I usually post at the beginning of the month and I had written a reflection on the year, but I held back because I needed to find something positive that I could say to round the year off. 2020 was the only year in which I have ever owned a desktop year planner. I can recommend a year planner, especially this one, which was called ‘Perfectly Planned 2020’. All I can say about this is that after March, the plans in the planner stayed in the planner.
Since March 2020, ‘Follow the science’ has become a wriggly little ear worm, as it has persisted over so many months. In the past few days, we were given a glimpse of what these scientists follow. They follow the 14 day mutation cycle of the virus - it’s rhythm. When all’s said and done, the guiding principles of rhythm, maths and geometry appear to govern the way that the natural world appears to us, whether that’s through our senses or through our instruments. None of this is new. Rhythmic cycles have fascinated people for thousands of years. The planets have been studied by astronomers of all ancient civilisations. The conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, a spectacle that is said to occur almost every 400 years near to Earth is happening as I write this. It seems extraordinary that an astronomical event of such cyclical magnitude has coincided with a year that was so dark for so many. It’s as if we are being reminded that we too are part of this infinite web of cycles and conjunctions.
Our own solar year is so familiar to us that the festivals which coincide with solstices and lunar cycles are experienced primarily through culture as times of nostalgia, family and community. To gather together as light reemerges following the darkest point in the year is comforting and instinctive, as our body chemistry tells us to seek the company of others at such times. No matter how advanced we think we have become, we remain exquisitely attuned to our natural rhythms. Not only are we creatures of habit in the social and emotional sense, but even at a cellular level, our biorhythms are governed every single day by the light receptors in our brains. We even have clocks in our internal organs which need to work harmoniously so that each part of the body has its allotted time for activity and rest. We tend to take our biorhythms for granted and discover that when we lose this balance, we also lose optimal health and well-being.Right now, this is a time for peace, rest and appreciation as we welcome the return of the light and the triumph over darkness. May our hearts be lit with hope for a future of health and happiness.
A strong correlation exists between reading fluency and comprehension - one that has fascinated researchers for many decades (Long, 2014). In our current climate, children who read fluently are more likely to cope well with blended learning, self-isolation and other restrictions of the global pandemic on schools.
How can we move more children into the fluent reader category?
Proficient readers automatically use the most appropriate strategy on the fly, whereas fragile readers are more likely to depend on a single strategy and to transition less efficiently from one strategy to another. A fluent reader however, is able to decode an unfamiliar word using phonological skills, as well as orchestrating contextual and syntactic cues to decode whole phrases.
So, there are many processes that are coordinated during fluent reading. Reading comprehension is a cornerstone of these. However, comprehension is not a ‘layer’ of reading that magically ‘appears’ because it has been mechanically underpinned by good levels of decoding and fluency. Comprehension is a product of rhythmic awareness - an important element of language acquisition in infancy.
Though well-intentioned, the practise of timing children’s reading with a stopwatch, encouraging them to read more quickly week after week is not helpful for cultivating rhythmic awareness. Using a stopwatch may generate a degree of motivation to read, but a focus on acceleration forces the child to read without finding their natural rhythm. In fact, if children have learned to decode at a fast pace, they have been trained to enunciate the words without understanding them at all. Comprehension is not related to the pace of reading.
Comprehension and word recognition are coordinated by rhythmic processes during fluent reading that are similar to the natural unfolding of rhythm during speaking and listening. A rhythm-based approach fosters rhythmic awareness and supports fluent reading.
Long, M. (2014). ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading. Research Studies in Music Education, 36(1), 107-124.
When I watched the announcements about lockdown on March 23rd 2020 from a hard metal seat in Glasgow International Airport, I’d already made ten trips to Scotland and it felt so frustrating that the project would be interrupted when we were so close to its completion. Throughout the lockdown and the summer months, I hoped very much that we would have a chance to salvage and finish off the work. In the past two weeks it has been an absolute privilege to return to the schools with ‘refresher sessions’ and follow-up testing. So much has changed. The teachers vigorously spray, clean and ventilate the classrooms. Everyone is vigilant and determined to keep their community safe. It is obvious that this goal is shared and held dear by all. Even young children immediately take all their books and pencils with them when they sit on the floor while their tables and chairs are disinfected. Absolutely nobody needs to be reminded to do this.
In one of the schools, particular spaces are filled with food and clothing. The leadership team came into the school every single day of the lockdown, as well as throughout the summer months to keep everyone on track; teachers worked face-to-face with the children throughout this period. Stunning new displays made by the parents now explode out from the staffroom walls and thank you cards are pinned to the noticeboard of a beautiful new community room.
Rhythm for Reading has been modified to keep everyone safe. I visit only one school in a single day and wear a mask. The children remain in their ‘bubbles’ when they take part, and stand at least two metres away from me. In between each session, I ventilate and vigorously disinfect the teaching area. Of course, there is plenty of time for cleaning as each Rhythm for Reading session is, as always, only ten minutes in duration. Actually, this level of flexibility fits in very well with the dynamic teaching that I’m seeing in the schools - and the children are loving that they are being taught in small groups and in an increasingly nuanced way.
Robust, energetic chanting has always been an important part of the Rhythm for Reading programme, but chanting, like singing is strictly prohibited. For quite some time I have been resigned to mothballing the programme for this reason. Eventually however, a neat solution popped into my mind. With a bit of experimentation, I realised that it is possible to vocalise safely and precisely, whilst keeping the volume level below that of normal speaking. All that is required to make this modification fun, is a little imagination. Most children know how to squeak like a mouse - these high pitched sounds are made in the throat and involve minimal breath - far less than speech. So, my solution has now been ‘road-tested’ by the squeaky teams in Scotland and I’m happy to have found a safe and new way to offer the programme without diluting it.
I would like to say a huge thank you to these children, teachers and school leaders for the opportunity to come back and complete the programme. It has been utterly inspiring, humbling and uplifting to visit your schools these past two weeks.
Mastering a musical instrument takes years of dedication. A music teacher who has already spent a lifetime on this journey, is the guide along the way and travels the path to mastery with every student. She knows exactly where each student is in terms of making progress and can describe in great detail what is happening in the music lessons.
Given that the music teacher offers a path to mastery and has lived that path every day for decades- why would goal-setting really matter?
Here are seven reasons why:
1. Goal-setting renews the relationship between the teacher and student. This is a life-affirming conversation in which the teacher can welcome each student back after a break and say to them, “I believe in you…I know you can do this”. Goal-setting offers the most uplifting start to the new term and can inspire a fresh new wave of commitment to making music with passion and vitality.
2. Goal-setting can alleviate stress. If I was a teenager right now, I would be feeling very sad without my musical ensembles - I adored being immersed in music with my friends and we had so much fun during the summer. Our students are likely to be suffering the loss of their musical ensembles and missing the buzz of group music-making. Organising remote concerts on a weekly basis as an important part of goal-setting will offset musical isolation.
3. Goal-setting clarifies the context. September is always a month of change. Perhaps your student has a new school, new travel arrangements, new responsibilities, or new musical or sports opportunities. With the excitement of a fresh new start, there will also be a demanding process of transition to consider. Settling into a new school takes at least six months - relationships with teachers and friends need to be built gradually over time. Being aware of your student’s challenges and opportunities this September clarifies what’s possible. This matters because it’s essential that goals are realistic and can be reached.
4. Goal-setting sets the tone for the term. Aspirational students like to set up a new routine at the begin of the school year. When and where have they scheduled their music practice? Whether your students are aspirational or not, a goal-setting conversation is the perfect way to guide them in choosing the best possible time for music practice. Take care to cultivate their ownership of this process, but also to protect them from feeling overwhelmed or sliding towards perfectionism.
5. Goal-setting warmly embraces parental expectations. This conversation allows the teacher to share with the parent a timely segment of their over-arching vision for the student. Each goal is anchored to the teacher’s expertise - and here’s a gentle reminder that this expertise often has a lineage reaching back through generations of dedicated teachers. Parents want to be informed and guided by an expert teacher; confidence in goal-setting allows a music teacher to demonstrate that their expertise is grounded within an organised and methodical system.
6. Goal-setting helps to align our teaching practice with our musical purpose. Stephen Covey is know for recommending that we ‘Begin with the end in mind’ - this is the second habit from his book, ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’. This phrase applies to goal-setting. All the goals we set for music-making lead us to the very centre of our musical aims - our ‘why’ - our inspiration. It might be the memory of attending a special performance, a vision for playing with ultimate freedom of expression, or simply to feel the sublime expansion of pure creativity. The ‘why’ is our purpose. It inspires our musical values. These influence the way that we teach by guiding our decisions, our priorities and our aspirations for all our students.
7. Goal-setting strengthens the musical landscape at grassroots level. Since our musical world contracted in 2020, with socially-distanced concerts at the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg, the role that music teachers now play in cultivating the next generation of performers and audiences is of huge importance. We are responsible for ‘holding space’ for music and musicians. We are helping to sustain vibrant music making in our students’ homes, as well as lighting up musical horizons in every community through the transformational power of our teaching. We are not on our own. Music examination boards such as ABRSM are still supporting music teachers by offering practical and theory exams during the pandemic.
I hope these ideas about goal-setting offer some encouragement as we continue remote and socially-distanced teaching. If this post has resonated and you would like to explore these ideas a little further, I’ve created a three short videos about setting-goals. Click here for the videos and to leave a comment or ask a question click here .
Yes, I’m probably wearing rose-tinted glasses… but as old ways recede, something new always appears.
New creative potential is springing up out of the constraints of COVID because life does that. I am not suggesting that every family is looking for a music teacher right now, but given that we may face a second wave of the virus in the autumn, many parents will be giving thought to how they might structure their child’s home life. This is an opportunity to strengthen musical engagement from the roots up.
Here are ten reasons why a new wave for music education and a new concert-going audience is likely to appear.
1. Children and young people have not taken part in their usual clubs and activities for a long while and need a challenge this autumn.
2. Parents have not spent money on the usual wide range of activities for their children and some are looking for life-affirming, structured activities that can enrich their children’s lives.
3. Parents and children have spent more time together, staving off boredom and frustration. In September, it will be time to start something new.
4. Instrumental music lessons establish weekly goals, a step-by-step approach and a learning gradient that is tailored to each individual child.
5. Instrumental music teachers guide parents by explaining how best to support their child’s daily music practice.
6. There’s more time to practise musical instruments and many music teachers have seen accelerated progress in recent months.
7. Remote teaching can be a little challenging, but it does work well and it’s more convenient in many ways as parents save time and money in terms of travel; remote teaching also helps to keep the air cleaner for this reason.
8. There are exciting, new opportunities to take up a musical instrument, as many brilliant professional performing musicians are now beginning to teach online.
9. We don’t know what will happen to the world of live music in the next few months, so a real shift towards teaching rather than performing is currently taking place.
10. This period of uncertainty might be exactly what is needed to spark an enormous new wave for music education.
If you are a music teacher and this resonates with you, let me support you further. Click here to sign up for my free video series on improving students’ focus in under five minutes, or here to leave a message.
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.
Enshrined in the liberal arts, the principle of temenos allows an idea to be fully explored, expressed and scrutinised. Commitment to freedom of expression is important because the nuances and finer points of an idea are likely to subtlety unfold towards the end of the process. The idea can then be better appreciated and understood.
An embryonic form of these creative principles can be found in classrooms: children are encouraged to share and express their experiences, but subconsciously they are also developing an awareness of how others are learning, building friendships and regulating impulses. Teachers patiently foster an atmosphere that enshrines socially desirable values.
This matters very much because school and home environments often offer children a jarring misalignment of values, ways of being and expectations of behaviour. For example, there is parity between academic expectations of girls and boys at school and equality of opportunity for children with disabilities, whereas the home environment is not necessarily attuned to these principles. English is the language spoken at school and it is there that children learn that they must listen when others speak to them and to respect others, even if they disagree with them.
Many urban schools celebrate incredible diversity. With more than 30 languages spoken in some schools, it is essential that children interact with their friends, their teachers and grow to know themselves as an important part of their school community. The school powerfully and sensitively shapes the child’s social development beyond the curriculum in fundamental ways, from teaching children to speak English, providing a hot meal in the middle of the day, accessing basic needs, ensuring a safe place to play, to run, to sing, to dance, to write poetry, as well as to let off steam. Schools can have a profoundly positive influence on children’s well-being and emotional security every single day.
The child’s desk in the classroom is an important vantage point from which they experience a multimodal, dynamic environment that is responsive to their social and emotional needs. If they are uncertain about something, help is at hand. There are flows of information, laughter, ideas and inspiration as well as discipline and firm boundaries that provide the necessary respect for all of this to work so beautifully. It is within this consistent structure that children learn to discover who they are and who they might become, particularly when they eventually leave their home environment.
School is a safe and potentially sacred space where children discover who they are within the school community, and more broadly within society.
In London the coronavirus lockdown has been relaxed and some schools have opened to reception, year one and year six. I understand the reasoning, but err on the side of caution. Life is so fragile and my heart is with you if you’ve recently lost someone precious.
In these strange times, we have no live arts. Our social gatherings take place without hugs and we crave connection. Apparently, this virus cannot survive in sunshine, though it has barely blinked during the sunniest month ever recorded.
With the beginning of the new normal emerging gradually, Rhythm for Reading is strikingly perfect for the smaller class sizes that are being introduced for social distancing. Offering a holistic boost to reading skills and spontaneous waves of happiness, it seems particularly appropriate for these times. However, along with enthusiastic group singing, Rhythm for Reading is one of those delicious things that we must wait for.
A new online Rhythm for Reading teacher training programme is coming out in July. If you’d like access to three free introductory training videos, please let me know via the contact page.
Still in COVID lockdown, today is my younger daughter’s 28th birthday and I’m particularly missing those wonderful years when I had my girls at home with me. Back then, when they were at primary school, I became a part-time student and juggled the necessary hours of study with family life and career for a good ten years. The sheer pressure of getting so much done while at home was tremendous and it often meant prioritising work and study over spending time with my children. This went against all of my nurturing instincts. I’d thank my girls every day for being so considerate, but there were times when my heart felt red raw with guilt. Surprising things happened from time to time and I thought I’d share some of these with you.
I had found a quiet cosy corner to do an immense amount of reading. Armed with few cushions and a cup of tea, the hours passed quickly. I was thrilled that I’d had so much peace and quiet. The next day, a competition erupted. My children, who had never been inclined to read a huge amount suddenly wanted to spend hours reading in ‘my’ reading corner. Intrigued by this, I agreed to share ‘my corner’ fairly between the three of us - incredibly I never had to remind them to read a book again.
As a professional musician, I’d prioritised their music lessons. Practising as part of our early morning routine had worked very well when they were young, but not so much as they grew older. One day, I made a few adjustments to make my own practice more efficient - using a timer and a notebook. It was fascinating to see that the mirroring began again - my elder daughter copied me and started to practise the same pieces of music, writing down comments and timing her practice.
My younger daughter meanwhile, had discovered a love of cooking and as a teenager had become a very confident little chef, able to make beautiful lunches and cakes. While writing my PhD thesis, she’d regularly bake cakes and bring me one with a cup of tea. (Cleaning the kitchen was all I had to do!)
Having ‘together time’ on a daily basis was also very important and sometimes urgent - whether for listening, solving problems or having fun. Looking back, I think that my studying helped them to value what I valued: persistence and passion. Today they have their own careers. I see in them a steely resilience and desire to keep going no matter what. For everyone juggling roles at home right now - your children are learning an enormous amount as you show them how to stay focused no matter what.
‘We’re all in this together’ - To some extent this is true, but I think we’re all having very different experiences of the lockdown. Many people are suffering the agony of losing loved ones to the disease. Many are facing hunger and hardship in the days and weeks ahead. Many feel the anxiety which hangs in the air.
How can rhythm help us? Here are a few suggestions and I’m sending you love and light as you read this.
For frustration and anger: Play music with strong rhythmic patterns and invite some movement from any part of the body willing to respond - perhaps start with a small nod of the head or tap a single finger. A critical voice may speak up. The music is simply our gift to ourselves - no inner commentary is necessary. Stay with the music and allow the patterns to weave their way through the body and mind. When it feels possible, allow the body move a little more until all the physical tension has melted into the music.
For anxiety, panic and grief: Play soothing, gentle, slow music to help ease the breath and the heart rate. Breathe deeply into the stomach to a count of at least six, several times a day is very soothing. Eat small amounts of food, chewing very slowly. Allow the sighs to move through the body like a balm. Comforting hugs from others may not be possible at this time, but I am sending you a hug right now as you read this. Our dreams are always available to us and sometimes we need to create new ones to move forwards again. When the right moment arrives, try drawing or writing about a new life in the future. By sharing our dreams with the page, we allow our hope and faith to grow stronger.
For procrastination: The rhythm of the body in a visualisation can help to overcome procrastination. Visualise doing the task that needs to be done, from getting started to bringing in the physical details of the place in your home where this is happening. Consider the time of day, the feelings of satisfaction and self-worth during the stages of this task. Focus on the joy of finishing; then create the scene for real. Are there any cushions? Is there a cup of tea? Bring everything that is necessary to complete the task. Make a start - simply get started by doing something small. Keep going and focus intently on the joy of finishing. Background music or background voices (perhaps in another language) are helpful for some people. Experiment with the volume to find the level that best supports focus and concentration.
For routines: Setting up a family routine is admirable and will be most successful if everyone is on board. Remember to build breaks into the day and to keep the goals small enough to be achievable. At weekends make sure that the days feel less structured and be sure to celebrate the wins week by week. A star chart is invaluable for creating a growing sense of accomplishment (adults need them too) and will help to pump-up the momentum of each day.
Language: Rhythm in language tells us what people really mean. We are all dealing with different levels of stress at the moment and it can be helpful to be prepared for tricky conversations.
Say this sentence aloud - first very quickly, and then very slowly, ‘Mary cried’.
Vowel sounds (italics) that are uttered quickly, tell us that the person speaking is delivering information, perhaps having already analysed or evaluated a situation. The speaker is coming from a head-centred, judgmental space.
Vowel sounds that are uttered slowly tell us that the person is probably feeling compassion and cares about the situation. This person’s voice signals that they are coming from a heart-centred, loving space.
In tricky conversations, it may be easier to keep the communication flowing if we slow down the vowel sounds. By saying, ‘Oh’ and ‘Ah’ and ‘No,’ very slowly, we can programme ourselves for compassion. This could prove invaluable, should a tricky conversation come along. Take care everyone.
In this post I’ve blended ideas from several inspiring books, listed below. History, in my view is often cyclical, rather than linear. As we move rapidly into climate crisis, artificial intelligence (AI) and a school curriculum, dominated by science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), I wonder how relevant the curriculum of today will be in five years, given the fast-pace of change.
Since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, (EBacc) the place of creative disciplines in the school curriculum, which provide an arena for critical debate, rebellion and the development of radical ideas has been devalued, and I wonder, to what end?
Transition from a Pagan to a Christian worldview
During the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, huge cultural shifts came into play. The suppression of the arts in society, regarded as pivotal in the enforcement of Christianity stemmed from the perspective of Saint Augustine. He wrote extensively on music, claiming that rhythm could be classified into four levels from the highest which was spiritually-aligned, down to the lowest level level, that stimulated the flesh.
