A strong correlation exists between reading fluency and comprehension - one that has fascinated researchers for many decades (Long, 2014). In our current climate, children who read fluently are more likely to cope well with blended learning, self-isolation and other restrictions of the global pandemic on schools.
How can we move more children into the fluent reader category?
Proficient readers automatically use the most appropriate strategy on the fly, whereas fragile readers are more likely to depend on a single strategy and to transition less efficiently from one strategy to another. A fluent reader however, is able to decode an unfamiliar word using phonological skills, as well as orchestrating contextual and syntactic cues to decode whole phrases.
So, there are many processes that are coordinated during fluent reading. Reading comprehension is a cornerstone of these. However, comprehension is not a ‘layer’ of reading that magically ‘appears’ because it has been mechanically underpinned by good levels of decoding and fluency. Comprehension is a product of rhythmic awareness - an important element of language acquisition in infancy.
Though well-intentioned, the practise of timing children’s reading with a stopwatch, encouraging them to read more quickly week after week is not helpful for cultivating rhythmic awareness. Using a stopwatch may generate a degree of motivation to read, but a focus on acceleration forces the child to read without finding their natural rhythm. In fact, if children have learned to decode at a fast pace, they have been trained to enunciate the words without understanding them at all. Comprehension is not related to the pace of reading.
Comprehension and word recognition are coordinated by rhythmic processes during fluent reading that are similar to the natural unfolding of rhythm during speaking and listening. A rhythm-based approach fosters rhythmic awareness and supports fluent reading.
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.
‘We’re all in this together’ - To some extent this is true, but I think we’re all having very different experiences of the lockdown. Many people are suffering the agony of losing loved ones to the disease. Many are facing hunger and hardship in the days and weeks ahead. Many feel the anxiety which hangs in the air.
How can rhythm help us? Here are a few suggestions and I’m sending you love and light as you read this.
For frustration and anger: Play music with strong rhythmic patterns and invite some movement from any part of the body willing to respond - perhaps start with a small nod of the head or tap a single finger. A critical voice may speak up. The music is simply our gift to ourselves - no inner commentary is necessary. Stay with the music and allow the patterns to weave their way through the body and mind. When it feels possible, allow the body move a little more until all the physical tension has melted into the music.
For anxiety, panic and grief: Play soothing, gentle, slow music to help ease the breath and the heart rate. Breathe deeply into the stomach to a count of at least six, several times a day is very soothing. Eat small amounts of food, chewing very slowly. Allow the sighs to move through the body like a balm. Comforting hugs from others may not be possible at this time, but I am sending you a hug right now as you read this. Our dreams are always available to us and sometimes we need to create new ones to move forwards again. When the right moment arrives, try drawing or writing about a new life in the future. By sharing our dreams with the page, we allow our hope and faith to grow stronger.
For procrastination: The rhythm of the body in a visualisation can help to overcome procrastination. Visualise doing the task that needs to be done, from getting started to bringing in the physical details of the place in your home where this is happening. Consider the time of day, the feelings of satisfaction and self-worth during the stages of this task. Focus on the joy of finishing; then create the scene for real. Are there any cushions? Is there a cup of tea? Bring everything that is necessary to complete the task. Make a start - simply get started by doing something small. Keep going and focus intently on the joy of finishing. Background music or background voices (perhaps in another language) are helpful for some people. Experiment with the volume to find the level that best supports focus and concentration.
For routines: Setting up a family routine is admirable and will be most successful if everyone is on board. Remember to build breaks into the day and to keep the goals small enough to be achievable. At weekends make sure that the days feel less structured and be sure to celebrate the wins week by week. A star chart is invaluable for creating a growing sense of accomplishment (adults need them too) and will help to pump-up the momentum of each day.
Language: Rhythm in language tells us what people really mean. We are all dealing with different levels of stress at the moment and it can be helpful to be prepared for tricky conversations.
Say this sentence aloud - first very quickly, and then very slowly, ‘Mary cried’.
