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All posts tagged 'attention'

It’s anti-bullying week: How does fear affect learning?

15 November 2023

Image Credit: Ditto Bowo via Unsplash
Image Credit: Ditto Bowo via Unsplash

Recently, I read that an act of aggression is a natural ‘active coping strategy’ and is rewarded by a dopamine hit. Conversely, a submissive, ’passive coping strategy’ results in stress-induced withdrawal and even generates a ‘shutdown’, an immediate energy-conserving behavioural response. The setting for these social experiments was a laboratory. The brains of mice and rats were dissected following each behavioural task. Slices of tissue were examined to determine the levels of reward and stress induced by each type of ‘social situation’ manipulated by the researchers.

How does this relate to anti-bullying week? Well, in terms of brain structure, neurochemistry and behavioural responses, mice and rats are considered to bear a close enough resemblance to humans to deem such work ethical, justifiable and relevant.

Are children born knowing that bullying is inherently immoral, or, are we dealing with impulses that are ‘natural’ and therefore ‘justified’ on the grounds that ‘children will be children’?

This is the question that Ruter Bregman addressed in his wonderful book, ‘Human kind’. On the one hand, there is the view that humans may possess abhorrent traits, for example, John Adams’ vision of all men as ‘potential tyrants’ and Sigmund Freud’s thesis that we descended from ‘generations of murderers’. On the other hand, Rousseau’s much earlier realisation that the moral compass of humans had in fact been corrupted by land ownership and the extent to which social institutions (such as the baronial system) rewarded competitive and ‘loyal’ behaviour with enhanced social status, titles and land. This socially hierarchical system was normalised to such an extent that as humans, we lost touch with our natural compassion, health and vigour. Moreover, Bregman’s research showed that Rousseau’s argument was supported by countless examples of human courage and kindness. Furthermore, he discovered that explorers of the eighteenth century and the mainstream media had constructed blatantly false narratives that claimed dreadful events of human brutality had taken place, particularly within communities that lived traditional life-ways.

In the past year, stories of bullying as a global phenomenon have peppered the mainstream news. These have included an account by Raphael Rashid of a weekend rally of 200,000 South Korean school teachers protesting against the harassment they received from parents and that among their colleagues, one hundred teachers’ lives had been lost to suicide.

In southern California, Ramon Antonio Vargas reported on the lawsuit brought by the parents of fourteen year old school boy Diego Stoltz against the school district. Two of Diego’s own classmates had verbally and physically assaulted him, and he had lost his life to the injuries nine days after the attack. This took place on the school premises at lunchtime and another child had videoed the violence. This story shows that there is no room for complacency when enforcing an anti-bullying policy. Bullying is not just dangerous and corrosive, it can be fatal.

Complacency can be driven by an unease around standing up to bullying. However, in a school with effective leadership, where it is not tolerated at all, a strong ethos exists in terms of respect for teachers, pupils, learning equipment, school uniform and the fabric of the building. Expectations of high standards, however, are not necessarily self-sustaining: they are earned through consistent maintenance - it takes effort to keep children safe.

I visit schools every week and see teachers working hard to ensure that respect is maintained by a deliberate commitment to upholding the high behavioural values of the school. This is clearly visible when pupils move between lessons in every corridor and flight of stairs.

It is easy for standards to slide. When this happens, how might bullying affect learning? There are two main ways. First, if the atmosphere in a school lacks respect and tolerance, then pupils will feel hyper-vigilant and their attention will drift because they are alert for the wrong reasons, anticipating threat and wondering how to strategically position themselves for safety. This response is a necessary behavioural adaptation, but it diminishes cognitive focus, control and recall. Learning suffers.

The second way bullying affects learning is more insidious. It’s a narrowing of the bandwidth of ideas that pupils are willing to contribute and the questions that they are willing to ask in a classroom where individual contributions are not respected. In a culture of bullying, the perspective of the bully overrules opportunities for discussion, clarification and exploration. To move beyond ‘one size answers’, to ‘multiple answers’, pupils need to feel comfortable with expressing individual opinions or engaging with perspective-taking and the influence of context.

Deeper learning is also limited for one more reason, the so-called ‘narrowing of the curriculum’. The squeezing of arts subjects to the periphery of the curriculum is a huge loss in itself, but particularly so in this context, as arts subjects cultivate discipline, self-expression, dialogue, and prioritise collaborative working.

To conclude, the importance of enforcing an effective anti-bullying policy cannot be overstated. It is more than a matter of wearing odd-socks on ‘Odd socks day’. All schools must become places of safety, security and respect. Pupils who already carry visible negative effects from exposure to stress in early childhood, for example, need to know they will not be targeted, as they are vulnerable through no fault of their own. They deserve to focus their attention on learning and thriving as much as anybody else.

Research shows that headteachers who are successful leaders, with a strong vision and a clear set of values, have established an ethos of respectful conduct for everyone in the school community. An anti-bullying policy that works at all levels of implementation is the key to maintaining an effective and inclusive learning environment.

