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All posts tagged 'language'

Conversations and language development in early childhood

14 February 2024

Image credit: Mark Zamora via Unsplash
Image credit: Mark Zamora via Unsplash

The child’s task is to construct the system of meanings that represents his own model of social reality. This process takes place inside his own head; it is a cognitive process. But it takes place in contexts of social interaction, and there is no way it can take place except in these contexts. As well as being a cognitive process, the learning of their mother tongue is also an interactive process. It takes the form of continued exchange of meanings between self and others. The act of meaning is a social act. (Halliday, 1975: 139-140)

Echoing Halliday’s beautiful description of a child’s construction of a model of his social world, the link between talking, the development of vocabulary and reading comprehension was made by Hart and Risley in their book, ‘Meaningful Differences in Everyday Experience of Young American Children’ (1995). In these studies, they focused on word frequency counts and the number of conversational turns between adults and children. It was ten years later when researchers showed the importance of the quality of the interaction between adults and children for the development of language skills, and thus established that educational outcomes for children were built on the foundations of both speaking and listening.

Language development

Decades before Hart and Risley’s landmark study, the Plowden Report had emphasised the importance of spoken language in learning.

Spoken language plays a central role in learning. Parents, in talking to their children help them to find words to express, as much to themselves as to others, their needs, feelings and experiences. Through language children can transform their active, questioning response to the environment in a more precise form and learn to manipulate it more economically and effectively. The complex perceptuo-motor skills of reading and writing are based in their first stages upon speech and the wealth and variety of experience from which effective language develops. (The Plowden Committee, 1967, paragraph 54).

More recently, researchers have measured natural language in the homes of young children using a voice recorder that selected adult words spoken directly to the child, conversational turns - the back and forth of a conversation, the child’s voice and also sounds from televisions and electronic devices.

Whilst the Hart and Risley study showed that the number of words that parents speak to their child, and the number of times adults respond to their child’s voice are of critical importance to language development, a new study was commissioned (Zimmerman et al., 2009) to ask which type of exposure: words, interaction with parents or television, would best predict language development.

The findings showed that exposure to words and interactions with the parents had a significant and positive relationship with language development, whereas exposure to television had a significant and negative association with the development of language skills. When television, words and interactions were analysed together, in order to isolate the most important of these three, it was the interaction with the parents that carried the most influence - the other two variables, word frequency and television were no longer statistically significant.

Parenting styles

In the study, Zimmerman measured Interaction between the child and the parents by ‘turn count’ - in other words: the number of times that the conversation passed between the parent and the child. This metric would probably have been influenced by parenting style. For example, an ‘authoritarian’ parent would be more likely to shut the conversation down using a comment such as, “Because I say so.” Contrastingly, a more ‘authoritative’ parent would be more likely to encourage their child to develop self expression, using language to sustain attention and to develop self-confidence.

In addition to parenting styles, researchers have also considered two important factors which are known to have a positive impact on language development, as well as social and emotional health:

  • maternal responsiveness (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2001), and
  • a positive social and emotional environment (Knudsen et al., 2006).

Television and electronic devices occupy children far more now in 2024 than they did fifteen years ago when Zimmerman’s study was published. As ‘digital natives’ children are introduced to screens from the age of four months, and hours of exposure to screens continue to accumulate not only in the home, but also in the classroom, once the child starts school.

Screen time

According to recent research (Muppalla, 2023), children who engaged in screen time for more than two hours per day were associated with an increased chance of developing behavioural problems and a poorer vocabulary. Other factors such as a decrease in young people’s engagement with nature and the outdoors may account for increased concerns about mental health and well-being. However, among children of primary school age, concerns about anxiety, depression and aggression have been associated with excessive use of gaming, general screen use and television respectively.

There are various factors to consider, but particularly so if parents use ‘screen time’ as a reward, as there is the additional ‘specialness’ that comes with attaching a high symbolic value to a device even before the child engages with it. The fast-paced and noisy content of certain games, films and TV shows encourage an abrupt level of cognitive and emotional stimulation, which impacts the reward circuitry of the brain (in a similar way to ingesting an addictive substance). The spike in dopamine disrupts the sensitive balance of this brain circuit and can lead to craving behaviours that are associated with addiction. In terms of motivation and attention, the child may withdraw from everyday forms of social engagement with family and friends and their habit may develop into a compulsion, disturbing the delicate balance of the dopamine system even more.

