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.
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 intervention (as opposed to waiting to see whether a learning difficulty will ‘resolve itself’ over time), and a proactive approach, can narrow the gaps that undeniably exist when children enter primary school.
In 2013, I adapted the Rhythm for Reading programme so that I could put in place urgently needed support for a group of Year 1 and Year 2 children, who struggled with phonics. Their school had already seen impact of the programme on key stage two children, so the leadership team were keen to extend its reach. At that time, I saw the programme as ideally placed to support older children, a body of research evidence has established the relationship between rhythmical awareness and phonological awareness in young children. The research argues that a strong awareness of rhythm is a reliable predictor of phonological awareness, which in turn is a strong predictor of reading attainment (see Hallam, 2015, for a comprehensive review).
However, since 2013 I’ve found that the most obvious barriers to learning for the key stage one children that I’ve worked with are fragmented, scattered attention, weak inhibition and a very short attention span of only a few seconds. Unsurprisingly, emotional insecurities are very common as well. As you may realise, children experiencing these particular difficulties would certainly struggle to discern, to retain or accurately produce a rhythmically aware response. It’s clear too, that when elevated or low arousal levels have been alleviated during Rhythm for Reading sessions, dramatically improved levels of attention, awareness of rhythm and phonological awareness soon follow.
In the context of the Rhythm for Reading programme for key stage one children, the most important adaptation has involved developing simple, fast-paced team-building games which focus on ears, eyes and voices. A subtle form of metacognitive training, these help the children to deepen and extend their attention. Combining the games with music and rhythm-based approaches to reading make it possible, in a few short sessions to support them in reading music fluently and inhibiting inappropriate responses, whilst enjoying working together as a team.
Hallam, S. (2015) The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Music Education Research council (iMERC)
As the year draws to a close, i’d like to say a heartfelt thank you to all the school staff and leadership teams who have invited Rhythm for Reading into school to work with their pupils in 2014. This truly has been an amazing year and it has been an incredible privilege to work alongside so many extraordinary professionals.
Perhaps, these individuals and teams are special, not only to me but to us all in the sense that they are ‘early adopters’ within the education community. According to Rogers’ famous “Diffusion of Innovations”, ‘early adopters’ comprise 13.5 % of any given population. These are the professionals who are most likely to particularly influence those around them. Having worked closely with them, I have been blown away by their exceptionally energised, informed, confident and remarkably positive approach to teaching and learning.
Working within schools, our experiences have closely echoed Rogers’ observations of early adopters. These are the qualities that we experienced when we worked in these remarkable schools with these wonderful teams. These bullet points are quoted from ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ to explain how the early adopter category, more than any other:
• ‘Has the greatest degree of opinion leadership in most social systems’
• ‘Is considered by many as “the individual to check with” before using a new idea’
• ‘Is a role model for many other members of a social system’
• ‘Is respected by his or her peers, and is the embodiment of successful and discrete use of new ideas.’ (Rogers, 1983; 248)
In fact, many of the teachers that we have worked most closely with this year have been invited to speak at one or more high profile events or have previously come to prominence as recipients of education awards. This suggests that Rogers’ theoretical approach resonates with what we are seeing in the schools that are currently using the Rhythm for Reading programme. These teachers’ attitudes to everyday work and their relationships with their pupils and wider communities are enlightening, intensely curious and insightfully engaged. It has been truly inspiring to work with each and every one of them.