The impact of fireworks on learning may have been underestimated as a factor that potentially limits some pupils’ capacity to access the curriculum. In terms of equipping all children and young people for future learning, sensitivity to environmental noise needs to be addressed, particularly in times of conflict. Also, our neurodivergent pupils may need time to centre themselves and recover from the inevitability of raised arousal levels. These sensitivities may manifest as excitability, anxiety and uncertainty around elevated exposure to noise. The increased stress from environmental noise exposure is a form of cognitive load. It is generally emotionally charged (loud, violent and unpredictable) with the availability of attentional resources diminished, working memory function compromised and access to learning constrained.
In this post I’ll unpack the ways in which resilience to environmental stress is influenced by regulatory circuits in the brain. These circuits process relative levels of adversity and support in the social environment and determine whether a person is more likely to approach or avoid neutral situations. When the emotion regulatory circuits are functioning well, people are protected against environmental stressors and sensory overload.
Researchers have found, for example, that children who grew up in inner cities, compared with those from rural areas, were more likely to have increased activity in the brain region of the regulatory circuit that is conditioned by social stress and adversity. In such instances, the ‘amygdala’ was implicated in children’s educational outcomes because it is particularly threat-oriented. This area of the brain drives fear-based responses and can modify behaviour by reallocating attentional resources to survival-type behaviours such as fighting back, escaping (absconding) or shutting down and withdrawing.
The capacity to down-regulate (relax) the amygdala is important for the development of social resilience, and this is best supported by a stable social network of friends and family, an inclusive school community and a healthy lifestyle. Researchers have proposed that oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding, protected individuals including those suffering from PTSD, hyper-arousal and high blood pressure: it also enhanced the management of stressful experiences.
Fireworks create a ‘spectacle’ and if we include the earliest ‘fire-crackers’ they have been used by humans for more than two thousand years: imagine hearing the noises which were created naturally when bamboo stems were thrown in the fire. Air exploded loudly in the narrow stems and as far as people were concerned these sounds were protective - because they were larger than life and were considered a force for good.
At least five hundred years later, experiments with gunpowder in China generated the first man-made fireworks. Their use spread rapidly from Italy, across Europe and eventually to the U.S.. Their function was to illuminate palaces and castles at night time and to exaggerate the wealth and status of the land owners, long before people had electricity. Rhythmically vigorous music was usually deployed to amplify the theatrical effect, just as it is today.
The whole point of fireworks has remained the same: to enchant people, to impress them and to manipulate their perceptions. When fireworks were first used by the wealthy, no doubt in competition with one another, the effect would also have astounded local people, further exaggerating the hierarchical relationship between land owners and workers.
We are the only living species that has achieved mastery of fire as a tool. From cooking to metal working, from the combustion engine to missiles, we’ve found ways to harness fire in remarkable ways, such as:
This year, people are suffering in so many ways from the most destructive aspects of fire: the impact of rockets and shelling has tragically impacted communities around the world. As we light up and set off fireworks, let’s contemplate the fact that these sound effects signify death and mutilation to so many people, including traumatised refugees who have sought safety in welcoming countries and those who are suffering in war zones. Nearer to home, the sounds of fireworks will have some people bracing, cowering, shaking and flinching, not only this year, but for many more in the future.
Having said this, fireworks are widely available and are frequently used for all manner of celebrations. Some people mark anniversaries and religious festival days with their brightly coloured lights and spectacular sounds, and as a global community we all celebrate New Year with them. Although they are generally used to bring people together for special occasions, many children and animals are naturally frightened by their overwhelming effects and they can cause panic, anxiety and fear, as well as generate sensory overload and confusion.
The fire in the family hearth can roar, crackle and pop, whereas the sounds of fireworks whistle, scream and bang. This manipulation of manmade fire reminds us of violent sounds associated with war and fear. The sounds of fireworks exploit two different mechanisms. First consider the narrow tube - just like the original bamboo stem: this is the vessel - the container of the ‘managed’ sound. The second mechanism depends on the type of chemical reaction, which determines whether the flame burns quickly or slowly. The quick reactions are more explosive, whereas the slower ones are more expressive.
Our auditory system is the first sensory system to develop in utero from about 19 weeks in gestation. From these very early days, the auditory system appraises the sounds of the environment while the foetus develops. We are wired to scan the environment using all our senses, but arguably, the most important and sensitive of these is the auditory system.
This system differentiates between the variety of emotional content of early memories, by processing the neutral ones in the left hemisphere of the brain, whereas upsetting early memories are processed in the right side. Researchers discovered that sensitivity to sound processing was more pronounced in the right than the left hemisphere, and that this occurred during recall of upsetting rather than neutral memories. The converse was also true. So, processing neutral memories was clearer in the left hemisphere, whereas auditory processing was less acute on the left side.
