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The Rhythm for Reading blog

All posts tagged 'working-memory'

Clowns and Chameleons on World Read Aloud Day

7 February 2024

Image Credit: Eder Pozo Perez via Unsplash
Image Credit: Eder Pozo Perez via Unsplash

World Read Aloud Day sounds like a lot of fun! Reading aloud in pairs for example, can really encourage expression and fluency, as well as enhance the joy of reading. When children share book together they are more likely to connect more deeply with the ‘voice’ of the author. This is amazing! Pairing up with a book creates the opportunity to open up to the narrative in a completely new way.

There is however, another side to World Read Aloud Day that is more complex. Some children are not able to ‘open up’ to sharing a book or to being part of a group. They are dealing with challenges of various kinds and the social expectation to ‘enjoy’ reading aloud might be too much for them. As educators, we can help these children to feel more ‘centred’ by letting them know that they are safe - for example by choosing to look at a picture book in a quiet space. Read on to find out why this is so important.

Making allowances for emotional, mental and physical health when teaching reading

Symptoms of anxiety and depression correlate with difficulties with reading, including processing speed, focus and concentration among children aged nine and eleven. To make matters worse, researchers have found that not only do these symptoms make reading difficult, but that experiencing trouble with reading and other academic skills affects children’s sense of self-worth and drives anxiety levels up (Lundy et al., 2010).

The stress associated with early childhood adversity can have a profound and substantial effect on the development of adequate reading skills as well as functions such as memory and verbal ability. Associated factors such as changing schools frequently, can exacerbate these learning differences. Taken together, the lack of structure in the child’s life can affect their ability to comprehend on-going themes while reading, and also their motivation to read (Yasik et al., 2007).

Physical challenges are no less valid. Children with glucose dysregulation, perhaps due to diabetes or hyperglycaemia are more likely to have an increased risk for difficulties with cognitive skills such as reading (Naguib et al., 2009). Physical health issues can disrupt learning through fatigue, and there may be multiple appointments and low school attendance.

All of these factors can build up to generate anxiety about falling behind, and it is this anxiety that is most likely to interfere with reading. Many studies have produced mixed results, so it’s not possible at present to generalise widely about the relationship between child health and reading development. However, it is good practice to assess physical and emotional health when identifying children with fragile reading, so that any underlying issues are not overlooked.

When children buck the trend

There are many wonderful teachers who are keen to protect children from stress. Child-led activities such as reading aloud, in which everyone muddles through are not always the answer, however. A more structured approach can be more helpful for disadvantaged children as it allows them to find an obvious path on which they can make clear progress. And yet progress, in the face of challenges requires grit!

There are children who exude grit - and grit is the strongest predictor of educational outcomes. Grit outperforms other factors - even the child’s age and IQ, which is amazing. Grit has been defined by Duckworth and colleagues (2007; p. 1087). as:

Perseverance and passion for long-term goals…[grit] entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over the years, despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress

The paradox of bilingualism

Of course, language skills are also among the strongest predictors of children’s reading development (Dickenson et al., 2010).

Interestingly, according to Siegal and coworkers (2011) when compared with monolingual children, bilingual children display:

  • better control of attention,
  • greater maturity and insight when understanding the meaning of spoken language, and
  • a more adult-like moral reasoning.

In my own experience of interviewing parents, who did not speak English, their bilingual children were able translate for them. I learned that these children helped their parents with ‘life-admin’ such as completing official documents and forms. Despite these responsibilities, or perhaps because of the stress of these experiences, these bilingual children struggled to achieve age appropriate levels of reading comprehension and academic attainment. Factors such as poverty and family mobility are thought to explain this paradox (Melby et al, 2014).

The challenges that children with ‘dyslexia’ face when reading aloud

Although I love the idea that reading aloud is fun, for some children reading aloud puts them at risk of ridicule. An unstructured activity may lead to them feeling anxious and unsafe. When children with specific learning difficulties are asked to read aloud in class, potential exists for a downward spiral to begin. Shameful feelings that begin in this way have the potential to shape a child’s future.

  • Teasing by classmates leads to social isolation
  • Inappropriate teaching such as memorising lists of words gives way to to frustration
  • Substandard work in class generates a label of laziness, followed by truancy and disaffection
  • Risk-taking behaviour develops into petty crime and
  • Poor choices over time lead to juvenile court and a possible conviction.

