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All posts tagged 'phonics'

Phonics:  Long and short vowels, and the influence of the vagus nerve

8 November 2023

Obviously, it is important that ALL children learn to read well. However, the lowest attaining twenty per cent of children are less likely to become confident, fluent readers. As a consequence, schools must monitor the development of pupils’ progress in phonics.

It is essential to identify any pupil who is falling behind the pace of the school’s phonics programme and to put effective support in place, but the quality of such support must withstand scrutiny. A certain amount of cognitive bias has been identified and found to disadvantage the lowest attaining children. Much of this is centred around verbal interactions - ie the spoken words between teacher and pupil. These verbalisations can be heard as criticism of the pupil and bias has also been found in the subtle manner in which expectations of the pupil are voiced.

In the teaching of early reading, communicative approaches are considered to have significantly positive effects. It is therefore important that when teachers are engaged in modelling language and reasoning, extending vocabulary and drawing attention to letters and sounds, they guard against cognitive bias, particularly in schools that serve disadvantaged communities. Given that unconscious bias can influence the way a child learns, it is important to understand how the emotional cues or ‘tone’ of the voice intersect with the human nervous system in the teaching of early reading.

Image credit - Michal Parzuchowski via Unsplash
Image credit - Michal Parzuchowski via Unsplash

What is phonemic awareness and how important are long and short vowels?

Phonemic awareness and decoding are essential for the development of reading. After all, as research has shown - guessing words from their context is only accurate for ten to twenty per cent of the time. As the foundation of a systematic approach to the teaching of reading, phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle need to be explicitly taught until they become automatic.

The principle of automaticity is key to the development of good reading. When the reader has internalised the correspondence between letters and their sounds, the cognitive load lightens and frees up capacity in working memory, as well as cognitive attention. As availability of both memory and attention expands, the reader engages with the text with increasing fluency, ease and understanding.

However, as each word consists of a unique combination of phonemes and each syllable is characterised by a vowel sound, awareness of the differences between long and short vowels can make or break the development of phonemic awareness. Why is this? Well, vowel sounds are particularly interesting because they carry information about the meaning assigned to a word, and in everyday speech, they also carry the speaker’s tone of voice, as well as their attitude or intention towards the listener, including any cognitive bias.

Arguably, if the sounds of vowels are associated in the mind of the child with feelings of confrontation, then the vowel sound may trigger an anxiety-inducing response that does not support learning.

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve relays sensory information that helps us to perceive the physiological signals that inform the brain of our internal state. As a cranial nerve, it connects the brain with almost every organ of the body and although the information travels in multiple directions, the majority of it flows upwards from the body to the brain. Certain parts of the vagus nerve are important for speech and are discussed below.

The vagus nerve descends on the left and the right of the neck. It innervates both sides of the larynx before it drops down into each side of the chest and then passes back up into the neck and into the larynx. On this ascending pathway the vagus nerve innervates all the remaining intrinsic muscles of the larynx, which are responsible for opening and closing the vocal folds. The nature of this return journey may account for why these branches of the vagus are known as the recurrent laryngeal nerve.

The larynx

The larynx (or voice box) has three important functions. One is to prevent us from inhaling food or liquids. Another is to support breathing. The third is to produce sound through speaking, singing, shouting and screaming. The muscles of the larynx adjust the length and tension of the vocal folds (vocal cords) and this is how people adjust the tone and pitch of the voice, though the nervous system usually takes care of this for us subconsciously.

The tone of voice can be modified to portray a wide range of emotions such as anger, fear, surprise, sadness and joy. In stressful situations, chronic tension in the larynx can arise and can weaken the coordination between the muscles controlling the vocal folds.

The job of the cricothyroid muscles is to tense the vocal cords, resulting in more forceful and higher pitch speech. This is the only muscle that is innervated by the superior (upper) laryngeal branch of the vagus nerve. This muscle fundamentally changes the main acoustic of the sound, in terms of the emotional content and the contrasts in tone.

The more gentle sounds of the human voice are produced by the muscles innervated by the recurrent laryngeal nerve, after it has travelled through the chest area. These muscles include:

  • The thyroarytenoid muscles, which relax tension and shorten the vocal folds.
  • The posterior cricoarytenoid muscles, which widen the space between the vocal cords and pull them away from the midline of the body.

According to research findings by Arnal and colleagues (2015), human screams exploit a unique acoustic property. They display a ‘roughness’ that activates not only the brain’s auditory system, but also the amygdala, a deep brain structure that is involved in processing fear and danger.

