The teaching and learning of musical notation has become a hot new topic since its appearance in the Ofsted Inspection Framework published in July 2022.
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.
There are many perceived problems associated with teaching musical notation in English primary schools, and a top one is that many teachers do not read music. It is so easy to address this issue. Using the techniques of the Rhythm for Reading Programme, I can teach a room full of teachers to read music fluently in time with a backing track (think Karaoke) in five minutes. Yes - five minutes!
Empowering school staff to read music also offers a more cost effective and a more inclusive approach than employing a specialist music teacher as an add on.
Classically trained music teachers have leaned towards selectively teaching individual children with a strong working memory, a strong sense of rhythm and agile executive function that can cope with multiple streams of information processing simultaneously. It’s difficult to reconcile this type of expertise with a mixed-ability classroom setting and a group teaching situation.
Stay tuned for the next post, when I’ll discuss ways to meet all of these challenges.
Breath is an important part of the Rhythm for Reading programme. We use our voices as a team in different ways and this engages our breath. In the early stages of the programme we use rapid fire responses to learn the names of musical notes and our breath is short, sharp and strong - just like the sounds of our voices. Even in the first session of the programme we convert our knowledge of musical notes into fluent reading of musical notation and when we do this our breath changes. Instead of individual utterances, we achieve a flowing coherent stream of note names and our breath flows across the length of the musical phrase for approximately six seconds. This time window of between five and seven seconds is a universal in human cultures. Did you know that the majority of poems are organised rhythmically into meaningful units of between five and seven seconds in duration?
A long slow exhalation is associated with calming the nervous system, even though the energy in the Rhythm for Reading session is playful and the sense of teamwork is energising. The unity between the children and teachers taking part in the programme fosters a sense of belonging which further boosts well-being alongside the calming effect of the long slow exhale.
When I first meet teachers, they often share that they feel anxious about reading musical notation, but one of the most beneficial aspects of taking part, is that our long slow exhale as a group is actually an effective way to sooth anxiety. The smiles at the end of the first musical phrase show a powerful release of emotional tension through the unity of rhythm and breath.
There are many different forms of attention. Neuroscientists have studied the development of cognitive attention in children as well as the different types of attention that we experience. Boredom and repetition generate a trance-like state of attention, whereas novelty and a switch in the stimulus generate a shift and a rapid reset of attention. The attention span exists to protect us, to feed us and to ensure that our genes succeed us in future generations. This is why the attention span is adaptable and can be trained to become longer or shorter using reinforcements such as rewards or threats. Ultimately, the attention span is involved in predicting when and where the next reward or threat will take place.
If a chid has experienced a threatening situation such as a war zone, they are likely to flinch in response to loud noises and their attention is likely to be highly vigilant, having been trained by the environment to monitor potential threats. A chid raised in a calm and enriched environment is likely to have fostered a natural curiosity for the world around them and to have interacted in reciprocation with it. Conversational turns in such an environment are the rhythmic hallmark of social interactions, and according to researchers contribute to emotional well-being and language development (Zimmerman et al., 2009).
The Rhythm for Reading programme offers an opportunity to move children away from a vigilant state, to a rhythmically responsive form of attention that involves reciprocation and builds receptivity and stamina. The attention system is dynamic and is particularly responsive to setting and emotional set point. If a child was threatened repeatedly at school, for example by a bully, then vigilance in the attention system would affect the child’s learning to some extent.
By the same token, it’s important that Rhythm or Reading sessions take place in the same place, on the same day of the week and at the same time of day to establish the regularity of exposure to rewarding experiences. Knowing where and when positive experiences occur, such as feelings of personal safety, social connection, a boost to well-being, engagement with rewarding patterns and calming breath work, which are nurtured during Rhythm for Reading sessions is important. The anticipation and experience of weekly Rhythm for Reading sessions enables a child’s attention system to recognise the sessions as a ‘real’ part of their environment. A consistent pattern in the children’s lives enables a deeper sense of anticipation and supports rapid learning during the programme.