Dyslexia is an umbrella term for a wide range of specific learning perceptual difficulties with words, which might affect reading, writing or spelling. Some children manage to compensate for their dyslexia by developing coping strategies, whereas others do not achieve this. Stress affects the symptoms associated with dyslexia such as the visual illusion of the print wobbling or fading in and out. This instability also plays out in the child’s working memory.

Michael Thompson (1982d; cf 1990) compared a group of children identified with dyslexia with two control groups:

  • reading age controls, and
  • chronological age controls.

Both control groups outperformed the group with a diagnosis of dyslexia.

Reading age controls were four years younger than the ‘dyslexic’ group, but scored higher on reading rate. Chronological age controls matched the ‘dyslexic’ group on age, but they were more than four years ahead of the dyslexic group in reading.

The scores for the dyslexic group were approximately five years behind those of their classmates on reading rate and accuracy. Imagine for a moment how these children would have feltl when reading aloud in class, knowing that their peer group who were able to read with far more fluency and ease, were listening.

As is often the case, the dyslexic group had a very uneven performance on reading. Their understanding of the text was two years behind their actual age, and thirty months more advanced than their reading rate score. Being able to understand the text in this sketchy way would have felt limiting and frustrating, and at the same time they would have known that ‘reading’ as a developmental ‘milestone’ had not been met.

In the classroom setting, stress, shame and anxiety can send the struggling child into a downward spiral of low-self-esteem. Some children manage these heavy feelings by ‘performing’ for their classmates. They want to reclaim their identity and to normalise their reading situation as ‘a bit of a joke’. Playing the ‘fool’ or ‘clown’ to distract everyone enables them to find their place among their peers once again. This is amusing for classmates and dissipates any temporary feelings of humiliation or ‘loss of face’. And yet, deeper down, the unprocessed shame is stored and slowly builds up day by day. The teacher might go along with the humour, perhaps not quite aware of the pain it attempts to conceal, before settling the class into a new task.

An alternative strategy adopted by other struggling children is to become ‘invisible’ all of the time. Their goal is to become so quiet that they are overlooked. They hide behind a mask of silence, stillness and impeccable behaviour. They are so successful that no one really notices that they are left behind. In fact, the more conspicuous ‘clown’ posturing of the extrovert members of the class helps these quiet chameleons to blend into the background with even more ease.

As increasing numbers of children become vulnerable to poverty, as well as emotional and mental health challenges, it is even more important for schools to consider the emotional well-being and safety of children who struggle with reading aloud. Sadly, a child’s trajectory of self-worth and emotional balance can be changed permanently through reading aloud, with devastating effects going forwards into adolescence and adult life. Dyslexic children do learn to read, but it takes them significantly longer than other children. Supportive strategies can definitely help them to accelerate along their reading journey.

Read our case studies - we’ve helped so many children who struggled to learn to read. Book a discovery call to discuss you school’s needs.

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Supporting children with a ‘fuzzy’ awareness of phonemes and other symptoms consistent with dyslexia

Children with a specific learning difficulty often find that as they start to make marks on the page, the words in their mind fade or fragment. For these children, every hour of every day spent in the classroom, presents a new mountain to climb. Their working memory capacity always lets them down, no matter how hard they try to focus their attention.

Fluency! Finding Flow in Early Reading

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

‘Temenos’ and safety in school

We often hear about the dangers of cyberspace, where cyber-bullying is rife and children are vulnerable. Now imagine for a moment the relief of reaching the ultimate refuge. Temenos is a Greek concept that describes a sanctuary, a space of absolute safety and harmonious balance, where individuals uphold an immutable self-respect and where criticism and judgment are suspended.

Ears, Eyes, Voices and Early Reading

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).


Dickenson et al., (2010) Speaking out for language: why language is central to reading development.Educational Researcher, 39, 305-310

Duckworth et al., (2007) Grit, perseverance and passion for long-term goals, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92 (6), 1087-1101

Lundy et al., (2010) Cognitive functioning and academic performance in elementary school children with anxious / depressed and withdrawn symptoms, open Paediatric Medicine Journal, 14, 1-9

Melby-Lervåg, M. and Lervåg, A. (2014) Reading comprehension and its underlying components in second-language learners: A meta-analysis of studies comparing first and second-language learners, psychological Bulletin, 140 (2), 409-433

Naguib et al., (2009) Neuro-cognitive performance in children with type-I diabetes: A meta analysis, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 34, 271-282.

