If curriculum lies at the heart of education, it is reading comprehension that enables the vibrant health and vitality of learning. If the curriculum is narrow, the heart of education is constricted, pressured and strained. Without the breadth and rigour of a curriculum that encourages expression and criticality, there may be too little in terms of intrinsic motivation to inspire effective reading comprehension.
Growth mindset, resilience and perseverance cannot compensate for a narrow and impoverished curriculum, nor can they motivate children to want to engage with learning. However, a rich and rewarding curriculum can encourage children’s natural curiosity, drive and self-sustaining motivation, which can bring focus, enjoyment and depth of engagement to reading comprehension.
If a child cannot read, they will not be able to access the curriculum and this has far-reaching consequences not only for the individual, but for all of us as well. A generation of motivated and enabled children who access and enjoy everything that their education has to offer without the limitations of fragile reading, will adapt and adjust with greater confidence to whatever the future holds.
Reading comprehension offers everyone enriched opportunities to develop their aspirations, talents and interests. Indeed, it is through reading comprehension that pupils become lifelong learners and gravitate towards the topics that most interest them. As a starting point, children must engage with different types of reading - fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and discover the many different styles of writing. Engaging with a wide range of reading material empowers children to take their first steps on their future path and to expand their vocabulary. Up to ninety per cent of this is encountered in books rather than day-to-day speech.
Some reading experts have said that a lack of requisite vocabulary or background knowledge can limit a child’s ability to access a text. This mismatch between the text and the child’s prior experiences does not happen in a vacuum and need not limit a child’s education. Lacking the vocabulary or the knowledge to access a passage of text, a child must be encouraged to fill in the gaps at school.
Outstanding schools that have a large proportion of pupils with English as an additional language (EAL), address this issue of a limited vocabulary by immersing the children in ‘enriched’ environments. Different topics that do not come up in day-to-day conversation such as space exploration, deep sea diving and mountaineering, are exciting for children and these schools use corridor spaces as places where children can sit in a ‘spaceship’ or a ‘submarine’ or a ‘safari jeep’ and listen to information about the topic, use word banks, hold relevant books and enjoy the illustrations.
Reading comprehension is not only an understanding of the text - this could be gained from the relatively static process of looking at illustrations or chapter headings. It is a more dynamic process that integrates information as the text is read. This happens when we hear spoken language: we follow along and reciprocate in real time. Reading comprehension is like a conversation, in the sense that it is a social invitation to extract meaning from what is written. If it does not engage the child socially, the text is unlikely to be understood.
When we are reading, the most important key to good comprehension in my view is the social connection with the words. Children make this connection at home before they start school, having been read to by parents or siblings or other caregivers since infancy. These adults will have built social cues such as tone of voice and rhythm into their child’s earliest experiences of books. These children also arrive at school with other social assets such as a strong vocabulary and a positive attitude towards reading.
Conversely, children with a more limited vocabulary may need to build their social connection with reading from scratch and they may also feel anxious about learning for any number of reasons. For them, the usual cues of social engagement such as tone of voice and rhythm are missing from the ‘marks on the page’. So a child with a limited vocabulary and little experience of being read to needs to discover for themselves that reading is primarily a social act before their reading comprehension can develop traction.
Young children learn through play. This involves a sense of heightened arousal as well as social engagement. Even a child playing on their own will be vocalising a narrative of some kind, involving specific sounds and patterns. Punctuation offers an opportunity to engage with a child’s instinct for social engagement and meaning-making through play. Exaggerated voices, list-building, sudden sounds, humour and suspense are invitations to play with words. In the Rhythm for Reading programme we occasionally use a word, purely for fun, at a rhythmically important moment in the music. One such word is, ‘Splash!’ This word marks the end of a very up-beat tune about dolphins and the children love to celebrate this final moment with pure joy. Their social engagement and their playfulness are central to the entire programme, so reading becomes an act of social meaning-making, regardless of the development of their vocabulary.
At the beginning of a child’s literacy adventures at school, conventions of using punctuation are taught in the context of meaning-making and involve the correct use of capital letters, full stops, question marks, commas, exclamation marks, two types of apostrophes and speech marks.
Then other punctuation marks are introduced, such as colons, semi-colons and brackets as a way to enhance meaning-making. Finally, the other conventions involving quotation marks, dashes and hyphens can be added as the child embarks on writing that involves more informality, unusual language, citations and compound words.
