Creativity is in us all. Our creative impulse generates streams of language, songs, gardens, new recipes based on what’s in the fridge and spontaneously occurring ideas. There is a playfulness in the ‘what if …’ process which guides the initial impulse into something more considered, more useful, more committed. Shaping and honing lead to rapid iterations of the initial idea. A sense of expectancy and involvement builds as the creative process gains momentum.
Imagine a group of children aged nine years who have fallen many years behind their classmates and cannot maintain their attention for even five seconds, but they are highly motivated to learn to play a musical instrument. Imagine their confident teacher, who spent 20 minutes of a half hour lesson trying to find a task that engaged them, but had failed to teach them anything at all.
As the teacher inwardly acknowledged the failure of the lesson, the children visibly braced themselves for harsh words. The atmosphere in the room was hushed and expectant. What happened next? The teacher looked for the path of least resistance asking, “What do you do after school?” They loved to play football and the teacher quickly discovered that they were better able to learn when they moved their feet.
This approach was unorthodox, but justifiable because the children’s self-control and self-awareness was far better practised in football skills than in anything else. Some months later, their progress in music had been excellent and their classwork had transformed. They were showcased by their headteacher: playing as a group and individually in full school assembly in the presence of Ofsted inspectors and invited to join the school orchestra immediately afterwards.
Here’s the take away message. The four conditions that ensured the lasting success of this approach point to the importance of outrageous levels of optimism in a school (judged to be outstanding).
1. The children wanted to learn to play a musical instrument.
2. Their class teacher saw this as an important opportunity for them.
3. The headteacher placed a high value on music in the school.
4. The continuity of weekly lessons in a suitable room meant that the creative process evolved without interruption.
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
Our ears are open all the time. Even sleeping newborn infants subconsciously respond to the sounds around them, indicating that from birth (1), humans are constantly exposed to their auditory environment.
In their review of the research evidence, Kraus & Chandrasekaran, (2) underlined the importance of the initial, subconscious (subcortical) stage of auditory processing. Before sound reaches our attention, the auditory brainstem responds to incoming information from our ears, integrating the spatial, rhythmical and acoustical features of sounds.
These features include frequency (high and low pitches), the timbre of the sound (for example, differentiating between human voices) and rhythmic features (such as the regularity or predictability of sounds). The auditory brainstem is extremely sensitive to very subtle differences in sound waves, such as individual phonemes in language and plays a critical role in early identification of sounds and their patterns in particular. Over time, the auditory brainstem produces an idiosyncratic response to sound that is unique to each individual.
Thus, the auditory brainstem response reflects the current state of the nervous system – the state at that time formed by an individual’s life experience with sound (ibid, 2010, pp. 601).
More recently, researchers have found that the auditory brainstem seems to respond with greatest clarity to the sounds with which the individual is most familiar. Having listened to brainstem responses of musicians, they found that for example, pianists’ brainstem responses to the sounds produced by a piano were unusually sharply defined when compared to those of non-pianists. Brainstem responses also appeared to receive feedback information from cortical areas of the brain (3).
Further developing the line of enquiry, scholars (4) proposed that the availability of cortical feedback (from the cognitive processing of sound) allowed the brainstem response to become increasingly specific over time. For instance, musical expertise that has accumulated over a lifetime leads to extremely fine-grained auditory brainstem responses among professional musicians, not only to musical sounds, but also both to phonemes and the pitch contours of language (5). Once the brainstem has adapted to cortical feedback, it appears to retain its enhanced structures as confirmed by a recent study of speakers of Mandarin and amateur musicians (6).
Overall these studies show that an overlap exists between early stage auditory processing of spoken language and musical experiences. Cognitive feedback informs development of these structures and expertise in music appears to enhance the auditory brainstem response to language, which coincides with our work in Rhythm for Reading.
1. Nameth, R., Haden, G., Miklos, T. & Winkler, I (2015) Processing of horizontal sound localization cues in newborn infants, Ear and Hearing, 36 (5), pp. 550-556
2. Kraus, N and Chandrasekaran, B. (2010) Music training for the development of auditory skills, Nature Neuroscience, 11, pp. 599-605
3. Strait, D.L. Chan, K., Ashley, R., & Kraus, N (2010) Specialisation among the specialised: Auditory brainstem function is tuned to timbre, Cortex, 48, pp. 360-362
4. Skoe, E., Krizman, J., Spitzer, E., & Kraus, N. (2014) Prior experiences biases subcortical sensitivity to sound patterns, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27 (1), pp.124-140
5. Musacchia, G., Sams, M., Skoe, E. & Kraus, N. (2007) Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104.
6. Bidelman, G.M., Gandour, J.T., Krishnan, A., (2011). Cross-domain effects of music and language experience on the representation of pitch in the human auditory brainstem. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 23, 425–434.
If you have seen our website and thought, “Okay, but what does rhythm have to do with reading?” - here’s a post that explains one aspect of the Rhythm for Reading programme and the way that it helps pupils to read for pleasure. Language, in speech and written form, is all the more evocative and intelligible when its sounds, syntax, style and structure cohere to compelling effect. Reading for pleasure, becoming completely immersed in a book, appears to be effortless because our reading skills generate a self-sustaining momentum. Let’s unpack this.
Every sentence, no matter how simple it appears to be is remarkable in that it is shaped from a seemingly infinite range of possibilities. Sentences vary enormously in their length and complexity, yet they are essentially binary in their structure: consisting of a subject and its predicate. The tension between these grammatical elements plays an important role in generating the self-sustaining momentum of language.
To read a simple passage of printed language without undue effort, a reader needs to be able to negotiate the shape and structure of the sentence in addition to recognising the words. Word recognition skills are necessary for the development of fluent reading, but are not sufficient. Reading for pleasure involves being able to ride the rhythm generated by the grammatical structure of language and being able at the same time, to respond to the shape and pace of each sentence. During Rhythm for Reading sessions, pupils are immersed in a series of reading tasks that are enriched by musical shapes, styles and structures. This approach offers a unique opportunity to develop the dynamic processes that contribute to reading for pleasure without front-loading pupils with word recognition.