Vowel sounds (italics) that are uttered quickly, tell us that the person speaking is delivering information, perhaps having already analysed or evaluated a situation. The speaker is coming from a head-centred, judgmental space.
Vowel sounds that are uttered slowly tell us that the person is probably feeling compassion and cares about the situation. This person’s voice signals that they are coming from a heart-centred, loving space.
In tricky conversations, it may be easier to keep the communication flowing if we slow down the vowel sounds. By saying, ‘Oh’ and ‘Ah’ and ‘No,’ very slowly, we can programme ourselves for compassion. This could prove invaluable, should a tricky conversation come along. Take care everyone.
In this post I’ve blended ideas from several inspiring books, listed below. History, in my view is often cyclical, rather than linear. As we move rapidly into climate crisis, artificial intelligence (AI) and a school curriculum, dominated by science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), I wonder how relevant the curriculum of today will be in five years, given the fast-pace of change.
Since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, (EBacc) the place of creative disciplines in the school curriculum, which provide an arena for critical debate, rebellion and the development of radical ideas has been devalued, and I wonder, to what end?
Transition from a Pagan to a Christian worldview
During the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, huge cultural shifts came into play. The suppression of the arts in society, regarded as pivotal in the enforcement of Christianity stemmed from the perspective of Saint Augustine. He wrote extensively on music, claiming that rhythm could be classified into four levels from the highest which was spiritually-aligned, down to the lowest level level, that stimulated the flesh.
Monks of the order used physical force against ordinary people who celebrated pagan feasts with music and dancing. Music with a strong beat was strictly banned, as was dancing (Blaukopf, 1992). Intellectuals were persecuted. for example, Hypatia - a mathematics scholar in Alexandria had been lynched in 415 CE for her ‘blasphemous’ study of ancient Greek texts (Rovelli, 2007). By the end of the 5th century, the Great Library at Alexandria had disappeared, and in 529 CE the Platonic academy in Athens was closed by decree of Christian emperor Justinian (Pieper, 2020).The significance of the Great Library was that it housed all of the books in existence, as well as being part of a hub for scholarship, achieved through practices of reason, logic, rhetoric and academic freedom. The achievements of the Greek scholars at Alexandria were impressive. For example, Eratosthenes, in 235 BCE calculated that the world was round, giving its circumference and its diameter; Heron of Alexandria created the world’s first steam engine.
Fanatically, the Christian authorities set to rewriting the knowledge and wisdom of the pervious (pagan) era, notably maintaining that the Earth was flat. Within this context we find Boethius (c.470- c.524 CE), a classically-educated statesman and philosopher, keen to find the middle road between reason and faith. He was executed for treason, shortly after having resolved the schism between the early Christian Church in Rome and Constantinople. Boethius wrote Consolation of Philosophy during his imprisonment, and this text became the foundation of medieval scholasticism (Shiel, 2020).
Appropriation of Greek scholarship
After 500 years of teaching and intellectual activity in cathedral schools and monasteries, early medieval universities were chartered by a Papal Bull. Each university was founded under different circumstances:- at Bologna (1088), Paris (1150) and Oxford (1167), and with differing levels of academic freedom. Highly influential across Western Europe, the liberal arts were taught, although the Christian Church had appropriated ancient Greek curricula for its own purposes, retaining only the structure and main elements of the system (Bernstein, 2000).
Medieval scholasticism, light on rigour and politically-inclined, attempted to reconcile classical reason with traditional early Christian dogma, but with limited success. Students taking the first part of the degree, the trivium, were taught word-related principles: grammar, logic and rhetoric, before taking the second part, the quadrivium which explored the physicality of the world through arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music.
The trivium of the time had strong religious connotations; similarly, the corresponding quadrivium was adapted to suit the dogma of the day (Bernstein, 2000). For example: music was taught only through the disembodied, polyphonic rhythm (rather than the Greek rhythmos) and in astronomy, students were taught that the Earth was flat (Blaukopf. 1992).
Renaissance and reading
The tension between traditional Augustinian dogma and the classical texts of Boethius eventually gave way in the early Renaissance. Music, dancing and decorative arts, along with academic freedom in scientific thinking had been suppressed for at least a millennium across Western Europe and quickly reappeared.