Moving beyond conventions and back to social engagement, it is important to consider the ‘state’ of the child. An anxious child with a limited vocabulary will be overloaded emotionally and grapple with word-by-word processing. Their working memory may not have sufficient resources to manage punctuation. A withdrawn child, on the other hand, may have insufficient motivation to engage with reading or writing. By addressing their ‘state’ through a rhythm-based approach, these social-emotional learning blocks can, and do, shift.
Punctuation is a shorthand that guides the reader to recognise familiar types of meaning-making. A series of commas tells the reader that they are going to make a meaningful list. A question mark and an exclamation mark invite the reader to ‘play’ with the concept of ‘an unknown’ or ‘novelty’ respectively. Both are motivational to the child’s instinct for social engagement - their natural curiosity. The full stop is an important rhythmic cue that defines grammatical structures that can stand alone. In a conversation, this could be an opportunity for facial expression or a nod of the head which acknowledges the social dimension of meaning making. In terms of reading aloud, the reader’s prosody - the rise and fall of their voice, shows that the information unit has completed a rhythmic cycle.
In a conversation, the rise and fall of the voice, as well as the dimensions of rhythmic flow create the socially engaged cues of meaning-making and also support reading fluency. These cues are exaggerated by parents when they talk to their young children. Defining utterances in this way creates a structural blueprint for language and social engagement that we as social beings use when we interact. Similarly, conventions of punctuation correspond to these same structures that infants learn in the first eight months of life, as they acquire their home language. For this reason, children intuitively understand punctuation marks when they read with fluency, provided they are socially receptive to and engaged by the content of they are reading.
Punctuation is the dynamic part of reading that organises individual words into grammatical chunks and ultimately, meaningful messages. It functions as a counterpart to grammatical awareness because punctuation as a symbolic system is processed ‘top down’ from the conscious to subconscious, whereas grammatical awareness, which was established in infancy is processed bottom-up, from subconscious to conscious. It’s important to recognise that conscious processing is relatively slow, whereas subconscious processing usually occurs at lightning speed. Children who struggle with reading, and have not integrated these different processing speeds, experience reading as a kind of rhythmic block, often referred to as a ‘bottleneck’. Although many academics have described this as a problem with processing print, in my experience this ‘bottleneck’ is more related to a child’s subconscious levels of social engagement as well as their ‘state’ in terms of their perceptions, attitudes, emotions and level of confidence.
The Rhythm for Reading programme addresses the so-called ‘bottleneck’. Changing a child’s ‘state’ involves ‘neuroplasticity’ or ‘rewiring’ unhelpful ‘habits of mind’ and it is possible to achieve this through regular, short-bursts of learning using high intensity, repetitive and rhythmical actions.
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If you enjoyed this post about reading comprehension and punctuation, keep reading!
The comma, according to Lynn Truss, clarifies the grammatical structure of a sentence and points to literary qualities such as rhythm, pitch, direction, tone and pace.
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.
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 systemically 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 alignment with each other.
There is no doubt that the foundation of a good education, with reading at its core, sets children up for later success. The importance of phonics is enshrined in education policy in England and lies at the heart of teaching children to become confident, fluent readers. However, young children are not naturally predisposed to hearing the smallest sounds of language (phonemes). Rather, they process speech as syllables strung together as meaningful phrases.
Phonemes are more difficult for some children to detect than syllables, and they particularly struggle with learning to read, as they are unable to detect the boundaries between individual words and syllables. Schools are expected to give all learners the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life and to pay special attention to the children who need to improve their reading (the lowest 20%).
Phonemic awareness and the ‘alphabetic principle’ need to be explicitly taught until they become automatic. And yet, unlocking stubborn barriers to phonemic awareness can take years, if relying upon conventional approaches. However, a simple solution - a segmenting and blending game, can support teacher effectiveness, thus enabling these children to access phonics teaching. And it can be used right from the start! This strategy may also protect them from falling behind their classmates. Read on to learn this playful approach and practise it with a FREE downloadable word list.
Segmenting is a skill that breaks sounds down, by drawing attention to them and allowing awareness of the smaller units of language to emerge. Words can be segmented into syllables, and syllables can be segmented into phonemes. Mastering this skill involves holding a word or a syllable in mind and then breaking it down into smaller sounds. Thus, a word such as ‘seashell’ can be initially segmented into two syllables, which are, ‘sea’ and ‘shell’.
Taking this to the next level in terms of detail, each syllable can be segmented into the smallest sounds of language, which are phonemes. There are two phonemes in ‘sea’, which are:
However, there are three phonemes in ‘shell’, and these are:
So, if we take the word, ‘seashell’ as a whole, we have segmented the word into five phonemes, which are: /s/ea/sh/e/ll/.