Siegel et al., (2011) exploring the effects of bilingualism on children’s conversational understanding and moral sense. In M. Siegal and L. Syrian (Eds) Access to language and cognitive development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, M. (1982) Reading and spelling errors in dyslexic children: delayed or deviant?

Thompson, M. (1990) Developmental Dyslexia, third edition, Cole & Whurr Ltd: London

Yasik et al., (2007) Posttraumatix stress disorder: Memory and learning performance in children and adolescents, Biological Psychiatry, 61, 382-388

Phonics and Executive Functions in Reading Development

24 January 2024

Image credit: Ben Wicks via Unsplash
Image credit: Ben Wicks via Unsplash

A good education, particularly in reading, sets the foundation for later success. The challenge for schools is to provide a broad and rich curriculum that is ambitious, inclusive and accessible to all children, including the most disadvantaged. As researchers gain a deeper understanding of the human nervous system, brain networks such as the central executive network and its functions, such as working memory, cognitive flexibility and control of inhibition, we as educators are able to embrace innovative approaches with greater confidence, and bridge gaps in children’s development that need to be addressed.

Following the COVID pandemic and the current ‘cost of living crisis’, over a quarter of children are not reaching a good level of development by the age of five. Delays for example, in spoken language skills are likely to affect the development of executive functions such as emotional self-regulation, inhibitory control and sustained attention. Subtle or profound impairments in early reading skills and executive functions may have a cascading impact on educational success, well-being and good health.

If young children start to learn to read with limited skills in executive function, they may struggle to allocate the cognitive resources necessary for processing text, with slower or more effortful decoding, which would impact the development of new vocabulary and place increased demand on cognitive resources, setting up a negative spiral.

According to the so-called ‘Matthew Effect’ (Stanovich, 1986) ‘the rich get richer and the poor poorer,’ the children who fall behind in reading, continue to fall behind as they go through school. This spiralling effect has been described as a reciprocal relationship between the efficiency of decoding and the development of executive functions (Stanovich, 2009). Indeed, longitudinal studies have linked warm and responsive parenting with good levels of development in:

  • executive functions such as sustained attention and emotional self-regulation,
  • spoken language skills prior to starting pre-school,
  • fluency and enjoyment in reading,
  • later academic achievement.

Phonics and executive functions

The most obvious milestones of child development include learning to walk, run, jump and talk, but executive functions are relatively nuanced and reach maturity in early adulthood. They include the a child’s ability to regulate their emotions, sustain their attention, suppress their impulses and choose goal-directed rather than impulse-driven behaviour.

It is interesting to consider the relationship between executive functions and phonics because executive functions are generally regarded as ‘top down’ processes, whereas language is processed from the bottom up, primarily as a sensory experience, whether through speaking, reading or listening. However, in the context of decoding the words on the page, a child in the early stages of learning to read must tackle word reading as a code breaker would using various tools:

  • phonological awareness,
  • knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds,
  • visual memory of the shape of the word,
  • cues provided by the context.

If we focus in on this problem-solving aspect of learning to read, we can see why ‘top down’ processes such as executive functions are so important. In this post, I’ll discuss the executive functions of working memory, cognitive flexibility and control of inhibition. However, the control of sustained attention, which is also considered an executive function, is a prerequisite for focused reading and learning (Diamond, 2013). If a child is hungry, tired or anxious, even in the most calm, orderly and consistent of learning environments, they are likely to struggle to focus their attention and their other executive functions: the development of learning and reading is therefore arrested for the most fundamental of reasons.

Phonics and working memory

Given that executive functions develop throughout childhood and adolescence, it is not surprising that researchers have found a general correspondence between the development of decoding ability and executive functions. Therefore, as children develop into fluent readers, they rely less on the problem-solving aspect of decoding and on maintaining the letters and their corresponding sounds in working memory while they decipher each of the syllables in turn. However, decades of research have provided evidence of an association between working memory and decoding skills for children with fragile reading.

A key difference between fragile and fluent readers has been explained by the Dual Route Model of visual word recognition and reading aloud (Coltheart, et al. 2001). According to this model, during the development of early reading, decoding skills require both a phonological processing route (for the smallest sounds of language) and an orthographic route (for the visual recognition of the whole word). Children with fragile reading tend to spend more time and effort in the phonological route, whereas children with fluent reading are able to recognise whole words without an emphasis on effortful and slower phonological processing. This learning difference is likely to cascade into all areas of learning, leaving the fragile reader struggling with fatigue in the long term, unless their reading becomes fluent.