People with a history of childhood trauma and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have more activation of their right hemisphere when recalling difficult memories, and can be expected to be highly sensitive to sound. Every person diagnosed with a debilitating condition such as PTSD suffers a unique array of lived experiences and challenging risk factors. It’s also reasonable to generalise that this disorder reduces resilience, with people in this situation more likely to avoid a noisy environment as a way to prevent traumatic memories and emotional distress from resurfacing.
Before the fireworks season begins, there is an opportunity for teachers to discuss the sounds that fireworks make and their impact. Naming and explaining things makes them less overwhelming, as well as easier to manage and process. Onomatopoeia - the literary device used to identify sound effects such as ‘bang’, is an obvious approach to take. Rather than simply referring to the novelty of the ‘fun’ sounds in fireworks, it’s also important to consider the unpleasant experiences that some children and young people in the classroom may need to have acknowledged, honoured and respected by their teacher. These pupils may very well wish that they could avoid being exposed to fireworks altogether.
Having included everyone’s points of view, the topic of ‘fireworks’ offers a huge opportunity for vocabulary development. A strong relationship between vocabulary and social background is well known as it exists the majority of research studies. Why not immerse children in evaluative language when discussing fireworks by:
If there are children in your class who are sensitive to the sound effects produced by fireworks, it may be helpful to embody the suddenness of the sounds by moving to music using starburst style movements, jumping jacks and also using art to release some of the complexity and intensity of any potentially overwhelming experiences.
Click the links to read related posts.
Trance-like attentional states include boredom and repetition, whereas novelty and a switch in stimulus generate a shift and a rapid reset of attention. Ultimately the attention span is involved in predicting where and when the next reward or threat will occur.
Sensory shock is one of those overworked, high impact, culturally jarring phrases bandied about to solicit attention. Its use speaks to violation, but of what? It points to a loss of cognitive control that is immediate and devastating. Even seemingly small changes in the tone of voice of someone new, can be experienced by some of the students, as a sensory shock.
Young people’s mental health challenges cannot be left to fester, as they affect their identity, educational outcomes, parental income and resilience within the wider community. Here are 10 key strategies that parents and teachers can use to support children and adolescents dealing with distressing symptoms of mental health challenges while they are waiting for professional help.
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.
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:
Fluent readers can:
In early reading, children who approach reading fluency without undue effort have coordinated their eyes, ears and voices:
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:
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.
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.
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 -
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.
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.
In their highly influential study of vocabulary development in the early years, Hart and Risley (1995) showed that parents in professional careers spoke 32 million more words to their children than did parents on welfare, accounting for the vocabulary and language gap at age 3 and the maths gap at age 10 between the children from different home backgrounds.
A critique of the study pointed to a language deficit perspective, social stereotyping and methodological flaws such as selection bias (Dudly-Marling and Lucas, 2009). Some of the points that were raised about language style such as length and tone of an utterance, (comparing longer and more persuasive utterances in middle class US homes with shorter, more direct utterances in ‘welfare’ homes) may indeed highlight cultural differences rather than deficits. However, according to the theory of dynamic attending, shorter utterances, a more direct tone and more abrupt exchanges may influence a child’s attention (Jones et al., 2009), but of course the difference only becomes a deficit if as the child begins pre-school, their attention is too fragile to assimilate the curriculum.
Although the richness of vocabulary was hugely advantageous for children from better-off homes in the Hart and Risley study, researchers have discovered that the opportunities for conversational turns between parents and their children, for example when sharing a book, were even more beneficial than vocabulary development. Conversations have also been identified as a marker for maternal responsiveness, positive emotional exchange and social engagement (Paul & Gilkerson, 2017). From a rhythm-processing perspective, conversations nurture the child’s ability to listen, to engage, to respond and to reciprocate at precise moments in time. Feed-forward systems known to support language acquisition are rhythmically sensitive (Saffran et al., 1996) as are language generating processes such as associative priming (Jones & Estes, 2012).
In pre-school classrooms of societies which have relatively high levels of social inequality, it is unacceptable that an attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers still persists twenty years after the publication of the Hart and Risley study. Simply obtaining and critiquing data on attainment and home background is an inadequate response to a persistent problem. As educators we have a responsibility to close the attainment gap and to do so systematically, using a child-centred and holistic approach that is sufficiently bold and rigorous to ensure effective change.
Children who arrive at pre-school with fragile attention and are not yet ready to learn are not difficult to identify. Some children may demonstrate flat attention - generally they are difficult to engage. Some children may have a scattered pattern of fragmented attention - they demonstrate mainly impulsive behaviour. Some children are able to focus their attention, only to find that it fades before they have completed the task. Regardless of whether these children have missed out on the everyday conversations and interactions that systematically nurture cognitive attention during infancy and early childhood, their learning must be supported by stable attention, and according to dynamic attending theory (e.g. Jones et al., 2009), stable attention is supported by rhythmic awareness.
