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The Rhythm for Reading blog

All posts tagged 'attention'

Musical notation, full school assembly and an Ofsted inspection

5 December 2022

Many years ago, I was asked to teach a group of children, nine and ten years of age to play the cello. To begin with, I taught them to play well known songs by ear until they had developed a solid technique. They had free school meals, which in those days entitled them to receive free access to group music lessons and musical instruments. One day, I announced that we were going to learn to read musical notation. The colour drained from their faces. They were agitated, anxious and horrified by this idea.

“No!” they protested. “It’s too hard.”

“After all these lessons, do you really think I would allow you to struggle?” I asked them.

The following week, I introduced the group to very simple notation and developed a system that would allow them to retain the name of each note with ease, promoting reading fluency right from the start. This system is now an integral part of a reading intervention called the Rhythm for Reading programme. It was first developed for these children, who according to their class teacher, were unable to focus their attention and learning with the rest of the class.

After only five minutes, the children were delighted to discover that reading musical notation was not difficult after all.

“I can do it!” shrieked the most excitable child again and again and there was a wonderful atmosphere of triumph in the room that day.

After six months, the entire group had developed a repertoire of pieces that they could play together and as individuals. It was at this point that Ofsted inspected the school. These children were invited to play in full school assembly in the presence of the Ofsted inspection team. They played both as a group and as soloists. Each child announced the title and composer of their chosen piece, played impeccably, took applause by bowing, and then walked with their instrument to the side of the hall. At the end of the assembly the children (who were now working at age expectation in the classroom) were invited to join the school orchestra and sit alongside their more privileged peers. The Ofsted team placed the school in the top category, ‘Outstanding’.

If you would like to learn more about this reading programme, contact me here.

Image credit: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash
Image credit: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

Three factors to take into account when assessing reading comprehension.

28 November 2022

Image credit: Adam Winger via Unsplash
Image credit: Adam Winger via Unsplash

In the Rhythm for Reading Programme, progress in reading is measured using the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability 2nd edition revised (NARA II). Reading comprehension is one of three standardised measures in this reading assessment. There are many good assessments available, but I’ve stuck with this one because it offers three supportive features that I think are particularly helpful. If you are unfamiliar with NARA II, let me paint a picture for you. Detailed illustrations accompany each passage of text. For a child grappling with unfamiliar vocabulary or weak decoding, the illustrations offer a sense of context and I’ve seen many children’s eyes glance over to the illustration, when tackling a tricky word.

In practice, children come out of class one at a time for individual reading assessment. Each reading assessment lasts twenty minutes on average. The main advantage of an individual assessment over a group assessment is that the assessor is permitted to prompt the child if they get stuck on a word. In fact the assessor can read the tricky word after five seconds have elapsed, which helps the child to maintain a sense of the overall narrative. This level of support is limited by the rigour of the assessment. For example, an assessor would not give the definition of a word if a child asked what it meant and sixteen errors in word accuracy on a single passage of text signals the end of the assessment.

This particular individual format is more sensitive that all others in my opinion, because it minimises the influence of three cognitive factors on the scores.

Factor one: There is minimal cognitive loading of working memory as the child can refer back to the text when answering questions. In other words, they do not need to remember the passage of text, whilst answering the questions. This approach prevents a conflation between a test of comprehension and a test of working memory. Children may score higher on NARA II if working memory is likely to reach overload in other reading test formats, for example, if the child is required to retain the details of the text whilst answering comprehension questions.

Factor two: There is no writing involved in NARA II, so a child with a weak working memory achieves a higher score on the NARA II than on other formats if writing in sentences is a specific area of difficulty for them.

Factor three: The assessor keeps the child focussed on the text. This makes a big difference if a child is likely to ‘zone out’ frequently and to experience scattered or fragmented cognitive attention. In this instance, a child with weak executive function is more likely to achieve a higher score on the NARA II than on other formats, because of the support given to scattered or fragmented attention.