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Read more about this topic by clicking the links below

Temenos and Safety in Schools

We often hear about the dangers of cyberspace, where cyber-bullying is rife and children are vulnerable. Now imagine for a moment the relief of reaching the ultimate refuge. Temenos is a Greek concept that describes a sanctuary, a space of absolute safety and harmonious balance, where individuals uphold an immutable self-respect and where criticism and judgment are suspended.

Rhythm and connection 3/5

Mythical tales of abandonment, involving fear of the jaws of death followed by the joy of reunion are familiar themes in stories from all around the world. Sound is a primal medium of connection and communication via mid brain processes that are rapid, subjective, subtle and subconscious. Similarly, the telling of stories, the recitation of poems and songs are also examples of how auditory signals are woven together to communicate for example fear, distress and joyful reunion, or other emotions.

Rhythm and reading comprehension 1/5

In the Simple View of Reading, reading comprehension is described as the ‘product of’ skilled decoding and linguistic comprehension (Gough & Tumner, 1986). The recent focus on oracy (for example Barton, 2018) highlights a focus in some schools on linguistic comprehension. According to researchers, the proportion of children beginning school with speech, language and communication needs is estimated at between 7 and 20 per cent (McKean, 2017) and unfortunately, communication issues carry a risk of low self-esteem and problems with self-confidence (Dockerall et al., 2017).


Rutger Bregman, Human kind: A hopeful history, Bloomsbury Publishing

Raphael Rashid, South Korean teachers stage walkout over harassment by parents and students 4th September 23, accessed 26th October 23

Ramon Antonio Vargas and agencies, Family of boy, 13, who died after bullying attack get $27 million from school district, 15th September 23, accessed 26th October 23

Fireworks and noise: How do the sound effects affect us?

1 November 2023

Image credit: Jakayla Toney via Unsplash
Image credit: Jakayla Toney via Unsplash

The impact of fireworks on learning may have been underestimated as a factor that potentially limits some pupils’ capacity to access the curriculum. In terms of equipping all children and young people for future learning, sensitivity to environmental noise needs to be addressed, particularly in times of conflict. Also, our neurodivergent pupils may need time to centre themselves and recover from the inevitability of raised arousal levels. These sensitivities may manifest as excitability, anxiety and uncertainty around elevated exposure to noise. The increased stress from environmental noise exposure is a form of cognitive load. It is generally emotionally charged (loud, violent and unpredictable) with the availability of attentional resources diminished, working memory function compromised and access to learning constrained.

In this post I’ll unpack the ways in which resilience to environmental stress is influenced by regulatory circuits in the brain. These circuits process relative levels of adversity and support in the social environment and determine whether a person is more likely to approach or avoid neutral situations. When the emotion regulatory circuits are functioning well, people are protected against environmental stressors and sensory overload.

Researchers have found, for example, that children who grew up in inner cities, compared with those from rural areas, were more likely to have increased activity in the brain region of the regulatory circuit that is conditioned by social stress and adversity. In such instances, the ‘amygdala’ was implicated in children’s educational outcomes because it is particularly threat-oriented. This area of the brain drives fear-based responses and can modify behaviour by reallocating attentional resources to survival-type behaviours such as fighting back, escaping (absconding) or shutting down and withdrawing.

The capacity to down-regulate (relax) the amygdala is important for the development of social resilience, and this is best supported by a stable social network of friends and family, an inclusive school community and a healthy lifestyle. Researchers have proposed that oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding, protected individuals including those suffering from PTSD, hyper-arousal and high blood pressure: it also enhanced the management of stressful experiences.

How does the theatricality of fireworks impact people?

Fireworks create a ‘spectacle’ and if we include the earliest ‘fire-crackers’ they have been used by humans for more than two thousand years: imagine hearing the noises which were created naturally when bamboo stems were thrown in the fire. Air exploded loudly in the narrow stems and as far as people were concerned these sounds were protective - because they were larger than life and were considered a force for good.

At least five hundred years later, experiments with gunpowder in China generated the first man-made fireworks. Their use spread rapidly from Italy, across Europe and eventually to the U.S.. Their function was to illuminate palaces and castles at night time and to exaggerate the wealth and status of the land owners, long before people had electricity. Rhythmically vigorous music was usually deployed to amplify the theatrical effect, just as it is today.

The whole point of fireworks has remained the same: to enchant people, to impress them and to manipulate their perceptions. When fireworks were first used by the wealthy, no doubt in competition with one another, the effect would also have astounded local people, further exaggerating the hierarchical relationship between land owners and workers.

We are the only living species that has achieved mastery of fire as a tool. From cooking to metal working, from the combustion engine to missiles, we’ve found ways to harness fire in remarkable ways, such as:

  • Insulating ourselves from the natural environment,
  • Flying through the air,
  • Devastating large areas of land and its inhabitants from a considerable distance.

This year, people are suffering in so many ways from the most destructive aspects of fire: the impact of rockets and shelling has tragically impacted communities around the world. As we light up and set off fireworks, let’s contemplate the fact that these sound effects signify death and mutilation to so many people, including traumatised refugees who have sought safety in welcoming countries and those who are suffering in war zones. Nearer to home, the sounds of fireworks will have some people bracing, cowering, shaking and flinching, not only this year, but for many more in the future.