Zimmerman, E.J., Gilkerson, J.,Richards, J. A., Christakis, D.A. Xu, D., Gray, S., Yapanel., U. (2009) Teaching by listening: The importance of adult-child conversations to language development. Pediatrics, 124 (1), 342-349, doi: 10.1542/peds 2008-2267
When I watched the announcements about lockdown on March 23rd 2020 from a hard metal seat in Glasgow International Airport, I’d already made ten trips to Scotland and it felt so frustrating that the project would be interrupted when we were so close to its completion. Throughout the lockdown and the summer months, I hoped very much that we would have a chance to salvage and finish off the work. In the past two weeks it has been an absolute privilege to return to the schools with ‘refresher sessions’ and follow-up testing. So much has changed. The teachers vigorously spray, clean and ventilate the classrooms. Everyone is vigilant and determined to keep their community safe. It is obvious that this goal is shared and held dear by all. Even young children immediately take all their books and pencils with them when they sit on the floor while their tables and chairs are disinfected. Absolutely nobody needs to be reminded to do this.
In one of the schools, particular spaces are filled with food and clothing. The leadership team came into the school every single day of the lockdown, as well as throughout the summer months to keep everyone on track; teachers worked face-to-face with the children throughout this period. Stunning new displays made by the parents now explode out from the staffroom walls and thank you cards are pinned to the noticeboard of a beautiful new community room.
Rhythm for Reading has been modified to keep everyone safe. I visit only one school in a single day and wear a mask. The children remain in their ‘bubbles’ when they take part, and stand at least two metres away from me. In between each session, I ventilate and vigorously disinfect the teaching area. Of course, there is plenty of time for cleaning as each Rhythm for Reading session is, as always, only ten minutes in duration. Actually, this level of flexibility fits in very well with the dynamic teaching that I’m seeing in the schools - and the children are loving that they are being taught in small groups and in an increasingly nuanced way.
Robust, energetic chanting has always been an important part of the Rhythm for Reading programme, but chanting, like singing is strictly prohibited. For quite some time I have been resigned to mothballing the programme for this reason. Eventually however, a neat solution popped into my mind. With a bit of experimentation, I realised that it is possible to vocalise safely and precisely, whilst keeping the volume level below that of normal speaking. All that is required to make this modification fun, is a little imagination. Most children know how to squeak like a mouse - these high pitched sounds are made in the throat and involve minimal breath - far less than speech. So, my solution has now been ‘road-tested’ by the squeaky teams in Scotland and I’m happy to have found a safe and new way to offer the programme without diluting it.
I would like to say a huge thank you to these children, teachers and school leaders for the opportunity to come back and complete the programme. It has been utterly inspiring, humbling and uplifting to visit your schools these past two weeks.
It may seem odd to post on the topic of resistance on the first day of the year, but let’s not forget that the flip side of a new resolution involves effort to override old patterns.
Resistance is the entrenched furrow that our everyday thoughts have engraved in our mind. We feel resistance when the initial impetus of the ‘new’ wears off and the familiar old way begins to reassert itself.
This is an uncomfortable topic as resistance is a potentially self-sabotaging behaviour. It has the power to divert our efforts to try new things, unleashing opportunities to face our old fears and stories. It is only when resistance is ‘released’ that the benefits of new behaviours become permanent and lasting change becomes possible.
In fact, some of my most rewarding and meaningful experiences in teaching have involved releasing children’s resistance to reading, teamwork, group teaching, moving in time with others and music. This has happened in a very short timeframe, as part of the process of developing reading fluency through the Rhythm for Reading programme.
Rhythm induces a state of flow and people often talk about getting into a ‘rhythm’ or a ‘groove’ as part of their creative process and also in relation to exercising. Language processing is also sensitive to rhythmic flow states, for example when we become absorbed by a book or when we write and find that the writing starts to flow.
Interviewed about the factors that interfered with flow states, (see last month’s post for more on this) Csikszentmilhalyi’s informants described, ‘aspects of normative life’ which included: a sense of unmanageable fear, the pressure to work to deadlines and clock-watching. There was a general orientation towards the final outcome rather than the process - in other words, the journey. A focus on extrinsic rewards and material gain and also social rewards also seemed to block people’s ability to find flow, which tells us something about effects of consumer culture of that time. Even at the turn of the century there was an awareness that becoming mentally distracted was a growing problem and people also reported a confusion of attention. Lastly, isolation from nature was described as a big factor in people’s loss of flow. Thankfully, almost twenty years later, we are now more aware of the therapeutic value of spending time in nature..
