Louis Vuitton began his career in logistics and packing, before moving on to design a system of beautiful trunks, cases and bags that utilised space efficiently and eased the flow of luggage during transit. He protected his designer luggage using a logo and geometric motifs. The dimensions of each piece differed in terms of shape and size, and yet it was undeniable that they all belonged together as a set - not only because they matched in appearance, but also because each piece of the set could be contained within a larger piece. In fact, the entire set was designed to fit into the largest piece of all.
The grammatical structures of language and music share this same principle that underpinned the Louis Vuitton concept. In a language utterance, the tone, the pace and the shape of the sound waves carry a message at every level - from the smallest phoneme to the trajectory of the entire sentence.
The shapes of individual syllables are contained within the shapes of words. The shapes of words are contained within the shapes of phrases and sentences. Although these are constantly changing in real time - like a kaleidoscope, the principle of hierarchy - a single unit that fits perfectly within another remains robust.
In music, the shapes of riffs, licks, motifs, melodies and phrases are highly varied, but the hierarchical principle remains a constant here too. The musical message is heard in the tone, the pace and the shape of the smallest and largest units of a musical phrase.
Just as Vuitton used design to create accurate dimensions at every level of his luggage set, the same degree of precision is also achieved at a subconscious level in spoken language and in music. A protruding syllable, the wrong emphasis or inflection can throw the meaning of an entire sentence out of alignment. A musical message is similarly diluted if a beat protrudes, is cut short or is lengthened, because the length and shape of an entire phrase is distorted.
Arguably, the precise dimensions in Vuitton’s groundbreaking designs reflect a preference for proportion and balance that also underpins human communication involving sound. Our delight in the consummation of symmetry, grammar and rhyme is present in the rhythm of language and also in music. At a conceptual level, it is ratio that unifies the Vuitton designs with language and music, and it is ratio that anchors our human experience in interaction with one another and our environment.
This concept of ratio, as well as hierarchical relationships and the precision of rhythm in real time underpin the Rhythm for Reading programme. Think of this reading intervention as an opportunity to reorganise reading behaviour using a beautiful luggage set, designed for phonemes, syllables, words and phrases. It’s an organisational system that facilitates the development of reading fluency, and also reading with ease, enjoyment and understanding.
In my last post I described a typical challenge facing a child with poor phonological awareness. Using a rapid colour naming test (CToPP), it’s possible to identify that a weakness in processing the smallest sounds of language often occurs at the onset of a phoneme, in other words the onset of a syllable. Consonant blends and consonant digraphs are more affected, so, conflation between ‘thr’ and ‘fr’, or ‘cl’ and ‘gl’ is likely to happen and to impede the development of reading with ease and reading fluency.
The notion that sensitivity to rhythm and sensitivity to the smallest sounds of language overlap in terms of data has been around for decades. A positive correlation between sensitivity to rhythm and phonemic sensitivity has been shown in many studies. It’s easy to understand that rhythm and phonological processing overlap, if we consider that the start of a phoneme - the onset of a syllable is exactly where sensitivity to rhythm is measured - whether that’s the start of a musical sound or a spoken utterance.
Thinking for a moment about words that begin with a consonant, imagine focussing mostly on the vowel sound of each syllable, without being able to discern the shape of the initial phoneme with sufficient clarity. The sounds would merge together into a kind of ambient speech puddle. Vowel sounds carry interesting information such as emotion, or tone of voice. They are longer (in milliseconds) and without defined edges - it’s murky in there and there’s a loss of control, right? Now imagine focussing on the onset of each syllable. The consonants are shorter (in milliseconds), sharply defined and distinctive, leaving plenty of headspace for control. If consonants are prioritised, information flows easily and the message lands with clarity.
The Rhythm for Reading programme addresses these differences in phonological processing through group teaching that is fun and supports early reading intervention in particular. Information processing is enhanced by sensitivity to rhythm because rhythm focusses attention to the onset of the utterance, which is where the details are sharpest. This kind of information processing remain effortless, easy and fluent.
