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All posts tagged 'reading-fluency'

Reading Fluency: Three Key Executive Functions

31 January 2024

Image credit: Sven Brandsma
Image credit: Sven Brandsma

It is essential that teachers of early reading are able to match the resources to the needs of the child, both in terms of teaching and materials. It is vital that they learn to read well so that they have full access to a broad and rich curriculum. This sounds reasonable enough, but some children are significantly disadvantaged in terms of their early childhood environment and their vocabulary development. The demands of adapting to school can feel threatening for these children and their chances of learning to read well can spiral into disaffection very quickly, particularly in the context of a reading scheme. It’s very obvious to all young readers that some of the class are whizzing through the different ‘colours’ of the scheme, whereas others are not. This experience of early reading supports many children, but does not help disadvantaged children to become confident, fluent readers because they get ‘stuck’ on one book, or a particular colour band.

Children who do not progress through the reading scheme must be identified and supported so that they are not left behind. Those who struggle with decoding are more likely to be identified than are those who struggle with fluency and this post will explain the key drivers of weak reading fluency. One of the most powerful techniques that a school can use to leverage remediation of reading and learning at this early stage, is a rhythm-based intervention.

Weekly rhythm-based intervention sessions of only ten minutes can boost early reading skills and fluency

Rather than targeting individual children for thirty minutes of one-to-one support, an alternative approach is a group programme, such as Rhythm for Reading. Small groups of children work together as a team using ears, eyes, voices and physical actions to develop self-regulation, control of inhibition, focused attention, including control of eye-gaze and control of their motivation to learn. Even more importantly, as the weekly sessions last only ten minutes, children receive an intensive boost to early reading skills, including fluency without being out of the classroom for too long.

When teachers see the impact of the programme, they typically ask if the children would make even faster progress if they had two sessions each week. As the sessions are very intensive and rich in terms of multi-sensory learning, children need a full week to assimilate and integrate the rhythm-based work they have done. As an analogy, imagine putting a rubber band around your thumb, pulling it back, then releasing it. Increasing the tension in the rubber band more gradually increases its power to travel forwards. The potency of Rhythm for Reading sessions works in this same way as illustrated by these case studies.

Comparing accurate decoding with reading fluency

There is an enormous difference between decoding accurately and reading fluently. Many children learn to think of reading as being able to sound out words and then recognise the words quickly.

When children learn to read rapidly without actually processing what they are reading, they are not really reading fluently. Fluent reading is closely aligned with reading comprehension because fluent readers understand what they read and use their understanding to predict what is coming up next in their reading.

Some experts describe this in terms of theory of mind, or being able to form inferences. I like to think of this as being able to feel socially engaged with the text. In other words, the language is being processed as it would be in a face-to-face conversation. Of course, the author’s face is not visible in the page and we cannot hear their voice, so the reader must supply many additional layers of information in order to read fluently.

In Maryanne Wolf’s beautiful analysis of the science of children’s reading development in ‘Proust and the Squid,’ she draws on the work of Richard Vacca, who speaks of ‘fluent decoders’ and ‘strategic readers’. This distinction brings us to the key roles of three executive functions in reading fluency.

Executive functions are essential for learning

Executive functions have developed in the frontal areas of the brain to achieve overall control in a wide range of situations that involve ‘goal-directed’ behaviour, through the supply of attention, focus, memory, flexibility and inhibition. Control of inhibition (ie being able to get on with a task without being distracted) may be the most relevant executive function to early reading, and it enables better performance in all areas of learning.

Wolf describes the process of fluent reading as turning ‘expert attention to letters’. ‘Expert attention’ is a beautiful phrase. I imagine that during our lives we develop ‘expert attention’ to a whole range of things such as:

  • reading the faces and body language of others
  • deciphering the weather from a sunset or sunrise, wind direction and cloud formations
  • a musician’s understanding of the ‘feel’ of a piece of music from a quick glance at a page of musical notes
  • a gardener’s understanding of what ails a sickly plant by examining markings or dryness of its leaves

In each case, ‘expert attention’ is cultivated through disciplined practice and the intrinsically-felt reward that accompanies and enhances it. We can break down ‘expert attention to letters’ into three key executive functions:

  1. Control of inhibition allows the fluent reader to focus their attention on the text in the first instance. Maintaining attention on the text is a matter of orientation, which in turn involves self-regulation and motivation to read. Perhaps reading is perceived as rewarding, fun, or interesting, or is a shared experience with another person and valued for being a chance to sit together and bond socially. When a child experiences reading as socially bonding, they are more likely to focus their attention on the page and to develop control of inhibition around reading. This is important because, without inhibitory control and sustained attention, fluent readers would not have access to the second key executive function of: working memory.
  2. Working memory allows readers to grasp information about the shape and sound of a word and hold it in mind until it has become integrated meaningfully into their understanding of the text. Imagine - a child has successfully read a word, such as ‘bird’, but does not fully experience the word as meaningful. As they say the word, they feel it and hear it internally and this helps them to realise that it refers to a very familiar word. In the moment when they recognise that the word they have read matched the word that they know, they have integrated their decoding skill with their memory of words and associated meanings. Children with limited capacity in working memory lose power in the process of integration prematurely. They can become good decoders, but never integrate the information, because the decoded word in working memory fades or fragments before it has been assimilated and recognised as meaningful. Children in this situation are likely to struggle not only with reading fluency, but also writing tasks.

Marie Clay’s work on reading has had a profound influence on pedagogy worldwide. In ‘Literacy Lessons’ she refers to the integration of information during reading as the ‘pulling together of everything you know’ and she explains that this involves two steps. The first one, which she calls ‘awareness and attention’ could describe the executive function ‘inhibitory control’, whereas the second, ‘the integration of different kinds of information’ perhaps refers to the executive function of ‘working memory’.

Children who have many skills and a fair grasp of letters and words may still find it hard to pull all of this information together when they are moving across the lines of continuous text. There are two sides to this challenge. On the one hand the child must sort out what to attend to on the page of print and in what order to use which pieces of information (awareness and attention). On the other hand he has to call up things he already knows from different parts of his brain to meet up with the new information in print in the text he is looking at (the integration of different kinds of information).(Clay, 2005, p.88)

In fluent reading, the process of integration can become very rapid. This is explained by neural plasticity. With daily practice of anything, the nerve fibres in the brain change and undergo a process called ‘myelination’. The nerves are coated in a myelin sheath, a white fatty substance that acts as an insulator. This process enables neural networks of the brain to become more specialised and more efficient as reading skills develop. The ease and efficiency of fluent reading allows the involvement of a third executive function. This is another form of top down control and is known as ‘cognitive flexibility’ or ‘task switching’.