Phonics and task-switching

‘Task-switching’ is also known as ‘cognitive flexibility’. Imagine a bi-lingual child who speaks a different language depending on the context. Perhaps they speak English at school and a different language at home. This ‘top down’ switch from one language to another is an example of the type of shift that children learn to make in many areas of everyday life.

The Dual Route Model offers a way to understand the role of ‘task-switching’ in reading development. Reading experts (Cartwright et al., 2017) have argued that fluent readers have the ability to toggle between phonological and whole word processing, whereas novice readers do not and the researchers attribute this flexible dimension of reading fluency to ‘task switching’. As we have already seen, the need to apply this level of flexibility and ‘top down’ control would decrease as reading fluency develops (Guajardo and Cartwright, 2016).

Phonics and control of inhibition

Inhibitory control plays an important role in children’s learning behaviour. It is obvious that some children are very distractible and chatty in class. Those who cannot focus their attention and suppress internal impulses at will are more likely to struggle with hearing the smallest units of language (phonemic awareness). A longitudinal study that tracked the reading development of children from kindergarten (age five) to second grade (seven years of age) demonstrated an indirect relationship between inhibitory control and phonological awareness (Van de Sande et al, 2017). Another study (Ober et al., 2019) focused on adolescents and demonstrated associations between their decoding ability, inhibitory control and task-switching, which underscores the need to remediate struggling readers as soon as they are identified.

A Meta-analysis

Although an association between executive unctions and reading comprehension has already been established, the relationship between executive functions and decoding skills requires a degree of clarification, partly because decoding skills and executive functions mature in tandem in typically developing children (Ober et al, 2020).

A meta-analysis was conducted by Ober and colleagues (2020). Across 65 studies, covering a wide range of languages there were 165 significant associations between decoding and executive function skills and the mean effect size was ‘moderate’ for both word reading and nonword reading. In a large sample, it is easier to achieve statistical significance, but far harder to achieve an effect size of this magnitude, which indicates the considerable strength of the relationship.

The meta-analysis showed that associations were significant and generated moderate effect sizes for the following executive functions:

  • working memory and word reading (as well as nonword reading)
  • task-switching with word reading (as well as nonword reading)
  • inhibitory control with word reading (as well as nonword reading)

Characteristics of different languages

Languages such as English, French, Chinese or Arabic have relatively deep orthographies, which means that the relationship between the sounds of words and the way that they are written is multi-layered. This is because of the way the language developed over thousands of years. Languages such as Spanish and Greek are mainly regular in the relationship between the sounds of language and their appearance on the page.

As a consequence, in English, words such as, ‘said’ or ‘water’ are taught by visual recognition as they cannot be learned by relying on entirely the smallest sounds of language (phonemes) to lead the child to the correct spelling.

In 1969 a team of researchers (Berdiansky and colleagues) looked at the 6,092 most common one and two syllable words extracted from the schoolbooks of children aged between six and nine. They found that there were 211 symbol-to-sound correspondences and of these, 166 could be described as rule-based, whereas 45 were exceptions to these rules. A rule was established if it occurred at least ten times in the 6092 words.

In the meta-analysis the various languages were organised into two groups:

  • Deep orthographies: Chinese, English, Danish, French
  • More transparent orthographies: Croatian, Dutch, German, Greek, Spanish, Turkish

The researchers looked at the extent to which age interacted with the effect sizes in the studies. Interestingly, the effect of age on these data depended on which executive function was studied, with age as a predictor of performance on ‘task-switching’. Here, the association between decoding and task-switching became smaller as the age of participants increased.

Drilling down into the data, the researchers found that the longitudinal studies (which tracked children’s performance on working memory, task-switching and inhibitory control and decoding over time), showed that the strength of the relationship between executive function skills and decoding was more reliable in early rather than late childhood.

With respect to different types of language, those with deep orthographies were more likely to demand a more frequent toggling pattern between the phonological and the orthographic processing routes during reading development, but the need to toggle would diminish with age once reading fluency has been established.

However, for weaker readers who do not develop reading fluency, a language with a deep orthography such as English provides an additional challenge in terms of ongoing effortful phonological processing and falls into a spiral of diminishing returns, as increased effort leads to cognitive fatigue and a sense of disempowerment.