Monks of the order used physical force against ordinary people who celebrated pagan feasts with music and dancing. Music with a strong beat was strictly banned, as was dancing (Blaukopf, 1992). Intellectuals were persecuted. for example, Hypatia - a mathematics scholar in Alexandria had been lynched in 415 CE for her ‘blasphemous’ study of ancient Greek texts (Rovelli, 2007). By the end of the 5th century, the Great Library at Alexandria had disappeared, and in 529 CE the Platonic academy in Athens was closed by decree of Christian emperor Justinian (Pieper, 2020).The significance of the Great Library was that it housed all of the books in existence, as well as being part of a hub for scholarship, achieved through practices of reason, logic, rhetoric and academic freedom. The achievements of the Greek scholars at Alexandria were impressive. For example, Eratosthenes, in 235 BCE calculated that the world was round, giving its circumference and its diameter; Heron of Alexandria created the world’s first steam engine.
Fanatically, the Christian authorities set to rewriting the knowledge and wisdom of the pervious (pagan) era, notably maintaining that the Earth was flat. Within this context we find Boethius (c.470- c.524 CE), a classically-educated statesman and philosopher, keen to find the middle road between reason and faith. He was executed for treason, shortly after having resolved the schism between the early Christian Church in Rome and Constantinople. Boethius wrote Consolation of Philosophy during his imprisonment, and this text became the foundation of medieval scholasticism (Shiel, 2020).
Appropriation of Greek scholarship
After 500 years of teaching and intellectual activity in cathedral schools and monasteries, early medieval universities were chartered by a Papal Bull. Each university was founded under different circumstances:- at Bologna (1088), Paris (1150) and Oxford (1167), and with differing levels of academic freedom. Highly influential across Western Europe, the liberal arts were taught, although the Christian Church had appropriated ancient Greek curricula for its own purposes, retaining only the structure and main elements of the system (Bernstein, 2000).
Medieval scholasticism, light on rigour and politically-inclined, attempted to reconcile classical reason with traditional early Christian dogma, but with limited success. Students taking the first part of the degree, the trivium, were taught word-related principles: grammar, logic and rhetoric, before taking the second part, the quadrivium which explored the physicality of the world through arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music.
The trivium of the time had strong religious connotations; similarly, the corresponding quadrivium was adapted to suit the dogma of the day (Bernstein, 2000). For example: music was taught only through the disembodied, polyphonic rhythm (rather than the Greek rhythmos) and in astronomy, students were taught that the Earth was flat (Blaukopf. 1992).
Renaissance and reading
The tension between traditional Augustinian dogma and the classical texts of Boethius eventually gave way in the early Renaissance. Music, dancing and decorative arts, along with academic freedom in scientific thinking had been suppressed for at least a millennium across Western Europe and quickly reappeared.
Music regained its metrical ratio-based system; its integrated rhythmic nature was reinstated and dancing immediately became fashionable. The publication of articles promoting the rise of the importance of the vernacular supported the spread of reading, which soon became widespread, further weakening the authority of traditional Christian dogma.
Transition from post-industrial to digital
There is a linear feel from the Renaissance and Enlightenment years, through to the present day. However, in the contemporary devaluing of arts subjects in the school curriculum with the advent of the English Baccalaureate, we seemingly appear to be cycling back the dark ages with the curbing of academic and creative freedom.
Many young people face a bleak future following poverty in childhood and also having been deprived of an opportunity to develop a creative outlet for self-expression. At the same time, many communities have been impoverished by austerity.
Given that global hubs such as London are the economic areas towards which a disproportionate amount of the world’s digital enterprise, wealth and wealthy have been attracted, the transition to digital has created sharp economic inequalities between the digital hubs and post industrial regional centres, which acutely lack investment and have suffered chronic deprivation.
Alongside the glitz of digital, there is a mindset that blindly accepts what appears on the screen with too little criticality. At best, the data-driven positivist perspective on knowledge is no more than instrumental, because its influence is dependent on the empirical tools and the technology of the day. At its worst, positivism commits the grave error of confusing the ends with the means, because it is not contextualised and it is not subject to critical debate (Rovelli, 2007).
The ‘knowledge economy’ promised a fiscal flow generated by the unlimited availability of knowledge via the Internet. The quality of such knowledge is often very poor, as has been shown by its influence on voting behaviour in democratic elections. Unscrutinised, low-grade, data-driven knowledge that supports the spread of technology in relation to health, education, trade and food supply puts society at risk of sub-standard ideas and policy.
The true nature of science is critical, exploratory and visionary (Rovelli, 2007). As such, science is grossly limited if it is reframed through positivism as a mere producer of testable predictions. To protect our societies from positivism, disciplined creativity is essential if breakthroughs and radical thinking are to flourish in the ‘knowledge economy’.
Creative thinking is best nurtured in the domain of the arts subjects, an arena where it is essential to take disciplined risks, to implement ideas and to work through creative issues.
Disproportionate emphasis on STEM
The dominance of STEM subjects in the school curriculum will train our young people to think logically, but in order to solve the substantial problems facing us all in the coming decades, they also need the courage to think creatively, to make cognitive leaps rather than continuing to step slowly in a linear fashion, outpaced by AI.
What is taught in schools today will be out of date by the time pupils start their careers, so the disproportionate emphasis on STEM is seemingly short-sighted. It is only with a greater emphasis on disciplined creativity in the curriculum, that pupils will have the confidence to invent, innovate and implement the solutions, breakthroughs and radical new ideas that are needed for the future.
Bernstein, B. 2000 Pedagogy, Symbolic control and Identity: Theory, research, critique, Revised edition, Lanham, MA; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc,
Blaukopf, C (1992) Musical Life in a Changing Society: Aspects of Musical Sociology, Amadeus Press
Pieper J. (2020) ‘Scholasticism’ in Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Scholasticism, accessed 29.2.2020, at 10.37
Rovelli, C. (2007) Anaximander, trans. Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Yardley, PA., WestholmePublishing
Shiel, J. (2020) ‘Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’ https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anicius-Manlius-Severinus-Boethius accessed 29.2.2020, at 10.57
Scientific knowledge is best developed in a context of free speech. Arguing for free debate, where being mistaken or wrong is integral to scientific discovery, Rovelli, in his wonderful book, ‘Anaximander’ charts the link between the history of the Greek alphabet and the beginnings of scientific thinking.
The earliest writing
The first form of writing, known as cuneiform was invented in 3400 BCE in southern Iraq, as described by art historian, Zaineb Bahrani. According to Bahrani, the earliest writing was pictographic, which was straightforward enough to decipher, but expanded when the signs for ox and fish and so on came to be used for unrelated objects and ideas, based on a system of association via similar sounds and meanings. This partly phonetic and partly pictographic code became abbreviated into cursively written wedge-shaped signs on tablets of clay, which were systematised and adopted throughout the ancient Near East.
The oldest script to be discovered was written in Uruk, in the Sumerian language, - a language unrelated to Semitic, Indo-European, Turkie or other language groups of that era. The script was quickly adopted into the Akkadian language, which was an early Semitic language, a relation of modern-day Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac-Aramaic. The first word lists and directories for interpreting the script were compiled in the third millennium BCE as the Mesopotamians became the first translators. The adoption of the script for diplomatic purposes spread widely across the region, including kingdoms of Babylonia, Syria and Egypt.
The first professional writers
According to Bahrani, the importance of connecting words with things, connecting writing with reality, was that it generated intellectual thought and scientific reasoning. The script offered a representational system with the capacity to signify the physical world as well as abstract concepts. The standardisation of the script provided a reliable means of communication and had implications for the Mesopotamian world view. However, detailed knowledge of the script’s 800 characters was protected by the scribes and mainly used for political ends, to reinforce the legitimacy of the semi-divine dynastic rulers, claiming a lineage apparently descended from heaven. The illustration here, shows a cuneiform inscription on a stone tablet dedicated to the god Haldi at a temple built by Menua, King of Urartu, in east Turkey dating from about 700 BCE.
Rovelli described a similar situation in Greece in the second millennium BCE. During this era, the Mycenaean period, the Greeks dominated Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus, Troy, Phonecia, Byblos and Palestine. The Mycenaean civilisation had inherited the well-known script, Linear B from the ancient Cretans. Linear B was used intensively in Crete during a period when the court possessed a highly organised administrative system of taxation, military enlistment and record keeping of ownership of property and slaves, all of which was managed by the professional scribes of the central palace. Here too, we see scribes enforcing political control through the power of the written word.
Greek trade with neighbouring nations resumed in the seventh and eighth centuries BCE, following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation in 1000 BCE and a period of economic and social difficulty. A new style of writing was inherited from the Phoenicians and Caananites at about 750 BCE. The Phoenician alphabet contained only consonants, whereas the Canaanites had developed a simplified system in which vowel sounds were used and this reduced the number characters to 24. As an Indo-European language, Greek was phonetically simpler than the Semitic languages and the new alphabet, was used to directly represent the utterances of the human voice - a system that did not require word lists, but could be deciphered without an arduous apprenticeship.
So when writing became accessible for Greek citizens in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, knowledge was no longer exclusively for the privileged, the scribes and the autocratic kings. Rather, writing was widely shared by the emerging ruling class at the birth of democracy, which relied upon forthright public criticism and open debate.
Public debate among the ruling class replaced the absolute power of semi-divine kings and traditional wisdom of priests. Weak ideas and theories were dismissed through this new system of shared power. Rovelli urges us to consider that it is through sharing, criticising and scrutinising knowledge, that we uphold scientific values. Sharing, criticising and scrutinising ideas and theories is the most rigorous way to test knowledge. Weaker theories and ideas can be rejected, and stronger ones can be refined in this way. We must guard against the desire for complete knowledge or definitive knowledge. This would involve closed-mindedness. Rather, science produces the best available knowledge at the time from an open-minded, questioning perspective.
Rovelli makes an important point: From the perspective of scientific thinking, knowledge expands because of a lack of certainty, and is driven by an awareness of the immensity of human ignorance. A lack of certainty is a strength rather than a weakness. It is a strength fuelled by important traits that are cultivated by scientists: the confidence to ask questions, the courage to observe and to critique, and the persistence to challenge with a readiness to radically rock the boat.
Bahrani, Z. (2017) Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture, Thames & Hudson, London
Rovelli, C. (2011) Anaximander, (Trans. Marion Lignana Rosenberg), Westholme Publishing, Yardley, Pennsylvania
1. Let Schools be Schools
Many schools in the UK are also food banks; their classrooms are filled with donated clothes and toys. The generosity is heart-warming, but growing child poverty is a crisis of grim-realities and long-term consequences.
4.5 million children are living in poverty in the UK (trusselltrust.org) and teachers have had no choice, but to feed hungry pupils. They are constantly buying food for children to take home because the fridge and food cupboard are empty. Hungry children cannot concentrate for a single minute - I have seen young people in school faint from hunger.
For economically disadvantaged children and young people to gain the qualifications that will secure a prosperous future, a great deal of educational impetus is required. Teachers play a vital role in nurturing children’s capacity for learning and building trajectories for academic achievement, but at present, this role is diluted by having to think about hunger day after day.
Schools are highly responsive in tailoring their resources to meet the needs of their communities. However, school budgets have had to stretch to feed the growing numbers of children living in poverty. It is a matter of grave concern that resources are being diverted away from education to meet the children’s most basic survival needs.
2. Take action to prevent exclusions
A wave of redundancies due to cuts to school budgets, has been mirrored by an increase in the rate of school exclusions, undermining inclusivity and equality in the education system. Pupils who have benefited from close support and mentoring from teaching assistants in mainstream classrooms, but have been unable to manage unaided, have found themselves removed from school or placed in alternative provision. These disruptions have compromised not only their access to the curriculum, but also their chances of gaining qualifications.
3. Schools need modern educational values and larger budgets in 2020
Modern educational values and larger budgets are needed to inspire the learning of all children and young people. These should be delivered across complementary disciplines, and through effective systems that:
Do you have friends that have recently admitted to holding views that are anti-semitic or anti-islamic or both? This has happened to me on several occasions since the 2016 referendum.
There have been heated debates in the media and in everyday life - sometimes sidestepping awkward conversations has seemed to be the most diplomatic option. Avoiding the issue of racism however, aggravates a pernicious problem. We are soon to cast our votes in an election in which the two main parties are overtly struggling to deal with racism.
Yesterday, a good friend said this to me: “We can always respect other people’s opinions, even if they are different to our own”. Do you agree with this seemingly reasonable statement?
Of course I agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I challenge stereotyped points of view. So, I strongly disagreed with the idea that I would always respect another person’s opinion. If an opinion is in any way racist for example, it cannot win my respect.
Stereotypes are dangerous because they are sloppy thought patterns, which travel like wildfire, igniting and infecting many people at once. A stereotype is just like a rumour because it is not based on fact. In conversation, it should be treated like toxic gossip and challenged for its lack of substance.
My stereotype radar starts bleeping when people start to say: “The trouble is, they are all…” (fill in the blank)
Or to make ridiculous predictions: “You can’t trust them. All they want is….”
Or to make sweeping generalisations: “Most normal people don’t .…
Or to sound preachy: “People like us…”
A reasonable follow-up question to statements using ‘always’, ‘all’ or ‘never’ might be - “Oh really? How can you be certain?”
On the other hand, whenever there’s a healthy balanced range of opinions, of voices, of faces on mainstream media I inwardly cheer in celebration of our country’s rich diversity, knowing that deep down all is well. With so much at stake, we must work together to resist discrimination of all kinds and call out stereotypes as soon as they they arise in conversation. Even if this feels awkward and embarrassing, it’s better than walking away or brushing the stereotype under the rug.
‘Groupthink’ (a term coined by Irvin Janis) is the unremarkable ability that we all have to hang out with like-minded folk who echo and reinforce our thoughts. Group loyalty is dangerous when it inhibits healthy debate and ‘groupthink’ is an unhealthy inbreeding of ideas that arises in politics in particular (Janis, 1972).
Research done in 1970s showed that in roles where one group of people dominates another group, the behaviour of both groups needs to be carefully monitored. The notorious Stanford Prison Experiments explored human behaviour in role-play. Undergraduate psychology students volunteered as participants and were randomly assigned to roles either as prison guards, or as inmates in a specially constructed jail in the university campus. After only six days the treatment of the prisoners became so abusive that the project, which should have run for fourteen days had to be abandoned. In this experiment, Zimbado showed that undergraduate students with no previous history of cruelty (ie they were educated, reasonable people) had the capacity to treat prisoners sadistically, particularly when following orders.
Clearly, in our social groups, we humans have a dark side - a capacity to behave together in ways that would be unthinkable at an individual level.
This matters in everyday life, but particularly in political leadership. We must ensure that we are governed by politicians who engage in healthy debate, and who can truly represent the diversity of Britain. We need to call out stereotypes for everyone’s sake so that together we cultivate an atmosphere of happiness, balance and peace in our society.
Janis, I (1972) Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascos (2nd Edition) Boston, MA. Houghton Mifflin.
Zimbado, P.G. (1999) Stanford Prison Experiment: A Stimulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University http://www.prisonexp.org [accessed 1/12/19]
Last year, I went through a major rethink about my approach to the Rhythm for Reading blog. To ‘incubate’ the new outlook I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring new themes and scoping out a broader awareness of rhythm in everyday life.
The shift started unexpectedly twelve months ago. I happened to be working in the San Francisco Bay Area in November, as the State of California braced for the driest month of the year, which typically generates a high fire risk. You may remember the wildfires that blazed out of control at that time. More than 80 people tragically lost their lives in the deadly ‘Camp Fire’ that completely destroyed the town of Paradise. For eight days, the Bay Area lay under a thick blanket of smoke. From my hotel window and when travelling to work I could see that the condors had stopped riding the thermals high in the sky. There was hardly any sunlight, and the air quickly became the filthiest on the planet. Nature seemingly had shutdown, but we humans had stayed calm and carried on regardless. The freeways were absolutely crammed with vehicles, pumping fumes into the already saturated air.
Although I was lucky enough to be staying in air-conditioned accommodation during the worst days of pollution, I worked with people who were not so fortunate. They told me about the dreadful effects of the smoke on their young children and elderly neighbours. Given that an hour of exposure to the Camp Fire smog was judged to be the equivalent of chain-smoking ten cigarettes, it was unsurprising that poorer people in the Bay Area, those without air-conditioning living some four hundred miles from the wildfires, were struggling with their breathing, feeling nauseous and even collapsing. This situation made me realise the extent to which I have taken clean air for granted. I have always gratefully acknowledged the work done by trees to reduce carbon dioxide during the night, but naively, I have assumed that this natural recycling process was sustainable. Following the Camp Fire, I no longer presume that forests will continue to maintain the fragile balance of gases that sustain life on our planet.
In California last year, deadly particulate matter from the burning of the forest caused the toxicity in the air. In other words, we were inhaling carbon particles from the very trees that we need in the long term to recycle the air. In the same twelve month period, it has been heart-breaking to see fires started deliberately, that have caused enormous devastation in the Amazon Forest, the ‘Lungs of the Earth’, and tragically, huge areas of New South Wales, Australia are ablaze as I write this.
Like me, you may have been shaken recently into a new awareness of our responsibility for Earth’s atmosphere. Is this the beginning of the end? Historically, seasonal rhythms have driven the cyclical flooding of rivers, as seen in the beautiful hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt. The predictability of dry seasons and rainy seasons has supported the cultivation of food crops for twelve thousand years. Going back even deeper into pre-history, when an alternating rhythm of warmer and cooler periods caused the ice-sheets of North America and Scandinavia to advance and retreat, hunter-gatherer peoples became highly adaptive and innovative.
According to anthropologist Professor Brian Fagan, Cro-Magnon humans, Neanderthals and many of the larger mammals proved to be temperature tolerant, demonstrating ample capacity to adapt during climactic shifts of the rhythmic, ‘Dansgaard-Oeschger (D/O) oscillation’ (Fagan, 2010, p.55). There was also a remarkable explosion of creativity that followed warmer periods of climate change, marked by magnificent art in the caves of South Africa, Spain, Germany, Austria and France.
Unlike the hunter-gatherers, who breathed pristine unpolluted air in conditions that were on average considerably cooler than those of today, we inhabit a rapidly warming planet, in which unprotected forests as well as coral reefs are lost every year. The situation that we face is pushing us towards the upper limit of our temperature tolerance. Unfortunately, industrial technologies and economic models have encouraged a false perception of our independence of nature, which has led to widespread abuse of the natural world.
Earth’s indigenous peoples on the other hand, have maintained values and technologies that are closely aligned with nature (Fagan, 2011). Living and breathing in harmony with nature, they have maintained sustainable cultural traditions, that offer a balance between ideals of freedom and security. Now, we must all work together to restore rhythm and balance, to protect and nurture higher values of respect and appreciation for Earth’s resources.
Fagan, B. (2010) Cro-Magnon: How the ice-age gave birth to the first modern humans, Bloomsbury Press.
Fagan, B. (2011) The First North Americans: An archeological journey, Thames and Hudson
I had no idea that I would be writing a post on computation whilst working in Silicon Valley – I am amazed by the coincidences that life delivers. It seems that music and technology go together here and I look forward to exploring some of the ideas behind the Rhythm for Reading programme in relation to the principles of computational thinking.