Some phonics methods use ‘onset and rime’ to develop the skill of segmenting. This approach is designed to sharpen children’s sensitivity towards the boundaries within syllables, whilst retaining a sense of the syllable as an individual sound unit.
When teachers use the ‘onset and rime’ method, they segment a syllable into only two parts:
Using onset and rime, ‘seashell’ would be taken syllable by syllable. Each syllable would be segmented into two parts.
Blending is the skill that involves building words up, either from syllables, or individual phonemes.
There is one simple difference. Segmenting involves breaking a word down into smaller units of sound, whereas blending is a reversal of the process.
The two approaches can be taught side by side. Both segmenting and blending skills are necessary for decoding longer words and shorter words. Let’s take a shorter word, ‘then’.
‘Then’ using a purely phonemic strategy would be segmented as /th/en/ and these sounds, if blended together make the word ‘then’.
Teachers need to guard against a visual strategy (in which the reader has visually decoded ‘the’ as a familiar word that they recognise mainly by its shape) as it wastes a lot of time.
‘Then’ using a partly visual strategy would be segmented as /the/n/ and these sounds, if blended together could make a nonword that would almost rhyme with ‘fern’.
Children need to recognise that /th/ on its own is a phoneme that can be blended with many other sounds.
In the onset and rime approach, /th/ can be blended as follows:
Let’s take a longer word such as ‘umbrella’- there are three syllables here and seven phonemes.
As this is a longer word, segmenting at the syllable level would be a more successful strategy. When a child segments at the phoneme level, each phoneme has equal emphasis. However, in the English language, longer words have unequal emphasis - with some syllables assigned a little more energy (in terms of intensity) vocal stress, and length (in terms of duration). IN the word ‘umbrella’, it is the second syllable that carries vocal stress.
Segmenting at the syllable level allows the child to hear more easily where the stress may fall in the word. The assignment of stress is very important for recognising a word and immediately understanding the meaning of the word in context. For example, the word ‘record’ carries the stress on the first syllable when it functions as a noun (first bullet point) and on the second syllable when it functions as a verb (second bullet point). The vowel /e/ is also subtly different.
Communicative approaches such as drawing attention to letters and sounds in early reading, combined with teaching effectiveness are strong predictors of pupils’ progress throughout school. And yet, for some children, a weak working memory means that manipulating sounds in real time is difficult because attention fades, before the child has:
And there may be a deeper resistance in the breaking down of words. A two syllable word, such as ‘sunshine’ represents a concept, vital for life, that is associated with similarly important one syllable words, such as ‘light’ and ‘sun’. For some children, who are more literal in their approach, segmenting a word may, for them, symbolise breaking down their experiential knowledge.
Although many children may enjoy pulling words apart and rebuilding them, there are some who may feel that a word cannot be segmented without being permanently ‘damaged’. For these children, the playfulness of segmenting and blending needs greater emphasis.
But fundamentally, this is not a trivial matter. If a child cannot read, they will not be able to access the curriculum and will be seriously disadvantaged. Phonemic awareness needs to be explicitly taught until it becomes automatic. So, here’s how to unlock blocked phonemic skills, that are vital for the development of blending and segmenting.Blending and Segmenting Game
This is a technique that has worked with mainstream children aged from five to seven years, as well as with older children in special schools, who are not progressing with phonics.
First start with blending:
This ‘game’ helps children to:
Would you like to have a list of two syllable words to use while playing this game?
Click here to receive a pdf of the Blending and Segmenting Game and a Wordlist.
Continue reading about the fascinating world of phonological processing.
When rhythm and phonics collide - discover the confusable features of certain phonemes and why rhythm brings clarity to this issue.
When rhythm and phonics collide part 2 - explore rhythmic and prosodic differences between consonant and vowel sounds
Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap - a rhythm-based perspective on the influential Hart & Risley study of the ‘word gap’ between affluent and disadvantaged families.
Rhythm and probability underpin implicit language learning - this is about information processing in the first eight months of an infant’s life.
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.
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..
Our ears are open all the time. Even sleeping newborn infants subconsciously respond to the sounds around them, indicating that from birth (1), humans are constantly exposed to their auditory environment.
In their review of the research evidence, Kraus & Chandrasekaran, (2) underlined the importance of the initial, subconscious (subcortical) stage of auditory processing. Before sound reaches our attention, the auditory brainstem responds to incoming information from our ears, integrating the spatial, rhythmical and acoustical features of sounds.