Music regained its metrical ratio-based system; its integrated rhythmic nature was reinstated and dancing immediately became fashionable. The publication of articles promoting the rise of the importance of the vernacular supported the spread of reading, which soon became widespread, further weakening the authority of traditional Christian dogma.
Transition from post-industrial to digital
There is a linear feel from the Renaissance and Enlightenment years, through to the present day. However, in the contemporary devaluing of arts subjects in the school curriculum with the advent of the English Baccalaureate, we seemingly appear to be cycling back the dark ages with the curbing of academic and creative freedom.
Many young people face a bleak future following poverty in childhood and also having been deprived of an opportunity to develop a creative outlet for self-expression. At the same time, many communities have been impoverished by austerity.
Given that global hubs such as London are the economic areas towards which a disproportionate amount of the world’s digital enterprise, wealth and wealthy have been attracted, the transition to digital has created sharp economic inequalities between the digital hubs and post industrial regional centres, which acutely lack investment and have suffered chronic deprivation.
Alongside the glitz of digital, there is a mindset that blindly accepts what appears on the screen with too little criticality. At best, the data-driven positivist perspective on knowledge is no more than instrumental, because its influence is dependent on the empirical tools and the technology of the day. At its worst, positivism commits the grave error of confusing the ends with the means, because it is not contextualised and it is not subject to critical debate (Rovelli, 2007).
The ‘knowledge economy’ promised a fiscal flow generated by the unlimited availability of knowledge via the Internet. The quality of such knowledge is often very poor, as has been shown by its influence on voting behaviour in democratic elections. Unscrutinised, low-grade, data-driven knowledge that supports the spread of technology in relation to health, education, trade and food supply puts society at risk of sub-standard ideas and policy.
The true nature of science is critical, exploratory and visionary (Rovelli, 2007). As such, science is grossly limited if it is reframed through positivism as a mere producer of testable predictions. To protect our societies from positivism, disciplined creativity is essential if breakthroughs and radical thinking are to flourish in the ‘knowledge economy’.
Creative thinking is best nurtured in the domain of the arts subjects, an arena where it is essential to take disciplined risks, to implement ideas and to work through creative issues.
Disproportionate emphasis on STEM
The dominance of STEM subjects in the school curriculum will train our young people to think logically, but in order to solve the substantial problems facing us all in the coming decades, they also need the courage to think creatively, to make cognitive leaps rather than continuing to step slowly in a linear fashion, outpaced by AI.
What is taught in schools today will be out of date by the time pupils start their careers, so the disproportionate emphasis on STEM is seemingly short-sighted. It is only with a greater emphasis on disciplined creativity in the curriculum, that pupils will have the confidence to invent, innovate and implement the solutions, breakthroughs and radical new ideas that are needed for the future.
Bernstein, B. 2000 Pedagogy, Symbolic control and Identity: Theory, research, critique, Revised edition, Lanham, MA; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc,
Blaukopf, C (1992) Musical Life in a Changing Society: Aspects of Musical Sociology, Amadeus Press
Pieper J. (2020) ‘Scholasticism’ in Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Scholasticism, accessed 29.2.2020, at 10.37
Rovelli, C. (2007) Anaximander, trans. Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Yardley, PA., WestholmePublishing
Shiel, J. (2020) ‘Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’ https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anicius-Manlius-Severinus-Boethius accessed 29.2.2020, at 10.57
Last year, I went through a major rethink about my approach to the Rhythm for Reading blog. To ‘incubate’ the new outlook I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring new themes and scoping out a broader awareness of rhythm in everyday life.
The shift started unexpectedly twelve months ago. I happened to be working in the San Francisco Bay Area in November, as the State of California braced for the driest month of the year, which typically generates a high fire risk. You may remember the wildfires that blazed out of control at that time. More than 80 people tragically lost their lives in the deadly ‘Camp Fire’ that completely destroyed the town of Paradise. For eight days, the Bay Area lay under a thick blanket of smoke. From my hotel window and when travelling to work I could see that the condors had stopped riding the thermals high in the sky. There was hardly any sunlight, and the air quickly became the filthiest on the planet. Nature seemingly had shutdown, but we humans had stayed calm and carried on regardless. The freeways were absolutely crammed with vehicles, pumping fumes into the already saturated air.
