Rhythm for Reading - sustainable reading intervention for schools

Sign up for Free Weekly Insights

We respect your email privacy

Supporting children with a ‘fuzzy’ awareness of phonemes and other symptoms consistent with dyslexia

13 December 2023

Image credit: Saeed Karimi via Unsplash
Image credit: Saeed Karimi via Unsplash

I’m often asked whether the Rhythm for Reading Programme helps children ‘diagnosed’ with dyslexia. As I have not done a study - and by this I mean a randomised controlled trial - with children ‘labelled’ with this specific learning difficulty, I rely on anecdotal evidence to answer the question. Every time a child, identified with dyslexia asks me whether I can help them, I ask them to tell me if and when they notice a change in their reading. To date, the children diagnosed with dyslexia have told me that they have seen improvements in reading, writing and even spelling. Some have reported that they are better able to focus in class and some have also noticed an improvement in their ability to ‘understand the question’ in maths lessons. These anecdotal data are a positive indication that Rhythm for Reading does indeed help children with a diagnosis of dyslexia.

Working memory capacity

Dyslexia is a broad umbrella term that is often associated with other specific learning differences, such as (but not limited to) dyspraxia and ADHD and ADD. These so-called ‘co-morbidities’ make it difficult to study dyslexia at scale in a scientific way because there are so many differences among children labelled with this particular specific learning difficulty.

Having supported many children with specific learning difficulties in my role as special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) in two secondary schools and one junior school, it became obvious that every child I worked with had a specific learning difficulty that was unique to them. And yet, practitioners and teachers in these schools were able to support a wide range of learning differences, by using a particular set of ‘dyslexia friendly’ tools. This was made possible because all of these children had one issue in common - their limited working memory capacity.

Working memory capacity describes the extent to which a person can hold and manipulate information in mind. Saying the alphabet backwards is a simple example of a task involving working memory. Removing the ’t’ sound from the word ‘winter’ (to make the word ‘winner’) is another simple example of a task that involves maintaining and manipulating information in working memory. A person with dyslexia would find such a task tiring and also frustrating. Imagine how challenging it would be to hold only three words in working memory when faced with a task that involved ‘writing in sentences’. Children with a specific learning difficulty often find that as they start to make marks on the page, the words in their mind fade or fragment. For these children, every hour of every day spent in the classroom, presents a new mountain to climb. Their working memory capacity always lets them down, no matter how hard they try to focus their attention. As a child, I experienced this too, but all of these problems disappeared when I was about eleven years old and joined a children’s orchestra.

A diagnosis of ‘severe dyslexia’

The diagnosis of dyslexia came in my early forties when I faced a sharp increase in stress in my personal life. Many people with dyslexia describe having ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ and the effect of stress on working memory in particular would account for this. One morning, at 7.45 am, as I was about to begin teaching, to my astonishment I discovered that I could not read. The middle three letters of every word were superimposed and all I could see were smudges of ink on the page. Unable to read a single word, I assumed that this was a visual convergence problem and managed to squint out of the corner of my right eye for a few days until I was seen by an ophthalmologist. One week later, I was able to read again with the help of a conspicuous pair of dark green lenses.

A well-qualified psychologist conducted my dyslexia assessment one month later and declared in her report that I would struggle to complete secondary level education. This was nonsensical as I had a PhD and soon after that point had papers published in academic journals. A good psychological assessment on the other hand, can be a helpful guide. It can identify areas for particular focus and can empower an individual as they learn to manage their specific learning difficulty - otherwise what is the point? After four months, my eyes had returned to normal and I was able to read without the special spectacles, but I still have them tucked away in a drawer.

‘Fuzzy’ phonemes

If we turn to auditory problems faced by people with dyslexia, there are two interesting things to consider. One is fuzzy phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest sounds of language. If we break the sound wave of a phoneme down into its beginning, middle and end, this can help us to think about the very first part of the sound. Among children with dyslexia, there is a lack of perceptual clarity at the front edge of a phoneme, which scientists refer to as the ‘rise-time’. This means that children with dyslexia are significantly slower to detect the differences between phonemes. This is why rhythm can provide what is needed. Improving rhythmic awareness involves shifting the child’s attention to the front edge of each musical sound of a rhythmic pattern, and as the children are chanting, there is increased emphasis at the front of the phonemes too.