A scream is a long vowel sound, ‘ah’, characterised by its high pitch and initial loudness. The researchers showed that a scream is distinctive (when compared to high pitched singing) because of its rough rather than harmonious qualities. It is the roughness that produces the fear-inducing response in listeners. However, context is key. In school playgrounds, under adult supervision, many children let off steam by running fast and screaming as they chase each other. This is a healthy use of the voice to release emotion in a playful way. A fast-paced and playful environment with a lot of emotional release reinforces active coping strategies and builds resilience as well as social connection.

The vagus nerve, which ascends through the vocal folds, and into the brain innervates two areas that are important for managing emotional and physiological pain: the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. Given that our tone of voice can indicate how we feel in our social environment, and how we feel influences how we learn, how might this information apply to the way we approach vowels in the teaching of early reading? Let’s first consider vowel sounds in the context of phonemic awareness.

How are long and short vowels related to the vagus nerve?

The emotion in the voice is related to the variability of vowel sounds as well as vowel length and impacts the vagus nerve in the following ways.

Social engagement and learning

Given that the majority of our learning (via peers, experts, books or online media) is social, it’s interesting to know that the ventral part of the vagus nerve allows us to feel comfortable whilst we are socially engaged. This part of the vagus nerve is located towards the front of the body and opens up the heart space, allowing us to breathe more deeply. This is how the vagus nerve supports our ability to communicate easily with others. It ensures that we feel regulated and can handle what’s happening. In this socially engaged state, the voice shows variation in rhythm and pitch. An extreme example of this can be heard in the exaggerated rise and fall of the voice, as well as the lengthening of vowel sounds when parents interact with their young children. These particular sounds encourage feelings of safety and achieve an ideal environment, particularly for acquiring the child’s first language. In the majority of socially relaxed situations, people smile with their eyes and produce a calm friendly voice with warmth in both longer and shorter vowel sounds.

Confrontational behaviour and learning

When people feel threatened, learning continues as part of an active coping strategy, but this is a different kind of learning. There’s tension in the shoulders and the sides of the ribs are constricted. The jaw may be clenched and speaking will feel reactive and sound lower in pitch. The vagus nerve enables these changes by allowing the heartbeat to pick up pace as a reaction to a perceived threat or stressor. Learning therefore takes place in a competitive rather than an exploratory context. There’s potential for the individual to overcome the threat through assertiveness. There can be confrontation, criticism and aggression in the voice, as the rise and fall of a socially engaged voice has been replaced by a more defensive tone, with a distinctive roughness in the vowel sounds. Assertiveness may or may not prove to be a successful strategy, but either way, the behaviour and outcome are appraised and stored as a memory.

Defeated behaviour, dysregulated behaviour and learning

If a situation is intolerable, feelings of flight and anxiety increase arousal levels and produce shallow, fast breathing and a relatively high pitched, faster pace of speaking. A low-level sense of dread limits focus, absorbs attention and constrains learning, whereas the most passive coping strategy of all involves the dorsal branch of the vagal nerve, which decreases arousal by freezing behaviour to such an extent that the person’s own voice feels unavailable and socialising is unimaginable. Learning is impossible in this state, as the body is too busy conserving energy: it is difficult to imagine doing anything, but survive.

Concluding thoughts

Given that we are ‘wired’ to learn and to be social, it’s essential to understand the importance of tone of voice. The tone of voice can trigger a response from the vagal nerve and if the voice is perceived as threatening, this will impact learning. The teaching of vowel sounds in a phonics programme must be undertaken with awareness of the role of the voice, particularly in terms of tone quality. Any abrasion in the voice is likely to impact learning in very young children. So, let’s avoid an abrasive vocal tone in the teaching of reading and instead, allow ourselves to engage in that melodious sing-song voice that children find reassuring, because this signals safety for ALL children during the teaching of early reading.

If you enjoyed this topic, keep reading!

When phonics and rhythm collide part 1

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.

When phonics and rhythm collide part 2

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.

Phonemes and syllables: How to teach a child to segment and blend words, when nothing seems to work

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.


Arnal LH, Flinker A, Kleinschmidt A, Giraud AL, Poeppel D. Human screams occupy a privileged niche in the communication soundscape. Curr Biol. 2015 Aug 3;25(15):2051-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.06.043. Epub 2015 Jul 16. PMID: 26190070; PMCID: PMC4562283.