Historically, the word compute derives from Latin roots: com (together) and putare (to settle an account). In the French language of the 17th century, the verb ‘computer’ meant to reckon or to calculate the amount. As we know only too well from the reporting of negotiations between the UK and EU, it is important to attend to the broad principles as well as the details. From the perspective of computer science, a systematic approach is used to align the broad principles and the fine details by following a process involving four cornerstones of computational thinking: decomposition, pattern matching, abstraction and algorithms.
Decomposition: In general, music is associated with ‘composition’ rather than decomposition. However, playing any piece of music involves decomposition. Before performing, musicians are faced with a problem: how should the music sound and feel? They answer this question by considering musical elements such as, form and tempo (overall layout and speed), harmonic structure (organisation of key changes in relation to the form), rhythmic and melodic features (beats, riffs, tunes, patterns and repetitions), as well as the texture - the distribution of the sounds in relation to each other. Each musical style has a fairly typical blueprint consisting of certain types of form, harmonies, textures, rhythms and melodies which musicians constantly refine with experience.
Pattern recognition: For many people, the appeal of music lies in its attention grabbing patterns, the hypnotic qualities of repeating beats and the deeply satisfying musical feel of certain riffs and grooves. This is not surprising because like other mammal species, our early development took place surrounded by the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat, respiration and digestion patterns. New born infants can detect changes in rhythmic patterns of language and music with remarkable sensitivity. It seems that pattern recognition begins very early on in our development and continues throughout life.
In computational thinking, the extraction of general information from a recognised pattern (e.g. all dogs have four legs) involves looking for similarities and disregarding everything else. Well, when we listen to music and extract the beat from the complete musical sound – (just before we begin nodding or tapping along with it), we have extracted the constantly recurring ‘generalised’ information and brought this to the front of our awareness. In this way, the beat becomes useful as an organisational device because we naturally perceive the other more varied and changeable sounds in relation to it.
Abstraction: The process of abstraction, knowing what to retain and what to ignore as part of pattern recognition is an acquired discipline that becomes second nature with practice. For example, finding the beat and focusing on it (perhaps whist taking exercise) is a powerful form of orientation in musical sound that most people naturally adopt. The process of recognising rhythmic patterns via the extraction and abstraction of the beat often happens spontaneously and extremely quickly – in a matter of a few seconds, depending rather on the quality of the musical sounds.
Algorithms: An algorithm is a sequence of steps required to build a model of a solution to a problem, such as a series of instructions or rules to make a cup of tea. To programme a robot to make a cup of tea would be complex because the single instruction ‘pour’ for example would need to be broken down into all the tiny action pieces (involving angles, weight, resistance, timing etc). Returning to music, having abstracted the beat from musical sounds, it is possible to rebuild a sense of the organisation of the music in relation to the beat. For example, there may be recurring catchy tunes or rhythmic patterns that make the music instantly recognisable. The beat is the organisational principle in our brain’s perception of musical sounds. Similarly, the beat is also the organisational principle of musical sounds as represented in musical notation. The representation of music in music notation involves a framework called a musical staff, consisting of five horizontal lines. The system of notation is rule-based and the information it contains is extremely precise. However, like an algorithm, only the necessary details are included; all other musical information is inferred by (stylistically aware) musicians.
In Rhythm for Reading sessions, there is a strong emphasis on beats, riffs, patterns and repetitions, as well as on an awareness of the form and structure of a piece of music. After a couple of sessions, even very young children spontaneously apply the principles of decomposition and pattern recognition. Their innate awareness of sound prompts them to extract and abstract the beat and to feel the organisation of melodic and rhythmic patterns around the beat. They love to discover the patterns in musical notation and can use these to explain the overall organisation of simple pieces of music.
It’s been fun to play a little with the idea of explaining musical processes in terms of computational thinking – there is certainly plenty of common ground. However, there is also an important difference. While computational thinking occurs in a sequence, which is later integrated by a computer, the musical equivalents of decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction and algorithms are integrated by the human brain’s capacity to read musical notation, to elaborate the notation and produce musical sounds in time with others. Not only do we integrate all of these processes naturally, we find it highly rewarding to do this <in sync>.
Contribution is a tremendously positive aspect of human nature. At this time of year in many schools, it’s possible to detect a special sense of dignity emerging from a collective sense of contribution. Central to the season of Harvest Festival, contribution is a natural response to our awareness of our of abundance and supply. We pause to appreciate the hard work of the farmers and the benefits of a favourable climate, essential for the long-term sustainability of crops and livestock. It is a time to reflect and give thanks for the magnificent, vibrant beauty of our planet. Sharing the gifts of our abundance with the wider community reminds us that the gift of contribution is also the gift of belonging.
In classrooms, a quite different notion of contribution exists. Students’ contribution in the classroom is evaluated by teachers. Yet at the same time, contribution is restricted by the limited amount of time teachers are able to allocate each unit of work. Tension around contribution in the classroom arises between the need to cover the curriculum and the time students may need to assimilate concepts before they feel ready to reflect and engage via questions or discussion. A possible solution is to allow more time. Expanding the time allowed for students’ contribution seems to slow the whole process of learning down. However, this may be time well spent, particularly for lower attaining students, who may learn differently or simply need more time to process the information, as argued by Rowe, (1986).
Contribution is also a form of social action. In the context of Harvest Festival, there is a sense that everybody contributes what they can, but in a classroom the act of contributing to a curriculum that may or may not seem relevant and relatable can be stressful for some students. Accordingly, ‘children tend to feel vulnerable in school’ (Pollard, 1987, p.4), where they are subject to a process of assessment and rules. Children learn to adapt, to cope with power and discipline of the teacher, to avoid situations that may lead to humiliation or disrespect, particularly in front of peers in the classroom. Seen through this lens, contribution can be complex, troubling for students, and very different to the contribution that takes place in the school hall during a Harvest Festival.
In Rhythm for Reading sessions, contribution is extremely important. Each session lasts only ten minutes in length, so the students need to commit themselves to tasks from the very beginning of the session. Every second is dedicated to contribution. The main difference between students’ contribution in Rhythm for Reading sessions and the classroom is that they contribute simultaneously as a group rather than as individuals. This reduces the sense of vulnerability considerably. The contribution that they make as a group involves consideration of others; for example in the way that they blend their voices together so that no one is louder or quieter than anyone else. This achieves a true sense of group cooperation in which everyone can feel that the energies of contributing and belonging are truly symbiotic.
Although the pressures on teachers and students are seemingly increasingly difficult to resolve, Rhythm for Reading by its nature is non-competitive, harmonious and inclusive. As such, it bridges the chasm between the starkly contrasting forms of contribution occurring in the classroom and the school hall. Rhythm for Reading makes use of rhythmic patterns rather than words to develop reading skills, yet builds fluency, cognitive control and confidence, while cementing group cohesion and commitment to learning.
Pollard, A. (1987). Introduction: New Perspectives on Children, In A. Pollard (Ed.) Children and their primary schools: A new perspective, (p. 1- 11), The Falmer Press, taylor & Francis Inc., London, New York & Philadelphia
Rowe, M. (1986). Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education, 37, 43-50.
The new school year is about to start and for the young people transferring to secondary school, September will bring new friendships, new relationships with teachers as well as new journeys to and from school. A few years ago I worked on a fascinating research project about secondary school transfer across England, interviewing 24 young people at four points in time. The young adolescents left their primary schools full of positivity and high expectations, anticipating with relish many new friendships and exciting opportunities.
I heard about novelty, new ideas, a fresh perspective, a change of environment, hope, excitement and fulfilment. Moving beyond the limits of primary school was a very strong theme - though the young people stressed the importance of maintaining strong connections with their ‘old’ friends, meeting them at weekends to enjoy ‘messing about’ (dancing and singing to their favourite songs), whereas socialising with their ‘new’ friends after school involved talking and listening to one another’s music. Isn’t this contrast interesting? Music appears incredibly important for building deeper social connections.
Looking at everyday social behaviour, music is woven into our lives at a personal level as well as at the level of musical experiences in the wider community. For example, personal musical preferences are important at an individual level, such as when singing and dancing with infants and children, sustaining attention on tasks and work, forming romantic relationships and even in resolving problems with health. However, music is also used more publicly for celebrations in families, social groups, workplaces and communities.
Broadly speaking, it seems that music that we are exposed to via mass media may help to relax vigilance, inhibition, scepticism and caution. Film makers for example regard music as essential in helping their audience to suspend their disbelief, to relax their critical judgement, to be more easily persuaded by the special effects as well as being captivated by the fiction, the drama and characters. What might explain this?
Humans are mammals and to some extent tend to revert to socially instinctive behaviour when socially uninhibited. Studies of other mammals such as rats and mice have shown that social signals related to mating, nurturing or protecting young are processed in the mid-brain.Remarkably, tiny mice pups produce ultra-sonic squeaks when separated from the rest of the litter and scientists have shown that only mother mice actually hear these high frequencies (Liu et al, 2006; Liu et al., 2007). Since, many mammal species commit infanticide, this specialised form of social signal is highly advantageous, ensuring that the vulnerable pups have a greater chance of survival.
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. Telling a story involves a particular style of social engagement known as entrainment, drawing people in, encouraging them to lean into the tale using a particular blend of structure and rhythm and emotional processing. The auditory structures allow listeners to suspend their disbelief, to step inside the story with the narrator creating a state of seeming emotional safety. The use of descriptive language to convey the affect (emotional content) of the narrative may help individuals and communities to process disturbing feelings within a structure, a contextual framework of time and space. The structure allows the tale to be retold and remembered for future social gatherings.
In Rhythm for Reading, the entrainment process involves the sharing of motion, affect, the chanting of rhythmic patterns within musical structures. The specially composed musical resources create the time and space for this type of social engagement. Although this is a reading intervention that doesn’t use words, here are some case studies, demonstrating changes in reading after taking part in our rhythm-based group entrainment exercises.
Liu RC, Linden JF, Schreiner CE. 2006. Improved cortical entrainment to infant communication calls in mothers compared with virgin mice. Eur J Neurosci 23:3087–3097.
Liu RC, Schreiner CE. 2007. Auditory cortical detection and discrimination correlates with communicative significance. PLoS Biol 5:e173.
When a child is able to focus its attention, it is able to learn. When attention is fragmented or fades too quickly, little learning takes place. In this post I will explain why rhythm has a strong role to play in strengthening working memory, self-regulation and cognitive switching. These three aspects of cognitive control influence the way that attention supports learning. A weak working memory is frequently described as an invisible ‘barrier’ to learning and is prevalent in specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia. Working memory is the blackboard of the mind - the mental space upon which mental calculations, tasks, plans or lists can be reordered, manipulated and stored for a short period of time. Children with a weak working memory are able to manipulate and recall a span of only three information units, whereas those with a stronger than average working memory have a span of nine or more information units. However, the ability to manipulate and store information need not be limited by working memory span.
Infants acquire their mother tongue by detecting the rhythmical patterns in the overall stream of speech utterances (Saffran et al., 1996). Sensitivity to rhythm expands working memory by ‘chunking’ the information into rhythmical groups, which is why it is often easier to recite a phone number by clustering the digits together in threes or fours. This chunking strategy probably extends way back through thousands of generations. Preliterate societies have transmitted and conserved cultural practices through singing and storytelling, but also via rhythmical chanting and reciting of verses.
Now that we are a predominantly literate society, we are a little out of touch with the ancient tradition of rhythmically chanting of large amounts of information. However, memory experts show that it is possible to extend the natural span of working memory substantially and to recall information reliably by using chunking strategies (Mathy et al., 2016). For example, Rajan Mahadevan memorised at least 30,000 digits of pi by chunking the digits into groups of ten, he practised recalling the digits and extending the list further day after day (Ericsson & Moxley, 2014).
In classrooms, some children struggle to concentrate. Their attention is scattered rather than focused, or may fade before they can engage with learning. Failed attempts to focus are frustrating for them and often spark a negative spiral, which leads to low self-esteem. Mindfulness training has shown that focussing on the rhythm of the breath is an effective way to overcome distracting, negative thoughts (Siegel, 2007). However, teachers of children who have completed the Rhythm for Reading programme comment on visible improvements in concentration, which indicates that a ten-minute burst of rhythmic activity per week reinforces focussed attention and strengthens cognitive control.
Children lacking cognitive control are usually impulsive and struggle with interpersonal skills. They are low in self-regulation, a form of cognitive control that involves willpower and the perseverance to resist distractions and inhibit impulses, particularly while working towards a particular goal or target (Zimmerman, 2000) and usually emerges in very young children prior to starting school (Rothbart et al., 1992). The rhythm-based activities of the Rhythm for Reading programme, which were first designed for a group of children with little or no inhibition or self-regulation, are immensely effective in cultivating self-awareness and self-regulation in line with increased sensitivity to rhythm. There is also a deeper engagement with reading towards the middle of the programme. Being better able to detect the rhythmic ebb and flow in the text, the focus of attention narrows during the process of reading, effectively blocking out distractions. Self-regulation becomes a form of metacognition as the children monitor their awareness of their reading experience. Their information processing becomes sharper, enabling a natural ease to emerge in both self-awareness and cognitive control of the reading process (Long, 2014).
While self-regulation filters out distractions during reading, cognitive switching builds flexibility into reading behaviour. An obvious example would be that if the reader detected an error, they would need to be sufficiently flexible to stop the flow of information, backtrack in the text and then restart without losing the overall thread of the passage. A less obvious example might involve the reader in alternating their awareness between different points of view in a dialogue. A degree of cognitive switching would be involved until these points of view had been securely assimilated and integrated into the overall comprehension of the text. Sensitivity to rhythm assists flexibility during reading by supporting the overall security, stability and assimilation of the text, however demanding it may be.
Cognitive control supports focussed attention and improved sensitivity to rhythm contributes to cognitive control in several ways: (i) organisation of information in working memory, (ii) inhibition of distracting thoughts and (iii) security during cognitive switching. Taken together, these functions support focussed attention, the development of skilled reading and independence as a learner, all of which are required to mitigate the effects of disadvantage (Heckman, 2006).
A newly published paper on a randomised controlled trial shows the statistically significant effect of rhythmic training on disadvantaged children’s reading comprehension. Read more here.
Ericsson, K. A., & Moxley, J. H. (2014). Experts’ superior memory: From accumulation of chunks to building memory skills that mediate improved performance and learning. In T. J. Perfect & D. S. Lindsay (Eds.), SAGE handbook of applied memory (pp. 404-420). London, UK: Sage Publishing
Heckman, J.J. (2006) Skill formation and economics of investing in disadvantaged children, Science, 312, 1900-1902.
Long, M (2014) “‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading.” Research Studies in Music Education 36.1: 107-124.
Mathy, Fabien, et al. (2016)Developmental abilities to form chunks in immediate memory and its non-relationship to span development.” Frontiers in psychology 7: 201.
Rothbart, Mary K., Hasan Ziaie, and Cherie G. O’Boyle. (1992) Self‐regulation and emotion in infancy.New directions for child and adolescent development 55: 7-23.
Saffran, Jenny R., Richard N. Aslin, and Elissa L. Newport. (1996) Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants.” Science 274.5294: 1926-1928.
Siegel, D. (2007) The Mindful Brain New York: Norton
Zimmerman, B.J. (2000). Attaining self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In M. Boekaerts, P.R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds) Handbook of self regulation (pp. 13-39). San Diego: Academic Press
‘To be understood - as to understand’ from the prayer of St Francis captures a profound truth: we are at our happiest when we feel truly understood by others. This feeling of mutual understanding strengthens communities and generates an aura of certainty at the core of each individual’s character. The ability to understand exists in all of us, but can easily be obscured by doubt, worry or fear. Removing worries, doubts and fears leads to clarity –as Johnny Nash put it, “I can see clearly now the rain has gone…”. The same principle applies to reading comprehension. The songlike qualities of speech (i.e. prosody) come to life in children’s voices when they are able to read with ease, fluency and understanding.
In the Simple View of Reading, reading comprehension is described as the ‘product of’ skilled decoding and linguistic comprehension (Gough & Tumner, 1986). The recent focus on oracy (for example Barton, 2018) highlights a focus in some schools on linguistic comprehension. According to researchers, the proportion of children beginning school with speech, language and communication needs is estimated at between 7 and 20 per cent (McKean, 2017) and unfortunately, communication issues carry a risk of low self-esteem and problems with self-confidence (Dockerall et al., 2017).
In the Gough & Tunmer model, the term ‘product of’ seems a little vague. I like to think that ‘product of’ refers to the flexible quality found in skilled reading as well as the dynamic integration of natural language with the alphabetic code. At first, beginning readers struggle to accommodate words and sentences of a variety of shapes and lengths, but as they become more skilled, they ease into a state of flexible, responsive reading, which leads to being able to read sentences whilst processing meaning at the same time. What is even more remarkable about this process is that reading with this wonderful flexibility takes place within distinct time constraints.
The time constraints are a kind of rhythmic signature for language comprehension as well as music and are biologically determined (Long, 2006). Each and every line of a song, poem or musical phrase typically lasts for 3-5 seconds. This brief ‘window’ is our subjective sense of the present moment (Gerstner & Fazio, 1995). In a song, a poem or a musical phrase, this moment is packed with messages and meanings – relating information about feeling, being or doing. The rhythm of reading in any language is very flexible indeed, but it is underpinned by this constant ebb and flow of units of meaning every 3-5 seconds. Becoming aligned with this natural flow of meaning helps children to read words, phrases and sentences with ease, fluency and understanding and also to anticipate words and phrases prior to reading them.
The importance of this rhythmic ebb and flow of meaning cannot be overstated and is a core part of the Rhythm for Reading programme. The programme uses music rather than words to develop rhythmic sensitivity, so it is suitable for children and young people who need a sharp ‘boost’ in reading comprehension, language and communication skills, phonological awareness or cognitive control, whether attending mainstream or special schools.
Barton, G “Teachers should encourage pupils to speak up – and should remember to do so themselves TES News https://www.tes.com/news/teachers-should-encourage-students-speak-and-remember-do-so-themselves Retrieved on 29.4.2018
Dockrell, Julie Elizabeth, et al. “Children with Speech Language and Communication Needs in England: Challenges for Practice.” Frontiers in Education. Vol. 2. Frontiers, 2017.
Gerstner, Geoffrey E., and Victoria A. Fazio. “Evidence of a universal perceptual unit in mammals.” Ethology 101.2 (1995): 89-100.
Gough, Philip B., and William E. Tunmer. “Decoding, reading, and reading disability.” Remedial and special education 7.1 (1986): 6-10.
Long, M. “Stamping, clapping and chanting: An ancient learning pathway?” Educate Journal, 3, 1, (2006) 11-25
McKean, Cristina, et al. “Language Outcomes at 7 Years: Early Predictors and Co-Occurring Difficulties.” Pediatrics(2017): e20161684.
Academic achievement relates strongly and reciprocally to academic self-concept, for example in English and Maths (Schunk & Pajares, 2009) and also reading (Chapman & Tumner, 1995); moreover the importance of motivation increases as perceptions of reading difficulty increase (Klauda et al., 2015). So reading catch-up can also feel as if it’s a catch-22 situation. To resolve this issue, Hattie (2008) recommended that teachers teach self-regulating and self control strategies to students with a weak academic self-concept: ‘address non-supportive self-strategies before attempting to enhance achievement directly’ (Hattie, 2008; p.47).