If you’d like to know a little more about this, the details are summarised in a free infographic. Click here.
Have you ever taught a child with weak phonological awareness? The differences between sounds are poorly defined and individually sounds are swapped around. A lack of phonological discrimination could be explained by conflation. Conflation, according to the OED is the merging of two or more sets of information, texts, sets of ideas etc into one.
One of the most fascinating aspects of conflation is that it can happen at different levels of conscious awareness. So, for example teenagers learning facts about physics might conflate words such as conduction and convection. After all, these terms look similar on the page and are both types of energy transfer.
Younger children might conflate colours such as black and brown as both begin with the same phoneme and are dark colours. The rapid colour naming test in the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing reveals such conflation. For instance, a child I assessed once as part of a reading intervention conflated brown and green. Any brown or green square in the assessment was named ‘grouwn’ (it rhymed with brown). She had conflated the consonant blends of ‘br’ and ‘gr’ and invented a name for both colours.
In the early stages of reading, conflation can underpin confusion between consonant digraphs such as ‘ch’ and ‘sh’. Another typical conflation is ‘th’, and ‘ph’ (and ‘f’). In all of these examples, the sounds are similar and they differ only on their onset - the very beginning of the sound.
A child with sensitivity to rhythm is attuned to the onsets of the smallest sounds of language. In terms of rhythmic precision, the front edge of the sound is also the point at which the rhythmic boundary occurs. Children with a well-developed sensitivity to rhythm are also attuned to phonemes and are less likely to conflate the sounds. Logically, cultivating sensitivity to rhythm would help children to detect the onsets of phonemes at the early stages of reading. Stay tuned for Part 2 and a free infographic..
The Rhythm for Reading programme is deeply rooted in education for social justice. My personal mission, driven by my commitment to developing inclusion in society, is built on my principles of equity and social justice in education.
I have worked in top independent schools such as Alleyn’s, teaching the children from some of the country’s most privileged families. I believe in empowering all children and I am writing this to share with you the mechanism that we can use together to raise standards in reading. I believe that together, we can raise standards in reading and the Rhythm for Reading programme offers a mechanism to achieve this.
There are two additional benefits. By empowering children with a lifelong love of reading, we can protect their mental health. An additional benefit of the Rhythm for Reading programme is that it launches the children into the world of musical notation, which they learn to read fluently, right from the start. This is what we do…
At Rhythm for Reading, we recognise that phonological processing requires: phonological knowledge (letter-sound correspondence), but also phonological awareness (sensitivity to the smallest sounds of language) and the flow of sounds (rhythmic and grammatical context). The data gathered from the past 10 years shows that the Rhythm for Reading programme improves perceptual sensitivity to:
Children have reported many changes in their learning behaviour at the end of the ten weeks of the Rhythm for Reading programme, including being able to follow their teacher’s instructions, knowing what is going on in the lesson, and being able to get on with their work because they are able to ignore distractions.
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‘We’re all in this together’ - To some extent this is true, but I think we’re all having very different experiences of the lockdown. Many people are suffering the agony of losing loved ones to the disease. Many are facing hunger and hardship in the days and weeks ahead. Many feel the anxiety which hangs in the air.
How can rhythm help us? Here are a few suggestions and I’m sending you love and light as you read this.
For frustration and anger: Play music with strong rhythmic patterns and invite some movement from any part of the body willing to respond - perhaps start with a small nod of the head or tap a single finger. A critical voice may speak up. The music is simply our gift to ourselves - no inner commentary is necessary. Stay with the music and allow the patterns to weave their way through the body and mind. When it feels possible, allow the body move a little more until all the physical tension has melted into the music.
For anxiety, panic and grief: Play soothing, gentle, slow music to help ease the breath and the heart rate. Breathe deeply into the stomach to a count of at least six, several times a day is very soothing. Eat small amounts of food, chewing very slowly. Allow the sighs to move through the body like a balm. Comforting hugs from others may not be possible at this time, but I am sending you a hug right now as you read this. Our dreams are always available to us and sometimes we need to create new ones to move forwards again. When the right moment arrives, try drawing or writing about a new life in the future. By sharing our dreams with the page, we allow our hope and faith to grow stronger.