A simple view of reading (SVR) musical notation

18 October 2023

Image credit: M. Weston via Unsplash
Image credit: M. Weston via Unsplash

Many people think that reading musical notation is difficult. To be fair, many methods of teaching musical notation over-complicate an incredibly simple system. It’s not surprising that so many people believe musical notes are relics of the past and are happy to let them go - but isn’t this like saying books are out of date and that reading literature is antiquated? In homes all around the world, parents of all nationalities can teach children as young as three to read musical notation, as this has for a very long time, become an internationally standardised system. In many schools in all parts of the UK, I’ve taught children at risk of failing the phonics screening check to read simple musical notation fluently in ten minutes. There are distinct differences in my approach and I’m sharing these here.

What is musical notation?

Musicians refer to musical notation as ‘the dots’!

These little marks written on five lines show musicians not only the musical details, but also the bigger picture - they can see the character and the style of the music by the way ’the dots’ are grouped together. Imagine you are looking at a map of your local area - you’d be able to see where buildings and streets are more densely or sparsely grouped together.

This is the skill that musicians use when they look at a page of music - it’s simply a convention for mapping musical sounds.

When was the first music written down?

Early evidence of this practice of notating music can be traced back to its archaic roots in Homer (8th century B.C.E.) Terpander of Lesbos (c. 675 B.C.E.) and Pindar (5th century B.C.E.). However, following the fall of Athens in the 5th century B.C.E., there was a break with tradition. Aristoxenus (c.320 B.C.E..) documented the cultural revolution that had taken place - the rejection of all traditional classical forms. Traditional music had been replaced by -

  • a preference for sound effects imitating nature
  • free improvisation
  • a new fashion for lavishly embellished singing

The rejection of the old ways, including the ‘old music’ appeared to allow space for a new level of freedom. The new emphasis on individual expression rejected:

  • traditional tuning systems and forms of both music and poetry
  • being part of something greater than oneself
  • creating something that would endure.

Musical notation, as the history shows, is less related to individual expression and more to the concept of building a musical canon - a collection of forms, styles and conventions, which are best represented in certain iconic ‘classical’ works. As such, there’s an emphasis on a standardisation of musical language, one that is mathematically well-proportioned, enduring and able to be passed on from generation to generation.

The most ancient system of musical notation, ‘neumes’ in ‘sacred western music’ was used between the 8th and 14th centuries, (C.E.) and was built upon Greek terminology. Most interestingly, the use of the apostrophe /‘/ ‘aspirate’ in the ‘neumes’ survives in today’s musical notation and shows when a musician takes a new breath or makes a slight pause. Part of the standardisation of musical notation has been that it is written on five lines.

What are the five lines called?

These lines, called ‘the stave’, show musicians whether the sounds are higher or lower in frequency (pitch). To take an extreme example, the squeak of a mouse is a high frequency sound (high pitch), and to show this frequency, the dots would be written far above the stave. Conversely, the rumble of a lorry has a low frequency sound (low pitch); to map this sound accurately, the dots would be written far below the stave. Extending the stave in this way involves writing what musicians call ‘ledger lines’.

In a central position within the spectrum of these very high and very low pitched frequencies, we have the pitch range of the human voice. Consider the sounds of the lowest male voice and the highest female voice and it’s clear that the spectrum of frequencies is still very wide. To accommodate this broad range of sounds, musicians write a different ‘clef’ sign at the extreme left of the stave. There are four ‘clef’ signs in common use: the treble (named after the unbroken boys’ voice), alto, tenor and the bass; these clefs are used by singers and instrumentalists alike. The two most commonly used are the bass and treble clefs.

  • The bass clef indicates that the pitch range is suited to lower frequency sounds, matching the range of broken male voices.
  • The treble clef at the extreme left of the stave indicates that the pitch range matches that of children’s and female voices.

What is the line between the notes called?

In the early 1600s, for reasons of clearer musical organisation, vertical lines started to appear in notation, which divided the music into ‘bars’ (UK) or ‘measures’ (US). For the most part, the number of beats is standardised in each bar. Keep reading to find out more about the beats!

Many of the most catchy pieces of Western music rely on simple repetition of short patterns as well as predictable beats. We perceive these to fall naturally into a regular grouping, and most melodies fall into a pattern of two, three or four beats, spread across the piece or song. Here are two recognisable examples, the first in three time, the second in four time:

  • God save the King (UK) or God Bless America (US)
  • Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

Of course, we all know music that’s more complex than this. For example, traditional dance styles from all around the world are often more elaborate and combine rhythmic groupings of faster-paced patterns such as:

  • 2s with 3s
  • 4s with 3s
  • 4s with 5s

Although these occasionally appeared in iconic classical works of the 19th century such as Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, they became more commonplace in the early 20th century. These slightly irregular groupings create subtle feelings of asymmetry that is as delightful to the ear as new taste sensations are to the palette.