If you are interested in finding out more about how the Rhythm for Reading programme can help, click here.

If this topic is of interest, keep reading!

Supporting children with a ‘fuzzy’ awareness of phonemes and other symptoms consistent with dyslexia

If we turn to auditory problems faced by people with dyslexia, there are two interesting things to consider. One is fuzzy phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest sounds of language. If we break the sound wave of a phoneme down into its beginning, middle and end, this can help us to think about the very first part of the sound. Among children with dyslexia, there is a lack of perceptual clarity at the front edge of a phoneme.

When phonics and rhythm collide part 1

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.

When phonics and rhythm collide part 2

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.

Phonemes and syllables: How to teach a child to segment and blend words, when nothing seems to work

There is no doubt that the foundation of a good education, with reading at its core, sets children up for later success. The importance of phonics is enshrined in education policy in England and lies at the heart of teaching children to become confident, fluent readers. However, young children are not naturally predisposed to hearing the smallest sounds of language (phonemes). Rather, they process speech as syllables strung together as meaningful phrases.


Berdiansky, B., Cronnell, B. And Koehler, J. (1969) Spelling-sound relations and primary form-class descriptions for speech comprehension vocabularies of 6-9 year olds. Technical Report No 15. Los Alamantos. CA. Southwet Regional Laboratory for Educational Research and Development

Cartwright, K.B., Marshall, T.R., Dandy, K. L. and Isaac, M. C. (2017) Cognitive flexibility deficits in children with specific reading comprehension difficulties, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 50, 33-44

Coltheart, M.,Rastle, K., Perry, C., Langdon, R. And Ziegler, J. (2001) DRC: A dual route cascaded model of visual word recognition and reading aloud, Psychological Review, vol.108, no.1, pp. 204-56

Diamond, A. (2013) Executive functions. Annual Review of psychology, 64, 135-168

Guarjardo, N.R. and Cartwright, K.B. (2016) The contribution of theory of mind, counterfactual reasoning and executive function to pre-readers’ language comprehension and later reading awareness and comprehension in elementary school. Journal of Experimental Child psychology, 144, 27-45.

Ober, T.M., Brooks, P.J., Plass, J.L. & Homer, B.D. (2019) Distinguishing direct and indirect effects of executive functions on reading comprehension in adolescents. Reading psychology, 40 (6), 551-581.

Ober, T.M., Brooks, P.J., Homer, B.D. and Rindskopf, D. (2020) Executive functions and decoding in children and adolescents: A meta-analytic investigation, Educational Psychology Review,

Perfetti, C. (1985) Reading ability, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Perfetti, C. (2007) Reading ability: Lexical quality to comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 20 (4) 325-338

Stanovich, K.E. (1986) Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21 (4), pp.360-407

Van de Sande, E., Segers, E., & Verhoeven, L., (2017) how executive control predicts early reading development. Written Language and Literacy, 20 (2), 170-193

To what extent is reading comprehension supported by executive functions?

10 January 2024

Image credit: Ronald Felton via Unsplash
Image credit: Ronald Felton via Unsplash

Although it is widely known that information is best presented with a degree of repetition, as well as by repeating and reviewing key concepts, such an approach is most effective when pupils are able to read widely and often, with fluency and comprehension. Decades of research point to the importance of self-regulation and metacognitive awareness as key predictors of reading comprehension and the ability to access a broad and rich curriculum. Teaching in small chunks with repetition and being mindful of activities that require too much memory capacity in the spirit of ‘cognitive load theory’ is likely to hold many pupils back, so in this post I examine the relationship between reading comprehension, executive functions and rhythm-based teaching.

What are executive functions and why do they matter?

Just as we may need to ‘read the room’ to gauge a social context, mood and emotional tone, we also need to ‘read’ information on the page or screen with the same level of sensitivity and awareness. However, while the dynamics of a live social situation, or the events of a movie play out in real time before our eyes and ears, the situation on the page requires a more sustained and selective engagement on the part of the reader if they are to extract and assimilate the maximum understanding of the text.

This level of engagement involves ‘metacognition’, which is an aspect of social understanding that requires a person to monitor the degree to which they are successfully appraising a situation.

Metacognition is a form of social awareness, whereas self-regulation is more about a person’s awareness of their own behaviour and priorities.