This picture develops further in terms of its complexity if we factor in homework assignments that involve researching a topic on the internet. Children with a gaming habit are likely to struggle to focus on an assignment that does not consummate their ‘need’ to satisfy the gaming compulsion. If siblings share a device at home, one of them may have no choice but to complete the task late into the evening. As screen exposure at night is known to disrupt the wake-sleep cycle, homework assignments that involve using screens may also frustrate parents who are trying to limit their child’s screen time.

Sharing a book

One way to offset the disruptive effects of screens is to put them away and reach for a book. The interaction between a parent and child when sharing a book extends way beyond the narrative - (the telling of the story). In fact, this is an opportunity for the child and parent to get lost in the book together, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Exploring the illustrations, experiencing the build-up of tension of the structure and the suspense that this evokes offers parents a chance to accompany their child into a new world of ‘firsts’. Perhaps this story will be the first time the parent sees their child:

  • feel empathy for a character,
  • consider different possible directions for the plot,
  • detect the wicked intentions of the villain before these have been revealed in full.

Drilling into the detail of the text, the child might ask their parent about the meanings of words. This could develop into a guessing game or trigger a shared memory that helps a new word to make sense.

When researchers compared two consecutive days: one with and one without book reading, there was a 148 percent increase in the number of parent and child interactions which were specifically related to sharing a book. This concentrated period of interaction with the child is not only very nurturing for their well-being, but it also provides opportunities to share a different pace and style of language.

The language in a book may well be more descriptive and make use of phrases that would not naturally arise in everyday conversation, and would support children in the development of a broad and rich vocabulary. Not only that, but the length and complexity of sentences are more likely to sculpt a child’s attention in a way that everyday spoken language may not (Saracho and Spodek, 2010).

Key points

The Hart and Risley (1995) study showed perhaps surprisingly that infants initiate conversations with their parents more than the parents do. This may happen at the most inconvenient moments for the adults, but if parents are aware that their child needs to interact in order to develop language skills, that would set them up for life: they would probably pay closer attention to these subtle attempts to initiate interaction. The researchers found that the factors most likely to distract the parents included:

  • noise from the television,
  • the parent using a mobile phone,
  • depression and metal health issues.

The type of speech that parents use with their children actually stimulates the middle ear and changes the physiology of the muscles of the child’s head and neck, allowing the face to move in response to the parent’s voice. This beautiful and congruent system of social engagement is hard-wired into humans and all other mammals. It is through interaction between parent and child in the pre-school years that secure attachment bonds and well-adjusted character formation create the foundations for reading well and academic attainment at school.

In the past five years, researchers have found that conversations require active prediction as speech unfolds over time. Listeners anticipate what is coming up in the speaker’s voice as they infer the most likely content and meaning. Listening is very much an active process and involves entraining (matching) rhythmically with the speaker’s voice. This natural aspect of speech is a relatively new area of research in neuroscience (Lakatos et al., 2019) and allows us to understand the role of rhythm within the deeper structures of language and communication.

If this is of interest, click here to discover the impact of a rhythm-based intervention on reading comprehension.

If you have enjoyed this post, keep reading!

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

In their highly influential study of vocabulary development in the early years, Hart and Risley (1995) showed that parents in professional careers spoke 32 million more words to their children than did parents on welfare, accounting for the vocabulary and language gap at age 3 and the maths gap at age 10 between the children from different home backgrounds.

How we can support mental health challenges of school children?

The waiting lists for local child and adolescent mental health services- ‘CAMHS’ are getting longer and longer. Teachers and parents are left fielding the mental health crisis, while the suffering of afflicted children and adolescents deepens with every day that passes. 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.

Narrowing the attainment gap through early reading intervention

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.


Halliday, M. (1975) Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. London: Edward Arnold

Hart, B. and Risley, T.R. (1995) Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children, Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.

Knudsen, E. I. et al., (2006) Economic neurobiological and behavioural perspectives on building America’s future workforce. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103 (27) 10155-10162

Lakatos, P., Gross, J. and Thut, G. (2019) A new unifying account of the roles of neuronal entrainment, Current Biology, 29, R850-R905

Muppalla et al (2023) Effects of excessive screen time on child development: An updated review and strategies on management, Cureus 15 (6) e40608. Doe:10.7759/ cures.40608

The Plowden Committee (1967) Children and their primary schools (The Plowden Report). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Available at: http://www.educationendland.org.uk/ plowmen Accessed 8.12.14.

Saracho, O.N. and Spodek, B. (2010) Parents and children engaging in storybook reading, Early Child Development and Care, 180 (10)1379-1389

Tamis-LeMonda et al., (2001) Maternal responsiveness and children’s achievement of language milestones, Child Development 72 (3) 748-767

Zimmerman F. J. et al. (2009) Teaching by listening: The impact of adult child conversations on language development paediatrics, 124 (1) 342-349.