At the end of the ten weeks of our reading intervention, children have achieved higher scores not only in NARA II, but also in the New Group Reading Test and the Suffolk Reading Scales. Many children experience gains in cognitive control as well as reading fluency and comprehension.

Rhythm and Rainbows

17 October 2022

Image by Typhaine Braz via Unsplash
Image by Typhaine Braz via Unsplash

When I meet with teachers, they want to know exactly how the Rhythm for Reading programme works. The first thing to establish is that rhythm is all around us. That cannot be denied. All around us there are tides, seasons, migratory flows of animals and birds. In our own bodies, the physicality of rhythm is present in our heartbeat, our breath, the way we chew food, run, walk and swim. There are also multiple rhythmic patterns in the way that we communicate with each other, ranging from soothing to abrupt utterances. These are universal responses to rhythms that the human nervous system recognises in relation to our breath, our heartbeat and our physical activity.

In fact, communication through language is related to the role of the nervous system in the regulation of our behaviour. If we say, “Watch out!” our message is urgent, abrupt and short. We would have delivered it with a boost of energy and a fast trajectory. The trajectory is the rainbow shape from the first word to the final word of an utterance and it is fuelled by the energy of speaker’s voice and secondly by the receptivity of the listener’s attention. Someone, hearing “Watch out!” who doesn’t speak English would have understood the meaning of the words, because of the universal shape of the abrupt utterance as a warning signal.

In a longer utterance, the opposite is true. The trajectory from the first word to the final word involves tiny adjustments in the lengths of syllables that relate to one another in grammatical speech. These subtle signals can only be detected if the energy in the voice is reliable and consistent enough to bring coherence to the shape of entire trajectory.

Fortunately, the evolution of our articulatory system in coordination with our breath and our ability to monitor our speech utterances ensures that we achieve all of these feats rapidly and automatically in hundredths of a second. This is why, for the most part, we’re unaware of the rhythmic patterns in our everyday speech.

Rhythm, attention and rapid learning

3 October 2022

By @cdc via Unsplash
By @cdc via Unsplash

There are many different forms of attention. Neuroscientists have studied the development of cognitive attention in children as well as the different types of attention that we experience. Boredom and repetition generate a trance-like state of attention, whereas novelty and a switch in the stimulus generate a shift and a rapid reset of attention. The attention span exists to protect us, to feed us and to ensure that our genes succeed us in future generations. This is why the attention span is adaptable and can be trained to become longer or shorter using reinforcements such as rewards or threats. Ultimately, the attention span is involved in predicting when and where the next reward or threat will take place.

If a chid has experienced a threatening situation such as a war zone, they are likely to flinch in response to loud noises and their attention is likely to be highly vigilant, having been trained by the environment to monitor potential threats. A chid raised in a calm and enriched environment is likely to have fostered a natural curiosity for the world around them and to have interacted in reciprocation with it. Conversational turns in such an environment are the rhythmic hallmark of social interactions, and according to researchers contribute to emotional well-being and language development (Zimmerman et al., 2009).

The Rhythm for Reading programme offers an opportunity to move children away from a vigilant state, to a rhythmically responsive form of attention that involves reciprocation and builds receptivity and stamina. The attention system is dynamic and is particularly responsive to setting and emotional set point. If a child was threatened repeatedly at school, for example by a bully, then vigilance in the attention system would affect the child’s learning to some extent.

By the same token, it’s important that Rhythm or Reading sessions take place in the same place, on the same day of the week and at the same time of day to establish the regularity of exposure to rewarding experiences. Knowing where and when positive experiences occur, such as feelings of personal safety, social connection, a boost to well-being, engagement with rewarding patterns and calming breath work, which are nurtured during Rhythm for Reading sessions is important. The anticipation and experience of weekly Rhythm for Reading sessions enables a child’s attention system to recognise the sessions as a ‘real’ part of their environment. A consistent pattern in the children’s lives enables a deeper sense of anticipation and supports rapid learning during the programme.

