The most important thing that I’ve learned in the past two years is not only to expect the unexpected, but to embrace it. I’ve noticed that the sharpest twists and rockiest turns along the way have often prompted some of the most intriguing insights into the integrated processes that contribute to reading and learning. Wearing my SENCO hat, I strongly believe that the principle of early intervention (as opposed to waiting to see whether a learning difficulty will ‘resolve itself’ over time), and a proactive approach, can narrow the gaps that undeniably exist when children enter primary school.
In 2013, I adapted the Rhythm for Reading programme so that I could put in place urgently needed support for a group of Year 1 and Year 2 children, who struggled with phonics. Their school had already seen impact of the programme on key stage two children, so the leadership team were keen to extend its reach. At that time, I saw the programme as ideally placed to support older children, a body of research evidence has established the relationship between rhythmical awareness and phonological awareness in young children. The research argues that a strong awareness of rhythm is a reliable predictor of phonological awareness, which in turn is a strong predictor of reading attainment (see Hallam, 2015, for a comprehensive review).
However, since 2013 I’ve found that the most obvious barriers to learning for the key stage one children that I’ve worked with are fragmented, scattered attention, weak inhibition and a very short attention span of only a few seconds. Unsurprisingly, emotional insecurities are very common as well. As you may realise, children experiencing these particular difficulties would certainly struggle to discern, to retain or accurately produce a rhythmically aware response. It’s clear too, that when elevated or low arousal levels have been alleviated during Rhythm for Reading sessions, dramatically improved levels of attention, awareness of rhythm and phonological awareness soon follow.
In the context of the Rhythm for Reading programme for key stage one children, the most important adaptation has involved developing simple, fast-paced team-building games which focus on ears, eyes and voices. A subtle form of metacognitive training, these help the children to deepen and extend their attention. Combining the games with music and rhythm-based approaches to reading make it possible, in a few short sessions to support them in reading music fluently and inhibiting inappropriate responses, whilst enjoying working together as a team.
Hallam, S. (2015) The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Music Education Research council (iMERC)
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
As the year draws to a close, i’d like to say a heartfelt thank you to all the school staff and leadership teams who have invited Rhythm for Reading into school to work with their pupils in 2014. This truly has been an amazing year and it has been an incredible privilege to work alongside so many extraordinary professionals.
Perhaps, these individuals and teams are special, not only to me but to us all in the sense that they are ‘early adopters’ within the education community. According to Rogers’ famous “Diffusion of Innovations”, ‘early adopters’ comprise 13.5 % of any given population. These are the professionals who are most likely to particularly influence those around them. Having worked closely with them, I have been blown away by their exceptionally energised, informed, confident and remarkably positive approach to teaching and learning.
Working within schools, our experiences have closely echoed Rogers’ observations of early adopters. These are the qualities that we experienced when we worked in these remarkable schools with these wonderful teams. These bullet points are quoted from ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ to explain how the early adopter category, more than any other:
• ‘Has the greatest degree of opinion leadership in most social systems’
• ‘Is considered by many as “the individual to check with” before using a new idea’
• ‘Is a role model for many other members of a social system’
• ‘Is respected by his or her peers, and is the embodiment of successful and discrete use of new ideas.’ (Rogers, 1983; 248)
In fact, many of the teachers that we have worked most closely with this year have been invited to speak at one or more high profile events or have previously come to prominence as recipients of education awards. This suggests that Rogers’ theoretical approach resonates with what we are seeing in the schools that are currently using the Rhythm for Reading programme. These teachers’ attitudes to everyday work and their relationships with their pupils and wider communities are enlightening, intensely curious and insightfully engaged. It has been truly inspiring to work with each and every one of them.
If you have seen our website and thought, “Okay, but what does rhythm have to do with reading?” - here’s a post that explains one aspect of the Rhythm for Reading programme and the way that it helps pupils to read for pleasure. Language, in speech and written form, is all the more evocative and intelligible when its sounds, syntax, style and structure cohere to compelling effect. Reading for pleasure, becoming completely immersed in a book, appears to be effortless because our reading skills generate a self-sustaining momentum. Let’s unpack this.
Every sentence, no matter how simple it appears to be is remarkable in that it is shaped from a seemingly infinite range of possibilities. Sentences vary enormously in their length and complexity, yet they are essentially binary in their structure: consisting of a subject and its predicate. The tension between these grammatical elements plays an important role in generating the self-sustaining momentum of language.
To read a simple passage of printed language without undue effort, a reader needs to be able to negotiate the shape and structure of the sentence in addition to recognising the words. Word recognition skills are necessary for the development of fluent reading, but are not sufficient. Reading for pleasure involves being able to ride the rhythm generated by the grammatical structure of language and being able at the same time, to respond to the shape and pace of each sentence. During Rhythm for Reading sessions, pupils are immersed in a series of reading tasks that are enriched by musical shapes, styles and structures. This approach offers a unique opportunity to develop the dynamic processes that contribute to reading for pleasure without front-loading pupils with word recognition.
Whether chanting slogans, learning times tables, conjugating verbs, memorising telephone numbers or reciting poetry, the chances are that most people have at some point relied on their sense of rhythm to memorise units of information. The regularity of the beat underpinning a rhythmic pattern generates a stable framework, pulling discrete units of information together into chunks that are more easily remembered. The regular beat is as predictable (and cyclical) as the sound of waves breaking on the shore. However, the presence of rhythm in our everyday lives is relatively subtle, particularly where language is concerned. This may be because our perception of time is predominantly linear in terms of having a past, present and future or in terms of structure, a beginning, middle and end. We make linear arrangements of words on a page and are usually fixated on the end point – debating how effective and how satisfactory the resolution might be.
Both the process of reading in order to learn and the sense of ease and fluency that we experience when reading for pleasure are little understood by researchers, but the role of rhythm is key, as the Rhythm for Reading blog will explain in the posts that follow.