3. Task-switching (cognitive flexibility) involves adapting while remaining engaged with the task. There can be many reasons to adapt while reading. For example, if there was a decoding mistake which changed the meaning of the text, then a feeling that ‘something has gone wrong’ would immediately activate ‘task switching’ and a quick repair to the reading.

In early reading, there are more likely to be errors in decoding, which alter the meaning: ‘horse’ instead of ‘hose’, ‘take’ instead of ‘talk’, ‘driver’ instead of ‘diver’, ‘lunch’ instead of ‘launch’. In each case, the child has opted for a more familiar, rather than a less familiar word and it is easy to see that probability may have influenced these choices.

Reading pedagogue Marie Clay refers to the process of self-correction from the point of view of the teacher. In this extract we can almost ‘see’ her observing the young reader and feeling into the strategies that the child has decided upon as they develop a meaningful connection with the text:

When a child initiates a self-correction we can sometimes tell when the child is (or is not) using meaning and / or structure and / or visual information and has tried to achieve a match across all of these. Even unsuccessful attempts to correct are indicators that the child is aware that these activities can be useful. Effective self-correcting follows from monitoring, searching, cross-checking and making all information match. (Clay, 2005, p.87).

The decision to ‘repair’ a word that does not make sense in the context involves an immediate eye movement back to the place of confusion, followed by the continuation of the reading, the coordination of working memory and the smooth assimilation of information. Although the decoding has not been flawless, a rapid repair that prioritises fluent comprehension is typical of reading fluency in action.

Summary

In this post I’ve described the importance of three ‘top down’ processes, known as ‘executive functions’ and their role in the development of early reading fluency.

  • Control of inhibition
  • Working memory
  • Task switching

These executive functions are mutually supportive and are essential to the development of fluent reading. Although there are many interventions available to schools for supporting decoding skills, there are virtually none that support executive functions, in this, the Rhythm for Reading programme can certainly help.

To find out more about the Rhythm for Reading programme click here to book a call.

If you enjoyed this topic, keep reading!

Fluency! Finding flow in early reading

From a rhythm-based perspective, the key words in this quotation are ‘attends’ and ‘attention’. The child’s capacity to sustain their attention determines the fluency of their reading. Attention is the cognitive ‘fuel’ necessary to ‘drive’ this fluency and to extract the author’s ‘message’ from the alignment of the letters, words and phrases as units of meaning.

What can we do to support the development of reading fluency?

The children who lag behind their classmates in terms of fluency are not a homogenous group. Although time-consuming and costly, one-on-one teaching is essential for those who struggle the most. However, short, intensive bursts of rhythm-based activity (Long, 2014) have been found to give a significant boost in reading fluency as a small group teaching intervention. This approach is a more efficient use of resources as it supports the majority of children who struggle with fluency in ten weekly sessions of only ten minutes.

Considering reading fluency

Many teachers and head teachers have remarked on the improvement in their pupils’ reading fluency, so it seemed important to try to capture what has been happening. Of course, there are different ways to define and to measure reading fluency, but here is a snapshot of what we found when using two types of assessment.

Reading fluency again - looking at prosody

Prosody is closely associated with skilled reading, being integral to fluency and a predictor of achievement in reading accuracy and comprehension. Prosody is not taught, but it is a naturally occurring feature of competent reading. The words on the page may be arranged in horizontal lines, but a good reader transcends the visual appearance of the words, allowing them to take on a natural, flexible and speech-like quality.

References

Marie M. Clay (2005) Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals Part Two Teaching Procedures, New Zealand, Heinemann Education, A Division of Reed Publishing Ltd.

Maryanne Wolf (2008) Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, London, Icon Books Limited

Learn to read music and develop executive functions: The exception rather than the rule

17 January 2024

Image credit: Jessica Hearn via Unsplash
Image credit: Jessica Hearn via Unsplash

The narrowing of the curriculum has squeezed the arts and humanities and this is likely to affect pupils from a lower socio-economic status (SES) background more than relatively advantaged children, according to the Sutton Trust (Allen & Thompson, 2016). In England, headteachers are tasked with challenging the effects of economic disadvantage by ensuring children are able to access a broad and balanced curriculum, rather than an impoverished one. However, given that the allocation of teaching time is such a precious resource, how might primary schools devise a curriculum that includes musical notation? Traditional approaches are time-consuming and use complex mind-boggling mnemonics that are not sufficiently inclusive. However, a rhythm-based approach avoids cognitive loading and requires short weekly sessions of about ten minutes. This uses short, sharp quick-fire responses that are fun and facilitate group learning.

Teaching musical notation with a sense of mastery

The Rhythm for Reading Programme creates an environment that allows pupils to focus their attention right from the start. They learn to read music by repeating, reviewing and practising key concepts each week, consistent with the principle of ‘spaced practice’. Consistent rehearsal of musical notes using visual images, as well as hearing and saying the note names, illustrates the principle of ‘dual coding’. The programme is built on a cumulative structure that prioritises fluency, as well as a light ‘cognitive load’ and there is a gradual increase in the complexity of tasks within the context of working together as a strong and enthusiastic team.

There is minimal input in terms of ‘teacher talk’. Instead, explicit instructions from the teacher, based on the rubrics of the programme outline the specific details of each task. This approach is known to support novice learners and a clear expectation on the part of the teacher is that every child contributes to the team effort and is key to the programme’s impact.

Teaching musical notation and cultivating executive functions

The Rhythm for Reading Online Training Programme offers individually tailored CPD.

Teachers are immersed in a completely new knowledge base and a comprehensive body of work, including theory, research and practice, that has successfully evolved over a period of three decades.

The Rhythm for Reading approach stimulates children’s executive functions using simple repetitive techniques that feel like a fun group activity and are easy for all children to master.

The programme has been shown to transform reading development in:

  • young people with severe learning needs in a special education setting
  • Pupil Premium children in mainstream schools
  • children with specific learning difficulties
  • children who simply need a ‘boost’ in their reading

By following the simple rubrics and rhythm-based exercises of the online programme, teachers are able to accelerate children’s reading development and cultivate their executive functions during ten weekly sessions of about ten minutes.

Teachers need to practise using these fresh and exciting new teaching methods for at least a couple of terms. Ongoing mentoring support is available throughout the programme, as is follow-up support. For further details click here.

As teachers develop a practical understanding of how to nurture children’s executive functions through rhythm-based exercises, they feel empowered by changes in the children’s progress.

Reading fluency is monitored by teachers throughout the programme using a dedicated ‘Reading Fluency Tracker’ which takes two minutes to complete each week. There is also, if needed, an option to focus on deeper levels of assessment of learning behaviour.

Teacher enrichment and reflexive practices are keystones in the CPD of the Rhythm for Reading programme and there is a strong emphasis on supporting teachers’ well-being. A workbook is available for teachers to record their personal experiences of the programme and these can be referenced in weekly one-on-one mentoring calls.