Zimmerman, E.J., Gilkerson, J.,Richards, J. A., Christakis, D.A. Xu, D., Gray, S., Yapanel., U. (2009) Teaching by listening: The importance of adult-child conversations to language development. Pediatrics, 124 (1), 342-349, doi: 10.1542/peds 2008-2267

Releasing Resistance to Reading

1 January 2017

​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.

Practising Poetry - the importance of rhythm for detecting grammatical structures

1 April 2016

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

Thank you Dr Seuss
Thank you Dr Seuss

Have you heard about the auditory brainstem?

1 November 2015

Our ears are open all the time. Even sleeping newborn infants subconsciously respond to the sounds around them, indicating that from birth (1), humans are constantly exposed to their auditory environment.

In their review of the research evidence, Kraus & Chandrasekaran, (2) underlined the importance of the initial, subconscious (subcortical) stage of auditory processing. Before sound reaches our attention, the auditory brainstem responds to incoming information from our ears, integrating the spatial, rhythmical and acoustical features of sounds.

These features include frequency (high and low pitches), the timbre of the sound (for example, differentiating between human voices) and rhythmic features (such as the regularity or predictability of sounds). The auditory brainstem is extremely sensitive to very subtle differences in sound waves, such as individual phonemes in language (phonological awareness) and plays a critical role in early identification of sounds and their patterns in particular. Over time, the auditory brainstem produces an idiosyncratic response to sound that is unique to each individual.

Thus, the auditory brainstem response reflects the current state of the nervous system – the state at that time formed by an individual’s life experience with sound (ibid, 2010, pp. 601).

More recently, researchers have found that the auditory brainstem seems to respond with greatest clarity to the sounds with which the individual is most familiar. Having listened to brainstem responses of musicians, they found that for example, pianists’ brainstem responses to the sounds produced by a piano were unusually sharply defined when compared to those of non-pianists. Brainstem responses also appeared to receive feedback information from cortical areas of the brain (3).

Further developing the line of enquiry, scholars (4) proposed that the availability of cortical feedback (from the cognitive processing of sound) allowed the brainstem response to become increasingly specific over time. For instance, musical expertise that has accumulated over a lifetime leads to extremely fine-grained auditory brainstem responses among professional musicians, not only to musical sounds, but also both to phonemes and the pitch contours of language (5). Once the brainstem has adapted to cortical feedback, it appears to retain its enhanced structures as confirmed by a recent study of speakers of Mandarin and amateur musicians (6).

Overall these studies show that an overlap exists between early stage auditory processing of spoken language and musical experiences. Cognitive feedback informs development of these structures and expertise in music appears to enhance the auditory brainstem response to language, which coincides with group teaching in the Rhythm for Reading programme and can inform early reading intervention.

1. Nameth, R., Haden, G., Miklos, T. & Winkler, I (2015) Processing of horizontal sound localization cues in newborn infants, Ear and Hearing, 36 (5), pp. 550-556

2. Kraus, N and Chandrasekaran, B. (2010) Music training for the development of auditory skills, Nature Neuroscience, 11, pp. 599-605

3. Strait, D.L. Chan, K., Ashley, R., & Kraus, N (2010) Specialisation among the specialised: Auditory brainstem function is tuned to timbre, Cortex, 48, pp. 360-362

4. Skoe, E., Krizman, J., Spitzer, E., & Kraus, N. (2014) Prior experiences biases subcortical sensitivity to sound patterns, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27 (1), pp.124-140

5. Musacchia, G., Sams, M., Skoe, E. & Kraus, N. (2007) Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104.

6. Bidelman, G.M., Gandour, J.T., Krishnan, A., (2011). Cross-domain effects of music and language experience on the representation of pitch in the human auditory brainstem. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 23, 425–434.

Narrowing the gap through early reading intervention

15 June 2015

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 reading 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 their school’s phonics early reading programme. 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, and yet a body of research evidence has established the relationship between rhythmical awareness and phonological awareness in young children. The research literature argued 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 programme 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 for group teaching, these help the children 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)

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