If there are five beats, as in ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck, then after each group of five beats a vertical line shows the end of the ‘measure’ (US) also known as the ‘barline’ (UK). The bars or measures are units of time that show the organisation of the beats in the music.

Generally, ‘the dots’ and rhythms show the structure of a piece, or how it ‘works’ musically. In performance, a musician would maintain a consistent rhythmic ‘feel’. So these two essential notational elements offer a framework of predictability, which the musician reads, understands and feels:

  • the number of beats in each bar
  • the grouping and rhythm of the beats and notes within these bars

However, too much emphasis on the predictability and the vertical organisation of the beats can produce an effect that is wooden and robotic. Although a strict sense of rhythm and pulse (the beat) is essential for successful music making, the actual phrasing of these is more horizontal and somewhat elastic in feel.

This can work by making more of the musical tension, by stretching it in time and intensity, as well as making it louder and moving forward; it can help the listener wait in anticipation for the all-important climax and moment of release. This is incredibly effective at all levels of music making, and is known to us all in the more familiar context of telling jokes and stories, where the pacing is as important as the details.

So, this is why experienced musicians use ‘the dots’ only as a map, and allow their ‘feel’ for the rhythm, the harmony and the style to bring freedom and individuality to their expression.

What are ‘heads’ and ‘stems’?

The anatomy of ‘the dots’ tells musicians about the pitch and the time values of sounds they make.

The ‘heads’ are the oval shaped part of a note, whereas the ‘stem’ is the line that may be attached to the ‘head’. The ‘head’ of the note moves around on the stave and tells the musician about pitch and depending on whether it’s filled (black) or open (white), about time value. The ‘stem’ of the note can join with other ‘stems’ (called ‘beaming’) and tells the musician about time and emphasis.

Some teachers of musical notation are very ‘head’ focussed and have elaborate mnemonics for memorising the positions of ‘the dots’ on the stave. Here are some examples:

  • All Cows Eat Grass (the spaces of the bass clef - A,C,E,G)
  • Good Boys Deserve Fun Always (the lines of the bass clef - G,B,D,F,A)
  • FACE (the spaces of the treble clef - F,A,C,E)
  • Every Good Boy Deserves Food (the lines of the table clef - E,G,B,D,F)

The major problem with this approach is that it involves cognitive loading, as remembering these patterns rapidly absorbs a child’s finite cognitive resources. As a prerequisite for learning to read notation, these mnemonic patterns must be memorised and then applied in real time. Although this approach is not difficult for pupils with a strong working memory, it is absolutely why reading musical notation has gained its reputation for being ‘too difficult’ for some children to engage with.

Some leading musical education programmes in use today, are very ‘stem’ focussed and have elaborate time names for longer and shorter durations: ‘ta’ ‘ti-ti’ ‘tiri-tiri’ and ‘too’. Or, ‘Ta-ah’ ‘Ta’ ‘Ta-Te’ ‘Tafa-Tefe’ and there are many more to choose from.

The issue here is that the sound names are confusable because they sound so similar. Children with specific learning difficulties are likely to conflate these, and experience rhythm as confusing. This is unnecessary and easily avoided. Furthermore, it places children with weak working memory and weak sensitivity to phonemes at a considerable disadvantage.

We have completely avoided these issues in Rhythm for Reading and have opted for something simpler that does not front-load children’s attentional resources. In addition, our approach allows reading fluency to develop in the very first session.

We use simple and familiar language. ‘The dots’ are compared with lollipops and described as ‘blobs’ and ‘sticks’. Time names ‘ta’ and ‘ti-ti’ are simplified as ‘long’ and ‘quick quick’. There’s no confusion. This allows us to get on with the business of reading - fluently.

We offer professional development (CPD) that is deeply rooted in neuroscience, the development of executive function and of course, cognitive load theory. You can find out more in the following links.

Fluency, phonics and musical notes: Presenting the sound with the symbol is as important in learning to read musical notation, as it is in phoneme-grapheme correspondence. Fluent reading for all children is our main teaching goal.

Musical notation, full school assembly and an Ofsted inspection: Discover the back story… the beginning of Rhythm for Reading - an approach that was first developed to support children with weak executive control.

Empowering children to read music fluently: The ‘tried and tested’ method of adapting musical notation for children who struggle to process information is astonishingly, to add more markings to the page. Rhythm for Reading offers a simple solution that allows all children to read ‘the dots’ fluently, even in the first ten minute session.

