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with their classmates, these children are either more reactive and volatile in social situations, or quieter, and more withdrawn.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reading fluency is important for three reasons and these also act as drivers of motivation and learning.
The majority of studies show that:
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the Rhythm for Reading Programme, progress in reading is measured using the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability 2nd edition revised (NARA II). Reading comprehension is one of three standardised measures in this reading assessment. There are many good assessments available, but I’ve stuck with this one because it offers three supportive features that I think are particularly helpful. If you are unfamiliar with NARA II, let me paint a picture for you. Detailed illustrations accompany each passage of text. For a child grappling with unfamiliar vocabulary or weak decoding, the illustrations offer a sense of context and I’ve seen many children’s eyes glance over to the illustration, when tackling a tricky word.
In practice, children come out of class one at a time for individual reading assessment. Each reading assessment lasts twenty minutes on average. The main advantage of an individual assessment over a group assessment is that the assessor is permitted to prompt the child if they get stuck on a word. In fact the assessor can read the tricky word after five seconds have elapsed, which helps the child to maintain a sense of the overall narrative. This level of support is limited by the rigour of the assessment. For example, an assessor would not give the definition of a word if a child asked what it meant and sixteen errors in word accuracy on a single passage of text signals the end of the assessment.
This particular individual format is more sensitive that all others in my opinion, because it minimises the influence of three cognitive factors on the scores.
Factor one: There is minimal cognitive loading of working memory as the child can refer back to the text when answering questions. In other words, they do not need to remember the passage of text, whilst answering the questions. This approach prevents a conflation between a test of comprehension and a test of working memory. Children may score higher on NARA II if working memory is likely to reach overload in other reading test formats, for example, if the child is required to retain the details of the text whilst answering comprehension questions.
Factor two: There is no writing involved in NARA II, so a child with a weak working memory achieves a higher score on the NARA II than on other formats if writing in sentences is a specific area of difficulty for them.
Factor three: The assessor keeps the child focussed on the text. This makes a big difference if a child is likely to ‘zone out’ frequently and to experience scattered or fragmented cognitive attention. In this instance, a child with weak executive function is more likely to achieve a higher score on the NARA II than on other formats, because of the support given to scattered or fragmented attention.
At the end of the ten weeks of our reading intervention, children have achieved higher scores not only in NARA II, but also in the New Group Reading Test and the Suffolk Reading Scales. Many children experience gains in cognitive control as well as reading fluency and comprehension.
In extant societies that live as hunter-gatherers, loud communal singing and drumming creates the illusion of a large coherent entity, large enough to deter big cats that predate on the darkest of nights. Arguably, communal singing through the night may be a key human survival strategy. There’s evidence to show that feelings of cooperation and safety are experienced when humans sing and dance together and many people report being able to sustain hours of music making, when in a group. Other species such as birds and fish deter predators by forming a large mass of synchronised movement patterns. Murmurations form before birds roost for the night and shoals of herrings achieve the same mesmeric effect when they are pursued by predators such as sea bass.
Detecting rhythm and moving in time creates a trance-like state, which allows the perception of time to shift such that the focus narrows onto staying in time with the beat of others, nearby. Anticipating what will happen next is a key element of this narrow focus. If we break that down, it involves anticipating the regularity of the beat, whether within simple or complex rhythmic patterns.
Reading for pleasure can be framed as a social situation in which the reader synchronises with the writer’s style. To ‘get into a book’ we need to achieve a flow state - which is a trance-like state resulting in relatively narrow focus. This means everything else, but the book (or screen) disappears from our attention. The entranced state induces reading fluency and comprehension, drawing us deeper into the text where we might feel that we have ‘escaped’. To escape into a book means to suspend our usual sense of who we are, having become engrossed with the text, perhaps by empathising with the characters, or simply by synchronising with the flow of the writing. A close level of synchrony between the words on the page, and our anticipation of what comes next is arguably similar to the defensive mechanism of creating a larger entity in real time because it involves losing the usual sense of self and becoming part of something larger than day-to-day life - which brings us all the way back to communal singing and dancing.
A few weeks ago, in an inset session at a wonderful school with beautiful inclusive approaches in their group teaching, I mentioned that rats have the same limbic structures as humans. The limbic system is the part of the brain that deals with our mammalian instincts. These keep us in tune with social information, such as social status and hierarchy, protecting and nurturing our children, bonding with sexual partners and managing affiliation. It’s a logical assumption that if we share these limbic structures, rats like humans should be able to keep time with a musical beat - or their equivalent of that. So, it was no surprise to learn that Japanese researchers have shown that rats can indeed bob along and keep time with a musical beat.
