the famous Iliad and Odyssey, which detailed the epic feats of supernatural figures: Greek gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines. The driving metre and melodious quality of the poetry, in particular the rhythmic and repetitive lines, helped the young citizens to commit large amounts of material to memory (Wolf, 2007, p.57). Arguably, the Ancient Greeks had learned to hone and develop executive cognitive functions through these techniques as the benefits of committing large amounts of material to memory included achieving mental focus and control of distraction. Hierarchical structures in the form of the poetry would have supported logical and philosophical thinking as well as provided the ability to ‘step back’ and see the ‘big picture’.

As a side note, today’s professional musicians, dancers and actors in the creative sector’s performing arts are trained through the traditional discipline of each art form to commit large volumes of information to memory for public performances. These are now celebrated and ‘consumed’ via live streaming, broadcasts and recordings, and enjoyed by audiences all around the world.

Prehistory ended when the first story was written down

According to art historian, Zainab Bahrani, the first stories ever recorded were ‘ancient myths of origins’, which dated back to Mesopotamia of the historical era, when higher levels of art and architecture began to emerge. The Mesopotamians credited a god known as ‘Enki’ (Sumarian) and also known as Ea (Akkadian) and this deity was associated with the creative origin of the world.

Similarly, there was a Babylonian myth that described a place called ‘Eridu’. This was thought to be the first place to be created by the gods and ‘Eridu’ was sacred to ‘Enki’, the god of water, wisdom and craftmanship’ ((Bahrani, 2017, p. 42).

‘The city of ‘Eridu’ is recounted here, and even in this early story, translated into English (Bahrani, 2017, p. 36), it is clear that the narrative is presented in a rhythmically coherent way and with a clear structure:

“A holy house, a house of the gods in a holy

place had not been made, reed had not come

forth, a tree had not been created,

A brick had not been laid, a brick mould

had not been built,

A city had not been made, a living creature

had not been placed (within)

All the lands were sea,

The spring in the sea was a water pipe.

The Eridu was made.”

The city of Eridu was discovered in the twentieth century and this work revealed that people had first lived there some seven thousand years ago, and had created no less than eighteen excavated levels of occupation. By studying these levels, academics have been able to map the story of cultural development of this society over many generations, from hunter gatherers, to farmers, to citizens dwelling in complex cities. The stories of this civilisation were first written down in the fourth millennium B.C.E..

The invention of writing was a cultural advance that took place alongside the development of high art and architecture, refined craftsmanship and image making. The creative endeavours of the extraordinary Sumarians involved complex aesthetic structures, ordered and planned spaces and were known collectively as ‘ME’. This word is usually, according to Bahrani, translated as ‘the arts of civilisation’ (Bahrani, 2017, 46). The oldest written texts, which were found in Uruk in Iraq, recorded administrative matters, such as the trade of local produce including cattle and crops. Evidence also existed of other forms of writing in the third millennium B.C.E., and included poetry, sciences and mathematics (Bahrani, 2017).

Why do humans find stories so irresistible?

Prominent thinkers have attempted to answer this question. The classical view was that humans are cooperative and wanted to trade rather than wage war with each other. We only share personal stories when we feel safe and people feel privileged when someone confides in them and builds trust in this way. For this reason, stories may have been an effective means to attain non-kinship ties. These were hard won and even today, families and nations work hard to sustain these links through successive generations. The diplomacy of such bonds requires maintaining trust through high levels of respect and courtesy, verbal and non-verbal social interaction, as well as the sharing of food together. Each level of social bonding would have required a delicate balancing of different perspectives, achieved in such a way that they could not destabilise the all-important trade network.

Perhaps metaphors became important as key negotiating tools of the early traders, when first brokering these networks. The social value of a metaphor for example, could lie in its value as a symbol for relaying sensitive information. Sharing a symbolic reference ( a pair of doves as a gift, representing peace) would build mutual understanding and protect the traders from causing unintended offence. Travelling long distances, they most likely spent considerable time exchanging hospitality with trading partners, and stories would have helped to pass the time, whilst also building bonds of trust.

Most importantly, a story carrying a metaphor could potentially cloak a direct message through its simple arc of beginning, middle and end, and also carry a deeper meaning. The value of sharing a story would have allowed people from different backgrounds to understand one another’s situation from a higher perspective or from a ‘neutral’ point of view.

Anthropologists believe it was possible to build strong networks of social cooperation on a rich understanding of symbolic culture, and this may explain the importance of stories in our evolution in increasingly complex societies. (Dunbar et al., 1999).


Despite the importance of storytelling for the smaller social groups and the development of large trading networks, its power continuous to mesmerise children and adults alike, whether through films, radio or books. In celebrating World Book Day, many children have created costumes to reflect the characters in their favourite books. This gesture perhaps reminds us all of the importance of stories in our cultural history and prehistory, when humans understood their lives within the narrative of a broader, more cosmic and supernatural context. Although children are not expected to recite poetry as their great grandparents did, it is interesting to see thats superheroes and magical characters are still relevant today. Even more remarkable, the heroes and heroines of today’s literature still embark upon epic journeys of self-discovery, just as they had done thousands of years ago in Homer’s poetry.

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Confidence and happiness in the Rhythm for Reading programme

Optimal experiences are life-affirming, intrinsically rewarding and in terms of pedagogy, they are highly desirable because they boost students’ confidence and motivation. They can be very helpful in realigning attitudes towards reward, so that students become motivated by the sheer joy of taking part rather than wanting to know what they will ‘get’ in return for taking part.

Statistically significant impact after only 100 minutes

As the approach is rhythm-based instead of word-based, pupils with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or English as an Additional Language (EAL) benefit hugely from the opportunity to improve their reading without using words. It’s an opportunity to lighten the cognitive load, but to intensify precision and finesse.

What are metaphors for?

We all share a common heritage that stems from traditional pre-literate societies in which metaphors have been extraordinarily important tools of diplomacy and ingenuity. Using the richness of imagery, they allowed delicate messages to be conveyed indirectly, thereby fortifying relationships between different groups of people.

Visiting the library for the very first time

This child’s bold plan moved and inspired me to visit the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre to put together a list of books for children who have discovered the joy of reading and are preparing to visit their nearest library for the first time. The Norfolk Children’s Book Centre houses some 80,000 children’s books. As dolphins, dinosaurs and gladiators feature prominently in our resources and are extremely popular with the children, they provided an obvious starting point for our search for these particular books.


Z. Bahrain (2017) Mesopotamia: Ancient art and architecture, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London.

R. Dawkins, (1976) The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University press

R. Dunbar, C. Knight abd C. Power (1999) The Evolution of Culture, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

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

J.R. Humphrey (1976)’The social function of intellect, In Bateson P.P.G. and Hinds R.A.. (Eds.) Growing Pains. Ethology Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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

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