Reading fluency: Reading, fast or slow?

20 September 2023

Image credit: Mael Balland on Unsplash
Image credit: Mael Balland on Unsplash

The smarter you get, the slower you read,

says Naval Ravikant - a leading investor in the world of tech giants.

Yes, an appetite for absorbing the detailed content of a piece of text does lead to slower and closer reading. In fact, fluent reading is likely to vary in pace depending on the style of the writing. It’s a bit like driving in traffic. For conditions that demand sharp focus and concentration, we slow our driving down. Likewise, when we have more favourable conditions, we can drive with greater ease and enjoy the journey more. But no matter what the conditions are like, we don’t become reckless. We don’t lose control of any part of the driving. Let’s discuss this in relation to early reading, the development of reading fluency, and how it is taught.

Is it better to read quickly or slowly?

The most proficient readers adapt their reading skills to match the text. In other words, being able to dial the reading speed up and down is a strong indicator of emerging reading fluency. Schools ensure that all children become confident fluent readers, so that every child can access a broad and balanced curriculum. Fluent reading underpins a love of reading and is an important skill for future learning and employment and it also enables children to apply their knowledge and skills with ease.

In the early reading phase, children learn to remember what they’ve been taught and to integrate new knowledge into larger concepts. In other words, children learn to coordinate different streams of information. This is a bit like learning to drive (for an adult), because many different elements need to be coordinated and practised until these become second nature - such as:

  • selecting and operating either the brake or the gas pedal
  • steering the vehicle smoothly
  • communicating direction using the indicators
  • anticipating the speed of travel
  • aligning speed with changes involving gears and the clutch
  • monitoring what other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians are doing on the road.

Fluent readers can:

  • read accurately and with appropriate stress and intonation
  • coordinate different streams of information very easily
  • access each channel of information with ease
  • read quickly, but adjust the speed of reading to suit the challenges of each passage
  • monitor the meaning of the passage as they read.

In early reading, children who approach reading fluency without undue effort have coordinated their eyes, ears and voices:

  • to appraise cues from pictures accompanying the passage
  • to apply short term memory in order to locate the information in the passage in terms of time and place (context),
  • to recall general knowledge from long term memory of how things happen (schema)
  • to recognise the shapes of letters (graphemes)
  • to discern the smallest sounds of language (phonemes)
  • to articulate the relationship between the letter shape and its sound.
  • to decode the words and to assign the grammatical function of each word in the sentence
  • to access the lexicon (a child’s ‘word bank’) in order to retrieve the most likely words to match the information on the page.

Some of these channels of information are processed subconsciously and therefore at lightning speed. For example, the child’s lexicon (word bank) supplies the word that is the best match to the information on the page. The streams of information that contribute to the retrieval of a certain word are:

  • word shape,
  • sounds associated with the letters,
  • context in short term memory
  • schema (background knowledge) in the mind of the child.

In the earliest stages of learning to read, as the child learns to processes information about letters and sounds, they do this relatively slowly and consciously, using the thinking part the brain. It’s important that children allow the knowledge that they acquire during phonics training to inform their recognition of words, because after a period of initial ramping up and practice, it’s vital that this skill becomes second nature and that the speed of processing rapidly accelerates.

Fluent readers can read quickly, accurately and with appropriate stress and intonation, which aids comprehension by freeing up cognitive resources sufficiently to focus on meaning. Therefore, after the children have achieved a secure knowledge of phonics, fluency becomes an increasingly important factor in the development of reading comprehension.

However, many children experience ‘bumps in the road’ when they’re learning to read. They may have some stronger and some weaker channels of information processing. If there are weaknesses in attention, phonological discrimination or visual discrimination, the child will not be able to coordinate the many different channels of information that contribute to fluent reading.

What is reading word-by-word?

Reading word-by-word typically occurs among the lowest 20% of children: those who most need to improve in their reading. They need to refresh their attention for each word, as even reading an individual word can absorb all of their focus and attention.

Their fluency will not develop alongside that of their classmates and they will fall behind unless they receive an early reading intervention. Some teachers of reading assume that the skill of segmenting and blending phonemes is necessary for reading fluency to develop.

Actually, many children remain stuck at the ‘sounding-out’ stage of reading and do not become fluent readers, even though they know the correspondence between letters and their sounds. For these children, it’s likely that their attention is weak, and they lack the cognitive control to coordinate the various streams of information processing that support reading fluency.

What is speed reading?

Speed reading is measured in terms of how many words a person can read in one minute. This is known as words per minute (wpm).