Skulls and Magic: Ancestors, Trances, Dancing and Tea

25 October 2023

Image credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash
Image credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Did you know that ninety per cent of our vocabulary is encountered in reading and not in everyday speech? Books can introduce us to some spectacular ideas and gruesome knowledge at Halloween. Folk tales and myths in particular can induct us to knowledge about our world and rituals that date back many thousands of years. Although the origins of Halloween are attributed to the Celtic tradition, many of its themes as we know them today have rich and ancient origins. dating back to the beginnings of the Neolithic period. Humans have preserved, decorated and celebrated their ancestors’ skulls for thousands of years.

Here, I review two new Halloween books ‘Where’s my Boo!?’ by Nicholas Daniel, and ‘The Skull’ by Jan Klassen. “Where’s My Boo!?” is superficially an adorable story that actually deals with fear - the type of fear that steals your voice, that leaves a person feeling frozen and silenced. A ghost goes on a quest to ‘reclaim’ its ‘Boo!’ and even borrows the voices of others. This book delights in three ways. First, it uses a predictable pattern of rhyming couplets that is consistent and make it fun to guess the final word. Also, there’s a persuasive feeling of buoyancy in the illustrations and a font that pretty much mirrors the lilting feel of the language. Lastly, a huge sense of relief is palpable when the ghost stops searching and listens to the voice within. The encouraging message of this book is that our ‘true Boo!’ is the one that everyone loves and needs to hear.

‘The Skull’ is a retelling of a Tyrolean folktale. It’s a fascinating blend of folklore and symbols, reworked through a contemporary lens. Skulls have been polished and cherished for millennia, and in Halloween season, surrounded as we are by skeletons and carved pumpkins, I was curious to dive deeply into the underpinnings of this story.

The original version of this folk tale is deeply symbolic. The most mysterious and magical elements of the story, to my mind, have been ‘cleansed’ during Klassen’s retelling. However, the relationship between the main character, ‘Otilla’ and the ‘Skull’ remains the same across three different versions - and I’ll unpack a few points for the sake of comparison. The character of ‘The Skull’ is best described as a cherished ancestor, perhaps as a once precious elder of the community. There’s evidence that ten thousand years ago, people polished and decorated skulls, perhaps as a token of respect for deceased loved ones, or as a way to maintain a ‘connection’ with them. In each version of the story there is also a ‘Skeleton’ character, which wants possession of the ‘Skull’. The child ‘Otilla’ confronts the ‘Skeleton’ in the climax of the story and after this point, each reworking retells the folk tale in a different way.

In the original, according to Klassen, once the curse of the ‘Skeleton’ has been broken, it vanishes. At that moment, the ‘Skull’ turns into a beautiful lady dressed in white and the castle is filled with children and lovely things to play with. This lady gives everything in the castle to ‘Otilla’ before disappearing into the sky.

Another earlier version, written by Busk and edited by Rachel Harriette dates from the nineteenth century, entitled, “Otilia and the Death’s Head’ or, ‘Put your trust in providence’. It was published in London in 1871 and resonated strongly with the opening section of the well known tale ‘Cinderella’, as the young Otilla was both orphaned and resentful of her stepmother.

Overwhelmed by grief and her own vulnerability, Otilla runs away from home into the Tyrolean forest, all the while hearing her deceased father’s voice guiding her and urging her to trust in God. Hungry, cold and close to death herself, she discovers a castle and is welcomed by a speaking ‘Death Head’.

She undertakes specific tasks for the ‘Death Head’. She cooks in the kitchen, sleeps in a strange bedroom and faces her fear of the ‘Skelton’ that rattles its bones at her. However, guided by her father and trusting in God, she is resolute and fearless. The next morning, the ‘Skeleton’ is transformed into a beautiful lady dressed in white, who, having shown a lack of appreciation for all the wonderful things that life had given her, had been trapped in the castle. She turns into a dove before flying away.

Otilla displayed no fear when confronted by the ‘Skeleton’ and had broken the spell through the strength of her faith. Having inherited the castle from the lady in white, she invites her stepmother to enjoy it with her, and domestic peace and harmony are restored.

In a wonderful book called, ‘Decoding Fairytales’ by Chris Knight, Professor of Anthropology at UCL, the reader is guided through a system of symbols and signs based on the division of lived experiences as either ‘Other World’ (the world of trance, near death experiences, ceremonial masks and rebellion) or ‘This World’ (the orderly world of compliance, harmonious living and surrender). ‘Halloween’ of course is a celebration of the ‘Other World’.