These features include frequency (high and low pitches), the timbre of the sound (for example, differentiating between human voices) and rhythmic features (such as the regularity or predictability of sounds). The auditory brainstem is extremely sensitive to very subtle differences in sound waves, such as individual phonemes in language (phonological awareness) and plays a critical role in early identification of sounds and their patterns in particular. Over time, the auditory brainstem produces an idiosyncratic response to sound that is unique to each individual.
Thus, the auditory brainstem response reflects the current state of the nervous system – the state at that time formed by an individual’s life experience with sound (ibid, 2010, pp. 601).
More recently, researchers have found that the auditory brainstem seems to respond with greatest clarity to the sounds with which the individual is most familiar. Having listened to brainstem responses of musicians, they found that for example, pianists’ brainstem responses to the sounds produced by a piano were unusually sharply defined when compared to those of non-pianists. Brainstem responses also appeared to receive feedback information from cortical areas of the brain (3).
Further developing the line of enquiry, scholars (4) proposed that the availability of cortical feedback (from the cognitive processing of sound) allowed the brainstem response to become increasingly specific over time. For instance, musical expertise that has accumulated over a lifetime leads to extremely fine-grained auditory brainstem responses among professional musicians, not only to musical sounds, but also both to phonemes and the pitch contours of language (5). Once the brainstem has adapted to cortical feedback, it appears to retain its enhanced structures as confirmed by a recent study of speakers of Mandarin and amateur musicians (6).
Overall these studies show that an overlap exists between early stage auditory processing of spoken language and musical experiences. Cognitive feedback informs development of these structures and expertise in music appears to enhance the auditory brainstem response to language, which coincides with group teaching in the Rhythm for Reading programme and can inform early reading intervention.
1. Nameth, R., Haden, G., Miklos, T. & Winkler, I (2015) Processing of horizontal sound localization cues in newborn infants, Ear and Hearing, 36 (5), pp. 550-556
2. Kraus, N and Chandrasekaran, B. (2010) Music training for the development of auditory skills, Nature Neuroscience, 11, pp. 599-605
3. Strait, D.L. Chan, K., Ashley, R., & Kraus, N (2010) Specialisation among the specialised: Auditory brainstem function is tuned to timbre, Cortex, 48, pp. 360-362
4. Skoe, E., Krizman, J., Spitzer, E., & Kraus, N. (2014) Prior experiences biases subcortical sensitivity to sound patterns, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27 (1), pp.124-140
5. Musacchia, G., Sams, M., Skoe, E. & Kraus, N. (2007) Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104.
6. Bidelman, G.M., Gandour, J.T., Krishnan, A., (2011). Cross-domain effects of music and language experience on the representation of pitch in the human auditory brainstem. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 23, 425–434.
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 a new type of reading intervention that will equip children to read with fluency and understanding. The current emphasis on systematic phonics is disproportionate. We must remember this: 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. A reading programme with a focus on static individual sounds has a decontextualising effect and dilutes the natural rhythmic flow of language comprehension.This is why a disproportionate amount of time spent on phonics in group teaching can, over the long term, interfere with the development of reading with ease, fluency and 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 utterances, 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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Reading is mysterious. It can be deconstructed into its constituent parts such as vocabulary, contextual knowledge, grapheme recognition, phonological awareness and so on and represented in flow diagrams. However, after many years of scholarly research, the processes that contribute to fluent reading are still not fully understood.
When a child’s reading fails to flow, they receive phonological awareness training, a staple reading intervention strategy in schools. This is fairly unsurprising because research suggests that difficulties with phonemic awareness are strongly related to specific problems with reading and spelling.
Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in language and each of these tiny sounds occupies a fraction of a second in the flow of spoken language in real time. Although the development of phonological awareness is necessary at the early stages of a reading programme, it is not sufficient for the development of reading with ease, fluency and comprehension.
Fluent readers intuitively convert print into meaningful language. To do this, they focus their attention in a particular way, which enables them to monitor and assimilate meaning from the content of printed language while they read. Their experience of reading is dynamic and responsive. Fluent readers are simultaneously aware of grammatical structures, evocative details in the language and the resonance of these details with their knowledge of the context.
When a learner’s reading doesn’t flow easily, it is likely that that their attention has for too long supported their reading as relatively static experience, rather than as a dynamic activity. If you’d like to know more, sign up for weekly insights into the Rhythm for Reading programme.