Research Studies in Music Education

Research on the benefits of music training to executive function is inconclusive. According to academics, the mixed bag of findings reflects differences in the types of musical activities. At present, the relationship between musical training and any effect on executive functions is unclear to the music education research community. However, based on a review of the latest research, academics offered this recommendation:

Ideally music lessons should incorporate skills that build on one another with gradual increases in complexity. (Hallam and Himonides, 2022; p.197).

Potential exists for each executive function to play an important role in music making as follows:

  • Inhibitory control is essential to the element of teamwork in music-making, such as community singing, where people are encouraged to participate with others in a balanced and proportionate way.
  • Cognitive shifting, also known as cognitive flexibility, is activated every time a change occurs in a melodic or rhythmic pattern, and also when the relationships between the musical lines or voices, also known as the texture, changes.
  • Working memory is constantly activated in the same way that it would be in a conversation, with updating, assimilating and monitoring, as a person participates in the music.
  • Sustained attention is necessary for the coordination of cognitive shifting and working memory. Just as interaction in a conversation is predictable at the beginning and the end, but may have a ‘messy middle’ (a loss of predictability), the same can be said to exist in music.
  • To maintain the necessary level of sustained attention in the dynamic activity of music making, each performer engages inhibitory control of internal and external distractions.

In a particularly well-controlled, and therefore robust study, there were strong positive effects of musical training on executive functions, particularly inhibitory control among children (Moreno et al., 2011, cf. Hallam and Himonides, 2022).

Although the expressions, ‘getting lost in the music’ and ‘getting lost in a book’ are figurative and imply a perception that the external world has temporarily ‘ceased to exist’, there is also an implication that the individual has entered into a meditative ‘flow state’, suggesting that the executive functions are working together in a coherent and self-sustaining way.

Reading musical notation, reading a text and executive function

Given that musical notation as a symbol system that describes what should happen during music making, there is a strong logical argument for musical notation to act as a stimulus for activating executive functions.

A ‘Yes-But’ response resounds at once because the research literature is ‘mixed’ in terms of findings. Bear with me as I offer a few thoughts…

When researchers used a brain scanner to study the parts of the brain involved in reading musical notation, they asked professional musicians to read musical notes, a passage of printed text and a series of numbers on a five-key keypad (Schön et al., 2002, cf. Hallam and Himonides, 2022). Unsurprisingly, similar areas of the brain were activated during each type of reading activity. Over millennia humans have developed many symbol systems, including leaf symbols, hieroglyphs, cuniform, alphabets and emojis. This research is very reassuring as it suggests that the brain adopts a standard approach for reading different symbol systems. As there was no evidence that reading musical notation was any different to reading text or numbers, then presumably musical notation and other types of reading share the same neural structures. If this is the case, then this might explain an acceleration of reading skills in struggling readers after a six-week intervention in which children learned to read musical notation fluently (Long, 2014).

Reading musical notation differs from reading text or numbers in one important way: each symbol has a precise time value, which is not the case when we read words or numbers. However, when reading connected text or musical notation, there is an important element that is relates directly to rhythm, which is that musical phrases and sentences tend to be read within similar units of time. By coincidence (or by way of an explanation), this time window happens to fit with our human perception of the duration of each present moment.

So, given that working memory fades after about five to seven seconds of time have elapsed, we can understand that musical phrases and utterances in spoken language are closely tied to executive functions of working memory and sustained attention.

Reading musical notation and executive function

Many people’s experience of reading musical notation begins at the moment when they are learning to play a musical instrument. The physical coordination required to produce a well-controlled sound on any musical instrument draws upon sustained attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility (adapting to the challenges of the instrument). The engagement of these executive functions in managing the instrument may leave very few cognitive resources available for reading notation, leading to frustration and a sense of cognitive overload.

Using the voice rather than an instrument offers a possible solution, as singing is arguably the most ‘natural’ way to make music. Learning a new song however, involves assimilating and anticipating both the pitch outline and the words before they are sung. As these tasks occupy working memory, it is possible that cognitive overload could arise if reading notation while learning a new song.

Chanting in a school context - a rhythm-based form of music-making that humans have practised for thousands of years, whether in protest or in prayer is relatively ‘light’ in terms of its cognitive load on working memory. All that is required is a short pattern of syllables or words. Repetition of the pattern allows the chant to achieve a mesmeric effect. This can be socially bonding, hence the popularity of chanting in collective worship around the world.

Although researchers have demonstrated that musically trained children have higher blood flow in areas of the brain associated with executive function (Hallam and Himonides, 2022 ), it is important that researchers specify the musical activities that activate executive functions.

Comparing the three options: learning an instrument, a song or a chant - it is clear that they could develop executive function in different ways.

Learning to play a musical instrument demands new levels of physical coordination, involves deliberate effort and activates all of the executive functions for this reason.

Learning a new song places a high demand on verbal and spatial memory (working memory) as the pitch outline and the words of a song must be internalised and anticipated during singing.

Learning a simple chant places minimal demand on cognitive load. This makes it is easy for individuals drop into a state of ‘autopilot’, allowing the rhythmic element of the chant to keep their focus and attention ‘ticking over’ without deploying executive function.

So, chanting, with its lighter cognitive load offers the most inclusive option for teaching musical notation in these settings:

  • in mixed ability groups in mainstream schools
  • among children with learning differences in mainstream or special educational schools

You might be thinking surely, ‘mindless’ chanting has no place in 21st century education? Yes, I would agree - but the exception to this notional rule would be this: chanting is appropriate for children with fragile learning and reading if they also display hypo-activation of executive function:

  • weak attention,
  • limited working memory
  • poor impulse control
  • slow cognitive switching

Children with weak executive functions are better able to learn to read musical notation using chanting (rather than playing an instrument or singing) for the reasons outlined above. A rhythm-based approach (using a structured and cumulative method) restores executive function and reading development among these children in a very short period of time.

According to Miendlarenewska and Trost (2014) enhancing executive functions through rhythmic entrainment in particular would drive improved reading skills and verbal memory: the impact of the Rhythm for Reading programme bears this out (Long, 2014; Long and Hallam, 2012).

If you enjoyed reading this post, keep reading:

A simple view of reading musical notation

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?

Musical notation, a full school assembly and an Ofsted inspection

Many years ago, I was asked to teach a group of children, nine and ten years of age to play the cello. To begin with, I taught them to play well known songs by ear until they had developed a solid technique. They had free school meals, which in those days entitled them access to free group music lessons and musical instruments. One day, I announced that we were going to learn to read musical notation. The colour drained from their faces. They were agitated, anxious and horrified by this idea.

Empowering children to read musical notation fluently

Schools face significant challenges in deciding how best to introduce musical notation into their curriculum. Resources are already stretched. Some pupils are already under strain because they struggle with reading in the core curriculum. The big question is how to integrate musical notation into curriculum planning in a way that empowers not only the children, but also the teachers.