Speed reading has been associated with having a higher level of intelligence, because people who read quickly are thought to consume more information and therefore become smarter. This association between speed reading and intelligence has led some teachers of reading to believe that reading faster is necessary for the development of good reading.

If building reading fluency were this simple, children with fast reading speeds would not -

  • make accuracy errors
  • need to reread the text to answer comprehension questions.

Although speed reading might appear attractive as an idea, and it is likely that a good reader can read fast, reading fast in itself does not necessarily develop into good reading.


At the heart of this is a huge misconception:

If a child prioritises speed, they may learn to decode the print into words, phrases and sentences. But, they may not have engaged with the grammar of the text.

As discussed, encouraging a child to read for speed may do more harm than good. If a child is praised for reading fast, they are more likely to experience reading as unrewarding, boring, a waste of their time and pointless.

If a child is encouraged to slow down and to discuss what has happened in each sentence, they will engage with the text as meaningful, even if they struggle to read independently. This communicative approach shows the children that they are reading in order to learn. Therefore, interactions between an adult and a child that involve talking, reasoning and extending spoken vocabulary are highly valuable, and they have been found to have significant effects on the development of early reading.

When reading at home with their children, parents can easily adopt these communicative approaches. Reading aloud is a good way of developing vocabulary as well as expressive language skills. They might also encourage their child to notice punctuation, the development of the narrative and any dialogue in the text.

Click here to see the full list of reading fluency tips in the Reading with Fluency Checklist.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, and you’d like to find out even more about the development of reading fluency, keep reading….

Reading fluency and comprehension in 2020 - here I discuss the relationship between resilience and fluency in relation to reading speed.

Discover the heartbeat of reading- this post explores the importance of bringing the grammatical cues in reading into systemic alignment.

Rhythmic elements in reading: From fluency to flow - a flow state is associated with reading for pleasure and fluency is a key to unlocking a flow state.

Phonemes and syllables: How to teach a child to segment and blend words, when nothing seems to work

13 September 2023

Image credit: Sahand Babali on Unsplash
Image credit: Sahand Babali on Unsplash

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.

What is segmenting?

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:

  • the first sound /s/
  • the vowel sound /ea/.

However, there are three phonemes in ‘shell’, and these are:

  • the first sound, /sh/
  • the vowel sound /e/
  • the final sound /ll/.

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:

  • its first sound, - (also known as the ‘onset’)
  • all the remaining sounds, (which make up the ‘rime’).

Using onset and rime, ‘seashell’ would be taken syllable by syllable. Each syllable would be segmented into two parts.

  • the ‘onset’ of ‘sea’ is /s/ and the ‘rime’ is /ea/.
  • the ‘onset’ of ‘shell’ is /sh/ and the ‘rime’ is /ell/.

What is blending?

Blending is the skill that involves building words up, either from syllables, or individual phonemes.

What’s the difference between segmenting and blending?

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 syllables, ‘skate’ and ‘board’ can be blended together to make one word, ‘skateboard’.
  • The phonemes, /c/a/t/ can be blended together to form the word ‘cat’.
  • Using ‘onset and rime’ /b/ and /ell/ can be blended together to form the word ‘bell’.

Is it better to teach blending or segmenting first?

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:

  • /th/ blended with /at/ makes ‘that’
  • /th/ blended with /en/ makes ‘then’
  • /th/ blended with /is/ makes ‘this’
  • /th/ blended with /us/ makes ‘thus’.

What about longer words?

Let’s take a longer word such as ‘umbrella’- there are three syllables here and seven phonemes.

  • A child skilled in phonics, would immediately sound out the individual sounds, /u/m/b/r/e/ll/a.
  • A child skilled in ‘onset and rime’ would segment the word into syllables, /um/brel/la.

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.

  • Here is a change to his hospital record.
  • They record their music in a studio.

When segmenting and blending aren’t working

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:

  • understood the task,
  • attempted the task,
  • completed the task.

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.

Blending and Segmenting Game

First start with blending:

  • think of a two-syllable word that will appeal to the child, such as ‘football’.
  • point to the ceiling using your left index finger (level with the child’s face) and say ‘foot’
  • point to the ceiling using your right index finger (level with the child’s face) and say, ‘ball’
  • bring the two index fingers side by side and say, ‘football’
  • ask the child to copy and then join in with you - exaggerate the syllables with a playful voice.
  • practise with other words until the child can do this independently.

