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
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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