As we move deeper into the digital era, we are faced with new challenges for the future of our education system. Independent online learning and unlimited access to information is our new reality. We are striving to adapt to innovative new ideas, to release familiar old ways, and to step up and out of comfort zones into dazzling new ways of thinking and responsiveness in a faster-paced world.
In an age in which skilled manual labour is increasingly being replaced by robots and highly sophisticated technology, reading at a ‘functional’ level has become a massively out-dated concept. Similarly, the widespread practice of training children to answer a question about a written passage by identifying a key word in the question, locating it in the text and then writing out the sentence that surrounds it, is not only a waste of time, but this sham practice is harmful: it allows children to assume that reading is nothing more than a mundane word search exercise.
A specific and urgent challenge for educators today is this: to find new strategies that will equip children to read with understanding. The current emphasis on systematic phonics is disproportionate. We must remember that because phonemes are the smallest sounds of language, each phoneme occupies only a tiny proportion of any sentence, amounting in natural speech to only a fraction of a second. This is why a disproportionate amount of time spent on phonics can interfere with the development of reading with ease, fluency and good comprehension.
Reading well is a feat of delicate coordination between the reader’s eyes, ears and mind in alignment with the ‘voice’ of the author. Achieving this alignment is the process that allows the reader to assimilate meaning as it ‘flies’ off the page (or screen) into the reader’s consciousness.
Reading well depends on an intuitive response to the underlying binary relationship between the subject and predicate in every sentence. The syntax determines the rhythmic structure of the sentence. Consequently, the rhythmic ebb and flow of written language should be felt as intuitively as the rhythmic ebb and flow of speech, even though styles of writing and of speech vary widely. The sentence as a whole and coherent unit is vibrant, elastic and flexible with its meaning perceived not through the synthesis of its many phonemes, but through its overall rhythm and structure.
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As educators we are required to make thousands of small but important decisions everyday. Striking the right balance involves blending professional judgement with our integrity and experience. Through reflection perhaps with colleagues, we are constantly learning from our experiences.
I have been thinking hard about special education (SEND) recently. Rhythm for Reading is an inclusive programme. Students with learning differences are fully involved alongside their classmates and the programme is accessible even to those who cannot yet read simple words such as ‘cat’. This is what a child said recently to me about the programme: “I liked how we had to keep it in the team at the same time. I felt more surrounded. I had people to keep me upright.” So, when a pupil shows absolutely no desire to contribute to even the most basic of Rhythm for Reading exercises, whilst all around him others are learning rapidly and having fun, my own personal learning journey fires up in a big way.
Each Rhythm for Reading session is only ten minutes long and so every second is precious. Is this child withdrawn, overwhelmed, lacking in confidence, lacking social skills, frightened or generally resistant to new things? What is clear and of concern to me is that he is ignored by the other children and hardly responds to anything I say or do. His teachers are highly protective of him and they can recite a list of issues and medical problems: he is a special child.
I believe that if a child processes and performs tasks more slowly than his classmates, as educators we must help him to develop the strategies that he needs to adapt to different settings. Self-regulation strategies for example, are key for learning road safety skills: learning to judge the speed of traffic, inhibiting the impulse to wander into the road, as well as being able to find a safe place to cross are essential to every child’s survival, no matter how special that child’s needs might be. While road safety lessons are clearly a matter of life and death, it is the quality of life of each child that is determined in the classroom. To teach a special child to cope with a broad range of settings with confidence is a highly worthwhile investment of our time and energy. There are so many benefits of joining in with others in a structured group activity. It is enormous fun and a profound sense of belonging and unity develops through cooperation. Of course, this outcome can only be fully enjoyed by everyone, if everyone has contributed wholeheartedly to the success of the task.
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By nine years of age, children have assimilated a vast amount of information about their culture simply by learning through experience. Enculturation is a particularly powerful form of deep learning that shapes children’s attitudes and perceptions of the world in which they are growing up. Through working in many schools, I’ve observed that by the age of nine years, children have, through this process of enculturation developed a strong emotive response to the concept of ‘teamwork’.
A few months ago, I sat down on the floor of the school hall with ten children as they embarked on their first Rhythm for Reading session. I explained that we would be doing lots of teamwork. Four of the children said “Yessss” in a loud stage whisper and wriggled in delight, huddling cosily together. The others looked at me in complete horror. Although they sat quietly, their sharply drawn breath, their tense shoulders and stunned faces communicated their utter dread of teamwork clearly enough.Obviously, when a teacher chooses two team captains and tells them to pick teams in front of the class for a games lesson, each child’s worth or ‘value’ to their peers is revealed. To be picked first for a team is a deep honour and to be picked last, a deep humiliation. Presumably, these feelings have an enhancing or diminishing influence on the child’s performance in the team, but these experiences will over time impact on a child’s self-esteem. This harmful practice can be avoided by asking the team captains to privately pick their teams from a list of names at the teacher’s desk.
Musical teamwork on the other hand is highly inclusive and ensures that nobody is first and nobody is last. In the same way that every fish in a shoal will suddenly change direction at exactly the same time, musical teamwork requires that all students contribute in the appropriate way and at exactly the right time. In the Rhythm for Reading programme, the main priority is that the students work together confidently, collectively and synchronously, an approach that is underpinned by published research (Long, 2008; Long & Hallam, 2012; Long, 2014). Neuroscientists (Bhide, Power & Goswami, 2013) confirm that learning collectively in this way, i.e. via ‘entrainment’ has a statistically significant and powerful impact on academic attainment, as detailed in this recently published report by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. http://tscouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/COMPLETE-REPORT-Goswami-Childrens-Cognitive-Development-and-Learning.pdf
Bhide, A., Power, A.J., & Goswami, U. (2013). A rhythmic musical intervention for poor readers: A comparison of efficacy with a letter-based intervention.Mind, Brain and Education 7(2), 113-23.
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.
Long, M and Hallam, S. (2012). Rhythm for Reading: A rhythm-based approach to reading intervention, Proceedings of Music Paedeia: From Ancient Greek Philosophers Toward Global Music Communities, pp.221-232, 30th ISME World Conference on Music Education, 15-20 July, Thessaloniki, Greece.
Long, M. (2008) A Rhythmic View of Reading: From word recognition to reading comprehension, A submission to ippr’s Britain’s Got Brains Competition, Institute of Public Policy Research. www.ippr.org.uk/researchthemes/education