Rhythm for Reading - sustainable reading intervention for schools

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Child development in 2024: Learning versus hunger

3 January 2024

Credit image: Hollie Santos via Unsplash
Credit image: Hollie Santos via Unsplash

I had planned to find a light-hearted piece of new music education research for the first post of 2024 and maybe a few fun facts. I considered a study on the benefits of chanting, another on whether rats feel groovy (and yes, rats do feel the groove), but eventually I chose a new piece of research on the benefits of singing to infants because it drilled down into a possible relationship between rhythmic movement and expressive vocabulary development (Nguyen and colleagues, 2023).

At the same time, I considered recent topical pieces on child development and education in the mainstream media. Suddenly, this post became much heavier as it was destined to contrast the challenges of struggling families against the privileges of those who shape music education as research participants.

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

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

In a balanced and caring society in which there is time to sing, to tell stories, and to enjoy family life without grinding hardship, music has its own role to play. People feel more inclined to engage socially and to look out for each other when they feel safe. From this perspective, is music important or not? When people need food to survive, food is more important than music. If people want to build a balanced and cohesive community, both music and food are fundamental for establishing trust and strong relationships whether in family life, business and trade, or diplomacy.

How do we know that music is important for child development?

According to decades of research, infants are exposed to music every day, particularly as their caregivers sing to them to entertain, to soothe and to share emotions with them. Even in utero, at 35 weeks gestational age, foetuses show more movement to musical sounds than to speech sounds, whereas at two months of age, an infant coordinates their gaze with the ‘beat’ of their caregiver’s singing. It is clear that music captures their attention and in this post I’ll point out how it seems to further their development.

What is infant-directed singing?

Infant-directed singing (compared with singing in general) is characterised by a slower tempo, more regularity in the pulse and a relatively wide range in terms of louder and quieter volume. The features of live infant-directed singing include positive emotional expression, accompanied by gestures and facial animation. In play songs there are also actions such as bouncing, jigging or sudden playful movements, whereas slower calming rocking movements characterise the soothing nature of lullabies.

How do infants respond to infant-directed singing?

As infants develop, they begin to adapt their rhythmic movements to coordinate with the rhythmic structure of music that they listen to, but the reasons for this are not well-understood. In terms of language development, years of research on infant listening has indicated that infants are sensitive to the rhythm, volume fluctuations and comprehensibility of speech, including sensitivity to these in nursery rhymes. Recent findings showed that newborn infants’ ability to track fluctuations in singing predicted their expressive language at 18 months.

What is the mechanism?

Researchers have found that these early life experiences of infant-directed singing endow children with sensitivity to the tempo (pace), changes in melodic patterns, harmony and rhythmic patterns of musical extracts. There’s been a recent focus on whether fluctuations in volume map directly onto the listening child’s brain activity, and most recently the same approach has been investigated in listening infants. The researchers refer to the term ‘neural tracking’ and by this they mean the extent to which brain activity is synchronised (entrained) with the features of the singing.

Who took part?

The research involved two different groups of mothers who had expressed an interest in taking part in this research. These mothers aged between 29-39 years, were highly educated: more than 86 per cent of them held university degrees and more than half of them (55 per cent) played a musical instrument, whereas one fifth (20 per cent) had time for themselves and sang in a choir. The authors did not explain the working status of these women, and the amount of time they each spent with their infant, whether some of the infants were enrolled in a crêche, or whether the mothers had chosen to return to work.

During the initial part of the research, all of the infants were seven months of age, lived in German speaking households and were without developmental delay. Across the two groups of participants, nine infants in total were excluded from taking part because of ‘infant fussiness’. This is a common practice in experiments of this kind; this means that the findings reflected the behaviour of infants who were well-adjusted enough to cope with the research protocols (such as wearing an EEG bonnet). The research involved testing the infants’ responses to play songs and lullabies at seven months of age. Then at twenty months, the researchers collected data detailing the children’s expressive language development.

In psychological research, it is important to justify the sample because the characteristics of these individuals are likely to shape the findings to a large extent. It is very difficult to draw broad conclusions about the relevance of infant-directed singing to vocabulary development from this particular group of people, when it is well known that parents’ educational level is a strong predictor of expressive language development in young children (Hart and Risley, 1995).

What is the vocabulary gap?

Expressive vocabulary development and the vocabulary gap became very topical almost thirty years ago when Hart and Risley (1995) conducted their work on vocabulary development in different social groups in America. This groundbreaking study involved analysing 1,300 hours of observations. An average child in a wealthier family heard 2,000 words during an hour, whereas a child from a family receiving welfare, heard 600 words in one hour. By the age of three, children from wealthier backgrounds had twice as many words in their productive vocabulary.