Peeling back the layers on the self-concept literature, various models and analogies are available (Schunk, 2012). Hattie’s highly effective analogy of a rope captures rather vividly the idea of the congruence of the core self-concept as well as the multidimensionality of intertwining fibres and strands that are accumulated via everyday experiences (2008, p.46). The rope image supports the idea that a particular strand applies to maths, whereas a completely different strand applies to reading and another one for playing football and so on.
The relationship between self-concept and academic achievement is reciprocal (Hattie, 2008) and also specific to each domain (Schunk,2012). Therefore, strengthening self-concept for reading supports achievement in reading, while strengthening self-concept for maths supports maths skills. It is very difficult to strengthen low self-concept in a specific domain before addressing achievement in that area, unless introducing a completely new approach. It is important that the new approach supports self-strategies as well as directly building strength in domain-relevant skills. The Rhythm for Reading programme meets both of these requirements.
Rhythm for Reading works as a catalyst for confidence and reading skills and therefore lifts a negative reciprocal relationship (catch-22 situation) into a positive cycle of confidence and progression. This programme is effective as a reading catch-up intervention because it offers a fresh and dynamic approach, which perfectly complements to traditional methods. Instead of reading letters and words, pupils read simplified musical notation for ten minutes per week. Consequently, they are practising skills in decoding, reading from left-to-right, chunking small units into larger units, maintaining focus and learning, as well as developing confidence, self-regulation and metacognitive strategies all the while.
The musical materials used in the Rhythm for Reading programme have been specially written to be age-appropriate and to secure pupils’ attention, making the effortful part of reading much easier than usual. In fact, throughout the programme, the cognitive load for reading simple music notation is far lighter than for reading printed language, enabling an experience of sustained fluency and deeper engagement to be the main priority. As these case-studies show, this highly-structured approach has had huge successes for low and middle attaining pupils, who were able to read with far greater ease, fluency, confidence and understanding after only 100 minutes (ten minutes per week for ten weeks).
Chapman, J. W., & Tunmer, W. E. (1995). Development of young children’s reading self-concepts: An examination of emerging subcomponents and their relationship with reading achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 154–167.
Hattie, J. (1992). Self-concept. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Hattie, John.(2008) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge.
Klauda, Susan Lutz, and John T. Guthrie. “Comparing relations of motivation, engagement, and achievement among struggling and advanced adolescent readers.” Reading and writing 28.2 (2015): 239-269.
Pintrich, P.R. and Schunk, D.H. (2002). Motivation in education: Theory research and applications (2nd edition) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
Rogers, C.R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, inter-relationships as developed in the client-centered-framework. In S. Kock (Ed) Psychology: A study of a science, Vol.3, pp.184-256 New York, McGraw-Hill.
Schunk, D. H. and Pajares, F. (2009). Self-efficacy theory. In K. r. Wentzel & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Handbook of motivation at school (pp. 35-53). New York:Routledge.
Schunk, D.H. (2012) Learning theories: An educational perspective, 6th edition, First published 1991 Boston: Allyn & Bacon, Pearson Education Inc.
People are usually intrigued when I explain that this reading programme requires only 100 minutes from start to finish. In fact, pupils do not necessarily need 100 minutes to accomplish the goals of the Rhythm for Reading programme. Often improved engagement, comprehension, ease, fluency and joy of reading can be achieved after one hour spread across six weeks. A six week programme works well for the majority of children but for some who unfortunately do not attend school consistently, it would be far too easy for them to fall behind. By simply increasing the total length of the Rhythm for Reading programme from 60 to 100 minutes, all the children have enough time to develop their rhythmic awareness and experience the benefits in their reading. When 100 minutes are spread across ten weekly sessions, the programme slots neatly into a school term and this is convenient for everyone.
I am often asked how it’s possible for pupils to make real progress in only ten minutes per week and how certain can we be that the impact is attributable to Rhythm for Reading? These are excellent questions. First of all, pupils are reading everyday in the classroom, so they have ample opportunity to apply the rhythm-based approaches that they learn in the weekly ten-minute sessions to every task that involves reading during the school day. Each ten-minute session acts as a powerful catalyst, aligning decoding skills with the natural language processing abilities of the pupils. 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. Secondly, I made sure that Rhythm for Reading was among the first intervention programmes to be evaluated as part of the EEF initiative. In this trial, I chose not to exclude any pupils. This meant that some students that took part were unable to access the reading tests because they could not decode text at all. The randomised controlled trial showed scientifically that improved reading scores were attributable to participation in the Rhythm for Reading programme, even though it took only 100 minutes to complete.
The comma, according to Lynn Truss, clarifies the grammatical structure of a sentence and points to literary qualities such as rhythm, pitch, direction, tone and pace.
Truss says that careful use of the comma announces ‘an ear for sense and rhythm, confidence in your style and proper respect for your reader’ (p.70). The title refers to a well-known joke, which plays on the ambiguity of ‘shoots’ and ‘leaves’ as homonyms. To the ear and eye these words appear the same, but in different contexts their meaning changes. So, in the joke, ‘A panda walks into a bar…’, contexts collide, meanings are superimposed, but the punctuation rescues the reader.
This shows us exactly why reading for meaning is a multi-layered affair. To read the phrase ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ with understanding involves observing the comma as a formal separation of the first two verbs in a series of three, as well as inhibiting a miscommunication of meaning. From a rhythm-based perspective, the comma prevents ‘eats shoots’ from being read as a verb-noun pair. Verb-noun pairs are rapidly processed, high-frequency phrases that provide immediate understanding, such as ‘drives cars’, ‘writes books’, ‘plays games’ and ‘buys drinks’.
Remarking on the similarity between punctuation and musical notation, Truss observed that ‘punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart’ (p.20). Although there are different patterns of emphasis (prominence or stress) in different languages, dialects and indeed regional variations of any given language, what is important is that rhythmical cycles operate at several levels in both language and music. Remarkably, we generate these highly organised, intricate and geometric relationships of time and meaning automatically at a subconscious level of awareness.
At a conscious level, we are more likely to realise how involved or engaged we feel with the meaning of the story or song. Once our attention has been captured, we as an audience can become phase-locked into an experience of heightened awareness, which is effortlessly stored by the memory. In fact, laws, myths, legends and cultural histories have been preserved across generations in this way. This form of group learning via listening feels somewhat mysterious and therefore has often been vaguely described in phrases such as, ‘you could have heard a pin drop,’ ‘having the audience in the palm of your hand’ or ‘sitting on the edge of your seat’. The phase-locked experience is not unique to humans as most living things synchronise with cycles of light intensity. There are also patterns of synchronised sound among insects and synchronised movement in flocks of birds, shoals of fish and herds of cattle.
Through language and music our collective response to sounds (in the air or on the page) naturally predisposes us to become attuned to the recurring cycles of phrases, patterns within phrases and the overarching structures within which phrases are meaningfully grouped. I am not suggesting that we humans are mindless creatures, intrinsically satisfied by the hypnotic pull of recurring rhythmical patterns. No, we are very complex and capable of a vast range of behaviour from incredible subtlety in our rhythmic awareness to tremendous violations of natural rhythmical cycles. In general, our desire for novelty and our urge to create, to surprise, to shock, to satirise and push against outdated institutions, is expressed through rhythm. We have archived our experiences through storytelling and music with the resonance of an authentic human voice. The elasticity of congruent rhythmic structures accommodates newly-combined patterns, reminding us that far from being hypnotised by our own sounds, we are dynamic communicators with the ability to express, create, share and reflect upon our experiences.
Truss, L (2003) ‘Eats, shoots & leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation’ Harper Collins
The reason that Rhythm for Reading exists at all can be traced right back to a brief moment which was absolutely life changing. This is how it happened… I was working for the very first time with a group of nine year old children who had fallen so far behind their classmates over the years, that their class teacher feared for their future. I found them to be exactly as she had described, constantly misbehaving, very impulsive and unable to concentrate for longer than two seconds. The more important discovery however, was that my teaching techniques, which had until that point always been effective, had failed to engage these children.
Stepping into an inclusive mindset at that moment meant leaving the security of the ‘known’ behind. The first step for me was to acknowledge that I needed to know how to help these children. The second step was to pause for a moment and listen to the children, asking them about the things that they loved to do so that I could teach them more effectively. The third step was to find a way forward from that conversation.
It was obvious that football was hugely important to these children. They spoke about their footballing skills with a confidence that was so sincere, I felt that their commitment to movement could help me to teach them. At that time, the notion of learning through movement and rhythm was extremely unorthodox, but for these children, rhythmic exercises beginning with the feet proved to be extremely beneficial.They were soon better able to concentrate and their behaviour in class became calm and industrious.
Now, some twenty years later, neuroscientists have established the correlation between rhythmic awareness and reading and have shown the importance of movement for learning and memory. Those early steps in particular have been researched, evaluated and formalised into the own online teaching programme Rhythm for Reading.
An inclusive and equitable approach often demands courage and faith, but above all it specifies that teachers put learning first and take the necessary steps to teach children in the way that they can learn. The effects of inclusive teaching and learning have wide ranging benefits. Not only does an inclusive approach transform educational outcomes for all children, but it also reinforces the caring ethos of the school community, as well as deepening knowledge, expanding expertise and empowering teaching.
Through the analysis of data, our educational system has successfully identified inequalities and the influence of these on the future lives of disadvantaged children; but what is urgently needed now is a bold strategic vision with which to implement appropriate approaches that will support individual children, build cohesion within schools and strengthen the communities that they serve.
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.
A critique of the study pointed to a language deficit perspective, social stereotyping and methodological flaws such as selection bias (Dudly-Marling and Lucas, 2009). Some of the points that were raised about language style such as length and tone of an utterance, (comparing longer and more persuasive utterances in middle class homes with shorter, more direct utterances in welfare homes) may indeed highlight cultural differences rather than deficits. However, according to the theory of dynamic attending, shorter utterances, a more direct tone and more abrupt exchanges may influence a child’s attention (Jones et al., 2009), but of course the difference only becomes a deficit if as the child begins pre-school, their attention is too fragile to assimilate the curriculum.
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). From a rhythm-processing perspective, conversations nurture the child’s ability to listen, to engage, to respond and to reciprocate at precise moments in time. Feed-forward systems known to support language acquisition are rhythmically sensitive (Saffran et al., 1996) as are language generating processes such as associative priming (Jones & Estes, 2012).
In pre-school classrooms of societies which have relatively high levels of social inequality, it is unacceptable that an attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers still persists twenty years after the publication of the Hart and Risley study. Simply obtaining and critiquing data on attainment and home background is an inadequate response to a persistent problem. As educators we have a responsibility to close the attainment gap and to do so systematically, using a child-centred and holistic approach that is sufficiently bold and rigorous to ensure effective change.
Children who arrive at pre-school with fragile attention and are not yet ready to learn are not difficult to identify. Some children may demonstrate flat attention - generally they are difficult to engage. Some children may have a scattered pattern of fragmented attention - they demonstrate mainly impulsive behaviour. Some children are able to focus their attention, only to find that it fades before they have completed the task. Regardless of whether these children have missed out on the everyday conversations and interactions that systematically nurture cognitive attention during infancy and early childhood, their learning is supported by stable attention, and according to dynamic attending theory (e.g. Jones et al., 2009), stable attention is supported by rhythmic awareness.
Awareness of rhythm in terms of the conscious perception of words, music, movement and gesture is only the tip of the iceberg, as rhythm is processed to a large extent subconsciously. This subconscious element of rhythmic processing is difficult to teach without specialist training; for example, fragile attention cannot be addressed by simply chanting nursery rhymes or shaking tins of rice in the classroom. However, with a little training and knowledge of the mechanisms that are involved, it is possible to work effectively with both the conscious and subconscious aspects of rhythmic awareness in the classroom, to achieve transformational effects on reading attainment and to do so over a very short period of time (Long, 2014).
Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K. (2009). Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children. Language Arts, 86(5), 362.
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.
Jones MR, Johnston HM, Puente J. Effects of auditory pattern structure on anticipatory and reactive attending. Cognitive psychology. 2006;53:59–96
Jones, L. L. & Estes, Z. (2012). Lexical priming: Associative, semantic, and thematic influences on word recognition. In J. S. Adelman (Ed.), Visual Word Recognition, Volume 2. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.
Long, M. (2014). ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading. Research Studies in Music Education, 36(1), 107-124.
Paul, T.D. and Gilkerson, J. (2017). The Talk Gap, In R. Horowitz and S.J. Samuels, The Achievement Gap in Reading: Complex Causes, Persistent Issues, Possible Solutions, Routledge.
Saffran, J.R., Aslin, R.N. & Newport, E.L. Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science 274, 1926–1928 (1996).
The Rhythm for Reading programme helps teachers to support children’s reading-related skills in a dynamic way, which complements the conventional bottom-up phonics-based approach. The programme simultaneously sharpens phonological awareness, reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension. A remarkable impact: a 20 month average gain in reading comprehension, has been achieved in 10 weekly sessions of 10 minutes.
How does it work?
Right from the start, the programme harnesses the children’s attention through a series of fast-paced games and routines. These have been developed in classrooms over several years to ensure that rhythm-based approaches are assimilated efficiently, particularly by those with weak cognitive control. Each tiny step has been selected, analysed and organised into sequences as part of a system of Prepsteps. Teachers can view these on our learning platform as videos and read the accompanying fact sheets, which explain how and why each tiny step impacts on children’s cognitive control. Most of these tiny steps take less than 30 seconds to apply.
How do they work?
A light-hearted and fast-paced delivery style, as well as a rhythm-based approach entrains (synchronises) children to respond, to anticipate, to expect and to predict what is about to happen next. Consequently, there is an immediate improvement in children’s precision, self-control and engagement while encoding (taking in) new information. This level of involvement automatically inhibits unhelpful habits of learning, such as mind-wandering, distraction and interruption. At the same time, the children’s efforts are generously rewarded by both the musical engagement as well as by the socially-satisfying experience of being part of a team.
Why use music?
Musical notation is an extremely effective tool for boosting reading fluency. Why is this? Let’s begin by comparing musical symbols with letters of the alphabet. Children learn to recognise the letters of the alphabet (graphemes) by associating the detail of their shapes, consisting of loops, lines, curves and even dots, with the sounds of the smallest units of language (phonemes). These details must be processed automatically before fluent reading can develop. Musical notes, on the other hand have a uniform shape, consisting simply of a head and a stem, similar to a flower, or a lollipop. The uniform appearance of musical notes lightens the cognitive load involved in reading and allows children to read rhythmical patterns with fluency and ease.
Why should fluency in reading musical notation transfer to the reading of language?
Our own work in schools across England and Wales indicates that teaching children to read musical notation in a rhythm-based approach significantly accelerates reading accuracy and comprehension (Long, 2014). A possible explanation for this may be that the uniformity of musical symbols reduces a processing bottleneck, first identified by reading experts as a barrier to efficient reading forty years ago (Cutting et al., 2009). This issue persists even today and is described in terms of a cognitive trade-off between the decoding of print and the ability to process coherence between words, given limited cognitive resources (Oakhill, Cain and Elbro, 2014).
Consequently, musical processing provides a form of ‘buoyancy aid’ for reading with ease, fluency and comprehension, when cognitive resources are limited. Released from the ‘bottleneck’ associated with inefficient processing of alphabetic code, children decode musical notation instead and are immediately immersed into the regularity of rhythmic processing. The logical forms and hierarchical structures that are integral to the Rhythm for Reading audio-visual resources automatically train children to recognise grammatical structures, align with phrase contours and activate the associative priming mechanism (Jones and Estes, 2012) while they read printed language (Long, 2014).
What is associative priming?
1. Associative priming is activated by relationships between words, for example between ‘water’ and associated words, ‘drink’, ‘swim’, ‘wash’, ‘fish’. The context for ‘water’ would influence the salience of possible candidate words. So, a story about having fun in the water on a visit to a river would activate one group of words, whereas a story about finding water in a desert would activate a different set of words.
2. Associative priming is also influenced by syntax, so if the word ‘hit’ occurs in the ‘root’ (first part) of the sentence, word candidates such as ‘hammer’, ‘tennis ball’ or ‘nail’ could assist with decoding the ‘stem’ (next part) of the sentence.
3. Associative priming is a mechanism that drives the internal cohesion between words in utterances as well as in fluent reading, enabling several hundreds of words to be understood per minute.
4. Associative priming is in fact a natural part of language processing, (working equally efficiently for regularly and irregularly spelled words). Consequently, it offers promise as a supplementary reading strategy for low and middle attaining students and is far more efficient than the laboured phonological decoding, which is a characteristic of fragile reading.
The Rhythm for Reading programme has substituted words with musical symbols and offers an elegant solution to persistent verbal inefficiency and processing bottlenecks. Find out more here.
Cutting, L. E., Materek, A., Cole, C. A., Levine, T. M., & Mahone, E. M. (2009). Effects of fluency, oral language, and executive function on reading comprehension performance. Annals of dyslexia, 59(1), 34-54.
Jones, L. L., & Estes, Z. (2012). Lexical priming: Associative, semantic, and thematic influences on word recognition.
Long, M. (2014). ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading. Research Studies in Music Education, 36(1), 107-124.
Oakhill, J., Cain, K., & Elbro, C. (2014). Understanding and teaching reading comprehension: a handbook. Routledge.
From the age of three years, children spend much of the school day honing their capacity for effortful-control and mental focus. These efforts help to build foundations for self-regulation and goal-directed behaviour, which gain momentum from four years of age (Rothbart, Sheese, Rueda and Posner, 2011). Self-regulation involves the use of behaviours and strategies that support a desired outcome, as well as the suppression of any unhelpful impulses that would divert attention away from the desired goal.
It is unsurprising therefore that self-regulation, characterised by cognitive control, perseverance and self-discipline predicts academic attainment, and it is fascinating to find that this topic chimes in an interesting way with Aesop’s Tale of The Tortoise and the Hare. The fable tells of a boastful hare, who when challenged to a race by a tortoise was so confident in his ability to outrun the tortoise at the very last minute, that he went to sleep. The hare failed to wake up in time and the tortoise won the race.
Just as Aesop’s hare misjudged the timing of the race and underestimated the perseverance of the tortoise, so too are children with poor self-regulation prone to problems relating to social communication and overcoming procrastination. The underlying problem is this: unless attention is rhythmical, all of the child’s efforts to concentrate are spent on suppression. This is why a meaningful deadline appears to be helpful; it generates a target that enables the child to organise their attention ‘in time’. In truth, the systematic use of sanctions and rewards to manage difficulties with self-regulation and social communication may appear to ‘work’, but the danger of this type of approach is that it simply trains the child to become increasingly dependent on the intervention of a specific teacher, further decreasing their capacity to self-regulate.
What is required is a programme that realigns the child’s inherent sensitivity to timing in terms of (i) language and reading skills, (ii) selective attention and (iii) social group skills. Realigning a child’s sensitivity to rhythm at several levels simultaneously achieves an integrated result and lasting impact on several domains: phonemic awareness, cognitive control, inhibition, reading accuracy, reading comprehension, reading fluency, a sense of self-worth and a sense of social belonging. Addressing the underlying issues of weak self-regulation in this comprehensive and natural way, resets the child’s educational outcomes in alignment with an emotionally healthy and academically positive path. Read more.