Self-regulation is a form of goal-directed behaviour that includes:

  • prioritising relevant actions,
  • inhibiting (suppressing) those that are less relevant.

Therefore, inhibition is a core aspect of self-regulation. Both metacognition and self-regulation can facilitate reading comprehension in terms of the degree of overall engagement. There is also a more dynamic quality to understanding a text, which involves:

  • being able to adapt flexibly to the development of the narrative,
  • the shifting of perspective as necessary in order to maintain comprehension.

So far we have considered forward planning, cognitive flexibility - also known as ‘shifting’,and control of inhibition. These elements of cognitive control are referred to under the ‘umbrella term’, ‘executive functions’.

Are executive functions mentioned in the Simple View of Reading?

When people read a text, they draw upon prior knowledge, whether they realise it or not. They assume that the most likely course of events will unfold. For example, baking a cake precedes eating a cake. An unexpected turn of events might derail this assumption if say, the cake turned out to be a birthday present. Under the altered circumstances, the reader would adapt and apply a new schema (prior knowledge of birthday cakes) and reappraise their orientation and understanding of the text.

One of the most discussed aspects of executive function, ‘working memory’, varies considerably between people. In the context of language comprehension, in speech and in print, ‘working memory’ holds fragments of information in such a way that new information can be assimilated immediately, enriching, evolving and expanding previous impressions. Encoding (the process of updating or taking in information from the senses) is likely to involve both verbal and envisioned impressions, as creating this record of verbal information in the form of an image (like a movie in the mind) helps to enhance long-term memory formation.

In social situations, people tend to use language to imply what has taken place, and this means that an important part of social engagement involves filling the gaps with inferences that make use of tone of voice, gestures and facial expression, for example. Children with a limited working memory capacity are more literal in their response to language - relying more on a skeleton framework, whereas those with a more capacious working memory are more likely to enjoy a more playful and exploratory approach, to making these inferences.

In the Simple View of Reading (SVR), Gough and Tumner (1986) stated that reading comprehension is predicted by fluent decoding skills and oral language skills. Their model did not included executive function. Given that working memory, inhibition, sustained and selective attention, and cognitive flexibility underpin reading comprehension, this would appear to be an overly simplistic view.

However, in a study that examined the role of executive functions on young children’s reading comprehension (Dolean et al, 2021), a large proportion of the variance in reading scores was explained by executive function at the initial (baseline) testing, but not at the follow-up six months later. The authors noticed that this outcome was likely to be due to the high number of fluent decoders in their sample. However, language skills at baseline did predict reading comprehension in the follow-up tests. The researchers seemed to assume that executive functions, like language skills would accumulate with time in children. It is possible that these are more dynamic than language skills and are more likely in the short term to change in response to the immediate environment.

The relationship between executive functions, reading comprehension and rhythm-based training.

An interesting pattern has emerged from the research literature on the development of reading comprehension:

  • Struggling readers rely more on fluent decoding.
  • Fluent readers rely more on oral language skills.

The effects of executive functions on reading comprehension scores were stronger among children who relied on decoding rather than language skills

This findings bring us back to a ‘common sense view’ of reading comprehension which is:

  • Weaker executive functions such as working memory, control of inhibition, attention and cognitive flexibility are associated with children who rely more on decoding strategies in their reading comprehension.
  • Children who rely more on oral language skills and less on decoding, access reading comprehension with minimal effort in terms of executive function.

If performance on executive functions does predict fluent decoding in reading development, then it follows that changes in executive function would impact fluent decoding and influence reading comprehension scores.

There are many studies showing the effects of musical training on executive function (Hallam and Himonides, 2022). In particular, these studies have repeatedly shown the benefits of rhythm-based training on working memory. One recent study, measured working memory before and after a rhythm-based music intervention in young Finish children, and showed a statistically significant effect of:

  • rhythm-based training on working memory,
  • improved reading development among the children with lower baseline reading scores.

The three studies mentioned in this blog post point to three key findings:

  • the importance of executive function for the development of reading,
  • that children who are more likely to struggle with reading at school are more likely to need support through the development of executive function,
  • that rhythm-based training supports the development of executive function among children who have lower baseline reading scores.

Rhythm and executive functions

The studies also showed that we can think of executive functions as ‘team players’ in the following way:

  • Inhibitory control is an important element of sustained and selective attention and self-regulation.
  • Sustained and selective attention is an important component of working memory.
  • Working memory capacity enables cognitive flexibility.
  • Cognitive flexibility and working memory capacity enable metacognition.

