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.
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.
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
In recent weeks, Frontiers in Psychology published a meta-analysis by Gordon, Fehd and McCandliss (2015) which asked, ‘Does music training enhance literacy skills?’
The authors described a ‘rapidly accumulating body of evidence’ and listed studies that reported significant associations between musical training and language skills, such as Magne et al. (2006) and others which described enhanced brain responses via musical training to unexpected timing and duration of syllables (Chobert et al., 2011) and pronunciation (Milanov et al., 2009). They also reported significant correlations between musical aptitude (in the absence of musical training) and reading performance (Strait et al., 2011).
Gordon and colleagues also referred to a study in which ability in musical rhythm explained the variance in production of grammar in six year olds and complex sentence structures in a follow up (Gordon et al., 2015) and cited earlier studies of musical rhythm, in which an ability to synchronise with a beat predicted phonological awareness and rapid naming tasks (Woodruff Carr et al., 2014), second grade reading skills (Dellatolas et al., 2009) and better reading performance in adolescence (Tierney and Kraus, 2013).
Historically, scholars have made use of a wide range of literacy-related outcome measures and this proved something of a challenge for Gordon and her co-workers. Assessments of reading ability and phonological awareness have been designed to measure reading comprehension, reading rate, reading accuracy, reading fluency and a variety of phonological awareness related skills. Some measures control for working memory, while others do not. Assessments also vary in their formats. Some simply require an individual child to read a list of single words aloud, while others can be administered to groups of children, requiring them to read passages of connected text in silence. To some extent, direct comparisons of effect size can be made, but unless these are described in terms of their educational context, teachers cannot make informed decisions about the usefulness of rhythm-based approaches for different reading-related skills.
The use of random assignment in an educational setting putatively isolates the impact of an intervention under experimental rather than quasi-experimental conditions; yet no such experimental conditions exist in a school. Indeed the authors’ meta-analysis indicated that the amount of reading-related support given to children was rarely held constant over time. Moreover, the random assignment of individuals to any ‘treatment’ is known to induce positive or negative placebo effects, which can be sufficiently powerful to influence outcomes. In the context of a school, influential factors contributing to such effects typically include (i) compatibility of the individuals within the ‘treatment’ group, (ii) location of the ‘treatment’ in a room associated with a particular function in the school and (iii) timing of the ‘treatment’ to routinely coincide with particular social or academic activities.
All of the studies included by the authors in the meta-analysis have been peer reviewed. Relatively few studies had used the RCT paradigm, but all of the studies compared musical training against controls, and included before and after comparison measures and indicated that reading instruction had been held constant across groups. Out of 4855 publications obtained in searches between November 2013 and March 2014, only 13 studies fulfilled these requirements and were included in the meta-analysis.
Three of these studies were considered by the authors to be particularly highly powered because they controlled for IQ and SES; they obtained very large effect sizes. A study of the effect of musical training on word reading obtained an effect size of 1.07 (Moreno et al., 2009). Moritz et al., (2013) reported the effect of musical training on phonological skills (PAT rhyming discrimination), whereas Dege and Schwarzer (2011) showed the impact of musical training on phonological awareness (DEBELS). Both teams found large effect sizes of 1.20 and 0.78 respectively.
To inform future directions for studies of this type, Gordon and colleagues proposed that the following questions should be addressed. For further information about rhythm-based approaches to reading, click here.
1. “What are the effects of different components of interventions (rhythm, pitch; instruments vs. singing; phonological activities in musical context, etc.) on training efficacy?”
2. “What degree of music-driven gains in phonological awareness is needed to impact reading fluency?”
3. “What are the mechanisms underlying improvement: such as attention, motivation, (e.g., OPERA hypothesis; Patel, 2011), speech prosody sensitivity, and/or working memory?”
4. “How are changes in brain function and structure associated with music-training-driven improvements?”
5. “How do individual differences predict response to training? Is there a subset of children that stands to benefit the most from music training?”
