There are so many overlaps between poetry and music. People ask me frequently why it is that reciting poetry seems to really help children, particularly those that may find other aspects of reading somewhat challenging.
Practising poetry by heart is a massively experiential process. The feeling of the sounds in the movement of the face, the jaw and the tongue are dance-like sequences and enjoyed for their bold sensations, which in terms of conveying their mood and colourful tones and timbres are musical in every way. In terms of how it feels, this is just like practising a musical instrument; indeed practising poetry through the congruence of movement, sounds and patterns is a deep and enriched form of language learning that we all can enjoy, having mastered this first as infants acquiring our mother-tongue (Nazzi et al., 1998) .
If you read aloud or recite Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, it’s easy to invoke the atmosphere and moods created by movement, rhythm and sound, even though the words of the poem are utterly meaningless. Behind the evocative tones of the nonsense words, there’s a robust rhythmical structure and fascinatingly, researchers have found that we respond to the poem as if to a projected illusion of grammatical structure (Bonhage et al., 2015). The importance of rhythmical patterns is that they cast beams of expectation, helping to guide and focus our attention, enabling us to fully anticipate and enjoy all the more, the likely flow of the sounds and the colourful moods of the poem.
The usefulness of rhyme, so popular in children’s literature, is that it offers a fun and playfully supportive, highly accessible and very basic form of phonological awareness. Hearing the rhyming feature in words is a massive anchor for children who may arrive at school struggling to discern word boundaries in a stream of speech. This example of rhyme is from, ‘One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish by Dr Seuss (1960):
This one has a little star. This one has a little car. Say! what a lot of fish there are.
Rhyming words are also invaluable for those children who come to school with a clearer grasp of language. Children are stimulated by rhymes, because rather than simply following the language of the poem, they are more deliberately focussing their attention in order to predict the placing of the rhyming word at the end of the line or phrase. For these reasons it is not surprising that highly rhythmically aware children are more likely to become good readers (Tierney and Kraus, 2013) – they arrive at school able to anticipate and enjoy the structure of rhythmic patterns in language. Similarly, children who may struggle with reading thrive when practising poetry because the explicit rhythmical structure and shorter phrase lengths support their attention, helping them to perceive the meaningful elements of language more easily.
In the Rhythm for Reading programme, we takes this principle further still, by providing rhythm-based reading tasks that give the children a chance to build their awareness of rhythmic patterns very rapidly. The sessions are a highly condensed extraction from traditional musical training. Building a strong response to rhythmical patterns, children develop and sustain their attention across increasingly complex musical phrases. Their awareness of rhythm transfers into their reading development after only a few ten-minute sessions.
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Bonhage, Corinna E., et al. (2015) “Combined eye tracking and fMRI reveals neural basis of linguistic predictions during sentence comprehension.” Cortex 68, 33-45
Dr Seuss (1960) One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Random House
Nazzi, T., Bertoncini, J. and Mehler, J. (1998). Language discrimination by newborns: Towards an understanding of the role of rhythm, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 24, 756-766
Tierney A, Kraus N (2013) Music training for the development of reading skills. Prog Brain Res 207:209 –241
In recent weeks, Frontiers in Psychology published a meta-analysis by Gordon, Fehd and McCandliss (2015) which asked, ‘Does music training enhance literacy skills?’
The authors described a ‘rapidly accumulating body of evidence’ and listed studies that reported significant associations between musical training and language skills, such as Magne et al. (2006) and others which described enhanced brain responses via musical training to unexpected timing and duration of syllables (Chobert et al., 2011) and pronunciation (Milanov et al., 2009). They also reported significant correlations between musical aptitude (in the absence of musical training) and reading performance (Strait et al., 2011).
Gordon and colleagues also referred to a study in which ability in musical rhythm explained the variance in production of grammar in six year olds and complex sentence structures in a follow up (Gordon et al., 2015) and cited earlier studies of musical rhythm, in which an ability to synchronise with a beat predicted phonological awareness and rapid naming tasks (Woodruff Carr et al., 2014), second grade reading skills (Dellatolas et al., 2009) and better reading performance in adolescence (Tierney and Kraus, 2013).
Historically, scholars have made use of a wide range of literacy-related outcome measures and this proved something of a challenge for Gordon and her co-workers. Assessments of reading ability and phonological awareness have been designed to measure reading comprehension, reading rate, reading accuracy, reading fluency and a variety of phonological awareness related skills. Some measures control for working memory, while others do not. Assessments also vary in their formats. Some simply require an individual child to read a list of single words aloud, while others can be administered to groups of children, requiring them to read passages of connected text in silence. To some extent, direct comparisons of effect size can be made, but unless these are described in terms of their educational context, teachers cannot make informed decisions about the usefulness of rhythm-based approaches for different reading-related skills.
The use of random assignment in an educational setting putatively isolates the impact of an intervention under experimental rather than quasi-experimental conditions; yet no such experimental conditions exist in a school. Indeed the authors’ meta-analysis indicated that the amount of reading-related support given to children was rarely held constant over time. Moreover, the random assignment of individuals to any ‘treatment’ is known to induce positive or negative placebo effects, which can be sufficiently powerful to influence outcomes. In the context of a school, influential factors contributing to such effects typically include (i) compatibility of the individuals within the ‘treatment’ group, (ii) location of the ‘treatment’ in a room associated with a particular function in the school and (iii) timing of the ‘treatment’ to routinely coincide with particular social or academic activities.
All of the studies included by the authors in the meta-analysis have been peer reviewed. Relatively few studies had used the RCT paradigm, but all of the studies compared musical training against controls, and included before and after comparison measures and indicated that reading instruction had been held constant across groups. Out of 4855 publications obtained in searches between November 2013 and March 2014, only 13 studies fulfilled these requirements and were included in the meta-analysis.