Now segmenting

  • bring your two index fingers side by side, exactly as before and say, ‘foot…ball’,
  • make the right index finger ‘disappear’ into the right fist and say “Take away ball”
  • flex the left index finger a little and say, “What’s left?”
  • if they followed the game, they will say, “Foot”.
  • if they are confused, say, “Let me show you again…” and repeat the process exactly
  • once this technique has been understood, explore taking ‘foot’ away.

This ‘game’ helps children to:

  • understand that breaking and building sounds is playful and that words are malleable.
  • regard word games as similar to counting games - their fingers can help them.
  • develop an effective visual aid which allows greater stability in a weak working memory.
  • self-regulate any associated subconscious emotional responses, when breaking down words.

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.

Did you enjoy this post?

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.

Back to school and reading at home: How to set good reading habits for the new school year

7 September 2023

Image Credit: Alexis Brown on Unsplash
Image Credit: Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Early reading was hit hard by the pandemic and in this coming academic year we’ll see a real focus on narrowing an attainment gap between stronger and weaker early readers. Although children are taught the phonics skills that they need to read well in school every single day, reading at home with an adult builds the foundations for strong progress. Every child needs to make strong progress to read well, to develop their confidence as well as their enjoyment in reading. Read on to start the new term with good reading habits and get a FREE downloadable Good Reading Habits Checklist.

What are good reading habits?

Good reading habits develop at home every time a child:

  • Opens their book bag and practises reading aloud
  • Talks about what they have read
  • Re-reads the books that match the phonics lessons at school
  • Practises grapheme-phoneme correspondence.

Good reading habits are easier to maintain, more rewarding and productive when:

  • Reading at home happens at the same time every day
  • The same parent guides and supports the child
  • Repetition and re-reading is encouraged, as this helps the child to develop resilience, a growth mindset and perseverance.

Choosing the same time of day, every day, creates a strong and consistent reading habit.

The best times to open up the book bag are either straight after school with a drink and a snack or, first thing in the morning before getting ready for school (set the alarm clock!).

How many minutes of reading are enough?

Reading at home is a bit like talking at home. It doesn’t need to be measured by time. Reading sessions can be spent talking about the pictures, the characters and the words in the book. By simply helping the child to enjoy reading, the time will fly by.

A child might need reassurance and plenty of encouragement to stay engaged with the book and to practise the words. And that’s absolutely fine! However, the main goal is to support the child’s reading skills. So spend at least ten minutes every day on reading and re-reading the words in the book.

  • Reading for ten minutes every day makes a real difference and builds up over time.
  • An early reading habit of twenty minutes every day has a powerful lifelong impact.

Parents who read at the same time every day with their child set them up for success at school.

Of course:

  • It’s not always easy to stick to new habits.
  • It takes devotion and determination to keep up the reading habit every single day.
  • And at the beginning of the school year, it’s easy to knock a new reading routine off track.

What gets in the way of reading at home?

Anything new, noisy or shiny will distract a child from reading. Good reading habits are easier to maintain in a calm, quiet and gentle atmosphere.

Parents can avoid interruptions if they:

  • Make sure that the child’s siblings have something interesting to do
  • Check all mobile devices are muted.

One of the biggest challenges at the beginning of the new school year is supporting children’s reading AND preparing food for the family.

What’s the solution?

  • Plan meals in advance - and this could also save money.
  • Cook in batches at the weekends and freeze the portions to save time on school nights.

Inevitable disruptions to good reading habits come around every year shortly after the beginning of term.

For instance, there are:

  • Invitations to birthday parties
  • Halloween costumes to plan and make
  • Firework displays to watch.

Is it okay to skip reading at home occasionally, when everyone is having fun?

No, it’s not okay because the effects of falling behind in reading impact the rest of the child’s schooling. And parents need to avoid making this very common mistake:

  • It’s very easy to slip out of a good reading habit into a disorganised one.
  • The pace of the early reading curriculum is very brisk and doesn’t ease up because of birthdays or other festivities!
  • Children fall behind very quickly if they are note reading at home every day.

Is an early morning reading habit the answer?

There are clear advantages, as an early morning reading routine:

  • Allows more space in the child’s day for after school activities, sports, and parties.
  • Before school can be very calming for children.
  • Encourages the child to arrive at school on time, with bags of confidence.

What are the three questions every parent can ask their child when they are looking at a new book?

It’s fun to ask these questions, as they will give the parent a sense of their child’s level of curiosity and connection with reading a particular book.

  • What do you think this book is about?
  • What can we see in this picture?
  • What do you think happens in this book?

What are the best ways to overcome challenges when reading at home?