Teaching musical notation, and inclusivity

For too long, musical notation has been associated with middle class privilege, and yet, if we look at historical photographs of colliery bands, miners would read music every week at their brass band rehearsals. Reading musical notation is deeply embedded in the industrial cultural roots. As a researcher I’ve met many primary school children from all backgrounds who wanted to learn to read music and I’ve also met many teachers who thought that reading music was too complicated to be taught in the classroom.This is not true at all! As teachers already know the children in their class and how to meet their learning needs, I believe that they are best placed to teach musical notation.

References

Allen & Thompson (2016) “Changing the subject: how are the EBacc and Attainment 8 reforms changing results? The Sutton Trust,

Hallam, S. and Himonides, E. (2022) The Power of Music: An exploration of the evidence, Cambridge, UK, Open Book Publishers

Long, M. (2014). ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading. Research Studies in Music Education, 36 (1) 107-124

Long, M. and Hallam, S. (2012) Rhythm for reading: A rhythm-based approach to reading intervention. [MP282] Proceedings of Music Paedeia, 30th ISME World Conference on Music Education, pp. 221-232

Miendlarenewska, E. A. and Trost, W. J. (2014) How musical training affects cognitive development: rhythm, reward and other modulating variables. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7.

Moreno, S., Bialystok, E., Barac, R., Schellenberg, E.G., Capeda, N. J. & Chau, T. (2011). Short-term music training enhances verbal intelligence and executive function, Psychological Science, 22 (11), 1425-1433

Fluency: Finding Flow in Early Reading

27 December 2023

Image credit: Picsea via Unsplash
Image credit: Picsea via Unsplash

The pupils who most need to improve in terms of reading fluency (the lowest twenty percent of children) require support from the most effective teachers. Teaching effectiveness is known to be a strong predictor of pupils’ progress throughout school and for these children, pedagogy that develops a sense of mastery through repetition, reviewing and building familiarity with new words, supports the development of confident and fluent reading.

Distinguished pedagogue Professor Marie M Clay is best known for her Reading (and writing) Recovery programme. Her research began in 1976 and hundreds of thousands of children have benefited from her work. Her expertise in fluency in reading is based on her detailed observations of the experiences of struggling readers. For example, in her ‘hierarchy of knowing words’ we can appreciate the varied experiences of the children she taught as they grappled with new words, and practised these until they became familiar. This hierarchy provides a six step process, which is helpful because the teacher can identify and monitor progress long before the child becomes a fluent reader.

A six step process

The entry point in this hierarchy is as a ‘new’ word. Then, the word becomes ‘only just known’ as it still retains its novelty value and may protrude and not yet fall into its place with other words. As the word becomes more familiar, it is ‘successfully problem-solved’ by the child - in what Clay describes as one of a ‘repertoire of behaviours’. In the fourth iteration of this process, the word may be ‘easily produced, but easily thrown’ - in other words it might trip the child up and disrupt the flow of reading. The next level suggests that the word has become more integrated within the child’s lexicon, as a word that is ‘well known and recognised in most contexts’.

At this point, the child relies on context during the integration of external (print, illustrations and prompts from an adult) and internal processes (memory, including the sound and shape of the word in the articulatory system). Finally, when a word is ‘known in many variant forms’ it is likely to contribute to the fluent reading of a passage. This chimes well with the generative notion of language as recursive, with each word sparking a new stream of thoughts and ideas.

The meeting of the internal and the external aspects of decoding are described by Clay in terms of visual information (the ‘input’ from the eyes) merging with ‘vast amounts of information about that word gathered in past experiences’ so that the more familiar words are read ‘in a flash’.

Place not pace

Although, ‘new’ words are read slowly and it is appropriate for beginner readers to allow time to focus upon and to assimilate them, Clay was clear that the journey from slow word-by-word decoding to reading fast and with fluency was not about pace, but rather it was about the place of the word within a phrase:

“We have to think about phrasing in reading….To be more technical, the reader has put several words into a grammatical phrase (or into a grammatical context)” (Clay, 2005, p.150).

From a rhythm-based perspective, a musical phrase is also felt as a unit of meaning and context. And yet there is a broader context to consider. Let us pause to reflect for a moment on the importance of the context (and biographical narrative) of the child’s nervous system. This would include their perceptions of challenge, threat and fear versus those of safety, play and social engagement. We might ask to what extent does the emotional set-point of this child influence their capacity to engage with reading?

Building capacity for fluency

Reading at home every day with a parent or an older sibling fosters fluency through nurturing and social engagement. For children who have not had this level of input at home, co-regulation through one-on-one intervention may also be necessary to build the capacity that a child needs to engage with reading. After all, if their attention is disrupted by intrusive thoughts or if they are socially withdrawn, then they are likely to struggle with the level of cognitive processing that fluent reading demands.

The dynamic qualities of fluent reading are summarised by Clay here,

“When the reading is phrased as in spoken language and the responding is quite fast, then there is a fair chance that the reader has grouped together the words that the author has meant to go together….If the reader can do this easily then he attends to the letters, and the words, and the grammar ‘on the run’ and as a result he can give more attention to the messages.” (Clay, 2005, p.150)

From a rhythm-based perspective, the key words in this quotation are ‘attends’ and ‘attention’. The child’s capacity to sustain their attention determines the fluency of their reading. Attention is the cognitive ‘fuel’ necessary to ‘drive’ this fluency and to extract the author’s ‘message’ from the alignment of the letters, words and phrases as units of meaning.

For a fragile reader, reading ’on the run’ could describe a single layer of fast-moving unrelated syllables and words that do not generate meaning as they are read. Many children can read fast and yet they do not process words within well-defined phrases and therefore do not assimilate meaning from their reading.

For a fluent reader however, reading ‘on the run’ would describe fast-moving syllables, words, and phrases that are grammatically and rhythmically aligned, and the message they convey is assimilated without additional effort.

Dynamic attending and language

When children process spoken language with ease and fluency, we must remember that this happens in the context of a social dynamic. The child takes into account the speaker, the context and the sounds of the language. This social dimension adds a lot of information. We could say that the speech stream is ‘gift-wrapped’ for the child. These outer layers of the sound spectrum convey three key signals about context of the message:

  • The relevance of the content capturing the child’s attention through curiosity or urgency.
  • The emotional content in the speaker’s voice reassuring or unsettling their sense of safety.
  • The rise and fall of intonation in the speaker’s voice and an emphasis on certain words helping them to process the context and content of the message ‘on the run’.

All of these outer layers of the speech stream are conveyed through the tone, timbre and rhythm of the speaker’s voice, and allow the child to feel the safety of their environment.