For procrastination: The rhythm of the body in a visualisation can help to overcome procrastination. Visualise doing the task that needs to be done, from getting started to bringing in the physical details of the place in your home where this is happening. Consider the time of day, the feelings of satisfaction and self-worth during the stages of this task. Focus on the joy of finishing; then create the scene for real. Are there any cushions? Is there a cup of tea? Bring everything that is necessary to complete the task. Make a start - simply get started by doing something small. Keep going and focus intently on the joy of finishing. Background music or background voices (perhaps in another language) are helpful for some people. Experiment with the volume to find the level that best supports focus and concentration.
For routines: Setting up a family routine is admirable and will be most successful if everyone is on board. Remember to build breaks into the day and to keep the goals small enough to be achievable. At weekends make sure that the days feel less structured and be sure to celebrate the wins week by week. A star chart is invaluable for creating a growing sense of accomplishment (adults need them too) and will help to pump-up the momentum of each day.
Language: Rhythm in language tells us what people really mean. We are all dealing with different levels of stress at the moment and it can be helpful to be prepared for tricky conversations.
Say this sentence aloud - first very quickly, and then very slowly, ‘Mary cried’.
Vowel sounds (italics) that are uttered quickly, tell us that the person speaking is delivering information, perhaps having already analysed or evaluated a situation. The speaker is coming from a head-centred, judgmental space.
Vowel sounds that are uttered slowly tell us that the person is probably feeling compassion and cares about the situation. This person’s voice signals that they are coming from a heart-centred, loving space.
In tricky conversations, it may be easier to keep the communication flowing if we slow down the vowel sounds. By saying, ‘Oh’ and ‘Ah’ and ‘No,’ very slowly, we can programme ourselves for compassion. This could prove invaluable, should a tricky conversation come along. Take care everyone.
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.
As a necessary part of due diligence, school leaders must ask probing questions before committing to an intervention and research is an important source of information. In previous posts, I’ve highlighted academic work that explores for example, the importance of rhythm in infant language learning (October, 2015), the development of reading skills (March, 2015) and language processing in the auditory brainstem (November 2015).
It’s important to consider the extent to which school leaders can have confidence in the rigour of scholarly work and peer-review. A peer-review panel made up of academics with specialism in a particular field is uniquely qualified to judge that an article is not only relevant to the readership and methodologically sound, but also meets the ethical and academic standards of the publication. Many journals now offer free access to high quality, peer-reviewed content considered to be relevant to a wider readership (e.g. Long, 2014).
Incredibly, more than 5,000 academic papers are published each year in journals on the role of shared or overlapping neural structures known to contribute to linguistic processing and musical processing. Although many people intuitively believe that it may be possible to isolate and identify a ‘single mechanism’ that might explain the overlap between language and music, it is becoming more likely that several interconnected mechanisms or networks may be involved (e.g. Peretz et al., 2015).
When pupils in key stage one, key stage two and key stage three have taken part in the Rhythm for Reading programme, they’ve described benefits to their reading, concentration and attitudes to learning, suggesting that the impact of the programme is fairly broad. Recent research with older pupils in a special school has also demonstrated clear benefits of the programme on reading attainment and other areas of learning behaviour.
Consultation meetings with school leaders have sparked interesting discussions, with particularly popular topics which come up again and again.
1. The structure and content of the Rhythm for Reading programme.
2. The ‘single mechanism’ that might explain how the programme works.
3. The suitability of the intervention for different groups of children, for example pupils identified with EAL or SEND or FSM.
4. Professional development.
5. The development of the Rhythm for Reading programme.
As these are really popular questions, I’ve made a useful free resource for school leaders, please click here to have a read.
Marion Long. ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading. Research Studies in Music Education (2014): 1321103X14528453.
Peretz, Isabelle, et al. “Neural overlap in processing music and speech.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 370.1664 (2015): 20140090.