(Gordon et al., 2015, p.11)
Chobert, J., Marie, C., Francois, C., Schön, D., and Besson, M. (2011). Enhanced passive and active processing of syllables in musician children. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 23, 3874–3887. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00088
Dellatolas, G., Watier, L., Le Normand, M. T., Lubart, T., and Chevrie-Muller, C. (2009). Rhythm reproduction in kindergarten, reading performance at second grade, and developmental dyslexia theories. Arch. Clin. Neuropsychol.
24, 555–563. doi: 10.1093/arclin/acp044
Gordon RL, Fehd HM and McCandliss BD (2015) Does Music Training Enhance Literacy Skills? A Meta-Analysis. Front. Psychol. 6:1777.
Gordon, R. L., Shivers, C. M., Wieland, E. A., Kotz, S. A., Yoder, P. J.,
and Devin McAuley, J. (2015). Musical rhythm discrimination explains individual differences in grammar skills in children. Dev. Sci. 18, 635–644. doi: 10.1111/desc.12230
Magne, C., Schön, D., and Besson, M. (2006). Musician children detect pitch violations in both music and language better than nonmusician children: behavioral and electrophysiological approaches. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 18, 199–211. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.2.199
Milovanov, R., Huotilainen, M., Esquef, P. A., Alku, P., Välimä ̈ki, V., and Tervaniemi, M. (2009). The role of musical aptitude and language skills in preattentive duration processing in school-aged children. Neurosci. Lett. 460, 161–165. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2009.05.063
Patel, A. D. (2011). Why would musical training benefit the neural encoding of speech? The OPERA hypothesis Front. Psychol. 2:142 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00142
Strait, D. L., Hornickel, J., and Kraus, N. (2011). Subcortical processing of speech regularities underlies reading and music aptitude in children. Behav. Brain Funct. 7:44. doi: 10.1186/1744-9081-7-44
Tierney, A. T., and Kraus, N. (2013b). The ability to tap to a beat relates to cognitive, linguistic, and perceptual skills. Brain Lang. 124, 225–231. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2012.12.014
Woodruff Carr, K., White-Schwoch, T., Tierney, A. T., Strait, D. L., and Kraus, N. (2014). Beat synchronization predicts neural speech encoding and reading readiness in preschoolers. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 111, 14559–14564. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1406219111
As we move deeper into the digital era, we are faced with new challenges for the future of our education system. Independent online learning and unlimited access to information is our new reality. We are striving to adapt to innovative new ideas, to release familiar old ways, and to step up and out of comfort zones into dazzling new ways of thinking and responsiveness in a faster-paced world.
In an age in which skilled manual labour is increasingly being replaced by robots and highly sophisticated technology, reading at a ‘functional’ level has become a massively out-dated concept. Similarly, the widespread practice of training children to answer a question about a written passage by identifying a key word in the question, locating it in the text and then writing out the sentence that surrounds it, is not only a waste of time, but this sham practice is harmful: it allows children to assume that reading is nothing more than a mundane word search exercise.
A specific and urgent challenge for educators today is this: to find new strategies that will equip children to read with understanding. The current emphasis on systematic phonics is disproportionate. We must remember that because phonemes are the smallest sounds of language, each phoneme occupies only a tiny proportion of any sentence, amounting in natural speech to only a fraction of a second. This is why a disproportionate amount of time spent on phonics can interfere with the development of reading with ease, fluency and good comprehension.
Reading well is a feat of delicate coordination between the reader’s eyes, ears and mind in alignment with the ‘voice’ of the author. Achieving this alignment is the process that allows the reader to assimilate meaning as it ‘flies’ off the page (or screen) into the reader’s consciousness.
Reading well depends on an intuitive response to the underlying binary relationship between the subject and predicate in every sentence. The syntax determines the rhythmic structure of the sentence. Consequently, the rhythmic ebb and flow of written language should be felt as intuitively as the rhythmic ebb and flow of speech, even though styles of writing and of speech vary widely. The sentence as a whole and coherent unit is vibrant, elastic and flexible with its meaning perceived not through the synthesis of its many phonemes, but through its overall rhythm and structure.
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