Although I was lucky enough to be staying in air-conditioned accommodation during the worst days of pollution, I worked with people who were not so fortunate. They told me about the dreadful effects of the smoke on their young children and elderly neighbours. Given that an hour of exposure to the Camp Fire smog was judged to be the equivalent of chain-smoking ten cigarettes, it was unsurprising that poorer people in the Bay Area, those without air-conditioning living some four hundred miles from the wildfires, were struggling with their breathing, feeling nauseous and even collapsing. This situation made me realise the extent to which I have taken clean air for granted. I have always gratefully acknowledged the work done by trees to reduce carbon dioxide during the night, but naively, I have assumed that this natural recycling process was sustainable. Following the Camp Fire, I no longer presume that forests will continue to maintain the fragile balance of gases that sustain life on our planet.
In California last year, deadly particulate matter from the burning of the forest caused the toxicity in the air. In other words, we were inhaling carbon particles from the very trees that we need in the long term to recycle the air. In the same twelve month period, it has been heart-breaking to see fires started deliberately, that have caused enormous devastation in the Amazon Forest, the ‘Lungs of the Earth’, and tragically, huge areas of New South Wales, Australia are ablaze as I write this.
Like me, you may have been shaken recently into a new awareness of our responsibility for Earth’s atmosphere. Is this the beginning of the end? Historically, seasonal rhythms have driven the cyclical flooding of rivers, as seen in the beautiful hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt. The predictability of dry seasons and rainy seasons has supported the cultivation of food crops for twelve thousand years. Going back even deeper into pre-history, when an alternating rhythm of warmer and cooler periods caused the ice-sheets of North America and Scandinavia to advance and retreat, hunter-gatherer peoples became highly adaptive and innovative.
According to anthropologist Professor Brian Fagan, Cro-Magnon humans, Neanderthals and many of the larger mammals proved to be temperature tolerant, demonstrating ample capacity to adapt during climactic shifts of the rhythmic, ‘Dansgaard-Oeschger (D/O) oscillation’ (Fagan, 2010, p.55). There was also a remarkable explosion of creativity that followed warmer periods of climate change, marked by magnificent art in the caves of South Africa, Spain, Germany, Austria and France.
Unlike the hunter-gatherers, who breathed pristine unpolluted air in conditions that were on average considerably cooler than those of today, we inhabit a rapidly warming planet, in which unprotected forests as well as coral reefs are lost every year. The situation that we face is pushing us towards the upper limit of our temperature tolerance. Unfortunately, industrial technologies and economic models have encouraged a false perception of our independence of nature, which has led to widespread abuse of the natural world.
Earth’s indigenous peoples on the other hand, have maintained values and technologies that are closely aligned with nature (Fagan, 2011). Living and breathing in harmony with nature, they have maintained sustainable cultural traditions, that offer a balance between ideals of freedom and security. Now, we must all work together to restore rhythm and balance, to protect and nurture higher values of respect and appreciation for Earth’s resources.
Fagan, B. (2010) Cro-Magnon: How the ice-age gave birth to the first modern humans, Bloomsbury Press.
Fagan, B. (2011) The First North Americans: An archeological journey, Thames and Hudson
Academic achievement relates strongly and reciprocally to academic self-concept, for example in English and Maths (Schunk & Pajares, 2009) and also reading (Chapman & Tumner, 1995); moreover the importance of motivation increases as perceptions of reading difficulty increase (Klauda et al., 2015). So reading catch-up can also feel as if it’s a catch-22 situation. To resolve this issue, Hattie (2008) recommended that teachers teach self-regulating and self control strategies to students with a weak academic self-concept: ‘address non-supportive self-strategies before attempting to enhance achievement directly’ (Hattie, 2008; p.47).