Rothbart, M.K., Sheese, B.E., Rueda, M.R. and Posner, M.I. (2011). Developing mechanisms of self-regulation in early life, Emot rev: 3 (2) 207-213.
As we hurtle ever-faster into the age of digital communication, I find myself wondering whether metaphors are still useful in everyday life. Skilled journalists have always produced headlines using sharp, snappy metaphors to sensationalise, to ridicule and to frame an event, generating huge ripples of influence and instant impact. The pacy style of tabloid newspaper headlines is absolutely aligned with the short staccato formulaic styles of digital communication in everyday life. However, the sheer volume of electronic communication allows insufficient space and time for a metaphor to unfold. Far from allowing details to clutter the basic outline, the message must be brief, clear and direct. Any potential for misunderstanding can therefore be circumvented in advance.
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. The use of metaphor assisted the settlement of disputes because grievances could be powerfully expressed in novel and flexible ways. The free-floating nature of a metaphor enabled negotiations to ebb and flow within a conceptual framework and for objections to be recanted without fear of recrimination or loss of face (Samatar, 1997).
Naturally, a beautifully-crafted metaphor, enhanced by a heartfelt and expressive delivery could be highly persuasive and help to establish trust between all parties. The power of the metaphor has been driven by cultural traditions infused by intricate systems of symbol and superstition, which in historical terms have played an important role in everyday language. However, in the digital age of mass communication and scientific method, we seem to be leaving those magnificent days of rich and flexible communication behind. Perhaps the omniscient light-hearted face of our diminutive electronic emissary Mr Emoji is a direct descendant of the metaphor, arguably the greatest literary device of the ancient scribes and archive of oral folk-lore.
Samatar, S (1997) Sarbeeb: ‘The art of oblique communication’ In J.K. Adjake & A.R. Andrews (Eds) Language, Rhythm and Sound, University of Pittsburgh Press.
About twenty years ago, on a wintry Saturday afternoon in one of London’s most beautiful churches, I stood with a few musicians during a tea-break chatting about my ideas on rhythm and then someone mentioned educational research. The idea that research might answer some of the questions that had been buzzing about my brain for a few months seemed magnetic and I wondered how on earth I would meet the ‘ideal’ person who would actually do this research.
Eventually, it dawned on me that the researcher that I so desperately needed to meet, might one day be me. For a while it was difficult to reconcile the hard-working musician (who knew a lot about only one discipline) with a projection of myself as a researcher, who had amassed decades of specialised reading on the brain, had a broad skillset, produced presentations, publications and documents, but most importantly could answer my own questions about rhythm.
The journey from musician to researcher had very ordinary beginnings. Once I had read every relevant book in my local library, I took two post-graduate courses in the evenings (after work) and then I began doctoral research, travelling regularly to London, this time during the day. At that time I had more than five part-time roles in schools, as well as my work as a professional musician and also a research officer role at the Institute of Education – quite the plate spinner.
In education, there are powerful overlaps in the way that research is done by researchers, teaching is done by teachers and learning is done by learners. When these roles genuinely intersect and flow together, when thinking is shared, when communication is effective, innovation can be explored with potentially powerful impact. Recently, the journey into research came up in conversation with an enthusiastic teacher, who was keen to answer her own research questions. She mentioned to me that it was difficult as a parent to fit research into her hectic schedule. I could sympathise because a shortage of time is something that we all share. My own experience had been that limiting all trivial tasks to a ten minute ‘quick-zoom’ of frenetic activity turned out to be the most ridiculously satisfying way to create quality time. Most importantly, because time for studying was so precious, it was important to plan exactly what had to be accomplished in that time.
It’s my personal belief that a parent’s care and concern for their own intellectual development benefits their children hugely. It sets a calm atmosphere in the home as well as a deeply and sincerely-shared focus on curiosity and wonder. My children have only known me as someone with a pile of books, ideas and goals ‘on the go’ and have seen close-up, the importance of perseverance and consistent effort for generating an impact on the lives of others. They also know that the journey from musician to researcher started small, but with plenty of conviction. The librarians at our local library checked the maximum number of books that could be borrowed for one adult and two children every Wednesday afternoon. That weekly library routine certainly provided plenty of momentum for our reading habits and I’m pleased to say, has vastly transformed our lives.
Back in July I accepted an invitation to lead a workshop at the Music Mark North West Teachers’ Conference. The event took place yesterday and it was fantastic to have a chance to share much of the philosophy underpinning Rhythm for Reading with so many receptive music educators.
I have had first hand experience of teaching and researching in several parts of the North West region including Bradford, Keighley, Bolton, Oldham and The Wirral. Each of the schools I have worked in was situated in a complex community and I recall being so impressed firstly by the professionalism and resilience of the staff working in these schools and secondly, by the parents who were coping with economic hardship, mental health problems and family difficulties.
When I started to devise this workshop, I thought it would be interesting to pose the question: should rhythm be counted or felt? In dance and music and also acting, it is not difficult to find instances when counting is used as a device for organising choreography or the duration of time in the interplay between musical ideas or characters in a drama. Yet, audiences will agree that the best performances in any medium contain exquisitely sensitive moments, which certainly are not counted, but are felt with such intensity by the performers that a ‘moment’ of sensitivity can take on a particularly enhanced quality that is felt collectively by everyone in the room.
Similarly, most poetry ebbs and flows with the pulsations of thinking and breathing, which unfold naturally with the development of the poetic idea. Some poems are deliberately written so that the words emphasise a particularly regular metre. As a ‘device’, this is sometimes used lightly for humour, or when the syllables carry greater weight, to create a darker, fear-inducing atmosphere of suspense. Indeed, our awareness of rhythm can quickly evoke fear: the relationship between primary emotion and rhythm is a deeply rooted one.
It is certainly easier, in my opinion, to nurture sensitivity to rhythm in schools where the cultural ethos is strong. In such schools, pupils know that their ideas and contributions will be acknowledged and treated respectfully and they will therefore feel secure when trying something new in front of their classmates. On the other hand, in schools where the culture is relatively weak, pupils maintain a state of vigilance, attending to and monitoring their own safety whilst learning. It is far easier for pupils to cultivate sensitivity to rhythm in a supportive and safe school environment that ensures a consistently-strong culture of respect throughout the community. Sensitivity to rhythm could also be described as a flow state. Flow states are highly desirable as they nourish intrinsic motivation, resilience and self-esteem, which support a life-long love of learning (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
So, yesterday’s workshop was a behind-the-scenes view of Rhythm for Reading in which we considered the emotional and cultural challenges that pupils might be facing in NW schools, including newcomers to the region, pupils with SEN, pupils with EAL and how rhythm can support these pupils to cope with their challenges. The impact of increased sensitivity to rhythm is apparent in various ways. Teachers have rated improvements in social behaviour, learning behaviour and reading behaviour. Each of these domains is served by the attention system, which of course is highly influenced by state of mind and constantly attuned to the regularities in environmental sounds that envelop our everyday lives.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness, London: Rider, Random House Group
What could be better than big data? It has been a huge privilege to spend the past six months visiting an outstanding special school, which has commissioned research on the impact of the Rhythm for Reading programme.
Sensory-shock is one of those over-worked, high impact, culturally jarring phrases bandied about to solicit attention. Its use speaks to violation, but of what? It points to a loss of cognitive control that is immediate and devastating. In this school I learned that even seemingly small changes in the tone of voice of someone new, can be experienced by some of the students, as a sensory-shock.
Imagine the atmosphere. The school succeeds in providing an optimal learning environment. The students’ sensibilities and sensitivities are the priority – not simply on the mission statement, but always, everyday, all of the time. The students feel good; therefore they make progress, are productive and stay focussed. Maintaining high performance conditions for the students is what makes this special school extra special.
Having learned so much by visiting every week, I continue to learn as I engage with the data. In a natural setting where stress is minimised at all times, the effect of the Rhythm for Reading programme on learning is evident. On the other hand, when one class had a change of teacher, thus generating a shift in the conditions, the data clearly showed the effect of stress, which is also of interest.
Big data are not responsive to isolated events in individual lives; such events are simply aggregated into the muffled ambience of the overall picture. In other words, the immediate and devastating temporary loss of cognitive control caused by stress cannot be sensed by big data unless it is a relatively-widely occurring trend. Humans have evolved to be highly attuned to the emotional responses and needs of others, but our socio-cultural scripts have determined that our emotional sensibilities are relatively suppressed, which is why the big data revolution appears to be moving in the right direction.
Just as the school provided an ideal learning environment tailored to meet the students’ needs and sensitivities, it is appropriate to reflect in depth on the progress made in the specific setting, to map the trajectories of individual students and groups of students and to keep the influence of the context and conditions very much to the fore. This type of approach is grounded in the detail, conditions and context and therefore provides high levels of internal validity. The data collected from teachers and students also speak to the context and equip the school to contribute confidently to a wider debate about progressive teaching and the future of SEN education. Real data, grounded in the context of the real world, could be better than big data.
The recent tragic events in London and Manchester have been deeply painful and have also been a sharp reminder of the importance of taking progressive action in education. In 2012, I embarked on an entrepreneurial journey because I wanted the benefits of rhythm-based learning to be available in classrooms everywhere, as well as to ensure that certain educational advantages that are available to the privileged who can afford high quality instrumental music tuition would be, in a condensed and concentrated format, available to all. We hear frequently about the importance of reading for the development of empathy, and in 2014, I decided to create a project which would combine the theme of empathy with rhythm-based activities, which enhance social cohesion, reading fluency, reading comprehension and engagement. With the help and support of the senior leadership teams of two neighbouring, but very different schools, Alleyn’s, an independent school, and Goodrich Community Primary School, we have established a bond based on empathy, cooperation, rhythm and reading.
The project has completed eight cycles so far. Each week a group of assured and enthusiastic Year12 Alleyn’s students have accompanied me to Goodrich School, where they have mentored wonderfully effervescent pupils in Year 3 and Year 4. Everybody benefits profoundly from taking part: the mentoring students quickly learn to build trust and communication with the younger children, who experience a remarkable transformation in their reading. I am very much looking forward to presenting on this topic on Saturday 1st July at the UKLA 53rd International Conference 2017 ‘Language, literacy and class: Connections and contradictions’ at Strathclyde University, Glasgow.
In the past decade, several research papers on language processing have suggested that prediction is a necessary part of language comprehension.
In previous blog posts, I’ve referred indirectly to prediction by discussing work on statistical processing in infancy (e.g. Saffran, Aslin and Newport, 1996) and anticipation in ‘disappearing games’ (Ratner and Bruner, 1977).
Perhaps we could think of prediction as an idea that unifies probability, expectancy, anticipation, background knowledge, context and insight, not only in language processes such as listening and reading, but also in other forms of cognitive behaviour ranging from everyday activities such as preparing a meal to making complex executive decisions relating to long term planning and strategy.
Thinking for a moment about prediction in terms of linguistics, the traditional view favours generative models of language processing and these experts have assigned prediction a minor role or no role at all (for example, Jackendoff, 2007). However, since Giraud and Poeppel’s paper of 2012, there has been something of a shift towards the alternative view proposed by linguists interested in functionalist models such as computational modelling.
In discussing this topic, Heuttig and Mani (2015) have proposed a third way, which is that predictive processing may give language comprehension a ‘helping hand’. In their article they discuss findings which showed that the human brain’s beta rhythm activity is associated with a feed forward processing loop (Bressler et al., 2015; Friston et al., 2015) and an increase in beta rhythm activity in the brain when sentences are (i) syntactically and, (ii) semantically correct, (compared with sentences containing syntactic or semantic violations) (Kielar et al., 2014).
It is relevant therefore to note that during the Rhythm for Reading programme, teachers have noticed that pupils are better able to predict what is coming up in their reading, making a link between predictive processing and rhythmic processing highly plausible. In future posts I will delve deeper into this interesting topic.
Bressler, S. L., & Richter, C. G. (2015). Interareal oscillatory synchronization in top-down neocortical processing. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 31C, 62–66.
Friston, K. J., Bastos, A. M., Pinotsis, D., & Litvak, V. (2015). LFP and oscillations-what do they tell us? Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 31C, 1–6.
Huettig, F. and Mani, N. (2015) Is prediction necessary to understand language? Probably not. Language, cognition and neuroscience, 31 (1) doi:10.1080/23273798.2015.1072223
Giraud, A. & Poeppel, D. (2012). Cortical oscillations and speech processing: emerging computational principles and operations. Nature Neuroscience, 15(4), 511–517.
Jackendoff, R. (2007). A parallel architecture perspective on language processing. Brain Research, 1146, 2-22.
Kielar, A., Meltzer, J., Moreno, S., Alain, C., & Bialystok, E. (2014). Oscillatory Responses to Semantic and Syntactic Violations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1–23.
Ratner, N. and Bruner, J. (1977) Games, Social Exchange and the acquisition of language, Journal of Child Language, 5, 391-401
Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science, 274(5294), 1926-1928.
In a recent post, I referred to Ratner and Bruner’s (1977) article on ‘disappearing’ games such as peekaboo. The article is clear that play of this type contributes to an infant’s ability to engage and interact not only with the game, but with the world around them as well. The playful and even joyful energy of peekaboo accompanies each of these four stages of learning:
1. Maintaining focussed attention
2. Anticipating and predicting what will happen next
3. Synchronising with the game
4. Initiating the game.
Imagine for a moment that the infant did not respond at first. The adult would persist until the child’s attention had been captured, but in order to do this they would need to adopt a lighter tone and faster pace, achieving a playful and dance-like quality, key to achieving a state of alertness within relaxation.
What can we as educators learn from this?
A state of alertness within relaxation has been associated with flow, intrinsic rewards, growth mindset and even optimal experience. This state is desirable not only because it is pleasurable, but because it is highly stable and can therefore be maintained for long periods of time.
Stability in a state of mind suggests that mental poise can be thought of as a structure or scaffold and that this is essential to maintaining a state of relaxed alertness. Mari Reiss Jones (1976) proposed that attention was structured hierarchically around regularly occurring events. The regularity of the events (ie a rhythmic pattern of some sort) in turn builds up a sense of ‘expectancy’ of what will happen next at a specific point in time.
Understanding how to build stable patterns of attention is important for understanding how to support children’s learning.
In brain imaging studies, Merchant et al., (2015) have shown conclusively that attention is indeed organised in the way described in MR Jones and colleagues’ work on dynamic attending theory and that the brain’s reward system is involved in the cycle of correctly anticipating future events. Being able to anticipate what will happen next helps infants not only to develop ‘expectancies’, but also to experience human interaction as a rewarding and satisfying experience.
Peekaboo is important for another reason.
In the first few months, infants observe the movement of things in the world around them. They learn to differentiate between a person such as their mother and the stationary, unchanging (invariant) part of the scene, typically a room. The infant learns to perceive that a person is moving in a unified and coherent way through time and space in contrast to the unchanging backdrop of the room (Gibson, 1969).
However, in peekaboo games, the relationship between the figure and ground is disrupted by the disappearing and reappearing figure. Why does this matter? On the surface, peekaboo seems to cement the concept of object permanence through its concern with patterns of appearance and disappearance.
Superficially then, the backdrop of the room seems irrelevant.
When a disappearing game is viewed through a lens such as dynamic attending theory or theory of affordances (Gibson, 1950; Gibson, 1969), the backdrop of the room becomes more important. If the infant experiences the game as a pattern of events that can be predicted, then the backdrop of the room is a necessary constant against which the appearing and disappearing changes can be perceived and apprehended. In other words, the stability of the room provides a reference point, enabling the infant to gauge the game from the vantage point of the permanence and unchanging quality of the room, which enables a more sophisticated operation of extrapolation.
A similar judgement is made by a child learning to cross a busy road independently. To simply see whether or not traffic is moving along the road is insufficient. The child must learn to gauge how quickly the traffic is moving before deciding whether it is safe or unsafe to cross. As their experience of road safety accrues, the child becomes increasingly sophisticated in their ability to match what they see with their knowledge of the way that different types of vehicles move on different types of road (for example, approaching red versus green traffic lights, moving uphill versus moving downhill).
In terms of learning to read, the same distinction can be made. The print on the page conveys the sounds of language. Depending on how carefully phonics instruction has been delivered, the letters, b-i-r-d or b-ir-d may produce either ‘beard’ (unfortunately this is all too common) or ‘bird’. The structural cues of the unfolding, dynamic qualities of the sentence provide a grammatical framework against which the child inserts the decoded word. Of more use to the child though is the unchanging information that provides the backdrop to reading and allows the child to make accurate judgements about the nature and form of words to come.
The backdrop to reading is the space in the child’s mind.
This space is where images are conjured up based on what the child already knows, supposes and believes. This space is the place where the subject matter of the text meets the child’s own background knowledge, creating a state which motivates the child to read on and learn more. This state is desirable not only because it is pleasurable, but because it is highly stable and can therefore be maintained for long periods of time.
Ratner, N. and Bruner, J. (1977) Games, Social Exchange and the acquisition of language, Journal of Child Language, 5, 391-401
Jones MR. (1976) Time, our lost dimension: Toward a new theory of perception, attention, and memory. Psychological review; 83:323–355
Merchant, H et al. (2015) “Finding the beat: a neural perspective across humans and non-human primates.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 370.1664, 20140093.
Gibson, J.J. (1950) The perception of the visual world. Boston, Houghton Mifflin
Gibson, E.J. (1969) Principles of perceptual learning and development, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts
Today ‘gamification’ integrates the reward-related and therefore motivational aspects of game-like participation, helping many people to achieve their goals or targets. Gamification appears in classrooms, businesses, The World Bank and lifestyle apps, and even in recruitment campaigns for the US Army (Stanley, 2014). It encourages increased engagement, productivity, motivation to succeed with a new project or development of a new skill, allowing individuals, employers and schools to monitor progress and promote competition between users and teams. The importance of games for human development first begins in early childhood when parents assist their children in the acquisition of language. In a study of the nature of early ‘disappearing’ games such as peekaboo and hide-and-seek played by parents with young infants, researchers discovered that although these games were entirely spontaneous in style, they tended to use the same restricted format and clearly repetitive structure (Ratner and Bruner, 1977). The motivation and purpose of early playful games appears to be driven by the sheer joy of human interaction. These positive experiences prove to be irresistible and highly rewarding and have likely contributed to the evolution of the human capacity for language.
Although Ratner and Bruner’s study was published forty years ago, their question about the ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games is still highly relevant today. According to an OECD published report, it is likely that learning environments, emotions and social interactions play an important role and combine to shape learning and memory processing, embedded in interconnecting neural structures (OECD, 2007, 37).
Interestingly, Ratner and Bruner concluded that parents’ practice of deliberately restricting and repeating the game provided opportunities for infants to anticipate what would happen next in the game, to initiate the game and even to generate a synchronised ‘boo’ response with the parent as the game developed during the child’s first year. During this period, the degree of restriction and repetition, combined with positive experiences of social and emotional interaction would have provided a rich and playful opportunity for focused learning and memory development.
According to neuroscientists, repeated use of specific neural pathways catalyses the maturity of the neural structures through a process known as myelination. Myelin, a fatty substance, insulates the axons of nerve fibres of frequently used pathways, and the insulating effect rapidly accelerates to a factor of 100 the transmission of signals between interconnecting neurons (OECD, 2007, 37). It is highly likely that the restrictive and repetitive ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games described by Ratner and Bruner (1977) would have triggered the myelination process. Therefore, in, referring back to Ratner and Bruner’s question about the ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games, it appears that language learning during infancy and early childhood coincides with spontaneous and joyful social interaction with an accompanying sense of intrinsic reward. This arguably contributes to successful social interaction throughout life.