As teachers are well-aware, if executive functions are limited or imbalanced, they can lead to low-level disruption in the classroom, and the extent to which a positive day-to-day learning environment can be maintained.

Schools using the Rhythm for Reading programme have discovered it has developed children’s executive functions. For over a decade, many children have benefited from the effects of the ten week programme of rhythm-based training (only ten minutes per week) with substantial improvements in:

  • Reading behaviour - accuracy, fluency and comprehension,
  • Sustained and selective attention - better ability to focus and concentrate in the classroom,
  • Improved working memory - increased assimilation of meaning while reading - ie comprehension,
  • Inhibitive control - stronger self-regulation and the ability to ignore distractions and complete given tasks,
  • Cognitive flexibility - improvement in updating and predicting the likely direction of events in the passage of text,

To learn more about the Rhythm for Reading programme and executive function, click here.

To read about our results in case study schools, click here.

To discuss having Rhythm for Reading in your school, click here to book a discovery call.

If you enjoyed this post on reading comprehension, keep reading!

How does the Rhythm for Reading programme actually work?

The logical forms and hierarchical structures that are integral to the Rhythm for Reading audio-visual resources automatically train children to recognise grammatical structures, align with phrase contours and activate the associative priming mechanism (Jones and Estes, 2012) while they read printed language (Long, 2014).

Three factors to take into account when assessing reading comprehension

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.

Rhythm and Reading Comprehension 1/5

In the Simple View of Reading, reading comprehension is described as the ‘product of’ skilled decoding and linguistic comprehension (Gough & Tumner, 1986). A focus on oracy (for example Barton, 2018) highlights a focus in some schools on linguistic comprehension. According to researchers, the proportion of children beginning school with speech, language and communication needs is estimated at between 7 and 20 per cent (McKean, 2017) and unfortunately, communication issues carry a risk of low self-esteem and problems with self-confidence (Dockerall et al., 2017).


Ahokas et al., (2023) Rhythm and reading: Connecting the training of musical rhythm to the development of literacy skills,PsyArXiv; 2023. DOI: 10.31234/osf.io/7ehwu.

Dolean, D. et al., (2021) Language skills, and not executive functions, predict the development of reading comprehension of early readers: evidence from an orthographically transparent language, Reading and writing, 341: 1491-1512.

Gough, P.B. and Tumner, W. (1986) Decoding, reading, and writing disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6-10.

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

Supporting children with a ‘fuzzy’ awareness of phonemes and other symptoms consistent with dyslexia

13 December 2023

Image credit: Saeed Karimi via Unsplash
Image credit: Saeed Karimi via Unsplash

I’m often asked whether the Rhythm for Reading Programme helps children ‘diagnosed’ with dyslexia. As I have not done a study - and by this I mean a randomised controlled trial - with children ‘labelled’ with this specific learning difficulty, I rely on anecdotal evidence to answer the question. Every time a child, identified with dyslexia asks me whether I can help them, I ask them to tell me if and when they notice a change in their reading. To date, the children diagnosed with dyslexia have told me that they have seen improvements in reading, writing and even spelling. Some have reported that they are better able to focus in class and some have also noticed an improvement in their ability to ‘understand the question’ in maths lessons. These anecdotal data are a positive indication that Rhythm for Reading does indeed help children with a diagnosis of dyslexia.

Working memory capacity

Dyslexia is a broad umbrella term that is often associated with other specific learning differences, such as (but not limited to) dyspraxia and ADHD and ADD. These so-called ‘co-morbidities’ make it difficult to study dyslexia at scale in a scientific way because there are so many differences among children labelled with this particular specific learning difficulty.

Having supported many children with specific learning difficulties in my role as special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) in two secondary schools and one junior school, it became obvious that every child I worked with had a specific learning difficulty that was unique to them. And yet, practitioners and teachers in these schools were able to support a wide range of learning differences, by using a particular set of ‘dyslexia friendly’ tools. This was made possible because all of these children had one issue in common - their limited working memory capacity.