From this list, it seems that the conditions of contemporary life may not only impede the development of flow states, but also reinforce the experience of resistance. Many of the items on this list pop up in our homes, places of work, schools and classrooms. As we move forward into 2017, perhaps, a fresh look at our everyday lives could help us to find and maintain flow states and make time for opportunities to gently release resistance.
Csikszentmihalyi: (1975; 2000) Beyond boredom and anxiety: Experiencing flow in work and play, 25th anniversary edition San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Inc.
There are so many overlaps between poetry and music. People ask me frequently why it is that reciting poetry seems to help children, particularly those finding aspects of reading fluency and comprehension somewhat challenging.
Practising poetry by heart, particularly in group teaching is a massively experiential process. The feeling of the sounds in the movement of the face, the jaw and the tongue are dance-like sequences and enjoyed for their bold sensations, which in terms of conveying their mood, colourful tones and timbres are musical in every way. In terms of how it feels, reciting poetry is just like practising a musical instrument; indeed practising poetry through the congruence of movement, sounds and patterns is a deep and enriched form of language learning that we all can enjoy, having mastered this first as infants acquiring our mother-tongue (Nazzi et al., 1998).
If you read aloud or recite Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, it’s easy to evoke the atmosphere and moods created by movement, rhythm and sound, even though the words of the poem are meaningless. Behind the expressive tones of the nonsense words, there’s a robust rhythmical structure and fascinatingly, researchers have found that we respond to the poem as if to a projected illusion of grammatical structure (Bonhage et al., 2015). The importance of rhythmical patterns is that they cast beams of expectation, helping to guide and focus our attention, enabling us to fully anticipate and enjoy all the more, the likely flow of the sounds and the colourful moods of the poem.
The usefulness of rhyme, so popular in children’s literature, is that it offers a fun and playfully supportive, highly accessible and very basic form of phonological awareness. Hearing the rhyming feature in words is a massive anchor for children who may arrive at school struggling to discern word boundaries in a stream of speech. This example of rhyme is from, ‘One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish by Dr Seuss (1960):
This one has a little star. This one has a little car. Say! what a lot of fish there are.
Rhyming words are also invaluable for those children who come to school with a clearer grasp of language. Children are stimulated by rhymes, because rather than simply following the language of the poem, they are more deliberately focussing their attention in order to predict the placing of the rhyming word at the end of the line or phrase. For these reasons it is not surprising that highly rhythmically aware children are more likely to become good readers (Tierney and Kraus, 2013) – they arrive at school able to anticipate and enjoy the structure of rhythmic patterns in language. Similarly, children who may require a reading intervention thrive when practising poetry because the explicit rhythmical structure and shorter phrase lengths support their attention, helping them to perceive the meaningful elements of language more easily.
In the Rhythm for Reading programme, we takes this principle further still, by providing rhythm-based reading tasks that give the children a chance to build their awareness of rhythmic patterns very rapidly. The sessions are a highly condensed extraction from traditional musical training. Building a strong response to rhythmical patterns, children develop and sustain their attention across increasingly complex musical phrases. Their awareness of rhythm transfers into their reading development after only a few ten-minute sessions.
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Bonhage, Corinna E., et al. (2015) “Combined eye tracking and fMRI reveals neural basis of linguistic predictions during sentence comprehension.” Cortex 68, 33-45
Dr Seuss (1960) One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Random House
Nazzi, T., Bertoncini, J. and Mehler, J. (1998). Language discrimination by newborns: Towards an understanding of the role of rhythm, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 24, 756-766
Tierney A, Kraus N (2013) Music training for the development of reading skills. Prog Brain Res 207:209 –241
When did you last feel your ears ‘pop’ and lose the sound of your own voice?
Like many people, this happens to me fairly frequently on flights and car journeys. Adapting to the muffled world of partial hearing is quite intriguing as it offers a rare glimpse into what my brain is doing behind the scenes while I’m having a simple conversation. Of course, I’m always extremely grateful when my hearing returns to normal again.