OECD (2007) Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development, Center for Edonomic Research and Innovation, understanding the Brain: the Birth of a Learning Science (2nd Edition) Paris: OECD CERI
Ratner, N. and Bruner, J. (1977) Games, Social Exchange and the acquisition of language, Journal of Child Language, 5, 391-401
Stanley, R. (2014) Top 25 Best Examples of Gamification in Business, accessed on 27.2.2017, 19.40 https://www.clicksoftware.com/blog/top-25-best-examples-of-gamification-in-business/
“What is the single mechanism underlying the impact?” is the question that I am asked most frequently.
This question speaks to the idea that a process can be broken down into its components: understood, isolated, manipulated, digitalised, scaled-up, patented and so on. However, language processing, like learning is not static, but dynamic and highly influenced by context. The more interesting question is:
“What is the single process underlying the impact and what conditions ideally support this?”
The ideal conditions for the Rhythm for Reading programme are those in which pupils and teachers reinforce a culture of high expectation around self-respect and respect for each other. Inclusive approaches in teaching and learning are important too, but without a culture of high expectation around self-respect and respect for each other, inclusive approaches to learning are impeded.
Many pupils who are struggling to access the curriculum because they have low or middle attainment (with or without special educational needs / disability) are often those who are limited by working memory capacity or fragmented attention or both. On top of this, stressful conditions can interfere with efficient functioning of working memory and compromise learning. From background noise levels, to bullying, to the pressure of exams, various stressors interfere with efficient functioning of working memory.
Of course, some children (and adults) are more sensitive to stress than others. There may be high levels of stress and adversity at home, with a knock-on effect at school. However, having interviewed many teachers and parents on this topic, it’s certainly easier to build trust with parents at a school in which an ethos of high expectation around self-respect and respect for each other is rigorously practised. Interestingly, there is a difference between a ‘caring’ atmosphere and a school culture, which relentlessly pursues self-respect and respect for each other. A ‘caring’ atmosphere bends and sways in response to individuals and their circumstances, but this approach is not sustainable and leads to burned out staff. A culture of high expectation around self-respect and respect for others that is rigorously maintained is more effective because it provides a universal level of consistency and clarity in which everyone’s circumstances are supported.
The notion of ‘high expectation’ vibrates at the heart of an attitude of self-respect and respect for others. The practice of ‘high expectation’ does not succeed because it is simply ‘enforced’, but because it is embedded in the attitude of all of the adults in the school. The most extraordinary headteachers that I’ve worked with are those that practise an attitude of generosity in their vision for the school. They tend to look for opportunities to develop teachers as individuals with bright careers ahead of them and also to support those that may flounder from time to time. The commitment between each member of the teaching team and the headteacher is essentially a vibrant one in which the head might say, “I help you to help me”. This reciprocal approach demands that high expectations around self-respect and respect for others flourish, because it is in everyone’s interest that they do so.
Researchers are in agreement that sensitivity to rhythm predicts phonological awareness and reading attainment. In everyday life, we may be aware that slogans are ‘catchy’ because their rhythm captures our attention, but most of us are unaware that rhythmic structures help to organise the way in which we hear, speak, read and think.
Philosophers have studied the organisational function of rhythm in language through the ages. Fifty years ago, Derrida wrote about the importance of accents and contours in spoken language in ‘Of Grammatology’. The contour may be understood as the intonation, or rise and fall of the voice in spoken language. Accents may be described in terms of expression or structure. They convey meaning through prominence, increasing the intensity or length of a particular sound within the rhythmic pattern of an utterance. Teachers of reading may be reminded of prosody.
Derrida referred back to Rousseau (EOL, 1781), particularly Strabo’s (65BC-23AD) account of the grammarians, Architas and Aristoxenus, emphasising their method of teaching their subject through music. The description outlined a form of language, more eloquent and expressive than our own. Clearly, the ancients were highly aware of the rise and fall of melodic contours and the patterning of rhythms. In fact, there was little separation between speaking and singing. The first stories were retold in verse and the first laws were solemnly sung.
A relationship between rhythm and learning is found across cultures. For example, Samatar’s description of ‘Sarbeeb’ in Somalia detailed important events committed to poetic form to emphasise their significance for the community.
Although the melodic and rhythmic qualities of speech are no longer a prominent part of our everyday life, we certainly need to assimilate information efficiently. Consequently, sensitivity to rhythm remains highly relevant today. Rhythmic sensitivity not only strengthens the ability to read with ease, fluency and understanding, but also supports sustained focus and concentration.
Derrida, J. (trans. Spivak) [1997 (1967)]: Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Strabo, (trans. Jones)[1916 (65BC-23AD)] Geography I, Heinemeann, (pp.300-303)
Samatar, S. (1997) Sarbeeb: The art of oblique communicationin Somali culture In J.K. Adjake & A.R. Andrews (eds) Language, rhythm & sound, University of Pittsburgh Press.
BETT 2017 is just around the corner! In a few weeks, Rhythm for Reading will be taking part in The Great British Trail in partnership with the Department for International Trade (Stand D30). We will be sharing our ideas and vision with visitors using audio and video clips and other goodies. We’ll be on stand C62 and look forward to saying hello.
The Rhythm for Reading programme helps teachers and students to activate the rhythmic aspect of reading, which researchers are discovering is so important for fluency and understanding.
Why not think of rhythm as the heartbeat of reading?
Just as a heartbeat is dynamic, adjusting to our every need, rhythm in reading is the adjustable quality that provides strength, responsiveness and flexibility as sentences of all shapes and sizes flow through the text.
Just as a heartbeat is organic, supporting life in each part of the body from the smallest cells to the largest organs, rhythm in reading reaches systematically into every part of language. Like a heartbeat it spreads both upwards, supporting the structure of phrases and sentences and also downwards, energising and sharpening the edges of syllables and phonemes. Rhythm therefore brings the different grain sizes of language into systematic alignment with each other.
Sensitivity to the rhythmic cues in reading can be developed very easily. In fact, we already use rhythm in everyday life to coordinate activities that we take for granted such as walking, talking and even in our breathing. However, as reading is a socially learned activity, the rhythmic quality that is naturally present in language processing does not always map with ease onto decoding skills. This is why for some children reading does not become increasingly skilled over time, even when decoding skills are secure. Fortunately, sensitivity to rhythm in reading can be improved very quickly as these case studies show.
Look out for the next post in this series on rhythm at the heart of reading.
It may seem odd to post on the topic of resistance on the first day of the year, but let’s not forget that the flip side of a new resolution involves effort to override old patterns.
Resistance is the entrenched furrow that our habitual thoughts have engraved in our mind. We feel resistance when the initial impetus of the new wears off and the familiarity of old patterns begins to reassert itself.
This is a fascinating and an uncomfortable topic. Why? Resistance is a potentially self-sabotaging behaviour. It has the power to divert our efforts to try new things, unleashing mainly unwelcome opportunities to face our old fears and stories. Overcoming resistance can only achieve short-term gain, but it is when resistance is ‘released’ that the benefits are permanent and lasting change becomes possible.
In fact, some of my most rewarding and meaningful experiences in teaching have involved releasing children’s resistance to reading, to teamwork and to moving in time with others and with music. This has happened in a very short timeframe, as part of the process of developing fluency and flow states through rhythm.
Interviewed about the factors that interfered with flow states, (see last month’s post for more on this) Csikszentmilhalyi’s informants described, ‘aspects of normative life’ (2000, 96) which included: unmanageable fears, slavery to the clock, orientation towards ends, extrinsic material and social rewards, distraction / confusion of attention and isolation from nature
From this list, it seems that the conditions of contemporary life may not only impede the development of flow states, but also reinforce the experience of resistance. Sadly, many of the items on the list can be recognised in our homes, places of work, schools and classrooms. As we move forward into 2017, perhaps, a fresh look at our everyday lives could help us to find and maintain flow states and make time for opportunities to gently release resistance.
Csikszentmihalyi: (1975; 2000) Beyond boredom and anxiety: Experiencing flow in work and play, 25th anniversary edition San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Inc.
In recent posts, I’ve described reading fluency as necessary for the experience of reading as a pleasurable and personally rewarding activity. The intrinsic rewards of reading for pleasure can lead individuals into a flow state, in which they describe being swept up or getting lost in a book and losing track of time.
A flow state is highly desirable as it is associated with efficiency, well-being and the development of expertise in many different fields. To understand the flow state phenomenon, Csikszentmihalyi interviewed expert surgeons, rock climbers and chess players who had developed their interest in each activity mainly for its intrinsic rewards, but also spoke about the element of risk involved. It is fascinating to consider that these individuals felt compelled to push hard against the limits of their knowledge and skills and actively challenged themselves in ways that forced them to develop their competence further.
A willingness to confront challenging situations, which involved a degree of risk, enabled these individuals to build systematically upon their knowledge, competency and skills, which in turn led to the development of their expertise. There are obvious dangers in surgery and rock-climbing, which put physical safety at risk, whereas in playing chess, the risk occurs at an abstract level involving the mental discipline and strength of each player. However, in each setting, the surgeons, rock-climbers and chess players experienced what Csikszentmihalyi described as a ‘merging of action and awareness’, which enabled them to focus all of their attention on their engagement with the activity (2000, p.149).
In studying the flow state, Csikszentmihalyi discovered patterns such as (i) move and counter-move in chess and (ii) movement and balance cycles in rock-climbing. These patterns of behaviour were key to achieving a state of relaxed alertness, described by one participant as a ‘self-contained universe’ (2000, p.40). Surprisingly, the similarities between the flow state described in high stress activities such as playing chess and rock-climbing can be compared with the more relaxing activity of reading for pleasure: this is similarly dependent on the coordination and maintenance of multiple skills, but with the addition of fluency of movement across printed words and the deployment of rhythmic sensitivity to the patterns within language.
Just as the natural rhythms of move versus countermove in chess and, movement versus balance involved in climbing induce a state of alert awareness, research into rhythm-based approaches to the teaching of reading has shown that developing pupils’ sensitivity to rhythm has allowed them to enjoy and understand what they read at the level of the phrase, the sentence and the narrative (Long, 2014). This state of pure involvement and learned sensitivity has enabled children to make extraordinary progress in only ten weeks - best of all, they now love to read. Read more.
Csikszentmihalyi: (1975; 2000) Beyond boredom and anxiety: Experiencing flow in work and play, 25th anniversary edition San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Inc.
Long, M. (2014) ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading, Research Studies in Music Education, 36 (1) , pp. 107-124
Last month’s post focussed on the expressive aspect of reading fluency, drawing a comparison between the varying trajectories of a ball in a tennis match with the varying contours of sentences in a passage of text. The analogy served (npi) to emphasise the high degree of flexibility and poise required for fluent reading. However, in this post I want to stress the importance of the link between reading fluency and reading comprehension: skilled readers who are able to read with fluency and understanding are swept up into a virtuous spiral, which contributes to a lifelong-love of reading and learning.
There is little point in being able to read quickly, accurately or fluently, if readers cannot process the meaning of a passage. Without the automatic integration of decoding and semantic processing that skilled readers enjoy, weaker readers cannot experience the intrinsically rewarding aspects of reading and benefit from the same virtuous spiral. A wide range of cultural factors such as maternal education, gender, SES and changes in digital technology may be detrimental for some children, but it is important to maintain the high expectation that every child can become a skilled reader. Training weak readers to identify in a text the visual match to the key words in a comprehension question and then retrieve the whole sentence without necessarily understanding the text for example, can only serve to degrade their experience of reading and learning.
Readers with poor comprehension skills are limited by their recognition of printed words as ‘signs of language’ that convey sound (phonological processing). Skilled readers on the other hand, recognise words and phrases as ‘signs of real or imagined life’ that convey meaning (phonological, semantic and syntactic processing).
Interestingly, the integration of decoding with semantic processing occurs without deliberate effort on the part of skilled readers. Weak readers, however need help with integrating decoding, syntactic and semantic processing. This can be achieved by improving their sensitivity to rhythm in a matter of weeks. Rhythmic awareness is integral to the way we breath, eat, laugh, speak and move and can be extended to reading too. Read more here.
In this second blog post in my series on reading fluency, I am looking at prosody. Prosody is closely associated with skilled reading, being integral to fluency and a predictor of achievement in reading accuracy and comprehension (Veenendaal et al., 2016). Prosody is not taught, but it is a naturally occurring feature of competent reading. The words on the page may be arranged in horizontal lines, but a good reader transcends the visual appearance of the words, allowing them to take on a natural, flexible and speech-like quality.
Perhaps good readers could be compared to good tennis players in the sense that they can respond intuitively, flexibly and rapidly to the dynamic, fast-moving pace of change, whether on the court, or on the page. Imagine you are watching a tennis rally. Every time the players hit the tennis ball, it carves a unique trajectory through the air. Often, the players may return the strokes in the manner of reciprocation, but sometimes the trajectory may surprise or challenge a player, requiring them to respond with renewed agility if they are to regain their poise.
Poise is also required in reading and researchers have asked how good readers are able to rapidly integrate the elements of reading, given that the processing areas of the brain known to be involved in the decoding and understanding of printed language, are not local to one other (Rayner, Pollatsek, Ashby, & Clifton, 2012). It is possible that just as good tennis players are able to predict their opponent’s next stroke, good readers are able to predict the most likely contour in terms of sentence structure, and anticipate the most meaningful content in relation to contextual cues, thus integrating the various processes of reading.
The rhythmic elements of integrated processes are perhaps more apparent in a tennis match than in reading. The elasticity and subtle shifts in the rhythm of a tennis rally can electrify a crowd. Each stroke is not a mere repetition of the previous stroke – it is a renewal of the previous stroke and as such, is inherently rewarding to the player and the audience. Similarly, as a reader confirms the meaningful aspect of one sentence and projects the probable meaning(s) at the beginning of the next sentence, a natural cycle of projection and renewal of understanding develops.
Rayner, K., Pollatsek, A., Ashby, J., & Clifton, C. Jr., (2012). Psychology of reading (2nd ed.). New York: Psychology Press.
Veenendaal, N.J., Groen, M.A. and Verhoeven, L., 2016. Bidirectional relations between text reading prosody and reading comprehension in the upper primary school grades: a longitudinal perspective. Scientific Studies of Reading, 20(3), pp.189-202.
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. Luke (not his real name) aged 11, attends an outstanding school in the East of England and according to the school’s tracking data in December 2015, his reading age was 8 years, 3 months, which was broadly in line with our baseline reading rate score using the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability (NARA II).
Luke has SEN, but he participated in the Rhythm for Reading sessions with unwavering commitment. Although he was quite a bit younger, he quickly became the leader of a group of adolescent boys all of whom struggled with attainment across the curriculum. Luke’s teacher observed all of the sessions. She was amazed by his confident approach and said that this was a side of him that the staff at school had not seen before.
The ten sessions of the programme ended in March 2016. Luke had gained 7 months in reading fluency (AAB)* and 35 months in sentence comprehension (AAB). His scores on the NARA II showed a gain of 13 months in accuracy, 8 months in comprehension and 38 months in rate of reading.
Luke’s teacher observed his classwork and filled in a tick box survey, comparing his recent progress during the programme with his usual rate of progress. During the period from January to March 2016, his teacher observed that he’d made better progress than usual in using punctuation, understanding texts, participating in class and in his attitude towards reading.
In March, I asked Luke whether or not he’d noticed a change in his reading since we started the programme. He replied, “It’s helped me with my reading and my eye focussing and my concentrating.” When I asked him how that made him feel, his response was heartfelt,
It makes me feel better. It makes me want to read more. I never wanted to read. I never used to read. Now I love reading.
Hearing Luke read expressively and effortlessly on that day was wonderful, but to hear him proclaim his enjoyment of reading was such a privilege. I heard from his teacher at the end of June that all of the boys who had taken part had maintained their progress.
*You might be wondering what the AAB is. The Academic Achievement Battery (AAB), constructed by Melissa Messer, was published in 2014 by PAR. The AAB is suitable for children and adults (4 - 85 years) and offers 15 subtests in reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic. There are two similarities between the sentence comprehension test from the AAB and reading comprehension as assessed by the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability (2nd British Edition), published by GL Assessment. Both tests assess comprehension while the pupil has the text in front of them. In other words, they are not being assessed on their capacity to remember the text. Like the NARA II, illustrations are an integral part of the AAB test, increasing the appeal of the format for reluctant readers with fragile word recognition skills. The AAB measures reading fluency as the number of correct words read in one minute. The obvious advantage of this approach is that it is quick and easy to use. However, it is not designed to capture the positive changes in expression and engagement with reading that we have become accustomed to hearing. More on this next time!
The National Association for the Teaching of English 2016 Conference began on the 24th June, the day that the referendum result was announced and closed on 25th June with a witty and poignant keynote from the wonderful Children’s Laureate (aka Launderette) Chris Riddell and plenty of laughter from delighted delegates. Simply being among so many positive people at a time of immense change really underlined the value of high quality events such as this one. Now is the time to adapt and plan for the likely changes that lie ahead; we absolutely must make sure that every child and young person learns in a safe and inclusive atmosphere.
How is it possible to achieve so much more when resources are already stretched and budgets are constrained? Here are a few ideas based on reflections from NATE 2016. Make sure that….
1. Every child is able to access the curriculum. It may be challenging to offer continuous speech and language support or EAL support because of budget constraints, but please consider investing in local, flexible, qualified, competitively priced, self-employed specialists.
2. Every child can see and can hear well enough to learn. Every year I meet a small number of children who struggle with reading because of poor eyesight or hearing. Sometimes, the problem is known, but has not been addressed – please find and prioritise these children and young people.
3. Every word matters. The eloquence and articulacy of the speakers and the delegates at NATE reminded me that our thoughts and words are among our sharpest tools and that we build our communities through language. The impact of language is immediate. By finding extraordinary words that are not only appropriate to the situation, but also are more imaginative, or more precise, or more motivational, or more compassionate than usual, we are better equipped to manage new situations and the challenges of changing situations.
4. Every decision is a positive decision. By resisting the opportunity to teach the same text in consecutive years, by choosing not to opt for the shortest text as a way to save time in the next academic year, we make decisions that will enrich rather than degrade every working day of the year ahead.
5. Every classroom community is friendlier, safer and stronger. Music is the social superglue of human evolution; it is remarkable in building social cohesion out of thin air and like superglue, a little goes a very long way. Looking forward to next time…
Please browse the website to find out how music and language can work together to promote reading and learning.
As a necessary part of due diligence, school leaders must ask probing questions before committing to an intervention and research is an important source of information. In previous posts, I’ve highlighted academic work that explores for example, the importance of rhythm in infant language learning (October, 2015), the development of reading skills (March, 2015) and language processing in the auditory brainstem (November 2015).
It’s important to consider the extent to which school leaders can have confidence in the rigour of scholarly work and peer-review. A peer-review panel made up of academics with specialism in a particular field is uniquely qualified to judge that an article is not only relevant to the readership and methodologically sound, but also meets the ethical and academic standards of the publication. Many journals now offer free access to high quality, peer-reviewed content considered to be relevant to a wider readership (e.g. Long, 2014).