Awareness of rhythm in terms of the conscious perception of words, music, movement and gesture is only the tip of the iceberg, as rhythm is processed to a large extent subconsciously. This subconscious element of rhythmic processing is difficult to teach without specialist training; for example, fragile attention cannot be addressed by simply chanting nursery rhymes or shaking tins of rice in the classroom. However, with a little training and knowledge of the mechanisms that are involved, it is possible to work effectively with both the conscious and subconscious aspects of rhythmic awareness in the classroom, to achieve transformational effects on reading attainment and to do so over a very short period of time (Long, 2014).
Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K. (2009). Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children. Language Arts, 86(5), 362.
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.
Jones MR, Johnston HM, Puente J. Effects of auditory pattern structure on anticipatory and reactive attending. Cognitive psychology. 2006;53:59–96
Jones, L. L. & Estes, Z. (2012). Lexical priming: Associative, semantic, and thematic influences on word recognition. In J. S. Adelman (Ed.), Visual Word Recognition, Volume 2. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.
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.
Paul, T.D. and Gilkerson, J. (2017). The Talk Gap, In R. Horowitz and S.J. Samuels, The Achievement Gap in Reading: Complex Causes, Persistent Issues, Possible Solutions, Routledge.
Saffran, J.R., Aslin, R.N. & Newport, E.L. Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science 274, 1926–1928 (1996).
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.
Apart from our group teaching sessions, perhaps the most important part of what we do is to hear children read individually for twenty minutes at the beginning and end of the Rhythm for Reading programme. Through this process we measure their progress, provide useful data for the school and also extend our own expertise on reading development and reading intervention.
In a recent follow-up session, a Year 5 student had discovered to her great relief that she could at last understand the message carried by the words that she read. Her reading reading fluency and comprehension had transformed. With great excitement she explained that she planned to go with her cousin to visit the library in the centre of the city where she lived.
Her bold plan moved and inspired me to visit the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre to put together a list of books for children who have discovered the joy of reading and are preparing to visit their nearest library for the first time. The Norfolk Children’s Book Centre houses some 80,000 children’s books. As dolphins, dinosaurs and gladiators feature prominently in our resources and are extremely popular with the children, they provided an obvious starting point for our search for these particular books.
Davis, N. (2011, illus. Brita Granstrom) Dolphin Baby. Walker Books ISBN 9781406344011
Features such as the rhythmic swing of the language, subtle use of alliteration and the careful exploration of a dolphin’s sound world make this a book that strongly resonates with the musical resources of our reading programme.
Davis, N. (2013, illus. Annabel Wright) Manatee Baby. Walker Books ISBN 9781406340884
Inhabiting the mind of Manuela, we discover how it feels to paddle along the Amazon and to kill a Manatee, a protected mammal. The rhythmic flow of the language is powerful, steering the reader through lavish descriptive writing and moments of buoyant, lively interaction between the characters.
King Smith, D. (2005) Dinosaur Trouble. Penguin ISBN 9780141318455
This enjoyable story is perfect for Rhythm for Reading children who have started to read longer words with confidence and are highly motivated to develop their vocabulary.
Chambers, C. (2015, illus. Emmanuel Certissier) Dinosaur Hunters. Dorling Kindersley IBSN 9780241182598
This is an innovative story for older readers and is refreshingly free from cultural stereotypes. It is about three global citizens from England, Japan and Brazil, who meet through a time-travel App. The descriptive language supplies finely grained details both of historical settings and digital devices.
Burgan, M. (2015) Life as a Gladiator Raintree ISBN 9781474706773
This interactive history adventure allows the reader to construct his / her own storyline using metadata to link to any of three different historical perspectives. It is fast-paced, yet packed with fascinating detail and classical scholarship.
For a copy of the full list please email email@example.com
Reading is mysterious. It can be deconstructed into its constituent parts such as vocabulary, contextual knowledge, grapheme recognition, phonological awareness and so on and represented in flow diagrams. However, after many years of scholarly research, the processes that contribute to fluent reading are still not fully understood.
When a child’s reading fails to flow, they receive phonological awareness training, a staple reading intervention strategy in schools. This is fairly unsurprising because research suggests that difficulties with phonemic awareness are strongly related to specific problems with reading and spelling.
Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in language and each of these tiny sounds occupies a fraction of a second in the flow of spoken language in real time. Although the development of phonological awareness is necessary at the early stages of a reading programme, it is not sufficient for the development of reading with ease, fluency and comprehension.
Fluent readers intuitively convert print into meaningful language. To do this, they focus their attention in a particular way, which enables them to monitor and assimilate meaning from the content of printed language while they read. Their experience of reading is dynamic and responsive. Fluent readers are simultaneously aware of grammatical structures, evocative details in the language and the resonance of these details with their knowledge of the context.
When a learner’s reading doesn’t flow easily, it is likely that that their attention has for too long supported their reading as relatively static experience, rather than as a dynamic activity. If you’d like to know more, sign up for weekly insights into the Rhythm for Reading programme.