In my last post I described a typical challenge facing a child with poor phonological awareness. Using a rapid colour naming test (CToPP), 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 reading fluency.
The notion that sensitivity to rhythm and sensitivity to 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 - it’s murky in there and there’s a loss of control, right? Now imagine focussing on the onset of each syllable. The consonants are shorter (in milliseconds), sharply defined and distinctive, leaving plenty of headspace for control. If consonants are prioritised, information flows easily and the message lands with clarity.
The Rhythm for Reading programme addresses these differences in phonological processing through group teaching that is fun and supports early reading intervention in particular. Information processing is enhanced by sensitivity to rhythm because rhythm focusses attention to the onset of the utterance, 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..
There are so many overlaps between poetry and music. People ask me frequently why it is that reciting poetry seems to help children, particularly those finding aspects of reading fluency and comprehension somewhat challenging.
Practising poetry by heart, particularly in group teaching 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, colourful tones and timbres are musical in every way. In terms of how it feels, reciting poetry 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 evoke the atmosphere and moods created by movement, rhythm and sound, even though the words of the poem are meaningless. Behind the expressive 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 require a reading intervention 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, included before and after comparison measures and indicated that reading intervention 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 to discuss the Rhythm for Reading programme with us.
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
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.
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 reading 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 their school’s phonics early reading programme. 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, and yet a body of research evidence has established the relationship between rhythmical awareness and phonological awareness in young children. The research literature argued 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 programme 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 for group teaching, these help the children 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 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.