Incredibly, more than 5,000 academic papers are published each year in journals on the role of shared or overlapping neural structures known to contribute to linguistic processing and musical processing. Although many people intuitively believe that it may be possible to isolate and identify a ‘single mechanism’ that might explain the overlap between language and music, it is becoming more likely that several interconnected mechanisms or networks may be involved (e.g. Peretz et al., 2015).
When pupils in key stage one, key stage two and key stage three have taken part in the Rhythm for Reading programme, they’ve described benefits to their reading, concentration and attitudes to learning, suggesting that the impact of the programme is fairly broad. Recent research with older pupils in a special school has also demonstrated clear benefits of the programme on reading attainment and other areas of learning behaviour.
Consultation meetings with school leaders have sparked interesting discussions, with particularly popular topics which come up again and again.
1. The structure and content of the Rhythm for Reading programme.
2. The ‘single mechanism’ that might explain how the programme works.
3. The suitability of the intervention for different groups of children, for example pupils identified with EAL or SEND or FSM.
4. Professional development.
5. The development of the Rhythm for Reading programme.
As these are really popular questions, I’ve made a useful free resource for school leaders, please click here to have a read.
Marion Long. ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading. Research Studies in Music Education (2014): 1321103X14528453.
Peretz, Isabelle, et al. “Neural overlap in processing music and speech.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 370.1664 (2015): 20140090.
Creativity is in us all. Our creative impulse generates streams of language, songs, gardens, new recipes based on what’s in the fridge and spontaneously occurring ideas. There is a playfulness in the ‘what if …’ process which guides the initial impulse into something more considered, more useful, more committed. Shaping and honing lead to rapid iterations of the initial idea. A sense of expectancy and involvement builds as the creative process gains momentum.
Imagine a group of children aged nine years who have fallen many years behind their classmates and cannot maintain their attention for even five seconds, but they are highly motivated to learn to play a musical instrument. Imagine their confident teacher, who spent 20 minutes of a half hour lesson trying to find a task that engaged them, but had failed to teach them anything at all.
As the teacher inwardly acknowledged the failure of the lesson, the children visibly braced themselves for harsh words. The atmosphere in the room was hushed and expectant. What happened next? The teacher looked for the path of least resistance asking, “What do you do after school?” They loved to play football and the teacher quickly discovered that they were better able to learn when they moved their feet.
This approach was unorthodox, but justifiable because the children’s self-control and self-awareness was far better practised in football skills than in anything else. Some months later, their progress in music had been excellent and their classwork had transformed. They were showcased by their headteacher: playing as a group and individually in full school assembly in the presence of Ofsted inspectors and invited to join the school orchestra immediately afterwards.
Here’s the take away message. The four conditions that ensured the lasting success of this approach point to the importance of outrageous levels of optimism in a school (judged to be outstanding).
1. The children wanted to learn to play a musical instrument.
2. Their class teacher saw this as an important opportunity for them.
3. The headteacher placed a high value on music in the school.
4. The continuity of weekly lessons in a suitable room meant that the creative process evolved without interruption.
There are so many overlaps between poetry and music. People ask me frequently why it is that reciting poetry seems to really help children, particularly those that may find other aspects of reading somewhat challenging.
Practising poetry by heart is a massively experiential process. The feeling of the sounds in the movement of the face, the jaw and the tongue are dance-like sequences and enjoyed for their bold sensations, which in terms of conveying their mood and colourful tones and timbres are musical in every way. In terms of how it feels, this is just like practising a musical instrument; indeed practising poetry through the congruence of movement, sounds and patterns is a deep and enriched form of language learning that we all can enjoy, having mastered this first as infants acquiring our mother-tongue (Nazzi et al., 1998) .
If you read aloud or recite Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, it’s easy to invoke the atmosphere and moods created by movement, rhythm and sound, even though the words of the poem are utterly meaningless. Behind the evocative tones of the nonsense words, there’s a robust rhythmical structure and fascinatingly, researchers have found that we respond to the poem as if to a projected illusion of grammatical structure (Bonhage et al., 2015). The importance of rhythmical patterns is that they cast beams of expectation, helping to guide and focus our attention, enabling us to fully anticipate and enjoy all the more, the likely flow of the sounds and the colourful moods of the poem.
The usefulness of rhyme, so popular in children’s literature, is that it offers a fun and playfully supportive, highly accessible and very basic form of phonological awareness. Hearing the rhyming feature in words is a massive anchor for children who may arrive at school struggling to discern word boundaries in a stream of speech. This example of rhyme is from, ‘One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish by Dr Seuss (1960):
This one has a little star. This one has a little car. Say! what a lot of fish there are.
Rhyming words are also invaluable for those children who come to school with a clearer grasp of language. Children are stimulated by rhymes, because rather than simply following the language of the poem, they are more deliberately focussing their attention in order to predict the placing of the rhyming word at the end of the line or phrase. For these reasons it is not surprising that highly rhythmically aware children are more likely to become good readers (Tierney and Kraus, 2013) – they arrive at school able to anticipate and enjoy the structure of rhythmic patterns in language. Similarly, children who may struggle with reading thrive when practising poetry because the explicit rhythmical structure and shorter phrase lengths support their attention, helping them to perceive the meaningful elements of language more easily.
In the Rhythm for Reading programme, we takes this principle further still, by providing rhythm-based reading tasks that give the children a chance to build their awareness of rhythmic patterns very rapidly. The sessions are a highly condensed extraction from traditional musical training. Building a strong response to rhythmical patterns, children develop and sustain their attention across increasingly complex musical phrases. Their awareness of rhythm transfers into their reading development after only a few ten-minute sessions.
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Bonhage, Corinna E., et al. (2015) “Combined eye tracking and fMRI reveals neural basis of linguistic predictions during sentence comprehension.” Cortex 68, 33-45
Dr Seuss (1960) One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Random House
Nazzi, T., Bertoncini, J. and Mehler, J. (1998). Language discrimination by newborns: Towards an understanding of the role of rhythm, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 24, 756-766
Tierney A, Kraus N (2013) Music training for the development of reading skills. Prog Brain Res 207:209 –241
When did you last feel your ears ‘pop’ and lose the sound of your own voice?
Like many people, this happens to me fairly frequently on flights and car journeys. Adapting to the muffled world of partial hearing is quite intriguing as it offers a rare glimpse into what my brain is doing behind the scenes while I’m having a simple conversation. Of course, I’m always extremely grateful when my hearing returns to normal again.
Our awareness of speech is organised for the most part around our perception of sound, which is probably why our awareness of the rapidly changing jaw movements or the movements of facial muscle groups is suppressed while we are speaking. Consequently, losing the sound of our own voice is extremely disruptive to normal speech production.
If like me you’ve tried to persevere with a conversation in the absence of sound perception, you may have experienced that the movement sensations produced by facial muscles and jaw muscles are no longer suppressed, but that you become aware that your perception of your facial muscles is magnified, revealing in detail the intricate facial shapes necessary for the formation of syllables and words.
Even though the power of speech feels far slower and more effortful in the absence of sound, it’s still possible to continue speaking by monitoring the rhythmic patterning of the jaw and the facial muscles. In this way, rhythm unifies intention and movement in language, overriding the temporary disruption to the auditory system.
Losing the sound of my own voice made me realise how tiring communication can become if the sounds of language are not clearly relayed from the voice to the auditory system. It also indicated the importance of the role of rhythm as a bidirectional frame both for anticipating and tracking the number of syllables produced in an utterance.
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). However, 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).
If this interests you, why not dip into the case studies and sign up for weekly updates.
Fernald, A, Marksman, A & Weisleder, A (2013) SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental science 16, (2) pp. 234-248.
Long, M. (2016) Rhythm for Reading, English 4-11, 56, pp. 5-6
Long, M. (2014) “I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read” An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading Research Studies in Music Education, vol. 36, no. 1, pp.107-124
Stackhouse, J. & Well, B. (1997) Children’s Speech and Literacy Difficulties: A psycholinguistic framework. London: Whurr.
This post describes the tenth of ten Rhythm for Reading sessions. By this stage 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 important part is this: the group experiences music at a deeper, more interpersonal level when these skills become reliable and relaxed, even when facing more challenging tasks. Here’s a short description of how this felt in the final session of the programme and a quick drill down into the concept.
After a couple of minutes, everyone’s behaviour changed at the same time. There was a sharp increase in the level of congruence in the group. Standing calmly as the task ended, they waited and gladly repeated the experience, expanding even more fully into the sounds they were creating. This level of working was maintained consistently for a further eight minutes, after which the group left the room feeling energised and calm, returning cheerfully to class.
These words have been carefully chosen to describe as accurately as possible how working in this way with the rhythm-based elements of music makes a difference to emotional wellbeing. Congruence in this sense refers to the sheer strength and coherence of our perception of rhythmic patterns, particularly when working as a group. Gains in reading behaviour can be measured, but the more profound benefits to wellbeing such as the increase in confidence and happiness that many children describe, are not measurable.
This rather reminds me of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on ‘flow’ or ‘optimal experience’. 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.
The spontaneous element of what I have described is not trivial, but extremely important, as it describes how the deeper and more satisfying levels of engagement can be achieved through working in this way. Perhaps it is our irrepressible ability to generate congruence from patterns in music and language that fuels our joy of reading and of music making.
Find out more here
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) ‘Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness’ Rider, Random House, ISBN 9780712657594
In recent weeks, Frontiers in Psychology published a meta-analysis by Gordon, Fehd and McCandliss (2015) which asked, ‘Does music training enhance literacy skills?’
The authors described a ‘rapidly accumulating body of evidence’ and listed studies that reported significant associations between musical training and language skills, such as Magne et al. (2006) and others which described enhanced brain responses via musical training to unexpected timing and duration of syllables (Chobert et al., 2011) and pronunciation (Milanov et al., 2009). They also reported significant correlations between musical aptitude (in the absence of musical training) and reading performance (Strait et al., 2011).
Gordon and colleagues also referred to a study in which ability in musical rhythm explained the variance in production of grammar in six year olds and complex sentence structures in a follow up (Gordon et al., 2015) and cited earlier studies of musical rhythm, in which an ability to synchronise with a beat predicted phonological awareness and rapid naming tasks (Woodruff Carr et al., 2014), second grade reading skills (Dellatolas et al., 2009) and better reading performance in adolescence (Tierney and Kraus, 2013).
Historically, scholars have made use of a wide range of literacy-related outcome measures and this proved something of a challenge for Gordon and her co-workers. Assessments of reading ability and phonological awareness have been designed to measure reading comprehension, reading rate, reading accuracy, reading fluency and a variety of phonological awareness related skills. Some measures control for working memory, while others do not. Assessments also vary in their formats. Some simply require an individual child to read a list of single words aloud, while others can be administered to groups of children, requiring them to read passages of connected text in silence. To some extent, direct comparisons of effect size can be made, but unless these are described in terms of their educational context, teachers cannot make informed decisions about the usefulness of rhythm-based approaches for different reading-related skills.
The use of random assignment in an educational setting putatively isolates the impact of an intervention under experimental rather than quasi-experimental conditions; yet no such experimental conditions exist in a school. Indeed the authors’ meta-analysis indicated that the amount of reading-related support given to children was rarely held constant over time. Moreover, the random assignment of individuals to any ‘treatment’ is known to induce positive or negative placebo effects, which can be sufficiently powerful to influence outcomes. In the context of a school, influential factors contributing to such effects typically include (i) compatibility of the individuals within the ‘treatment’ group, (ii) location of the ‘treatment’ in a room associated with a particular function in the school and (iii) timing of the ‘treatment’ to routinely coincide with particular social or academic activities.
All of the studies included by the authors in the meta-analysis have been peer reviewed. Relatively few studies had used the RCT paradigm, but all of the studies compared musical training against controls, and included before and after comparison measures and indicated that reading instruction had been held constant across groups. Out of 4855 publications obtained in searches between November 2013 and March 2014, only 13 studies fulfilled these requirements and were included in the meta-analysis.
Three of these studies were considered by the authors to be particularly highly powered because they controlled for IQ and SES; they obtained very large effect sizes. A study of the effect of musical training on word reading obtained an effect size of 1.07 (Moreno et al., 2009). Moritz et al., (2013) reported the effect of musical training on phonological skills (PAT rhyming discrimination), whereas Dege and Schwarzer (2011) showed the impact of musical training on phonological awareness (DEBELS). Both teams found large effect sizes of 1.20 and 0.78 respectively.
To inform future directions for studies of this type, Gordon and colleagues proposed that the following questions should be addressed. For further information about rhythm-based approaches to reading, click here.
1. “What are the effects of different components of interventions (rhythm, pitch; instruments vs. singing; phonological activities in musical context, etc.) on training efficacy?”
2. “What degree of music-driven gains in phonological awareness is needed to impact reading fluency?”
3. “What are the mechanisms underlying improvement: such as attention, motivation, (e.g., OPERA hypothesis; Patel, 2011), speech prosody sensitivity, and/or working memory?”
4. “How are changes in brain function and structure associated with music-training-driven improvements?”
5. “How do individual differences predict response to training? Is there a subset of children that stands to benefit the most from music training?”
(Gordon et al., 2015, p.11)
Chobert, J., Marie, C., Francois, C., Schön, D., and Besson, M. (2011). Enhanced passive and active processing of syllables in musician children. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 23, 3874–3887. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00088
Dellatolas, G., Watier, L., Le Normand, M. T., Lubart, T., and Chevrie-Muller, C. (2009). Rhythm reproduction in kindergarten, reading performance at second grade, and developmental dyslexia theories. Arch. Clin. Neuropsychol.
24, 555–563. doi: 10.1093/arclin/acp044
Gordon RL, Fehd HM and McCandliss BD (2015) Does Music Training Enhance Literacy Skills? A Meta-Analysis. Front. Psychol. 6:1777.
Gordon, R. L., Shivers, C. M., Wieland, E. A., Kotz, S. A., Yoder, P. J.,
and Devin McAuley, J. (2015). Musical rhythm discrimination explains individual differences in grammar skills in children. Dev. Sci. 18, 635–644. doi: 10.1111/desc.12230
Magne, C., Schön, D., and Besson, M. (2006). Musician children detect pitch violations in both music and language better than nonmusician children: behavioral and electrophysiological approaches. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 18, 199–211. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.2.199
Milovanov, R., Huotilainen, M., Esquef, P. A., Alku, P., Välimä ̈ki, V., and Tervaniemi, M. (2009). The role of musical aptitude and language skills in preattentive duration processing in school-aged children. Neurosci. Lett. 460, 161–165. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2009.05.063
Patel, A. D. (2011). Why would musical training benefit the neural encoding of speech? The OPERA hypothesis Front. Psychol. 2:142 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00142
Strait, D. L., Hornickel, J., and Kraus, N. (2011). Subcortical processing of speech regularities underlies reading and music aptitude in children. Behav. Brain Funct. 7:44. doi: 10.1186/1744-9081-7-44
Tierney, A. T., and Kraus, N. (2013b). The ability to tap to a beat relates to cognitive, linguistic, and perceptual skills. Brain Lang. 124, 225–231. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2012.12.014
Woodruff Carr, K., White-Schwoch, T., Tierney, A. T., Strait, D. L., and Kraus, N. (2014). Beat synchronization predicts neural speech encoding and reading readiness in preschoolers. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 111, 14559–14564. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1406219111
Perhaps the most important part of what we do is to hear children read individually for twenty minutes at the beginning and end of the Rhythm for Reading programme. Through this process we measure their progress, provide useful data for the school and also extend our expertise on reading development.
In a recent follow-up session, a Year 5 student had discovered to her great relief that she could at last understand the message carried by the words that she read. Her reading comprehension age had soared. With great excitement she explained that she planned to go with her cousin to visit the library in the centre of the city where she lived.
Her 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.
Davis, N. (2011, illus. Brita Granstrom) Dolphin Baby. Walker Books ISBN 9781406344011
Features such as the rhythmic swing of the language, subtle use of alliteration and the careful exploration of a dolphin’s sound world make this a book that strongly resonates with Rhythm for Reading.
Davis, N. (2013, illus. Annabel Wright) Manatee Baby. Walker Books ISBN 9781406340884
Inhabiting the mind of Manuela, we discover how it feels to paddle along the Amazon and to kill a Manatee, a protected mammal. The rhythmic flow of the language is powerful, steering the reader through lavish descriptive writing and moments of buoyant, lively interaction between the characters.
King Smith, D. (2005) Dinosaur Trouble. Penguin ISBN 9780141318455
This enjoyable story is perfect for Rhythm for Reading children who have started to read longer words with confidence and are highly motivated to develop their vocabulary.
Chambers, C. (2015, illus. Emmanuel Certissier) Dinosaur Hunters. Dorling Kindersley IBSN 9780241182598
This is an innovative story for older readers and is refreshingly free from cultural stereotypes. It is about three global citizens from England, Japan and Brazil, who meet through a time-travel App. The descriptive language supplies finely grained details both of historical settings and digital devices.
Burgan, M. (2015) Life as a Gladiator Raintree ISBN 9781474706773
This interactive history adventure allows the reader to construct his / her own storyline using metadata to link to any of three different historical perspectives. It is fast-paced, yet packed with fascinating detail and classical scholarship.
For a copy of the full list please email email@example.com
Our ears are open all the time. Even sleeping newborn infants subconsciously respond to the sounds around them, indicating that from birth (1), humans are constantly exposed to their auditory environment.
In their review of the research evidence, Kraus & Chandrasekaran, (2) underlined the importance of the initial, subconscious (subcortical) stage of auditory processing. Before sound reaches our attention, the auditory brainstem responds to incoming information from our ears, integrating the spatial, rhythmical and acoustical features of sounds.
These features include frequency (high and low pitches), the timbre of the sound (for example, differentiating between human voices) and rhythmic features (such as the regularity or predictability of sounds). The auditory brainstem is extremely sensitive to very subtle differences in sound waves, such as individual phonemes in language and plays a critical role in early identification of sounds and their patterns in particular. Over time, the auditory brainstem produces an idiosyncratic response to sound that is unique to each individual.
Thus, the auditory brainstem response reflects the current state of the nervous system – the state at that time formed by an individual’s life experience with sound (ibid, 2010, pp. 601).
More recently, researchers have found that the auditory brainstem seems to respond with greatest clarity to the sounds with which the individual is most familiar. Having listened to brainstem responses of musicians, they found that for example, pianists’ brainstem responses to the sounds produced by a piano were unusually sharply defined when compared to those of non-pianists. Brainstem responses also appeared to receive feedback information from cortical areas of the brain (3).
Further developing the line of enquiry, scholars (4) proposed that the availability of cortical feedback (from the cognitive processing of sound) allowed the brainstem response to become increasingly specific over time. For instance, musical expertise that has accumulated over a lifetime leads to extremely fine-grained auditory brainstem responses among professional musicians, not only to musical sounds, but also both to phonemes and the pitch contours of language (5). Once the brainstem has adapted to cortical feedback, it appears to retain its enhanced structures as confirmed by a recent study of speakers of Mandarin and amateur musicians (6).
Overall these studies show that an overlap exists between early stage auditory processing of spoken language and musical experiences. Cognitive feedback informs development of these structures and expertise in music appears to enhance the auditory brainstem response to language, which coincides with our work in Rhythm for Reading.