The wider impact of the Hart and Risley research

This finding had a powerful impact and the UK government launched the Sure Start initiative in 1998. Funding became available to enrich the lives of new parents through antenatal classes, postnatal support, parenting courses, nutritional advice, and provided supportive opportunities for very young children living in the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK up to the age of four. This scheme was successful in terms of physical health outcomes; it reduced harsh parenting practices and hospitalisations among children at age eleven. Sure Start Centres lost two thirds of their funding in 2010 and a relatively small number of these centres serve deprived communities.

Will we continue to see malnourished children in 2024?

Unlike Sure Start Centres, which were run in dedicated buildings, the baby banks are grassroots projects and some are set up as a series of tents in deprived rural areas. In the article by Chlöe Hamilton, mothers, who seek help from baby banks cannot afford to heat their homes and feed their children. Moreover, these mothers opt not to feed themselves, even though they are pregnant.

It is in these rural areas that head teachers are very concerned about rising levels of malnourishment. The are seeing children’s teeth falling out, their pupils have bowed legs and stunted physical growth. In some schools, as many as half of the pupils receive free school meals and a free breakfast, which is supplied by the charity ‘Magic Breakfast’. School leaders are also very concerned about children who do not qualify for free school meals, as the lunch they bring to school contains nothing more than cheap sugary snacks.

It is poignant that the first baby bank was started shortly after the banking crisis in 2008. Now there are 200 banks in the UK and over fifty branches are run by one charity, ‘Baby Basics’. According to a London-based charity, ‘Little Village’ twelve per cent of parents needed to visit the baby banks for children’s clothes and toys in the run up to Christmas, 2023.

It is not possible for children to learn when they are hungry and stressed. The lessons of Sure Start apply here. Jessica Murray’s article highlighted how hunger leads to dysfunction in the family relationships and the consequences of this are far reaching according to Dr Sarah Hanson, Associate Professor in Community Health at University of East Anglia:

“There’s evidence that not getting enough to eat causes low mood and anxiety, and often leads to stricter discipline in households. For children, their behaviour worsens and it has been linked to increased asthma diagnoses, as well as significantly higher use of emergency care.”

How is the study on infant-directed singing relevant to this situation?

Although the findings of the infant-directed singing study are more relevant to families of similar social characteristics to the participants: German speaking and highly educated, the most important finding is that infants are listening to their caregivers.

Most interesting perhaps, was that when the researchers manipulated the acoustic features of the singing - the pitch, the tempo, the beat - there was no significant effect on the infants’ neural tracking and this finding is a very inclusive one - infants listen, no matter how strange the singing may sound.

In both lullabies and playsongs, researchers found that infants’ rhythmic movement during the singing was strongly related to their neural tracking. This association between rhythmic movement and neural tracking was statistically significant. Lullabies were notable because they elicited stronger neural tracking - but that is not surprising, given that lullabies are hypnotic by their nature.

The researchers also found that infants’ neural tracking of play songs at seven months was significantly related to their expressive vocabulary at twenty months. This was not a product of chance, (95 percent confidence level). By seven months, these children had already developed playful interactions (involving infant-directed singing and rhythmic movement) in a way that was priming them for productive language. This chimes with the Hart and Risley research and really illustrates the importance of a supportive environment, particularly in the earliest months of an infant’s life.

If your enjoyed this post, keep reading!

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

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


Narrowing the attainment gap through early reading intervention

Wearing my SENCO hat, I strongly believe that the principle of early reading intervention (as opposed to waiting to see whether a learning difficulty will ‘resolve itself’ over time), and a proactive approach, can narrow the gaps that undeniably exist when children enter primary school.

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 their school’s phonics early reading programme. Their school had already seen impact of the programme on key stage two children, so the leadership team were keen to extend its reach.

The backdrop to reading is the space in the child’s mind.

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

Gamification, Social Exchange and the Acquisition of Language

According to neuroscientists, repeated use of specific neural pathways catalyses the maturity of the neural structures through a process known as myelination. 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.


Hamilton, C., ‘A day at the baby bank: ”I feel at ease here, because I’m not the only one struggling”, The Guardian Newspaper, published on 19.12.23 accessed 30.12.23

Hart, B. And Risley, T.R. (1995) Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children, Paul H Brookes Publishing.

Murray, J, ’Children have bowed legs’: hunger worse than ever, says Norwich School, The Guardian Newspaper, published 21.12.23 accessed 30.12.23

Nguyen et al (2023) Sing to Me Baby: Infants show neural tracking and rhythmic movements to live and dynamic maternal singing, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 64, 101313

Tags: Rhythm for Reading , vocabulary , music education , Rhythm for Reading programme , attainment gap

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