A child’s auditory environment is mapped out in utero from nineteen weeks gestational age and the home language is assimilated in an infant’s first year. Their emotional responses to the sounds of the care-giving environment are imprinted upon their nervous system, and embedded through a process called myelination. Myelin is a protective fatty coating that insulates nerve fibres and allows the information travelling along these fibres to move at lightning speed. The more these pathways are used, the faster they become.

The observations made by Marie Clay elude to this,

“It seems likely that if the learner develops faster responses racing around the neural circuits in his brain this will make reading more effective….” (Clay, 2005, p.151)

The emotional content of language processing has received little attention, though academics have studied the phonological, grammatical and semantic content of spoken language in depth. The ethical considerations when recruiting or identifying children with affective disorders relating to early childhood adversity are challenging, but studies of children in the care system and orphanages provide evidence of their difficulties with attention and reading. And of course, it is well-established that a warm, caring and sensitive environment in early childhood predicts strong educational attainment.

Reading Recovery

In Marie Clay’s original Reading Recovery programme (consisting of twenty ‘book levels’) there is an emphasis on the importance of a reading lesson every day for the children and she herself observed that a process of consolidation from one day to the next was important.

“If the child moves forward slowly, possibly missing lessons here and there, the end result is not as satisfactory as speedy progress through the book levels. It is as if the brain cells need to be involved tomorrow in what they explored today to consolidate some permanent change in their structure. This is a possible explanation.” (Clay, 2005, p.151)

Drilling into this a little further, if we consider the social dynamic between the specialist teacher and the child as a ‘dyad’ (an emotional pairing), then the continuity from one day to the next becomes more relevant in terms of the bond that accumulates from day to day and it is not surprising that the cumulative progress is described by Clay as ‘advantageous’.

Using the lens of child development, research conducted by Clay’s contemporaries Kuhn and Stahl (2003) showed that reading fluency was not limited to word recognition. The study concluded that among children in the first and second year of school, reading fluency was characterised by the prosodic features of language, which the authors defined as: rhythm, expression and perception of the boundaries of phrases in speech and text.

Phrases and fluency

From a rhythm-based perspective, the expressive element of fluent reading is underpinned by the temporal structure of clearly defined phrase boundaries. When the phrase boundaries are well-defined, the rhythm of the narrative ebbs and flows - good storytelling also has this wavelike motion of tension and release. Of course, a child listening to a story is mesmerised by the rhythmic features of the language and the expressive flow of the narrator’s voice. There are also peripheral signals that are a valuable part of holding a child’s attention: the stillness and poise of the narrator’s posture establish an atmosphere of trust, whereas their animated face and gestures, use of silence and the expressive qualities of their voice all contribute to the ‘suspension of belief’, which help to bring the events of the story to life.

It is interesting that using a rhythm-based approach to boost reading fluency requires a tiny fraction of the time taken by Reading Recovery. As a small group intervention that only requires ten minutes per week, in the Rhythm for Reading programme, the children are out of the classroom for only one hundred minutes across the entire course, and yet they experience a deep and meaningful shift in their ability to process printed language at the level of the phrase. Word accuracy also improves because the context of the words becomes clearer.

If you would like to read about the impact of the programme on different schools and children, click here. And to read more about fluency, here are links to related posts.

What can we do to support the development of reading fluency?

All children from all backgrounds need to learn to read fluently so that they can enjoy learning and fully embrace the curriculum offered by their school. A key challenge for schools is identifying an appropriate intervention that effectively supports reading fluency. This is a necessary part of a coherently planned, ambitious and inclusive curriculum that should meet the needs of all children.

Reading fluency again - looking at prosody

Prosody is closely associated with skilled reading, being integral to fluency and a predictor of achievement in reading accuracy and comprehension. Prosody is not taught, but it is a naturally occurring feature of competent reading. The words on the page may be arranged in horizontal lines, but a good reader transcends the visual appearance of the words, allowing them to take on a natural, flexible and speech-like quality.

Considering reading fluency

Many teachers and head teachers have remarked on the improvement in their pupils’ reading fluency, so it seemed important to try to capture what has been happening. Of course, there are different ways to define and to measure reading fluency, but here is a snapshot of what we found when using two types of assessment.

Reading fluency: Reading, fast or slow?

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.

References

Clay, M.M (2005) Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals: Part Two Teaching Procedures, New Zealand, Heinemann Education.

Kuhn, M.R. and Stahl, S. (2003) Fluency: A review of developmental and remedial practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 1: 3-21.

Improving reading comprehension and awareness of punctuation

29 November 2023

Image credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash
Image credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

If curriculum lies at the heart of education, it is reading comprehension that enables the vibrant health and vitality of learning. If the curriculum is narrow, the heart of education is constricted, pressured and strained. Without the breadth and rigour of a curriculum that encourages expression and criticality, there may be too little in terms of intrinsic motivation to inspire effective reading comprehension.

Growth mindset, resilience and perseverance cannot compensate for a narrow and impoverished curriculum, nor can they motivate children to want to engage with learning. However, a rich and rewarding curriculum can encourage children’s natural curiosity, drive and self-sustaining motivation, which can bring focus, enjoyment and depth of engagement to reading comprehension.

If a child cannot read, they will not be able to access the curriculum and this has far-reaching consequences not only for the individual, but for all of us as well. A generation of motivated and enabled children who access and enjoy everything that their education has to offer without the limitations of fragile reading, will adapt and adjust with greater confidence to whatever the future holds.

Reading comprehension offers everyone enriched opportunities to develop their aspirations, talents and interests. Indeed, it is through reading comprehension that pupils become lifelong learners and gravitate towards the topics that most interest them. As a starting point, children must engage with different types of reading - fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and discover the many different styles of writing. Engaging with a wide range of reading material empowers children to take their first steps on their future path and to expand their vocabulary. Up to ninety per cent of this is encountered in books rather than day-to-day speech.

Some reading experts have said that a lack of requisite vocabulary or background knowledge can limit a child’s ability to access a text. This mismatch between the text and the child’s prior experiences does not happen in a vacuum and need not limit a child’s education. Lacking the vocabulary or the knowledge to access a passage of text, a child must be encouraged to fill in the gaps at school.

Outstanding schools that have a large proportion of pupils with English as an additional language (EAL), address this issue of a limited vocabulary by immersing the children in ‘enriched’ environments. Different topics that do not come up in day-to-day conversation such as space exploration, deep sea diving and mountaineering, are exciting for children and these schools use corridor spaces as places where children can sit in a ‘spaceship’ or a ‘submarine’ or a ‘safari jeep’ and listen to information about the topic, use word banks, hold relevant books and enjoy the illustrations.

What is reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension is not only an understanding of the text - this could be gained from the relatively static process of looking at illustrations or chapter headings. It is a more dynamic process that integrates information as the text is read. This happens when we hear spoken language: we follow along and reciprocate in real time. Reading comprehension is like a conversation, in the sense that it is a social invitation to extract meaning from what is written. If it does not engage the child socially, the text is unlikely to be understood.

