A strong correlation exists between reading fluency and comprehension - one that has fascinated researchers for many decades (Long, 2014). In our current climate, children who read fluently are more likely to cope well with blended learning, self-isolation and other restrictions of the global pandemic on schools.
How can we move more children into the fluent reader category?
Proficient readers automatically use the most appropriate strategy on the fly, whereas fragile readers are more likely to depend on a single strategy and to transition less efficiently from one strategy to another. A fluent reader however, is able to decode an unfamiliar word using phonological skills, as well as orchestrating contextual and syntactic cues to decode whole phrases.
So, there are many processes that are coordinated during fluent reading. Reading comprehension is a cornerstone of these. However, comprehension is not a ‘layer’ of reading that magically ‘appears’ because it has been mechanically underpinned by good levels of decoding and fluency. Comprehension is a product of rhythmic awareness - an important element of language acquisition in infancy.
Though well-intentioned, the practise of timing children’s reading with a stopwatch, encouraging them to read more quickly week after week is not helpful for cultivating rhythmic awareness. Using a stopwatch may generate a degree of motivation to read, but a focus on acceleration forces the child to read without finding their natural rhythm. In fact, if children have learned to decode at a fast pace, they have been trained to enunciate the words without understanding them at all. Comprehension is not related to the pace of reading.
Comprehension and word recognition are coordinated by rhythmic processes during fluent reading that are similar to the natural unfolding of rhythm during speaking and listening. A rhythm-based approach fosters rhythmic awareness and supports fluent reading.
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.
When I watched the announcements about lockdown on March 23rd 2020 from a hard metal seat in Glasgow International Airport, I’d already made ten trips to Scotland and it felt so frustrating that the project would be interrupted when we were so close to its completion. Throughout the lockdown and the summer months, I hoped very much that we would have a chance to salvage and finish off the work. In the past two weeks it has been an absolute privilege to return to the schools with ‘refresher sessions’ and follow-up testing. So much has changed. The teachers vigorously spray, clean and ventilate the classrooms. Everyone is vigilant and determined to keep their community safe. It is obvious that this goal is shared and held dear by all. Even young children immediately take all their books and pencils with them when they sit on the floor while their tables and chairs are disinfected. Absolutely nobody needs to be reminded to do this.
In one of the schools, particular spaces are filled with food and clothing. The leadership team came into the school every single day of the lockdown, as well as throughout the summer months to keep everyone on track; teachers worked face-to-face with the children throughout this period. Stunning new displays made by the parents now explode out from the staffroom walls and thank you cards are pinned to the noticeboard of a beautiful new community room.
Rhythm for Reading has been modified to keep everyone safe. I visit only one school in a single day and wear a mask. The children remain in their ‘bubbles’ when they take part, and stand at least two metres away from me. In between each session, I ventilate and vigorously disinfect the teaching area. Of course, there is plenty of time for cleaning as each Rhythm for Reading session is, as always, only ten minutes in duration. Actually, this level of flexibility fits in very well with the dynamic teaching that I’m seeing in the schools - and the children are loving that they are being taught in small groups and in an increasingly nuanced way.
Robust, energetic chanting has always been an important part of the Rhythm for Reading programme, but chanting, like singing is strictly prohibited. For quite some time I have been resigned to mothballing the programme for this reason. Eventually however, a neat solution popped into my mind. With a bit of experimentation, I realised that it is possible to vocalise safely and precisely, whilst keeping the volume level below that of normal speaking. All that is required to make this modification fun, is a little imagination. Most children know how to squeak like a mouse - these high pitched sounds are made in the throat and involve minimal breath - far less than speech. So, my solution has now been ‘road-tested’ by the squeaky teams in Scotland and I’m happy to have found a safe and new way to offer the programme without diluting it.
I would like to say a huge thank you to these children, teachers and school leaders for the opportunity to come back and complete the programme. It has been utterly inspiring, humbling and uplifting to visit your schools these past two weeks.
Academic achievement relates strongly and reciprocally to academic self-concept, for example in English and Maths (Schunk & Pajares, 2009) and also reading (Chapman & Tumner, 1995); moreover the importance of motivation increases as perceptions of reading difficulty increase (Klauda et al., 2015). So reading catch-up can also feel as if it’s a catch-22 situation. To resolve this issue, Hattie (2008) recommended that teachers teach self-regulating and self control strategies to students with a weak academic self-concept: ‘address non-supportive self-strategies before attempting to enhance achievement directly’ (Hattie, 2008; p.47).
Peeling back the layers on the self-concept literature, various models and analogies are available (Schunk, 2012). Hattie’s highly effective analogy of a rope captures rather vividly the idea of the congruence of the core self-concept as well as the multidimensionality of intertwining fibres and strands that are accumulated via everyday experiences (2008, p.46). The rope image supports the idea that a particular strand applies to maths, whereas a completely different strand applies to reading and another one for playing football and so on.