Peeling back the layers on the self-concept literature, various models and analogies are available (Schunk, 2012). Hattie’s highly effective analogy of a rope captures rather vividly the idea of the congruence of the core self-concept as well as the multidimensionality of intertwining fibres and strands that are accumulated via everyday experiences (2008, p.46). The rope image supports the idea that a particular strand applies to maths, whereas a completely different strand applies to reading and another one for playing football and so on.
The relationship between self-concept and academic achievement is reciprocal (Hattie, 2008) and also specific to each domain (Schunk,2012). Therefore, strengthening self-concept for reading supports achievement in reading, while strengthening self-concept for maths supports maths skills. It is very difficult to strengthen low self-concept in a specific domain before addressing achievement in that area, unless introducing a completely new approach. It is important that the new approach supports self-strategies as well as directly building strength in domain-relevant skills. The Rhythm for Reading programme meets both of these requirements.
Rhythm for Reading works as a catalyst for confidence and reading skills and therefore lifts a negative reciprocal relationship (catch-22 situation) into a positive cycle of confidence and progression. This programme is effective as a reading catch-up intervention because it offers a fresh and dynamic approach, which perfectly complements to traditional methods. Instead of reading letters and words, pupils read simplified musical notation for ten minutes per week. Consequently, they are practising skills in decoding, reading from left-to-right, chunking small units into larger units, maintaining focus and learning, as well as developing confidence, self-regulation and metacognitive strategies all the while.
The musical materials used in the Rhythm for Reading programme have been specially written to be age-appropriate and to secure pupils’ attention, making the effortful part of reading much easier than usual. In fact, throughout the programme, the cognitive load for reading simple music notation is far lighter than for reading printed language, enabling an experience of sustained fluency and deeper engagement to be the main priority. As these case-studies show, this highly-structured approach has had huge successes for low and middle attaining pupils, who were able to read with far greater ease, fluency, confidence and understanding after only 100 minutes (ten minutes per week for ten weeks).
Chapman, J. W., & Tunmer, W. E. (1995). Development of young children’s reading self-concepts: An examination of emerging subcomponents and their relationship with reading achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 154–167.
Hattie, J. (1992). Self-concept. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Hattie, John.(2008) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge.
Klauda, Susan Lutz, and John T. Guthrie. “Comparing relations of motivation, engagement, and achievement among struggling and advanced adolescent readers.” Reading and writing 28.2 (2015): 239-269.
Pintrich, P.R. and Schunk, D.H. (2002). Motivation in education: Theory research and applications (2nd edition) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
Rogers, C.R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, inter-relationships as developed in the client-centered-framework. In S. Kock (Ed) Psychology: A study of a science, Vol.3, pp.184-256 New York, McGraw-Hill.
Schunk, D. H. and Pajares, F. (2009). Self-efficacy theory. In K. r. Wentzel & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Handbook of motivation at school (pp. 35-53). New York:Routledge.
Schunk, D.H. (2012) Learning theories: An educational perspective, 6th edition, First published 1991 Boston: Allyn & Bacon, Pearson Education Inc.
People are usually intrigued when I explain that this reading programme requires only 100 minutes from start to finish. In fact, pupils do not necessarily need 100 minutes to accomplish the goals of the Rhythm for Reading programme. Often improved engagement, comprehension, ease, fluency and joy of reading can be achieved after one hour spread across six weeks. A six week programme works well for the majority of children but for some who unfortunately do not attend school consistently, it would be far too easy for them to fall behind. By simply increasing the total length of the Rhythm for Reading programme from 60 to 100 minutes, all the children have enough time to develop their rhythmic awareness and experience the benefits in their reading. When 100 minutes are spread across ten weekly sessions, the programme slots neatly into a school term and this is convenient for everyone.