What is the most important key to good comprehension?

When we are reading, the most important key to good comprehension in my view is the social connection with the words. Children make this connection at home before they start school, having been read to by parents or siblings or other caregivers since infancy. These adults will have built social cues such as tone of voice and rhythm into their child’s earliest experiences of books. These children also arrive at school with other social assets such as a strong vocabulary and a positive attitude towards reading.

Conversely, children with a more limited vocabulary may need to build their social connection with reading from scratch and they may also feel anxious about learning for any number of reasons. For them, the usual cues of social engagement such as tone of voice and rhythm are missing from the ‘marks on the page’. So a child with a limited vocabulary and little experience of being read to needs to discover for themselves that reading is primarily a social act before their reading comprehension can develop traction.

What is punctuation?

Young children learn through play. This involves a sense of heightened arousal as well as social engagement. Even a child playing on their own will be vocalising a narrative of some kind, involving specific sounds and patterns. Punctuation offers an opportunity to engage with a child’s instinct for social engagement and meaning-making through play. Exaggerated voices, list-building, sudden sounds, humour and suspense are invitations to play with words. In the Rhythm for Reading programme we occasionally use a word, purely for fun, at a rhythmically important moment in the music. One such word is, ‘Splash!’ This word marks the end of a very up-beat tune about dolphins and the children love to celebrate this final moment with pure joy. Their social engagement and their playfulness are central to the entire programme, so reading becomes an act of social meaning-making, regardless of the development of their vocabulary.

At the beginning of a child’s literacy adventures at school, conventions of using punctuation are taught in the context of meaning-making and involve the correct use of capital letters, full stops, question marks, commas, exclamation marks, two types of apostrophes and speech marks.

Then other punctuation marks are introduced, such as colons, semi-colons and brackets as a way to enhance meaning-making. Finally, the other conventions involving quotation marks, dashes and hyphens can be added as the child embarks on writing that involves more informality, unusual language, citations and compound words.

Moving beyond conventions and back to social engagement, it is important to consider the ‘state’ of the child. An anxious child with a limited vocabulary will be overloaded emotionally and grapple with word-by-word processing. Their working memory may not have sufficient resources to manage punctuation. A withdrawn child, on the other hand, may have insufficient motivation to engage with reading or writing. By addressing their ‘state’ through a rhythm-based approach, these social-emotional learning blocks can, and do, shift.

Why is punctuation important in reading comprehension?

Punctuation is a shorthand that guides the reader to recognise familiar types of meaning-making. A series of commas tells the reader that they are going to make a meaningful list. A question mark and an exclamation mark invite the reader to ‘play’ with the concept of ‘an unknown’ or ‘novelty’ respectively. Both are motivational to the child’s instinct for social engagement - their natural curiosity. The full stop is an important rhythmic cue that defines grammatical structures that can stand alone. In a conversation, this could be an opportunity for facial expression or a nod of the head which acknowledges the social dimension of meaning making. In terms of reading aloud, the reader’s prosody - the rise and fall of their voice, shows that the information unit has completed a rhythmic cycle.

In a conversation, the rise and fall of the voice, as well as the dimensions of rhythmic flow create the socially engaged cues of meaning-making and also support reading fluency. These cues are exaggerated by parents when they talk to their young children. Defining utterances in this way creates a structural blueprint for language and social engagement that we as social beings use when we interact. Similarly, conventions of punctuation correspond to these same structures that infants learn in the first eight months of life, as they acquire their home language. For this reason, children intuitively understand punctuation marks when they read with fluency, provided they are socially receptive to and engaged by the content of they are reading.

Why do children struggle with punctuation?

Punctuation is the dynamic part of reading that organises individual words into grammatical chunks and ultimately, meaningful messages. It functions as a counterpart to grammatical awareness because punctuation as a symbolic system is processed ‘top down’ from the conscious to subconscious, whereas grammatical awareness, which was established in infancy is processed bottom-up, from subconscious to conscious. It’s important to recognise that conscious processing is relatively slow, whereas subconscious processing usually occurs at lightning speed. Children who struggle with reading, and have not integrated these different processing speeds, experience reading as a kind of rhythmic block, often referred to as a ‘bottleneck’. Although many academics have described this as a problem with processing print, in my experience this ‘bottleneck’ is more related to a child’s subconscious levels of social engagement as well as their ‘state’ in terms of their perceptions, attitudes, emotions and level of confidence.

The Rhythm for Reading programme addresses the so-called ‘bottleneck’. Changing a child’s ‘state’ involves ‘neuroplasticity’ or ‘rewiring’ unhelpful ‘habits of mind’ and it is possible to achieve this through regular, short-bursts of learning using high intensity, repetitive and rhythmical actions.

To find out more about how the Rhythm for Reading programme changes a child’s ‘state’, click here to read our Case Studies and click the red Sign Up button at the top of this page to receive weekly ‘Insights’ and news about our new online programme.

If you enjoyed this post about reading comprehension and punctuation, keep reading!

Rhythm, punctuation and meaning

The comma, according to Lynn Truss, clarifies the grammatical structure of a sentence and points to literary qualities such as rhythm, pitch, direction, tone and pace.

Stepping up: from phonemes to comprehension

The sentence as a whole and coherent unit is vibrant, elastic and flexible with its meaning perceived not through the synthesis of its many phonemes, but through its overall rhythm and structure.

Discover the heartbeat of reading

Just as a heartbeat is organic, supporting life in each part of the body from the smallest cells to the largest organs, rhythm in reading reaches systemically into every part of language. Like a heartbeat it spreads both upwards, supporting the structure of phrases and sentences and also downwards, energising and sharpening the edges of syllables and phonemes. Rhythm therefore brings the different grain sizes of language into alignment with each other.

What can we do to support the development of reading fluency?

22 November 2023

All children from all backgrounds need to learn to read fluently so that they can enjoy learning and fully embrace the curriculum offered by their school. A key challenge for schools is identifying an appropriate intervention that effectively supports reading fluency. This is a necessary part of a coherently planned, ambitious and inclusive curriculum that should meet the needs of all children.

The children who lag behind their classmates in terms of fluency are not a homogenous group. Although time-consuming and costly, one-on-one teaching is essential for those who struggle the most. However, short, intensive bursts of rhythm-based activity (Long, 2014) have been found to give a significant boost in reading fluency as a small group teaching intervention. This approach is a more efficient use of resources as it supports the majority of children who struggle with fluency in ten weekly sessions of only ten minutes.

An evidence-based, rigorous approach to the teaching and assessment of reading fluency leads to increases in children’s confidence and enjoyment in reading. Whilst logic might suggest that the difficulty level of the reading material is the main block to the development of reading fluency, manipulating the difficulty level does not actually address the underlying issue.