Our awareness of speech is organised for the most part around our perception of sound, which is probably why our awareness of the rapidly changing jaw movements or the movements of facial muscle groups is suppressed while we are speaking. Consequently, losing the sound of our own voice is extremely disruptive to normal speech production.
If like me you’ve tried to persevere with a conversation in the absence of sound perception, you may have experienced that the movement sensations produced by facial muscles and jaw muscles are no longer suppressed, but that you become aware that your perception of your facial muscles is magnified, revealing in detail the intricate facial shapes necessary for the formation of syllables and words.
Even though the power of speech feels far slower and more effortful in the absence of sound, it’s still possible to continue speaking by monitoring the rhythmic patterning of the jaw and the facial muscles. In this way, rhythm unifies intention and movement in language, overriding the temporary disruption to the auditory system.
Losing the sound of my own voice made me realise how tiring communication can become if the sounds of language are not clearly relayed from the voice to the auditory system. It also indicated the importance of the role of rhythm as a bidirectional frame both for anticipating and tracking the number of syllables produced in an utterance.
The development of early reading depends on the efficient coordination between the ear and the eye. Strong associations between letters and their sounds help children to learn to recognise words on the page. Voices matter too. Educators have realised that poor oral language skills are a strong predictor of poor literacy (Stackhouse & Well, 1997) and that socially disadvantaged children are more likely to lag behind in their vocabulary development when compared with more affluent peers (Fernauld et al, 2013) and require a reading intervention. Indeed, research indicates that sharpening rhythmic awareness supports children’s ability to process information (Long, 2016), better perceive the sounds of language, to read more fluently and with more understanding (Long, 2014).
If this interests you, why not dip into the case studies and sign up for the Rhythm for Reading programme weekly updates.
Fernald, A, Marksman, A & Weisleder, A (2013) SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental science 16, (2) pp. 234-248.
Long, M. (2016) Rhythm for Reading, English 4-11, 56, pp. 5-6
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, vol. 36, no. 1, pp.107-124
Stackhouse, J. & Well, B. (1997) Children’s Speech and Literacy Difficulties: A psycholinguistic framework. London: Whurr.
This post describes the tenth of ten Rhythm for Reading programme sessions. By this stage in the reading intervention, everyone in the group can sight-read both simple and comparatively complex music notation with ease and confidence. To do this, our eyes are glued onto the board, our voices are synchronised and we’ve gelled through teamwork. The important part is this: the group experiences music at a deeper, more interpersonal level when these skills become reliable and relaxed, even when facing more challenging tasks. Here’s a short description of how this felt in the final session of the programme and a quick drill down into the concept.
After a couple of minutes, everyone’s behaviour changed at the same time. There was a sharp increase in the level of congruence in the group. Standing calmly as the task ended, they waited and gladly repeated the experience, expanding even more fully into the sounds they were creating. This level of working was maintained consistently for a further eight minutes, after which the group left the room feeling energised and calm, returning cheerfully to class.
These words have been carefully chosen to describe as accurately as possible how working in this way with the rhythm-based elements of music makes a difference to emotional well-being. Congruence in this sense refers to the sheer strength and coherence of our perception of rhythmic patterns, particularly when working as a group. Gains in reading behaviour can be measured, but the more profound benefits to wellbeing such as the increase in confidence and happiness that many children describe, are not measurable in this or any form of group teaching.
This rather reminds me of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on ‘flow’ or ‘optimal experience’. Optimal experiences are life-affirming, intrinsically rewarding and in terms of pedagogy, they are highly desirable because they boost students’ confidence and motivation. They can be very helpful in realigning attitudes towards reward, so that students become motivated by the sheer joy of taking part rather than wanting to know what they will ‘get’ in return for taking part.
The spontaneous element of what I have described is not trivial, but extremely important, as it describes how the deeper and more satisfying levels of engagement can be achieved through working in this way. Perhaps it is our irrepressible ability to generate congruence from patterns in music and language that fuels our joy of reading and of music making.
Find out more here
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) ‘Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness’ Rider, Random House, ISBN 9780712657594