Here are a few of the phonemes that children with dyslexia struggle to differentiate. Looking at this list, it is obvious that there is insufficient sensitivity to the timbral qualities of the sounds as well as the ‘rise time’.

  • ‘p’ and ‘b’
  • ‘sh’ and ’ch’
  • ‘f’ and ‘v’
  • ‘f’ and ’s’
  • ‘pr’ and ‘br’
  • ‘tr’ and ‘chr’

Confusable sounds and conflated ideas

The second thing to think about is a tendency to conflate the sounds of words and similar concepts. Conflation is a reasonable and even logical coping strategy. It is a smart way to ‘cut corners’ as an efficiency drive within the context of a limited working memory. Many children with dyslexia conflate the colours black and brown and name those colours interchangeably. I worked once with a child who had conflated green, black and brown and referred to all three at ‘grown’ (rhyming with brown).

Are there different types of dyslexia?

Essentially, the label refers to a specific difficulty regarding the processing of words. It is described as ‘specific’, because it exists even though the individual has sufficient verbal and non-verbal intelligence to read and write and spell words and has been taught appropriately.

Attempts to classify types of dyslexia as ‘deep’, ‘superficial’, ‘phonological’ and so on are interesting, because all of these manifestations of dyslexia can be found in schools, but at the heart of this, children who have symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of dyslexia lack sufficient sensitivity to rhythm and phonemes. The idea that rhythm is a cure for dyslexia oversimplifies the complexity of this specific learning difficulty. The anecdotal evidence indicates that a rhythm-based intervention can support dyslexia, but I would add the caveat that it must be delivered in a supportive learning environment that also nurtures the child’s self-esteem. The child’s emotional safety must be established before sensitivity to rhythm and the smallest sounds of language can develop.

It is also important to adapt lessons to be more ‘dyslexia friendly’. For example, younger children can benefit from using holistic, multi-sensory approaches, such as the activities that underpin the structure of the Rhythm for Reading Programme. Here are some case studies to illustrate progress made by children, identified by their school as requiring additional support in reading.

If you enjoyed this post, click on these links to read more.

Phonics and stimulation of the vagus nerve: How long and short vowel sounds differ

It is essential to identify any pupil who is falling behind the pace of the school’s phonics programme and to put effective support in place, but the quality of such support must withstand scrutiny. A certain amount of cognitive bias has been identified and found to disadvantage the lowest attaining children.

When phonics and rhythm collide part 1

A child with sensitivity to rhythm is attuned to the onsets of the smallest sounds of language. In terms of rhythmic precision, the front edge of the sound is also the point at which the rhythmic boundary occurs. Children with a well-developed sensitivity to rhythm are also attuned to phonemes and are less likely to conflate the sounds.

When phonics and rhythm collide part 2

Vowel sounds carry interesting information such as emotion, or tone of voice. They are longer (in milliseconds) and without defined edges. Now imagine focussing on the onset of those syllables. The consonants are shorter (in milliseconds), more sharply defined and more distinctive, leaving plenty of headspace for cognitive control. If consonants are prioritised, information flows easily and the message lands with clarity.

Phonemes and syllables: How to teach a child to segment and blend words, when nothing seems to work

There is no doubt that the foundation of a good education, with reading at its core, sets children up for later success. The importance of phonics is enshrined in education policy in England and lies at the heart of teaching children to become confident, fluent readers. However, young children are not naturally predisposed to hearing the smallest sounds of language (phonemes). Rather, they process speech as syllables strung together as meaningful phrases.

Tags: Rhythm for Reading , phonemes , dyslexia , working memory , Rhythm for Reading programme

Do you have any feedback on this blog post? Email or tweet us.