Reading fluency involves not only letter to sound correspondence, but also social reciprocity through the medium of print and therefore the orchestration of several brain networks. The social mechanisms of a child’s reading become audible when the expressive and prosodic qualities in their voice start to appear. This is why a more holistic child-centred perspective is helpful - it allows children to experience learning to read as a playful, rather than a pressured experience.

The pressure felt by children with poor reading fluency arises because of inattention and distractibility, as well as variability in their alertness, which pull them off-task. Compared with their classmates, these children are either more reactive and volatile in social situations, or quieter, and more withdrawn. Our rhythm-based approach uses small group teaching to reset these behaviours, by supporting these children into a more regulated state. Working with the children in this way helps them to adapt to the activities, to adjust their state and to regulate their attention within a highly structured social situation.

What are the key components of reading fluency?

Different frameworks describe fluency in different ways. From a rhythm-based perspective, the components of expression, flow and understanding are the most important. There is one more to consider - social engagement with the author - the person who wrote the printed words. The extent to which the child reads with expression, flow and understanding reflects the degree of social engagement while reading. One of the ways to accomplish this is to free the volume and range of the voice by encouraging a deeper involvement with the text. It’s easy to achieve this in books that invite readers to exaggerate the enunciation of expressive or onomatopoeic words.

Flow in reading fluency

The flowing quality of fluent reading shows that the child has aligned the words on the page with the underlying grammatical structure of the sentences. This sounds more complicated than it actually is and doesn’t need to be taught, because children activate these structures in the first eight months of life, when they acquire their home language. Accessing these deep structures during reading enables them to feel the natural rhythm in the ebb and flow of the language. However, there are many different styles of both spoken and printed language, as each one may have a different rhythmic feel. Feeling the rhythmic qualities of printed language is inherently rewarding and motivating for both children and adults: it allows the mind to drop into a deeper level of engagement and achieve an optimal and self-sustaining flow state.

Understanding in reading fluency

There is one prerequisite! Understanding printed language requires motivation to engage. Let’s call this the ‘why’. It involves a degree of familiarity with the context and a basic knowledge of vocabulary, which are both necessary to stimulate the involvement of long term memory, as well as a desire to become involved in the narrative. Many books introduce us to new concepts, vocabulary and contexts, but the ‘why’ must act as a bridge between what is already known and the, as yet, unknown. This ‘why’ compels us to read on.

About the ‘Why’

In a conversation there is a natural alignment between expression, flow and understanding. The energy in the speaker’s voice may signal a wide range of expressive qualities and emotions which help the listener to understand the ‘why’ behind the narrative, as well as keeping them engaged and encouraging reciprocation. The ‘why’ in the narrative is arguably the most important element in communication as it conveys a person’s attitude and intention in sharing important information about challenges or changes in everyday life and the experiences of individual characters - the staple features of many storylines or plots.

‘Handa’s Surprise’ by Eileen Browne

So, in Eileen Browne’s beautiful telling of ‘Handa’s Surprise,’ a humorous book about a child’s journey to her best friend’s village, the reader learns about the names of the fruits in her basket, the animals that she encounters and becomes curious to learn what happens to Handa as she walks alone in southwestern Kenya.

It isn’t necessary for young children to know the names of the fruits, such as ‘guava’, ‘tangerine’ or ‘passion fruit’. Despite the irregularities of words such as ‘fruit’ and ‘guava’ (and the need to segment ‘tangerine’ with care to avoid ‘tang’) children understand the story, having been introduced to the new (unknown) vocabulary in the (known) context of ‘fruit’. The child’s long term memory offers up the background knowledge of ‘fruit’ as a broad category, but adds the names of the new fruits under the categories: ’food-related’ and ‘fruit’ for use in future situations in their own life.

The new vocabulary in the story enriches children’s knowledge of fruit, but the ‘why’ of this tale is the bigger question… Will Handa complete her journey safely? Empathy for, and identification with Handa elicits, (subconsciously), an increase in the reader’s curiosity and brings further focus to the mechanisms of reading fluency. Once each new word has been assimilated into the category of ‘fruit’, reading fluency is self-sustaining and driven by plot development and empathy for the main character. Having read this story (and many others) with children, I have become aware that reading fluency must become closely aligned with the rule-based patterns of grammar, as these enable irregular words such as ‘fruit’ and ‘guava’ to be quickly assimilated into the flow of the story.

‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll

A more famous and exaggerated example of this effect is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. Many of the novel ‘words’ invented by Carroll for this poem must be assimilated into the reader’s vocabulary. The process is much the same for made up, as it is for unfamiliar words. Long term memory offers up categories of animals and their behaviour, relative to the evocative sounds of ‘words’ such as, ‘slithy’, ‘frumious’ and ‘frabjous’.

The grammatical structure of each line of verse is kept relatively simple, allowing the narrative to feel highly predictable, as it is clearly supported by the regular metre. The repetitive feel of the ABAB rhyme structure guides the reader to use the conventions of grammar in anticipating, and thus engaging with the unfolding, yet somewhat opaque narrative.

Together, the features of repetition, rhythm and predictability strengthen coherence, so that the words are chunked together in patterns based on the statistically learned probabilities of spoken language. Deeper grammatical structures that sit beneath these rhythmic patterns are logic-based: they offer up meaning and interpretation based on micro-cues of nuanced emphasis, intensity and duration within the fluent stream of language, whether spoken or read.

Why is reading fluency important?

Reading fluency is important for three reasons and these also act as drivers of motivation and learning.

  1. Reading fluency brings the rhythmic patterns of language into alignment with deeper grammatical structures that are necessary for meaning-making.
  2. These structures - which are probabilistic - bring into awareness the most likely next words, phrases, and developments in the story. These are not based on pure guesswork, but reflect the reader’s understanding of the genre, the context and text-specific cues.These include appraising the shape of the word, and automaticity in recognising the shapes of letters (graphemes), words and their corresponding sounds (phonemes). These cues are necessary, but not sufficient to orchestrate fluent reading.
  3. Reading fluency supports children as they expand their vocabulary.

The majority of studies show that:

  • A strong relationship exists between vocabulary size and social background,
  • Up to ninety per cent of vocabulary is not encountered in everyday speech, but in reading,
  • Vocabulary is particularly important for text comprehension,
  • Children’s books tend to include more unfamiliar words than are found in day-to-day speech.

The first two mechanisms work together symbiotically to anticipate, adapt and adjust to what is coming up next in printed language, similar to when we hear someone speaking. The third mechanism changes a child’s perspective on life. Teachers and parents need to expose children to printed language, including the unfamiliar and orthographically irregular words, simply because it is through reading fluency that these words are assimilated into a child’s lexicon.

How do you measure reading fluency?