The relationship between self-concept and academic achievement is reciprocal (Hattie, 2008) and also specific to each domain (Schunk,2012). Therefore, strengthening self-concept for reading supports achievement in reading, while strengthening self-concept for maths supports maths skills. It is very difficult to strengthen low self-concept in a specific domain before addressing achievement in that area, unless introducing a completely new approach. It is important that the new approach supports self-strategies as well as directly building strength in domain-relevant skills. The Rhythm for Reading programme meets both of these requirements.
Rhythm for Reading works as a catalyst for confidence and reading skills and therefore lifts a negative reciprocal relationship (catch-22 situation) into a positive cycle of confidence and progression. This programme is effective as a reading catch-up intervention because it offers a fresh and dynamic approach, which perfectly complements to traditional methods. Instead of reading letters and words, pupils read simplified musical notation for ten minutes per week. Consequently, they are practising skills in decoding, reading from left-to-right, chunking small units into larger units, maintaining focus and learning, as well as developing confidence, self-regulation and metacognitive strategies all the while.
The musical materials used in the Rhythm for Reading programme have been specially written to be age-appropriate and to secure pupils’ attention, making the effortful part of reading much easier than usual. In fact, throughout the programme, the cognitive load for reading simple music notation is far lighter than for reading printed language, enabling an experience of sustained fluency and deeper engagement to be the main priority. As these case-studies show, this highly-structured approach has had huge successes for low and middle attaining pupils, who were able to read with far greater ease, fluency, confidence and understanding after only 100 minutes (ten minutes per week for ten weeks).
Chapman, J. W., & Tunmer, W. E. (1995). Development of young children’s reading self-concepts: An examination of emerging subcomponents and their relationship with reading achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 154–167.
Hattie, J. (1992). Self-concept. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Hattie, John.(2008) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge.
Klauda, Susan Lutz, and John T. Guthrie. “Comparing relations of motivation, engagement, and achievement among struggling and advanced adolescent readers.” Reading and writing 28.2 (2015): 239-269.
Pintrich, P.R. and Schunk, D.H. (2002). Motivation in education: Theory research and applications (2nd edition) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
Rogers, C.R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, inter-relationships as developed in the client-centered-framework. In S. Kock (Ed) Psychology: A study of a science, Vol.3, pp.184-256 New York, McGraw-Hill.
Schunk, D. H. and Pajares, F. (2009). Self-efficacy theory. In K. r. Wentzel & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Handbook of motivation at school (pp. 35-53). New York:Routledge.
Schunk, D.H. (2012) Learning theories: An educational perspective, 6th edition, First published 1991 Boston: Allyn & Bacon, Pearson Education Inc.
People are usually intrigued when I explain that this reading programme requires only 100 minutes from start to finish. In fact, pupils do not necessarily need 100 minutes to accomplish the goals of the Rhythm for Reading programme. Often improved engagement, comprehension, ease, fluency and joy of reading can be achieved after one hour spread across six weeks. A six week programme works well for the majority of children but for some who unfortunately do not attend school consistently, it would be far too easy for them to fall behind. By simply increasing the total length of the Rhythm for Reading programme from 60 to 100 minutes, all the children have enough time to develop their rhythmic awareness and experience the benefits in their reading. When 100 minutes are spread across ten weekly sessions, the programme slots neatly into a school term and this is convenient for everyone.
I am often asked how it’s possible for pupils to make real progress in only ten minutes per week and how certain can we be that the impact is attributable to Rhythm for Reading? These are excellent questions. First of all, pupils are reading everyday in the classroom, so they have ample opportunity to apply the rhythm-based approaches that they learn in the weekly ten-minute sessions to every task that involves reading during the school day. Each ten-minute session acts as a powerful catalyst, aligning decoding skills with the natural language processing abilities of the pupils. As the approach is rhythm-based instead of word-based, pupils with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or English as an Additional Language (EAL) benefit hugely from the opportunity to improve their reading without using words. It’s an opportunity to lighten the cognitive load, but to intensify precision and finesse. Secondly, I made sure that Rhythm for Reading was among the first intervention programmes to be evaluated as part of the EEF initiative. In this trial, I chose not to exclude any pupils. This meant that some students that took part were unable to access the reading tests because they could not decode text at all. The randomised controlled trial showed scientifically that improved reading scores were attributable to participation in the Rhythm for Reading programme, even though it took only 100 minutes to complete.
The recent tragic events in London and Manchester have been deeply painful and have also been a sharp reminder of the importance of taking progressive action in education. In 2012, I embarked on an entrepreneurial journey because I wanted the benefits of rhythm-based learning to be available in classrooms everywhere, as well as to ensure that certain educational advantages that are available to the privileged who can afford high quality instrumental music tuition would be, in a condensed and concentrated format, available to all. We hear frequently about the importance of reading for the development of empathy, and in 2014, I decided to create a project which would combine the theme of empathy with rhythm-based activities, which enhance social cohesion, reading fluency, reading comprehension and engagement. With the help and support of the senior leadership teams of two neighbouring, but very different schools, Alleyn’s, an independent school, and Goodrich Community Primary School, we have established a bond based on empathy, cooperation, rhythm and reading.