To appreciate the contrast between each ‘world’ we need to think about life before the internet, telecommunications, and even the use of electricity, when moonlight was the most important source of light after sunset. The phase of the moon was believed to control not only the tides and peoples’ physical safety, but also to influence their emotions.

In this list I’ve summarised Knight’s observations of the two ‘Worlds’.

‘This World’ versus ‘Other World’

  • Moon Waning versus Moon Waxing
  • Midday Sun versus Eclipse
  • Silence / calm versus Thunder
  • Day versus Night
  • Life versus Death
  • Dry versus Wet
  • Cooked versus Raw / Blood
  • Feasting versus Hunger / Being eaten
  • Emergence versus Seclusion
  • Harmony versus Noise / Chaos
  • Surrender versus Rebellion
  • Available versus Taboo
  • Human Identity versus Animal Mask

‘The Skull’ is not a story about ‘This World’. In all three versions of the tale, Otilla leaves the mundane world of her old life behind and journeys into the ‘Other World’ - the liminal world where she encounters the transition between life and death, enchantment and rebellion.

In many fairytales, a young girl finds herself lost in a forest or has been secluded in a forest (by someone in her matrilineal line). Although the forest was familiar to Otillla, as she lay in the wet snow crying, she confronted her fear of the dark, of danger and of being alone at night. Klassen allows the reader to decide whether or not it was the wind calling Otilla’s name, whereas Harriette and Busk were unequivocal that Otilla could hear her late father’s voice guiding her onwards through the darkness. The forest is both a psychological and physical barrier, carrying the risk of death and cutting her off from the safety of her domestic mundane life.

In the Harriette and Busk version of the story, Otilla is given tasks to perform. The first is to carry the ‘Death Head’. The second is to take it into the kitchen and to make a pancake. To do this she uses eggs - a universal symbol of rebirth. In Klassen’s version however, she eats a pear (carrying connotations of fertility) with ‘The Skull’, makes a fire for them both and they ‘drink tea’ (we must imagine the type of tea) by the fire. Both versions feature the fire, and in fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel or the Gingerbread Man, a kitchen fire, in a cottage in the middle of a forest traditionally cues an opportunity for children to be cooked alive.

In the Klassen version of the story, the ‘Skull’ shows Otilla a wall where ceremonial animal masks hang, explaining that they were not to be worn (i.e. taboo). However, they walk down the steps to the dungeon and look at the ‘bottomless pit’ (a familiar theme in many myths and legends, perhaps representing an ‘underworld’ or the subconscious mind). In the accompanying illustration Klassen depicts both characters wearing the animal masks, which signals that they have crossed the threshold into the ‘Other World,’ the space between life and death where it is appropriate to wear animal masks and where taboos may be broken without consequences.

Otilla has spent the first night drinking ‘tea’ and exploring the dungeon with the ‘Skull’ and now trusts sufficiently to be taken to the top of the turret. The turret, like the dungeon was traditionally a place of seclusion for girls in many fairytales. As they climb the steps from the dungeon to the balcony and move from darkness into light, we may assume that a new day, the second day of the adventure has dawned.

They remove their masks as they reach the daylight and emerge into fresh air, but then the ‘Skull’ immediately takes Otilla into the ballroom, where the sun streams in through the window. The adventure continues as they wear the ceremonial masks and dance until evening. Traditionally, wearing an animal mask simply meant acknowledging the ‘animal side’ of the self, (the side that was inhibited by social norms during domestic day-to-day life). Having danced the second day away with the ‘Skull’, Otilla makes another fire and they ‘drink tea’ in the evening. She looks into the fire, it becomes a source of inspiration and cerebral power while the ‘Skull’ tells her about the threat of the ‘Skeleton’. Otilla sleeps with the ‘Skull’ on the second night and falls into a ‘deep sleep’.

In the middle of the night, the ‘Skeleton’ appears just as predicted and tries to steal the ‘Skull’ from Otilla. The girl prevails and shows the ‘Skeleton’ that she is stronger and smarter in Klassen’s secular version (and spiritually disciplined and protected in the Harriette - Busk version).

According to Klassen, the ‘Skeleton’ chases the girl, who clutching the ‘Skull,’ leads it up to the top of the turret, throws it over the edge, and hears it shatter upon impact with the ground.