Three of these studies were considered by the authors to be particularly highly powered because they controlled for IQ and SES; they obtained very large effect sizes. A study of the effect of musical training on word reading obtained an effect size of 1.07 (Moreno et al., 2009). Moritz et al., (2013) reported the effect of musical training on phonological skills (PAT rhyming discrimination), whereas Dege and Schwarzer (2011) showed the impact of musical training on phonological awareness (DEBELS). Both teams found large effect sizes of 1.20 and 0.78 respectively.
To inform future directions for studies of this type, Gordon and colleagues proposed that the following questions should be addressed. For further information about rhythm-based approaches to reading, click here.
1. “What are the effects of different components of interventions (rhythm, pitch; instruments vs. singing; phonological activities in musical context, etc.) on training efficacy?”
2. “What degree of music-driven gains in phonological awareness is needed to impact reading fluency?”
3. “What are the mechanisms underlying improvement: such as attention, motivation, (e.g., OPERA hypothesis; Patel, 2011), speech prosody sensitivity, and/or working memory?”
4. “How are changes in brain function and structure associated with music-training-driven improvements?”
5. “How do individual differences predict response to training? Is there a subset of children that stands to benefit the most from music training?”
(Gordon et al., 2015, p.11)
Chobert, J., Marie, C., Francois, C., Schön, D., and Besson, M. (2011). Enhanced passive and active processing of syllables in musician children. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 23, 3874–3887. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00088
Dellatolas, G., Watier, L., Le Normand, M. T., Lubart, T., and Chevrie-Muller, C. (2009). Rhythm reproduction in kindergarten, reading performance at second grade, and developmental dyslexia theories. Arch. Clin. Neuropsychol.
24, 555–563. doi: 10.1093/arclin/acp044
Gordon RL, Fehd HM and McCandliss BD (2015) Does Music Training Enhance Literacy Skills? A Meta-Analysis. Front. Psychol. 6:1777.
Gordon, R. L., Shivers, C. M., Wieland, E. A., Kotz, S. A., Yoder, P. J.,
and Devin McAuley, J. (2015). Musical rhythm discrimination explains individual differences in grammar skills in children. Dev. Sci. 18, 635–644. doi: 10.1111/desc.12230
Magne, C., Schön, D., and Besson, M. (2006). Musician children detect pitch violations in both music and language better than nonmusician children: behavioral and electrophysiological approaches. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 18, 199–211. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.2.199
Milovanov, R., Huotilainen, M., Esquef, P. A., Alku, P., Välimä ̈ki, V., and Tervaniemi, M. (2009). The role of musical aptitude and language skills in preattentive duration processing in school-aged children. Neurosci. Lett. 460, 161–165. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2009.05.063
Patel, A. D. (2011). Why would musical training benefit the neural encoding of speech? The OPERA hypothesis Front. Psychol. 2:142 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00142
Strait, D. L., Hornickel, J., and Kraus, N. (2011). Subcortical processing of speech regularities underlies reading and music aptitude in children. Behav. Brain Funct. 7:44. doi: 10.1186/1744-9081-7-44
Tierney, A. T., and Kraus, N. (2013b). The ability to tap to a beat relates to cognitive, linguistic, and perceptual skills. Brain Lang. 124, 225–231. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2012.12.014
Woodruff Carr, K., White-Schwoch, T., Tierney, A. T., Strait, D. L., and Kraus, N. (2014). Beat synchronization predicts neural speech encoding and reading readiness in preschoolers. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 111, 14559–14564. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1406219111
The most important thing that I’ve learned in the past two years is not only to expect the unexpected, but to embrace it. I’ve noticed that the sharpest twists and rockiest turns along the way have often prompted some of the most intriguing insights into the integrated processes that contribute to reading and learning. Wearing my SENCO hat, I strongly believe that the principle of early intervention (as opposed to waiting to see whether a learning difficulty will ‘resolve itself’ over time), and a proactive approach, can narrow the gaps that undeniably exist when children enter primary school.
In 2013, I adapted the Rhythm for Reading programme so that I could put in place urgently needed support for a group of Year 1 and Year 2 children, who struggled with phonics. Their school had already seen impact of the programme on key stage two children, so the leadership team were keen to extend its reach. At that time, I saw the programme as ideally placed to support older children, a body of research evidence has established the relationship between rhythmical awareness and phonological awareness in young children. The research argues that a strong awareness of rhythm is a reliable predictor of phonological awareness, which in turn is a strong predictor of reading attainment (see Hallam, 2015, for a comprehensive review).
However, since 2013 I’ve found that the most obvious barriers to learning for the key stage one children that I’ve worked with are fragmented, scattered attention, weak inhibition and a very short attention span of only a few seconds. Unsurprisingly, emotional insecurities are very common as well. As you may realise, children experiencing these particular difficulties would certainly struggle to discern, to retain or accurately produce a rhythmically aware response. It’s clear too, that when elevated or low arousal levels have been alleviated during Rhythm for Reading sessions, dramatically improved levels of attention, awareness of rhythm and phonological awareness soon follow.
In the context of the Rhythm for Reading programme for key stage one children, the most important adaptation has involved developing simple, fast-paced team-building games which focus on ears, eyes and voices. A subtle form of metacognitive training, these help the children to deepen and extend their attention. Combining the games with music and rhythm-based approaches to reading make it possible, in a few short sessions to support them in reading music fluently and inhibiting inappropriate responses, whilst enjoying working together as a team.
Hallam, S. (2015) The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Music Education Research council (iMERC)
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.