A few weeks ago, in an inset session at a wonderful school with beautiful inclusive approaches in their group teaching, I mentioned that rats have the same limbic structures as humans. The limbic system is the part of the brain that deals with our mammalian instincts. These keep us in tune with social information, such as social status and hierarchy, protecting and nurturing our children, bonding with sexual partners and managing affiliation. It’s a logical assumption that if we share these limbic structures, rats like humans should be able to keep time with a musical beat - or their equivalent of that. So, it was no surprise to learn that Japanese researchers have shown that rats can indeed bob along and keep time with a musical beat.
It was back in the 1980s, when American scientists first discovered the genes that determined the rhythm of the mating song of fruit flies. If we think of rhythm as a musical trait exclusive to humans, these findings in rats and flies are simply amusing, novel or entertaining. On the other hand, the bigger picture behind these findings would suggest that the natural world is inherently structured by environmental and behavioural patterns organised by rhythm. If we think of rhythm as a system of ratios, proportions and repetition, then the math of rhythm is obvious. There are cycles and rhythmic flows in tides and weather systems and indeed, migration patterns follow these cycles. In individual organisms, as well as in shoal, pod, flock and herd movement, rhythmic patterns underpin locomotion and communication. Even a human infant’s stepping reflex is organised around the inherent rhythmic systems that we share with many other species.
We humans are particularly happy when our stylised rhythms achieve a hypnotic effect, for example in Queen’s ‘We will rock you,’ - one of the songs used by the Japanese scientists to detect the sensitivity to rhythm in rats. Halfway through the Rhythm for Reading programme, this same rhythmic pattern appears and is always greeted with enthusiasm by teachers and children as a fun part of the reading intervention. Look out for the next post, which explains the connection between hypnotic rhythm, flow states, reading fluency and reading comprehension.
In my last post I described a typical challenge facing a child with poor phonological awareness. Using a rapid colour naming test (CToPP), it’s possible to identify that a weakness in processing the smallest sounds of language often occurs at the onset of a phoneme, in other words the onset of a syllable. Consonant blends and consonant digraphs are more affected, so, conflation between ‘thr’ and ‘fr’, or ‘cl’ and ‘gl’ is likely to happen and to impede the development of reading with ease and reading fluency.
The notion that sensitivity to rhythm and sensitivity to the smallest sounds of language overlap in terms of data has been around for decades. A positive correlation between sensitivity to rhythm and phonemic sensitivity has been shown in many studies. It’s easy to understand that rhythm and phonological processing overlap, if we consider that the start of a phoneme - the onset of a syllable is exactly where sensitivity to rhythm is measured - whether that’s the start of a musical sound or a spoken utterance.
Thinking for a moment about words that begin with a consonant, imagine focussing mostly on the vowel sound of each syllable, without being able to discern the shape of the initial phoneme with sufficient clarity. The sounds would merge together into a kind of ambient speech puddle. Vowel sounds carry interesting information such as emotion, or tone of voice. They are longer (in milliseconds) and without defined edges - it’s murky in there and there’s a loss of control, right? Now imagine focussing on the onset of each syllable. The consonants are shorter (in milliseconds), sharply defined and distinctive, leaving plenty of headspace for control. If consonants are prioritised, information flows easily and the message lands with clarity.
The Rhythm for Reading programme addresses these differences in phonological processing through group teaching that is fun and supports early reading intervention in particular. Information processing is enhanced by sensitivity to rhythm because rhythm focusses attention to the onset of the utterance, which is where the details are sharpest. This kind of information processing remain effortless, easy and fluent.
If you’d like to know a little more about this, the details are summarised in a free infographic. Click here.
Have you ever taught a child with weak phonological awareness? The differences between sounds are poorly defined and individually sounds are swapped around. A lack of phonological discrimination could be explained by conflation. Conflation, according to the OED is the merging of two or more sets of information, texts, sets of ideas etc into one.
One of the most fascinating aspects of conflation is that it can happen at different levels of conscious awareness. So, for example teenagers learning facts about physics might conflate words such as conduction and convection. After all, these terms look similar on the page and are both types of energy transfer.
Younger children might conflate colours such as black and brown as both begin with the same phoneme and are dark colours. The rapid colour naming test in the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing reveals such conflation. For instance, a child I assessed once as part of a reading intervention conflated brown and green. Any brown or green square in the assessment was named ‘grouwn’ (it rhymed with brown). She had conflated the consonant blends of ‘br’ and ‘gr’ and invented a name for both colours.
In the early stages of reading, conflation can underpin confusion between consonant digraphs such as ‘ch’ and ‘sh’. Another typical conflation is ‘th’, and ‘ph’ (and ‘f’). In all of these examples, the sounds are similar and they differ only on their onset - the very beginning of the sound.
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. Logically, cultivating sensitivity to rhythm would help children to detect the onsets of phonemes at the early stages of reading. Stay tuned for Part 2 and a free infographic..
Schools face significant challenges in deciding how best to introduce musical notation into their curriculum. Resources are already stretched. Some pupils are already under strain because they struggle with reading print. The big question is how to integrate musical notation into curriculum planning in a way that empowers children and teachers.