Listening is key to measuring reading fluency. If a child practises a sentence by repeating it at least three times, there should be a natural shift in the level of engagement. In a child struggling with reading fluency, four attempts may be necessary. Here is an example of the process of refinement through repetition.

  • A beard hoped up to my wind….ow.
  • A b….ir…d h…o….p…p….ed up to my w…in, win…..d…..ow.
  • A b…ear…ir…d, b..ird, BIRD…. hopped up to my wind…ow (long pause) window.
  • A bird hopped up to my window.

The pivotal moment was when ‘b-ird’ became BIRD. This would have sounded louder because the child’s voice would have become clearer once the (known) category ‘bird’ was activated in their long term memory and the meaning behind the word was understood. Long term memory offered up the strong likelihood of ‘hopped’ in relation to the category ‘bird’ and this helped the child to extrapolate that the final word must be a ‘thing’ to hop towards. This was not guesswork, nor was it an exclusive reliance upon phoneme-grapheme correspondence, but an alignment of 1. long term memory (including probabilistic language processing) with 2. visual recognition of letters and knowledge of the sounds they represent (including a degree of automaticity).

Reading fluency can be measured in terms of engagement, expression, flow and understanding and in the Rhythm for Reading programme we specialise in transforming children’s reading at this deep (subconscious) level. Children move from relying on unreliable decoding strategies (because the English language doesn’t follow the regularities of letter to sound correspondence), through to full alignment with the language structures that underpin their everyday speech. Once this shift has taken place, the children are able to enjoy interacting with books and they also grow in confidence in other areas of learning and social development.

We have helped many hundreds of children to engage with reading in this natural and fluent way using our rhythm-based approach, which is delivered in only ten weekly sessions of ten minutes. There are almost a thousand case studies confirming the relationship between our programme and transformations in reading fluency. Click the link to read about selected case studies.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, why not sign up for free weekly ‘Insights’. You will be among the first to know about special offers and our new online programmes!

If reading fluency is of interest, you may enjoy these posts

Reading fluency: Reading, fast or slow?

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.

Reading fluency again - looking at prosody

Prosody is closely associated with skilled reading, being integral to fluency and a predictor of achievement in reading accuracy and comprehension. Prosody is not taught, but it is a naturally occurring feature of competent reading. The words on the page may be arranged in horizontal lines, but a good reader transcends the visual appearance of the words, allowing them to take on a natural, flexible and speech-like quality.

Considering reading fluency

Many teachers and head teachers have remarked on the improvement in their pupils’ reading fluency, so it seemed important to try to capture what has been happening. Of course, there are different ways to define and to measure reading fluency, but here is a snapshot of what we found when using two types of assessment.

References

Eileen Browne (1995) Handa’s Surprise, Walker Books and Subsidiaries.

Long, Marion. “‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading.” Research Studies in Music Education 36.1 (2014): 107-124.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Musical notation, a full school assembly and an Ofsted inspection

10 January 2023

Many years ago, I was asked to teach a group of children, nine and ten years of age to play the cello. To begin with, I taught them to play well known songs by ear until they had developed a solid technique. They had free school meals, which in those days entitled them access to free group music lessons and musical instruments. One day, I announced that we were going to learn to read musical notation. The colour drained from their faces. They were agitated, anxious and horrified by this idea.

No! they protested. It’s too hard.

After all these lessons, do you really think I would allow you to struggle? I asked them.

The following week, I introduced the group to very simple notation and developed a system that would allow them to retain the name of each note with ease, promoting reading fluency right from the start. This system is now an integral part of the Rhythm for Reading programme. It was first developed for these children, who according to their class teacher, were unable either to focus their attention or to learn along with the rest of the class.

After only five minutes, the children were delighted to discover that reading musical notation was not so difficult after all.

I can do it! shrieked the most excitable child again and again, and there was a wonderful atmosphere of triumph in the room that day.

After six months, the entire group had developed a repertoire of pieces that they could play together as a group and as individuals. It was at this point that Ofsted inspected the school. The Headteacher invited the children to play in full school assembly in the presence of the Ofsted inspection team. They played both as a group and as soloists. Each child announced the title and composer of their chosen piece, played impeccably, took applause by bowing, and then walked with their instrument to the side of the hall. At the end of the assembly the children (who were now working at age expectation in the classroom) were invited to join the school orchestra and sit alongside their more privileged peers. The Ofsted team placed the school in the top category, ‘Outstanding’.

If you would like to learn more about this reading programme, contact me here.

Image credit: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash
Image credit: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

Rhythm, phonemes, fluency and luggage

12 December 2022

Image credit: Filipp Romanovski, via Unsplash
Image credit: Filipp Romanovski, via Unsplash

Louis Vuitton began his career in logistics and packing, before moving on to design a system of beautiful trunks, cases and bags that utilised space efficiently and eased the flow of luggage during transit. He protected his designer luggage using a logo and geometric motifs. The dimensions of each piece differed in terms of shape and size, and yet it was undeniable that they all belonged together as a set - not only because they matched in appearance, but also because each piece of the set could be contained within a larger piece. In fact, the entire set was designed to fit into the largest piece of all.

The grammatical structures of language and music share this same principle that underpinned the Louis Vuitton concept. In a language utterance, the tone, the pace and the shape of the sound waves carry a message at every level - from the smallest phoneme to the trajectory of the entire sentence.

The shapes of individual syllables are contained within the shapes of words. The shapes of words are contained within the shapes of phrases and sentences. Although these are constantly changing in real time - like a kaleidoscope, the principle of hierarchy - a single unit that fits perfectly within another remains robust.

In music, the shapes of riffs, licks, motifs, melodies and phrases are highly varied, but the hierarchical principle remains a constant here too. The musical message is heard in the tone, the pace and the shape of the smallest and largest units of a musical phrase.

Just as Vuitton used design to create accurate dimensions at every level of his luggage set, the same degree of precision is also achieved at a subconscious level in spoken language and in music. A protruding syllable, the wrong emphasis or inflection can throw the meaning of an entire sentence out of alignment. A musical message is similarly diluted if a beat protrudes, is cut short or is lengthened, because the length and shape of an entire phrase is distorted.

Arguably, the precise dimensions in Vuitton’s groundbreaking designs reflect a preference for proportion and balance that also underpins human communication involving sound. Our delight in the consummation of symmetry, grammar and rhyme is present in the rhythm of language and also in music. At a conceptual level, it is ratio that unifies the Vuitton designs with language and music, and it is ratio that anchors our human experience in interaction with one another and our environment.

This concept of ratio, as well as hierarchical relationships and the precision of rhythm in real time underpin the Rhythm for Reading programme. Think of this reading intervention as an opportunity to reorganise reading behaviour using a beautiful luggage set, designed for phonemes, syllables, words and phrases. It’s an organisational system that facilitates the development of reading fluency, and also reading with ease, enjoyment and understanding.

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