Rhythm for Reading - sustainable reading intervention for schools

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Fluency and feeling in reading

22 March 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balance in reading fluency

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

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

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

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

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

Anticipation in fluency, feeling and flow

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

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

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

The missing piece of the puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fostering fluency and feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fluency: Finding flow in early reading

The pupils who most need to improve in terms of reading fluency (the lowest twenty percent of children) require support from the most effective teachers. Teaching effectiveness is known to be a strong predictor of pupils’ progress throughout school and for these children, pedagogy that develops a sense of mastery through repetition, reviewing and building familiarity with new words, supports the development of confident and fluent reading.

Rhythm, flow, reading fluency and comprehension

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

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

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

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

Considering reading fluency

Earlier this year, we started to measure our impact in a slightly different way. Many teachers and head teachers have remarked on the improvement in their pupils’ reading fluency, so it seemed important to try to capture what has been happening. Of course, there are different ways to define and to measure reading fluency, but here is a snapshot of what we found when using two types of assessment.


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

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

Tags: Reading for pleasure , Improving reading fluency , flow , Fluent reading , Rhythm for Reading programme

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