A playful attitude, with parent and child ‘learning together’ helps the child to develop problem-solving skills and strategies, such as:

  • “Ooh, I wonder what this word sounds like?”
  • “Do we know the first sound of this word?”
  • “Let’s listen to what happens if we say it slowly together.”

Sometimes, a phonics-based approach, which focuses on the sounds of words is something of a barrier for parents, particularly if they themselves had struggled to learn to read. I’ve seen very successful workshops in schools called ‘Family Phonics’. These workshops not only break down parents’ fears around phonemes, but also help parents and teachers to build wonderful collaborations for the benefit of the children. And everyone wins because we want all our children to become confident fluent readers!

What is a reading diary for?

Many teachers and parents use a reading record or a reading diary. This records the number of times the child reads to the parent and the teacher. It’s a vital tool as it proves that at home and at school there is enough input to keep the children’s reading development on track. Remember to put a pen or a pencil in the book bag to make it easier to make updates every day.

Are rewards for reading a good idea?

Many parents and teachers use star charts or stickers to encourage desired behaviour from children. However, reward systems are more powerful when they are reserved for unexpectedly good behaviour. Reading is a necessary life-skill. It’s like brushing your teeth. It should be part of the daily routine.

The closeness between the parent and child whilst reading at home IS an important factor. But there are also many invisible rewards of good reading habits that last a lifetime:

  • Stronger communication and language skills
  • Development of critical thinking skills
  • Improved focus
  • Improved memory
  • Development of empathy
  • Growth of vocabulary
  • Development of reading comprehension skills
  • Development of connections between different books, stories and ideas
  • A love of reading for pleasure and an appreciation of authors’ writing skills.

If you enjoyed this post, click here to receive the Good Reading Habits Checklist. it’s FREE!

You may also enjoy these posts on related topics, such as:

Starting a new school year

Narrowing the gap through early reading intervention

Releasing resistance to reading

The backdrop to reading is the space in the child’s mind

Catch-up and Catch-22

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..

Fluency, Phonics and Musical Notes

26 September 2022

Jess Bailey via Unsplash
Jess Bailey via Unsplash

The phonics wars raged back in the days leading up to the publication of the 2006 Rose Review. The value of synthetic versus analytical phonics was one of the key educational debates of the decade. At that time, the fragile readers that I was working with as part of my PhD, struggled to decode a simple C-V-C word (consonant-vowel-consonant) such as ‘cat’. I was glad that, following the publication of the Rose review all children would be taught systematically to recognise letter-to-sound correspondence, as well as being explicitly taught to recognise the smallest sounds of language. It was unacceptable to me at that time that the phonemes of simple three letter word such as ‘c-a-t’ were a new discovery for vulnerable children at nine years of age.

Below the radar of the mainstream media, music educators were digging deeply into their own entrenched positions around the teaching of musical notation. Unfortunately, these ideologies and their false narratives have limited access to the development of important musical skills and musical knowledge. Decoding musical notes (like any other form of reading) opens up access to participation in a multicultural global community. In the case of music, this community consists of performers, listeners, arrangers, publishers and composers, who engage across ever-expanding musical genres, including sound tracks for video games, film and television. Music educators’ ideologies have limited access to creative opportunities for too long.

Most children start school with thousands of words and hundreds of melodies in their heads. Yet, in schools and music studios, one of the most limiting and perhaps most misunderstood ideologies stemming from high profile music educators, is that of ‘sound before symbol’. Music teachers have been told for decades that best practice involves singing and naming the shapes of tunes using doh, re, mi. Only when the tune has been learned ‘by ear’, are the visual symbols introduced. The idea that a sound must be taught before introducing a symbol to represent it, has a certain logic, but sound does not need to be taught in this way because sound is processed incredibly rapidly in the auditory system and was the first of our sensory processing systems to reach full maturity in utero.

Ofsted’s July 2022 publication supports moving away from the principle of sound before symbol and recommends a stronger commitment to the teaching of musical notation as a part of a broad and balanced curriculum. In the teaching of reading, automated phoneme-to-grapheme correspondence is the key to the rapid development of fluency. Indeed this usually involves presenting the sound with the symbol using rapid response multi-sensory teaching methods. In the Rhythm for Reading programme, we teach sound with symbol correspondence using a rapid response multi-sensory approach to musical notation and therefore prioritise fluency as the overriding goal.

Get in touch by visiting the contacts page if you would like to boost reading fluency in a ten-week period and gain the additional benefit of teaching every child to read musical notation fluently in the very first session of the programme.

Fluent reading - some thoughts

12 January 2015

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.

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