Rhythm for Reading - sustainable reading intervention for schools

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How does the Rhythm for Reading programme actually work?

5 November 2017

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.

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