1. Nameth, R., Haden, G., Miklos, T. & Winkler, I (2015) Processing of horizontal sound localization cues in newborn infants, Ear and Hearing, 36 (5), pp. 550-556
2. Kraus, N and Chandrasekaran, B. (2010) Music training for the development of auditory skills, Nature Neuroscience, 11, pp. 599-605
3. Strait, D.L. Chan, K., Ashley, R., & Kraus, N (2010) Specialisation among the specialised: Auditory brainstem function is tuned to timbre, Cortex, 48, pp. 360-362
4. Skoe, E., Krizman, J., Spitzer, E., & Kraus, N. (2014) Prior experiences biases subcortical sensitivity to sound patterns, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27 (1), pp.124-140
5. Musacchia, G., Sams, M., Skoe, E. & Kraus, N. (2007) Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104.
6. Bidelman, G.M., Gandour, J.T., Krishnan, A., (2011). Cross-domain effects of music and language experience on the representation of pitch in the human auditory brainstem. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 23, 425–434.
How do tunes and rhymes find their way into our heads? Although repetition seems to be important for any type of learning, patterns of words and tunes seem to have an almost magnetic quality in the way that they spontaneously stick in the mind. This type of learning is extremely powerful. It’s known as implicit learning as it appears to require no effort at all.
Scholars have identified the importance of implicit learning for infant language development. In fact, they have revealed that infants are naturally sensitive to the distribution and frequency of patterns. The power of this, so-called statistical learning was clearly demonstrated when infants responded to rhythmic patterns in language, even when the natural intonation or prosodic features in speech had been removed (Saffran et al., 1996).
It seems that implicit language learning is a natural response to regular occurrences such as rhythmic patterns and sequences in the sounds of language. Infants hear these in their everyday exposure to language and also by producing patterns through babbling. According to Vihman (2015), this is why the development of language is to a degree, individual for each infant. A virtuous cycle soon develops once infants have realised that things around them have names and begin to learn words more deliberately and explicitly, storing phonological representations of words as symbolic, semantic associations. Language learning continues as infants identify probabilistic patterns within words, again through implicit learning and this leads to sensitivity and production of grammatical structure. Isn’t the strength, power and universality of these processes absolutely remarkable?
Saffran, Jenny R., Richard N. Aslin, and Elissa L. Newport (1996). “Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants.” Science 274.5294, 1926-1928.
Vihman, M. (2015) Handbook of Language Emergence. MacWhinney, B. & O’Grady, W. (eds.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 437-457
The energy of a new school year is incredibly positive and also very demanding. Some students will begin the term refreshed, starting the year with high aspirations, new stationery in their new school bags, others will be anxious or even angry that the work ahead of them will be even more difficult to understand than it was the year before. Many will look forward to seeing classmates again, but socially less well-adjusted children, will dread a return to taunts and jibes and loneliness.
Many will be beginning the new school year with the best of intentions, wanting to please teachers, trying to better organise themselves and to contribute in lessons. Some will lack motivation, and for complex reasons, will continue to struggle, as despite everyone’s best efforts the school system does not really appear to help them.
I am frequently inspired by children who do not understand what they read, but trust that with more reading practice, their experience of reading will become more rewarding. Unfortunately, practising reading in this way is not going to help them to improve. Unless word recognition skills are fully integrated with the child’s understanding of language, a profound disconnection between these processes will persist.
Equally inspiring are the teachers and classroom practitioners who are faced with the enormous task of teaching children with extraordinarily wide-ranging attitudes to learning. I see consistently wonderful teaching in classrooms week after week, year after year. We really should celebrate that we have such a high calibre workforce in our schools.
There are new case studies on our website, illustrating how the Rhythm for Reading programme continues to support teachers in resolving the difficulties that children experience with reading comprehension. Click the link to read more.
At this time of year it’s good to feel that much has been accomplished. Programmes have been completed, training delivered, progress measured, reports read, certificates received and so on. However, educating children and young people is about so much more than ticking lists of to dos.
I’m so grateful to work with fabulous teachers in the schools that I visit and I’ve experienced close-up their boundless enthusiasm, interest in trying new things and dedication to supporting their pupils in every possible way. Accelerating progress and boosting wellbeing are important educational goals of course, but equally prominent should be the development of a very profound sense of social connectedness. A ten-year old boy explained this very clearly to me recently,
“It made me feel welcome to the group because everyone was doing the same thing. Everybody knew it. I didn’t feel left out because usually I feel left out in a group.”
For me, this suggests that some children respond particularly positively to highly structured group activities. The phrase, ‘Everybody knew it’ mirrors the emotional security that develops when the certainty of knowing exactly what to do and say, is complemented by knowing how to contribute with confidence. When the barrier of uncertainty has been eliminated, learning can be experienced as a limitless, virtuous cycle.
In this particular instance, the virtuous cycle was achieved through highly structured group sessions in which the synchronised response of the group was an intrinsic element of the pedagogy. The group grew in confidence week by week, as the tasks that they accomplished together became increasingly intricate, fast-paced and complex; consequently they enjoyed a profoundly social experience of learning.
I’m reminded by Hall, Curtin & Rutherford to mention Lave’s pertinent advice – which is so relevant here and now: Learning is not something in itself, it is part of social life. (Hall et al., 2014, p.166)
Hall, K., Curtin, A. and Rutherford, V. (2014). Networks of Minds: Learning, Culture and Neuroscience, London and New York, Routledge
Lave, J. (1996). Teaching, as learning, in practice. Mind, Culture and Activity 3(3): 149-164
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 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.
In 2013, I adapted the Rhythm for Reading programme so that I could put in place urgently needed support for a group of Year 1 and Year 2 children, who struggled with phonics. Their school had already seen impact of the programme on key stage two children, so the leadership team were keen to extend its reach. At that time, I saw the programme as ideally placed to support older children, a body of research evidence has established the relationship between rhythmical awareness and phonological awareness in young children. The research argues that a strong awareness of rhythm is a reliable predictor of phonological awareness, which in turn is a strong predictor of reading attainment (see Hallam, 2015, for a comprehensive review).
However, since 2013 I’ve found that the most obvious barriers to learning for the key stage one children that I’ve worked with are fragmented, scattered attention, weak inhibition and a very short attention span of only a few seconds. Unsurprisingly, emotional insecurities are very common as well. As you may realise, children experiencing these particular difficulties would certainly struggle to discern, to retain or accurately produce a rhythmically aware response. It’s clear too, that when elevated or low arousal levels have been alleviated during Rhythm for Reading sessions, dramatically improved levels of attention, awareness of rhythm and phonological awareness soon follow.
In the context of the Rhythm for Reading programme for key stage one children, the most important adaptation has involved developing simple, fast-paced team-building games which focus on ears, eyes and voices. A subtle form of metacognitive training, these help the children to deepen and extend their attention. Combining the games with music and rhythm-based approaches to reading make it possible, in a few short sessions to support them in reading music fluently and inhibiting inappropriate responses, whilst enjoying working together as a team.
Hallam, S. (2015) The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Music Education Research council (iMERC)
As we move deeper into the digital era, we are faced with new challenges for the future of our education system. Independent online learning and unlimited access to information is our new reality. We are striving to adapt to innovative new ideas, to release familiar old ways, and to step up and out of comfort zones into dazzling new ways of thinking and responsiveness in a faster-paced world.
In an age in which skilled manual labour is increasingly being replaced by robots and highly sophisticated technology, reading at a ‘functional’ level has become a massively out-dated concept. Similarly, the widespread practice of training children to answer a question about a written passage by identifying a key word in the question, locating it in the text and then writing out the sentence that surrounds it, is not only a waste of time, but this sham practice is harmful: it allows children to assume that reading is nothing more than a mundane word search exercise.
A specific and urgent challenge for educators today is this: to find new strategies that will equip children to read with understanding. The current emphasis on systematic phonics is disproportionate. We must remember that because phonemes are the smallest sounds of language, each phoneme occupies only a tiny proportion of any sentence, amounting in natural speech to only a fraction of a second. This is why a disproportionate amount of time spent on phonics can interfere with the development of reading with ease, fluency and good comprehension.
Reading well is a feat of delicate coordination between the reader’s eyes, ears and mind in alignment with the ‘voice’ of the author. Achieving this alignment is the process that allows the reader to assimilate meaning as it ‘flies’ off the page (or screen) into the reader’s consciousness.
Reading well depends on an intuitive response to the underlying binary relationship between the subject and predicate in every sentence. The syntax determines the rhythmic structure of the sentence. Consequently, the rhythmic ebb and flow of written language should be felt as intuitively as the rhythmic ebb and flow of speech, even though styles of writing and of speech vary widely. The sentence as a whole and coherent unit is vibrant, elastic and flexible with its meaning perceived not through the synthesis of its many phonemes, but through its overall rhythm and structure.
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As educators we are required to make thousands of small but important decisions everyday. Striking the right balance involves blending professional judgement with our integrity and experience. Through reflection perhaps with colleagues, we are constantly learning from our experiences.
I have been thinking hard about special education (SEND) recently. Rhythm for Reading is an inclusive programme. Students with learning differences are fully involved alongside their classmates and the programme is accessible even to those who cannot yet read simple words such as ‘cat’. This is what a child said recently to me about the programme: “I liked how we had to keep it in the team at the same time. I felt more surrounded. I had people to keep me upright.” So, when a pupil shows absolutely no desire to contribute to even the most basic of Rhythm for Reading exercises, whilst all around him others are learning rapidly and having fun, my own personal learning journey fires up in a big way.
Each Rhythm for Reading session is only ten minutes long and so every second is precious. Is this child withdrawn, overwhelmed, lacking in confidence, lacking social skills, frightened or generally resistant to new things? What is clear and of concern to me is that he is ignored by the other children and hardly responds to anything I say or do. His teachers are highly protective of him and they can recite a list of issues and medical problems: he is a special child.
I believe that if a child processes and performs tasks more slowly than his classmates, as educators we must help him to develop the strategies that he needs to adapt to different settings. Self-regulation strategies for example, are key for learning road safety skills: learning to judge the speed of traffic, inhibiting the impulse to wander into the road, as well as being able to find a safe place to cross are essential to every child’s survival, no matter how special that child’s needs might be. While road safety lessons are clearly a matter of life and death, it is the quality of life of each child that is determined in the classroom. To teach a special child to cope with a broad range of settings with confidence is a highly worthwhile investment of our time and energy. There are so many benefits of joining in with others in a structured group activity. It is enormous fun and a profound sense of belonging and unity develops through cooperation. Of course, this outcome can only be fully enjoyed by everyone, if everyone has contributed wholeheartedly to the success of the task.
If you have enjoyed this blog, you might also like to learn more about our work on metacognition and self-regulation. If you’d like more information about the programme, contact me direct, or sign up for free weekly ‘Insights’, which launches next week!
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’.
A few months ago, I sat down on the floor of the school hall with ten children as they embarked on their first Rhythm for Reading session. I explained that we would be doing lots of teamwork. Four of the children said “Yessss” in a loud stage whisper and wriggled in delight, huddling cosily together. The others looked at me in complete horror. Although they sat quietly, their sharply drawn breath, their tense shoulders and stunned faces communicated their utter dread of teamwork clearly enough.Obviously, when a teacher chooses two team captains and tells them to pick teams in front of the class for a games lesson, each child’s worth or ‘value’ to their peers is revealed. To be picked first for a team is a deep honour and to be picked last, a deep humiliation. Presumably, these feelings have an enhancing or diminishing influence on the child’s performance in the team, but these experiences will over time impact on a child’s self-esteem. This harmful practice can be avoided by asking the team captains to privately pick their teams from a list of names at the teacher’s desk.
Musical teamwork on the other hand is highly inclusive and ensures that nobody is first and nobody is last. In the same way that every fish in a shoal will suddenly change direction at exactly the same time, musical teamwork requires that all students contribute in the appropriate way and at exactly the right time. In the Rhythm for Reading programme, the main priority is that the students work together confidently, collectively and synchronously, an approach that is underpinned by published research (Long, 2008; Long & Hallam, 2012; Long, 2014). Neuroscientists (Bhide, Power & Goswami, 2013) confirm that learning collectively in this way, i.e. via ‘entrainment’ has a statistically significant and powerful impact on academic attainment, as detailed in this recently published report by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. http://tscouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/COMPLETE-REPORT-Goswami-Childrens-Cognitive-Development-and-Learning.pdf
Bhide, A., Power, A.J., & Goswami, U. (2013). A rhythmic musical intervention for poor readers: A comparison of efficacy with a letter-based intervention.Mind, Brain and Education 7(2), 113-23.
Long, M (2014) “I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read”: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading, Research Studies in Music Education, 36(1) 107-124.
Long, M and Hallam, S. (2012). Rhythm for Reading: A rhythm-based approach to reading intervention, Proceedings of Music Paedeia: From Ancient Greek Philosophers Toward Global Music Communities, pp.221-232, 30th ISME World Conference on Music Education, 15-20 July, Thessaloniki, Greece.
Long, M. (2008) A Rhythmic View of Reading: From word recognition to reading comprehension, A submission to ippr’s Britain’s Got Brains Competition, Institute of Public Policy Research. www.ippr.org.uk/researchthemes/education
The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people, by internationally renowned Professor Susan Hallam MBE, University College London, Institute of Education was published at the end of January 2015. The review brings together more than 600 scholarly publications, which provide compelling evidence of the positive effect of music on literacy, numeracy, personal and social skills to support the argument for the inclusion of music in the education of every child and young person.
Music, more than any other discipline consists of ways of doing things (techniques and methods) and ways of being (empathy, intention, style etc). Perhaps, the most important of these is how to listen well. Children, immersed in their family and home environment from pre-birth to school age, have learned nearly everything they know about their language and culture through listening. A high quality musical education develops listening far beyond the everyday level by enhancing and deepening communication; it also refines physical coordination skills far beyond what can be achieved through sport. The unique combination of these elements contributes immensely to pupils’ wellbeing and to learning more efficiently.
The value of a high quality musical education in primary school, consisting of the integration of listening skills with singing, physical coordination and notation reading skills cannot be overstated. As musicians we have a huge responsibility to equip primary teachers with great tools, and training of the highest quality so that they feel confident, secure and empowered in this exciting and creative role. With the tools and training in place, all primary teachers can deliver a high quality musical education, bringing the power of music into their classrooms and witnessing the profoundly vibrant effects of music education.
Reading is mysterious. It can be deconstructed into its constituent parts such as vocabulary, contextual knowledge, grapheme recognition, phonological awareness and so on and represented in flow diagrams. However, after many years of scholarly research, the processes that contribute to fluent reading are still not fully understood.
When a learner’s reading fails to flow, phonological awareness training is a staple remediation strategy in schools. This is fairly unsurprising because research suggests that difficulties with phonemic awareness are strongly related to specific problems with reading and spelling.
Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in language and each of these tiny sounds occupies a fraction of a second in the flow of spoken language in real time. Although, phonological awareness is necessary at the early stages of reading, it is not sufficient for the development of reading with ease, fluency and understanding.
Fluent readers intuitively convert print into meaningful language. To do this, they focus their attention in a particular way, which enables them to monitor and assimilate meaning from the content of printed language while they read. Their experience of reading is dynamic and responsive. Fluent readers are simultaneously aware of grammatical structures, evocative details in the language and the resonance of these details with their knowledge of the context.
When a learner’s reading doesn’t flow easily, it is likely that that their attention has for too long supported their reading as relatively static experience, rather than as a dynamic activity. If you’d like to know more, sign up for weekly insights into the Rhythm for Reading programme.
As the year draws to a close, i’d like to say a heartfelt thank you to all the school staff and leadership teams who have invited Rhythm for Reading into school to work with their pupils in 2014. This truly has been an amazing year and it has been an incredible privilege to work alongside so many extraordinary professionals.
Perhaps, these individuals and teams are special, not only to me but to us all in the sense that they are ‘early adopters’ within the education community. According to Rogers’ famous “Diffusion of Innovations”, ‘early adopters’ comprise 13.5 % of any given population. These are the professionals who are most likely to particularly influence those around them. Having worked closely with them, I have been blown away by their exceptionally energised, informed, confident and remarkably positive approach to teaching and learning.
Working within schools, our experiences have closely echoed Rogers’ observations of early adopters. These are the qualities that we experienced when we worked in these remarkable schools with these wonderful teams. These bullet points are quoted from ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ to explain how the early adopter category, more than any other:
• ‘Has the greatest degree of opinion leadership in most social systems’
• ‘Is considered by many as “the individual to check with” before using a new idea’
• ‘Is a role model for many other members of a social system’
• ‘Is respected by his or her peers, and is the embodiment of successful and discrete use of new ideas.’ (Rogers, 1983; 248)
In fact, many of the teachers that we have worked most closely with this year have been invited to speak at one or more high profile events or have previously come to prominence as recipients of education awards. This suggests that Rogers’ theoretical approach resonates with what we are seeing in the schools that are currently using the Rhythm for Reading programme. These teachers’ attitudes to everyday work and their relationships with their pupils and wider communities are enlightening, intensely curious and insightfully engaged. It has been truly inspiring to work with each and every one of them.
If you have seen our website and thought, “Okay, but what does rhythm have to do with reading?” - here’s a post that explains one aspect of the Rhythm for Reading programme and the way that it helps pupils to read for pleasure. Language, in speech and written form, is all the more evocative and intelligible when its sounds, syntax, style and structure cohere to compelling effect. Reading for pleasure, becoming completely immersed in a book, appears to be effortless because our reading skills generate a self-sustaining momentum. Let’s unpack this.
Every sentence, no matter how simple it appears to be is remarkable in that it is shaped from a seemingly infinite range of possibilities. Sentences vary enormously in their length and complexity, yet they are essentially binary in their structure: consisting of a subject and its predicate. The tension between these grammatical elements plays an important role in generating the self-sustaining momentum of language.
To read a simple passage of printed language without undue effort, a reader needs to be able to negotiate the shape and structure of the sentence in addition to recognising the words. Word recognition skills are necessary for the development of fluent reading, but are not sufficient. Reading for pleasure involves being able to ride the rhythm generated by the grammatical structure of language and being able at the same time, to respond to the shape and pace of each sentence. During Rhythm for Reading sessions, pupils are immersed in a series of reading tasks that are enriched by musical shapes, styles and structures. This approach offers a unique opportunity to develop the dynamic processes that contribute to reading for pleasure without front-loading pupils with word recognition.
Whether chanting slogans, learning times tables, conjugating verbs, memorising telephone numbers or reciting poetry, the chances are that most people have at some point relied on their sense of rhythm to memorise units of information. The regularity of the beat underpinning a rhythmic pattern generates a stable framework, pulling discrete units of information together into chunks that are more easily remembered. The regular beat is as predictable (and cyclical) as the sound of waves breaking on the shore. However, the presence of rhythm in our everyday lives is relatively subtle, particularly where language is concerned. This may be because our perception of time is predominantly linear in terms of having a past, present and future or in terms of structure, a beginning, middle and end. We make linear arrangements of words on a page and are usually fixated on the end point – debating how effective and how satisfactory the resolution might be.
Both the process of reading in order to learn and the sense of ease and fluency that we experience when reading for pleasure are little understood by researchers, but the role of rhythm is key, as the Rhythm for Reading blog will explain in the posts that follow.