It was back in the 1980s, when American scientists first discovered the genes that determined the rhythm of the mating song of fruit flies. If we think of rhythm as a musical trait exclusive to humans, these findings in rats and flies are simply amusing, novel or entertaining. On the other hand, the bigger picture behind these findings would suggest that the natural world is inherently structured by environmental and behavioural patterns organised by rhythm. If we think of rhythm as a system of ratios, proportions and repetition, then the math of rhythm is obvious. There are cycles and rhythmic flows in tides and weather systems and indeed, migration patterns follow these cycles. In individual organisms, as well as in shoal, pod, flock and herd movement, rhythmic patterns underpin locomotion and communication. Even a human infant’s stepping reflex is organised around the inherent rhythmic systems that we share with many other species.
We humans are particularly happy when our stylised rhythms achieve a hypnotic effect, for example in Queen’s ‘We will rock you,’ - one of the songs used by the Japanese scientists to detect the sensitivity to rhythm in rats. Halfway through the Rhythm for Reading programme, this same rhythmic pattern appears and is always greeted with enthusiasm by teachers and children as a fun part of the reading intervention. Look out for the next post, which explains the connection between hypnotic rhythm, flow states, reading fluency and reading comprehension.
In my last post I described a typical challenge facing a child with poor phonological awareness. Using a rapid colour naming test (CToPP2), it’s possible to identify that a weakness in processing the smallest sounds of language often occurs at the onset of a phoneme, in other words the onset of a syllable. Consonant blends and consonant digraphs are more affected, so, conflation between ‘thr’ and ‘fr’, or ‘cl’ and ‘gl’ is likely to happen and to impede the development of reading with ease and fluency.
The notion that sensitivity to both rhythm and the smallest sounds of language overlap in terms of data has been around for decades. A positive correlation between sensitivity to rhythm and phonemic sensitivity has been shown in many studies. It’s easy to understand that rhythm and phonological processing overlap if we consider that the start of a phoneme - the onset of a syllable is exactly where sensitivity to rhythm is measured - whether that’s the start of a musical sound or a spoken utterance.
Thinking for a moment about words that begin with a consonant, imagine focussing mostly on the vowel sound of each syllable, without being able to discern the shape of the initial phoneme with sufficient clarity. The sounds would merge together into a kind of ambient speech puddle.
Vowel sounds carry interesting information such as emotion, or tone of voice. They are longer (in milliseconds) and without defined edges. Now imagine focussing on the onset of those syllables. The consonants are shorter (in milliseconds), more sharply defined and more distinctive, leaving plenty of headspace for cognitive control. If consonants are prioritised, information flows easily and the message lands with clarity.
The Rhythm for Reading programme addresses these distinctions through group teaching that is fun and supports early reading in particular. Information processing is enhanced by sensitivity to rhythm because rhythm focusses attention onto the onset of the sound, which is where the details are sharpest. This kind of information processing remain effortless, easy and fluent.
If you’d like to know a little more about this, the details are summarised in a free infographic. Click here.
Have you ever taught a child with weak phonological awareness? The differences between sounds are poorly defined and individually sounds are swapped around. A lack of phonological discrimination could be explained by conflation. Conflation, according to the OED is the merging of two or more sets of information, texts, sets of ideas etc into one.
One of the most fascinating aspects of conflation is that it can happen at different levels of conscious awareness. So, for example teenagers learning facts about physics might conflate words such as conduction and convection. After all, these terms look similar on the page and are both types of energy transfer.
Younger children might conflate colours such as black and brown as both begin with the same phoneme and are dark colours. The rapid colour naming test in the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing reveals such conflation. For instance, a child I assessed once as part of a reading intervention conflated brown and green. Any brown or green square in the assessment was named ‘grouwn’ (it rhymed with brown). She had conflated the consonant blends of ‘br’ and ‘gr’ and invented a name for both colours.
In the early stages of reading, conflation can underpin confusion between consonant digraphs such as ‘ch’ and ‘sh’. Another typical conflation is ‘th’, and ‘ph’ (and ‘f’). In all of these examples, the sounds are similar and they differ only on their onset - the very beginning of the sound.
A child with sensitivity to rhythm is attuned to the onsets of the smallest sounds of language. In terms of rhythmic precision, the front edge of the sound is also the point at which the rhythmic boundary occurs. Children with a well-developed sensitivity to rhythm are also attuned to phonemes and are less likely to conflate the sounds. Logically, cultivating sensitivity to rhythm would help children to detect the onsets of phonemes at the early stages of reading. Stay tuned for Part 2 and a free infographic..