I am often asked how it’s possible for pupils to make real progress in only ten minutes per week and how certain can we be that the impact is attributable to Rhythm for Reading? These are excellent questions. First of all, pupils are reading everyday in the classroom, so they have ample opportunity to apply the rhythm-based approaches that they learn in the weekly ten-minute sessions to every task that involves reading during the school day. Each ten-minute session acts as a powerful catalyst, aligning decoding skills with the natural language processing abilities of the pupils. As the approach is rhythm-based instead of word-based, pupils with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or English as an Additional Language (EAL) benefit hugely from the opportunity to improve their reading without using words. It’s an opportunity to lighten the cognitive load, but to intensify precision and finesse. Secondly, I made sure that Rhythm for Reading was among the first intervention programmes to be evaluated as part of the EEF initiative. In this trial, I chose not to exclude any pupils. This meant that some students that took part were unable to access the reading tests because they could not decode text at all. The randomised controlled trial showed scientifically that improved reading scores were attributable to participation in the Rhythm for Reading programme, even though it took only 100 minutes to complete.
BETT 2017 is just around the corner! In a few weeks, Rhythm for Reading will be taking part in The Great British Trail in partnership with the Department for International Trade (Stand D30). We will be sharing our ideas and vision with visitors using audio and video clips and other goodies. We’ll be on stand C62 and look forward to saying hello.
The Rhythm for Reading programme helps teachers and students to activate the rhythmic aspect of reading, which researchers are discovering is so important for fluency and understanding.
Why not think of rhythm as the heartbeat of reading?
Just as a heartbeat is dynamic, adjusting to our every need, rhythm in reading is the adjustable quality that provides strength, responsiveness and flexibility as sentences of all shapes and sizes flow through the text.
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 systematically 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 systematic alignment with each other.
Sensitivity to the rhythmic cues in reading can be developed very easily. In fact, we already use rhythm in everyday life to coordinate activities that we take for granted such as walking, talking and even in our breathing. However, as reading is a socially learned activity, the rhythmic quality that is naturally present in language processing does not always map with ease onto decoding skills. This is why for some children reading does not become increasingly skilled over time, even when decoding skills are secure. Fortunately, sensitivity to rhythm in reading can be improved very quickly as these case studies show.
Look out for the next post in this series on rhythm at the heart of reading.
As a necessary part of due diligence, school leaders must ask probing questions before committing to an intervention and research is an important source of information. In previous posts, I’ve highlighted academic work that explores for example, the importance of rhythm in infant language learning (October, 2015), the development of reading skills (March, 2015) and language processing in the auditory brainstem (November 2015).
It’s important to consider the extent to which school leaders can have confidence in the rigour of scholarly work and peer-review. A peer-review panel made up of academics with specialism in a particular field is uniquely qualified to judge that an article is not only relevant to the readership and methodologically sound, but also meets the ethical and academic standards of the publication. Many journals now offer free access to high quality, peer-reviewed content considered to be relevant to a wider readership (e.g. Long, 2014).
Incredibly, more than 5,000 academic papers are published each year in journals on the role of shared or overlapping neural structures known to contribute to linguistic processing and musical processing. Although many people intuitively believe that it may be possible to isolate and identify a ‘single mechanism’ that might explain the overlap between language and music, it is becoming more likely that several interconnected mechanisms or networks may be involved (e.g. Peretz et al., 2015).
When pupils in key stage one, key stage two and key stage three have taken part in the Rhythm for Reading programme, they’ve described benefits to their reading, concentration and attitudes to learning, suggesting that the impact of the programme is fairly broad. Recent research with older pupils in a special school has also demonstrated clear benefits of the programme on reading attainment and other areas of learning behaviour.
Consultation meetings with school leaders have sparked interesting discussions, with particularly popular topics which come up again and again.
1. The structure and content of the Rhythm for Reading programme.
2. The ‘single mechanism’ that might explain how the programme works.
3. The suitability of the intervention for different groups of children, for example pupils identified with EAL or SEND or FSM.
4. Professional development.
5. The development of the Rhythm for Reading programme.
As these are really popular questions, I’ve made a useful free resource for school leaders, please click here to have a read.
Marion Long. ‘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 (2014): 1321103X14528453.
Peretz, Isabelle, et al. “Neural overlap in processing music and speech.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 370.1664 (2015): 20140090.