The project has completed eight cycles so far. Each week a group of assured and enthusiastic Year12 Alleyn’s students have accompanied me to Goodrich School, where they have mentored wonderfully effervescent pupils in Year 3 and Year 4. Everybody benefits profoundly from taking part: the mentoring students quickly learn to build trust and communication with the younger children, who experience a remarkable transformation in their reading. I am very much looking forward to presenting on this topic on Saturday 1st July at the UKLA 53rd International Conference 2017 ‘Language, literacy and class: Connections and contradictions’ at Strathclyde University, Glasgow.
BETT 2017 is just around the corner! In a few weeks, Rhythm for Reading will be taking part in The Great British Trail in partnership with the Department for International Trade (Stand D30). We will be sharing our ideas and vision with visitors using audio and video clips and other goodies. We’ll be on stand C62 and look forward to saying hello.
The Rhythm for Reading programme helps teachers and students to activate the rhythmic aspect of reading, which researchers are discovering is so important for fluency and understanding.
Why not think of rhythm as the heartbeat of reading?
Just as a heartbeat is dynamic, adjusting to our every need, rhythm in reading is the adjustable quality that provides strength, responsiveness and flexibility as sentences of all shapes and sizes flow through the text.
Just as a heartbeat is organic, supporting life in each part of the body from the smallest cells to the largest organs, rhythm in reading reaches systematically into every part of language. Like a heartbeat it spreads both upwards, supporting the structure of phrases and sentences and also downwards, energising and sharpening the edges of syllables and phonemes. Rhythm therefore brings the different grain sizes of language into systematic alignment with each other.
Sensitivity to the rhythmic cues in reading can be developed very easily. In fact, we already use rhythm in everyday life to coordinate activities that we take for granted such as walking, talking and even in our breathing. However, as reading is a socially learned activity, the rhythmic quality that is naturally present in language processing does not always map with ease onto decoding skills. This is why for some children reading does not become increasingly skilled over time, even when decoding skills are secure. Fortunately, sensitivity to rhythm in reading can be improved very quickly as these case studies show.
Look out for the next post in this series on rhythm at the heart of reading.
As a necessary part of due diligence, school leaders must ask probing questions before committing to an intervention and research is an important source of information. In previous posts, I’ve highlighted academic work that explores for example, the importance of rhythm in infant language learning (October, 2015), the development of reading skills (March, 2015) and language processing in the auditory brainstem (November 2015).
It’s important to consider the extent to which school leaders can have confidence in the rigour of scholarly work and peer-review. A peer-review panel made up of academics with specialism in a particular field is uniquely qualified to judge that an article is not only relevant to the readership and methodologically sound, but also meets the ethical and academic standards of the publication. Many journals now offer free access to high quality, peer-reviewed content considered to be relevant to a wider readership (e.g. Long, 2014).
Incredibly, more than 5,000 academic papers are published each year in journals on the role of shared or overlapping neural structures known to contribute to linguistic processing and musical processing. Although many people intuitively believe that it may be possible to isolate and identify a ‘single mechanism’ that might explain the overlap between language and music, it is becoming more likely that several interconnected mechanisms or networks may be involved (e.g. Peretz et al., 2015).
When pupils in key stage one, key stage two and key stage three have taken part in the Rhythm for Reading programme, they’ve described benefits to their reading, concentration and attitudes to learning, suggesting that the impact of the programme is fairly broad. Recent research with older pupils in a special school has also demonstrated clear benefits of the programme on reading attainment and other areas of learning behaviour.
Consultation meetings with school leaders have sparked interesting discussions, with particularly popular topics which come up again and again.
1. The structure and content of the Rhythm for Reading programme.
2. The ‘single mechanism’ that might explain how the programme works.
3. The suitability of the intervention for different groups of children, for example pupils identified with EAL or SEND or FSM.
4. Professional development.
5. The development of the Rhythm for Reading programme.
As these are really popular questions, I’ve made a useful free resource for school leaders, please click here to have a read.
Marion Long. ‘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 (2014): 1321103X14528453.
Peretz, Isabelle, et al. “Neural overlap in processing music and speech.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 370.1664 (2015): 20140090.
There are so many overlaps between poetry and music. People ask me frequently why it is that reciting poetry seems to really help children, particularly those that may find other aspects of reading somewhat challenging.
Practising poetry by heart 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 and colourful tones and timbres are musical in every way. In terms of how it feels, this 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 invoke the atmosphere and moods created by movement, rhythm and sound, even though the words of the poem are utterly meaningless. Behind the evocative 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 struggle with reading 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