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 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 our work in Rhythm for Reading.
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 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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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 learner’s reading fails to flow, phonological awareness training is a staple remediation 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, phonological awareness is necessary at the early stages of reading, it is not sufficient for the development of reading with ease, fluency and understanding.
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.