Having said this, fireworks are widely available and are frequently used for all manner of celebrations. Some people mark anniversaries and religious festival days with their brightly coloured lights and spectacular sounds, and as a global community we all celebrate New Year with them. Although they are generally used to bring people together for special occasions, many children and animals are naturally frightened by their overwhelming effects and they can cause panic, anxiety and fear, as well as generate sensory overload and confusion.

What are the three types of noise makers used in fireworks?

The fire in the family hearth can roar, crackle and pop, whereas the sounds of fireworks whistle, scream and bang. This manipulation of manmade fire reminds us of violent sounds associated with war and fear. The sounds of fireworks exploit two different mechanisms. First consider the narrow tube - just like the original bamboo stem: this is the vessel - the container of the ‘managed’ sound. The second mechanism depends on the type of chemical reaction, which determines whether the flame burns quickly or slowly. The quick reactions are more explosive, whereas the slower ones are more expressive.

  • The whistling sound is a slower reaction and is achieved by reserving half of the narrow tube of the firework for the sound vibration. Many whistling fireworks also spin, either in the air or on the ground and accelerate until they ultimately explode, and some erupt into a spray of sparkles.
  • The screeching or screaming sound is given out by fireworks that are similar to missiles and are powered by a slower time to react chemically. There is a small hole in the tube and this squeezes the chemical gases out through a very focused and pressured space, thus generating the shrill sounds.
  • The extra loud bangs are made by adding particular compounds, such as aluminium and other metals to the firework’s shell. The bang type sounds are caused by vary fast chemical reactions. The loudest over-the-counter firework sold in the UK is required to remain under 120 decibels, whereas licensed displays specialise in louder explosions of up to 170 decibels. Some of the loudest fireworks have names such as, ’Mine’ - in other words the manufacturers deliberately evoke a war zone, presumably meeting and possibly creating a consumer demand.

How do these sounds affect pupils?

Our auditory system is the first sensory system to develop in utero from about 19 weeks in gestation. From these very early days, the auditory system appraises the sounds of the environment while the foetus develops. We are wired to scan the environment using all our senses, but arguably, the most important and sensitive of these is the auditory system.

This system differentiates between the variety of emotional content of early memories, by processing the neutral ones in the left hemisphere of the brain, whereas upsetting early memories are processed in the right side. Researchers discovered that sensitivity to sound processing was more pronounced in the right than the left hemisphere, and that this occurred during recall of upsetting rather than neutral memories. The converse was also true. So, processing neutral memories was clearer in the left hemisphere, whereas auditory processing was less acute on the left side.

People with a history of childhood trauma and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have more activation of their right hemisphere when recalling difficult memories, and can be expected to be highly sensitive to sound. Every person diagnosed with a debilitating condition such as PTSD suffers a unique array of lived experiences and challenging risk factors. It’s also reasonable to generalise that this disorder reduces resilience, with people in this situation more likely to avoid a noisy environment as a way to prevent traumatic memories and emotional distress from resurfacing.

Using fireworks to develop literacy and expand vocabulary

Before the fireworks season begins, there is an opportunity for teachers to discuss the sounds that fireworks make and their impact. Naming and explaining things makes them less overwhelming, as well as easier to manage and process. Onomatopoeia - the literary device used to identify sound effects such as ‘bang’, is an obvious approach to take. Rather than simply referring to the novelty of the ‘fun’ sounds in fireworks, it’s also important to consider the unpleasant experiences that some children and young people in the classroom may need to have acknowledged, honoured and respected by their teacher. These pupils may very well wish that they could avoid being exposed to fireworks altogether.

Having included everyone’s points of view, the topic of ‘fireworks’ offers a huge opportunity for vocabulary development. A strong relationship between vocabulary and social background is well known as it exists the majority of research studies. Why not immerse children in evaluative language when discussing fireworks by:

  • Drawing comparisons between the sounds, and
  • Drilling down into near synonyms.

If there are children in your class who are sensitive to the sound effects produced by fireworks, it may be helpful to embody the suddenness of the sounds by moving to music using starburst style movements, jumping jacks and also using art to release some of the complexity and intensity of any potentially overwhelming experiences.

Click the links to read related posts.

Rhythm, attention and rapid learning

Trance-like attentional states include boredom and repetition, whereas novelty and a switch in stimulus generate a shift and a rapid reset of attention. Ultimately the attention span is involved in predicting where and when the next reward or threat will occur.

Big is not enough

Sensory shock is one of those overworked, high impact, culturally jarring phrases bandied about to solicit attention. Its use speaks to violation, but of what? It points to a loss of cognitive control that is immediate and devastating. Even seemingly small changes in the tone of voice of someone new, can be experienced by some of the students, as a sensory shock.

How can we support the mental health challenges of school children?

Young people’s mental health challenges cannot be left to fester, as they affect their identity, educational outcomes, parental income and resilience within the wider community. Here are 10 key strategies that parents and teachers can use to support children and adolescents dealing with distressing symptoms of mental health challenges while they are waiting for professional help.

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.

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