There are tried and tested ways of teaching musical notation which transcend age, and are best suited to pupils who process information with ease. Traditionally, piano teachers begin with mnemonics for the notes that sit on the lines of the stave EGBDF (Every Good Boy Deserves Favour) GBDFA (Good Boys Deserve Fun Always) and for the notes that sit on the spaces FACE (Face) and ACEG (All Cows Eat Grass). Many teachers use these mnemonics to introduce a series of line notes and / or space notes all at once.
What about all the children who struggle to process information, reading with ease and fluency?
The tried and tested method of adapting musical notation for children who struggle to process the information, is to add more information!
What’s on earth is going on here?
Music teachers want children to enjoy making music and to have fun producing sounds on their instruments and they hope that in time, reading notation will gradually become familiar and easier to read. Until that point, music teachers add extra information to remind the child of the letter names of the notes. In the same vein, music teachers often add numbers representing the finger patterns, to remind the her how to produce sounds on the instrument.
Soon enough, the page is cluttered with markings and the child has to select which markings to read.
These markings are intended as a quick fix, aiming to keep the child engaged, but she inevitably becomes reliant on the letters, or the numbers, or both. This approach sets the child up to fail in the sense that she does not learn to read notation at all and believes that it is too difficult for her.
What could teachers do differently to support children who do not process information with ease and fluency?
A more inclusive approach would limit the cognitive load on children’s reading - which is what we do in the Rhythm for Reading Programme. Rather than teaching all the notes at once, we focus on just a few notes and develop fluency and fun in reading right form the start. Instead of learning musical notes at the same time as playing musical instruments, which adds to the cognitive load, we simply use our feet, our hands and our voices as we believe these are our most natural musical instruments.
Group learning in a structured programme supports the development of fluency, because the children are nurtured by the ethos of working together. Teamwork in combination with rhythm is an effective way to build fluency in reading acts as a catalyst on progress.
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The teaching and learning of musical notation has become a hot new topic since its appearance in the Ofsted Inspection Framework published in July 2022.
For too long, musical notation has been associated with middle class privilege, and yet, if we look at historical photographs of colliery bands, miners would read music every week at their brass band rehearsals. Reading musical notation is deeply embedded in the industrial cultural roots.
As a researcher I’ve met many primary school children from all backgrounds who wanted to learn to read music and I’ve also met many teachers who thought that reading music was too complicated to be taught in the classroom.This is not true at all! As teachers already know the children in their class and how to meet their learning needs, I believe that they are best placed to teach musical notation.
There are many perceived problems associated with teaching musical notation in English primary schools, and a top one is that many teachers do not read music. It is so easy to address this issue. Using the techniques of the Rhythm for Reading Programme, I can teach a room full of teachers to read music fluently in time with a backing track (think Karaoke) in five minutes. Yes - five minutes!
Empowering school staff to read music also offers a more cost effective and a more inclusive approach than employing a specialist music teacher as an add on.
Classically trained music teachers have leaned towards selectively teaching individual children with a strong working memory, a strong sense of rhythm and agile executive function that can cope with multiple streams of information processing simultaneously. It’s difficult to reconcile this type of expertise with a mixed-ability classroom setting and a group teaching situation.
Stay tuned for the next post, when I’ll discuss ways to meet all of these challenges.
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 everyday thoughts have engraved in our mind. We feel resistance when the initial impetus of the ‘new’ wears off and the familiar old way begins to reassert itself.
This is an uncomfortable topic as resistance is a potentially self-sabotaging behaviour. It has the power to divert our efforts to try new things, unleashing opportunities to face our old fears and stories. It is only when resistance is ‘released’ that the benefits of new behaviours become 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, teamwork, group teaching, moving in time with others and music. This has happened in a very short timeframe, as part of the process of developing reading fluency through the Rhythm for Reading programme.
Rhythm induces a state of flow and people often talk about getting into a ‘rhythm’ or a ‘groove’ as part of their creative process and also in relation to exercising. Language processing is also sensitive to rhythmic flow states, for example when we become absorbed by a book or when we write and find that the writing starts to flow.
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’ which included: a sense of unmanageable fear, the pressure to work to deadlines and clock-watching. There was a general orientation towards the final outcome rather than the process - in other words, the journey. A focus on extrinsic rewards and material gain and also social rewards also seemed to block people’s ability to find flow, which tells us something about effects of consumer culture of that time. Even at the turn of the century there was an awareness that becoming mentally distracted was a growing problem and people also reported a confusion of attention. Lastly, isolation from nature was described as a big factor in people’s loss of flow. Thankfully, almost twenty years later, we are now more aware of the therapeutic value of spending time in 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. Many of the items on this list pop up 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.
There are so many overlaps between poetry and music. People ask me frequently why it is that reciting poetry seems to help children, particularly those finding aspects of reading fluency and comprehension somewhat challenging.
Practising poetry by heart, particularly in group teaching 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, colourful tones and timbres are musical in every way. In terms of how it feels, reciting poetry 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 evoke the atmosphere and moods created by movement, rhythm and sound, even though the words of the poem are meaningless. Behind the expressive 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 require a reading intervention 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
This post describes the tenth of ten Rhythm for Reading programme sessions. By this stage in the reading intervention, 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 well-being. 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 in this or any form of group teaching.
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