Later in the story, while the ‘Skull’ sleeps, Otilia cremates the ‘Skeleton’s’ fragmented bones. [According to Knight, fire is a traditional symbol of marriage and stands in opposition to blood, a traditional symbol of kinship.] In Klassen’s contemporary narrative, Otilla accepts an invitation to cohabit with the ‘Skull’, having made the ‘Skeleton’ disappear, and thus she emerges on day three of her adventure into a new domestic life.

In the original version and Busk’s retelling of it, the ‘Skeleton’ transforms into a beautiful lady at the end of the story, reminiscent of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. In both fables, the young girls have a strong affinity with the tempering and purifying power of fire, and both have lost their mothers. It would also seem that bereavement, extreme anxiety, fear and stress in a pubescent child, particularly after drinking a herbal brew such as tea, might induce such visions. But, in Klassen’s telling of the tale, these magical ‘other worldly’ elements have been removed. Instead, the ‘Skull’ offers Otilla companionship and a new home.

If the underlying elements of this story resonated, you might enjoy reading more about trance, rhyme, rhythm and language in these posts:

Rhythm, Flow, Reading Fluency and Comprehension: In extant societies, traditional life ways include hunting and gathering. For sheer survival, loud communal singing and drumming are also essential for deterring the big cats that may predate infants on the darkest of nights.

Rhythm, attention and rapid learning: Boredom and repetition generate trance-like states of attention, whereas novelty and a switch in stimulus create a rapid reset. Ultimately the attention span plays a role in predicting where and when the next reward or threat is likely to occur.

Practising poetry - The importance of rhythm for detecting grammatical structures: Rhythmical patterns in language cast beams of expectation, helping to guide and focus our attention, enabling us to anticipate and enjoy the likely flow of sound and colour in the atmosphere of the poem.

Rhythm, phonemes, fluency and luggage

12 December 2022

Image credit: Filipp Romanovski, via Unsplash
Image credit: Filipp Romanovski, via Unsplash

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.

When Rhythm and Phonics Collide Part 2

11 November 2022

In my last post I described a typical challenge facing a child with poor phonological awareness. Using a rapid colour naming test (CToPP2), 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 fluency.

The notion that sensitivity to both rhythm and 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. Now imagine focussing on the onset of those syllables. The consonants are shorter (in milliseconds), more sharply defined and more distinctive, leaving plenty of headspace for cognitive control. If consonants are prioritised, information flows easily and the message lands with clarity.

The Rhythm for Reading programme addresses these distinctions through group teaching that is fun and supports early reading in particular. Information processing is enhanced by sensitivity to rhythm because rhythm focusses attention onto the onset of the sound, 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.

Image Credit: Thank you Rupert Britton via Unsplash
Image Credit: Thank you Rupert Britton via Unsplash

When Rhythm & Phonics Collide

7 November 2022

Image by Josh Applegate via Unsplash
Image by Josh Applegate via Unsplash

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..

Education for Social Justice

5 September 2022

Thanks to Jonathan Borba / Unsplash
Thanks to Jonathan Borba / Unsplash

The Rhythm for Reading programme is deeply rooted in education for social justice. My personal mission is driven by my commitment to the development of inclusion in society, and built on the principle of equity in education.

I have worked in leading independent schools such as Alleyn’s, teaching the children from some of the country’s most privileged families, and yet I believe in empowering all children. I am writing this to share with you the mechanism that we can use together to raise standards in reading. Together, we can raise standards in reading and the Rhythm for Reading programme offers a mechanism to achieve this.

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 of the ten week intervention programme.

This is what we aim to do in Rhythm for Reading:

  • to raise standards in reading.
  • to empower staff to sustain those raised standards.
  • to train staff, especially the support staff who are helping readers to develop fluency and enjoyment in their reading.

At Rhythm for Reading, we recognise that phonological processing requires:

  • phonological knowledge (letter-sound correspondence),
  • phonological awareness (sensitivity to the smallest sounds of language)
  • awareness of the flow of sounds (rhythmic and grammatical context).

The data gathered from the past 10 years show that the Rhythm for Reading programme improves perceptual sensitivity:

  • to the sounds of language,
  • to the rhythmic flow of language,
  • to the grammatical structure and consequently, the comprehension of language.

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,
  • being able to get on with their work because they are able to ignore distractions.

If you would like to find out more, visit the contact page to get in touch and sign up for weekly insights.

Rhythm at Home

2 April 2020

Image by Judi Neumeyer via Unsplash
Image by Judi Neumeyer via Unsplash

‘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.

Statistically significant impact after only 100 minutes

1 March 2018

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.

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