Working memory capacity describes the extent to which a person can hold and manipulate information in mind. Saying the alphabet backwards is a simple example of a task involving working memory. Removing the ’t’ sound from the word ‘winter’ (to make the word ‘winner’) is another simple example of a task that involves maintaining and manipulating information in working memory. A person with dyslexia would find such a task tiring and also frustrating. Imagine how challenging it would be to hold only three words in working memory when faced with a task that involved ‘writing in sentences’. Children with a specific learning difficulty often find that as they start to make marks on the page, the words in their mind fade or fragment. For these children, every hour of every day spent in the classroom, presents a new mountain to climb. Their working memory capacity always lets them down, no matter how hard they try to focus their attention. As a child, I experienced this too, but all of these problems disappeared when I was about eleven years old and joined a children’s orchestra.

A diagnosis of ‘severe dyslexia’

The diagnosis of dyslexia came in my early forties when I faced a sharp increase in stress in my personal life. Many people with dyslexia describe having ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ and the effect of stress on working memory in particular would account for this. One morning, at 7.45 am, as I was about to begin teaching, to my astonishment I discovered that I could not read. The middle three letters of every word were superimposed and all I could see were smudges of ink on the page. Unable to read a single word, I assumed that this was a visual convergence problem and managed to squint out of the corner of my right eye for a few days until I was seen by an ophthalmologist. One week later, I was able to read again with the help of a conspicuous pair of dark green lenses.

A well-qualified psychologist conducted my dyslexia assessment one month later and declared in her report that I would struggle to complete secondary level education. This was nonsensical as I had a PhD and soon after that point had papers published in academic journals. A good psychological assessment on the other hand, can be a helpful guide. It can identify areas for particular focus and can empower an individual as they learn to manage their specific learning difficulty - otherwise what is the point? After four months, my eyes had returned to normal and I was able to read without the special spectacles, but I still have them tucked away in a drawer.

‘Fuzzy’ phonemes

If we turn to auditory problems faced by people with dyslexia, there are two interesting things to consider. One is fuzzy phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest sounds of language. If we break the sound wave of a phoneme down into its beginning, middle and end, this can help us to think about the very first part of the sound. Among children with dyslexia, there is a lack of perceptual clarity at the front edge of a phoneme, which scientists refer to as the ‘rise-time’. This means that children with dyslexia are significantly slower to detect the differences between phonemes. This is why rhythm can provide what is needed. Improving rhythmic awareness involves shifting the child’s attention to the front edge of each musical sound of a rhythmic pattern, and as the children are chanting, there is increased emphasis at the front of the phonemes too.

Here are a few of the phonemes that children with dyslexia struggle to differentiate. Looking at this list, it is obvious that there is insufficient sensitivity to the timbral qualities of the sounds as well as the ‘rise time’.

  • ‘p’ and ‘b’
  • ‘sh’ and ’ch’
  • ‘f’ and ‘v’
  • ‘f’ and ’s’
  • ‘pr’ and ‘br’
  • ‘tr’ and ‘chr’

Confusable sounds and conflated ideas

The second thing to think about is a tendency to conflate the sounds of words and similar concepts. Conflation is a reasonable and even logical coping strategy. It is a smart way to ‘cut corners’ as an efficiency drive within the context of a limited working memory. Many children with dyslexia conflate the colours black and brown and name those colours interchangeably. I worked once with a child who had conflated green, black and brown and referred to all three at ‘grown’ (rhyming with brown).

Are there different types of dyslexia?

Essentially, the label refers to a specific difficulty regarding the processing of words. It is described as ‘specific’, because it exists even though the individual has sufficient verbal and non-verbal intelligence to read and write and spell words and has been taught appropriately.

Attempts to classify types of dyslexia as ‘deep’, ‘superficial’, ‘phonological’ and so on are interesting, because all of these manifestations of dyslexia can be found in schools, but at the heart of this, children who have symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of dyslexia lack sufficient sensitivity to rhythm and phonemes. The idea that rhythm is a cure for dyslexia oversimplifies the complexity of this specific learning difficulty. The anecdotal evidence indicates that a rhythm-based intervention can support dyslexia, but I would add the caveat that it must be delivered in a supportive learning environment that also nurtures the child’s self-esteem. The child’s emotional safety must be established before sensitivity to rhythm and the smallest sounds of language can develop.

It is also important to adapt lessons to be more ‘dyslexia friendly’. For example, younger children can benefit from using holistic, multi-sensory approaches, such as the activities that underpin the structure of the Rhythm for Reading Programme. Here are some case studies to illustrate progress made by children, identified by their school as requiring additional support in reading.

If you enjoyed this post, click on these links to read more.

Phonics and stimulation of the vagus nerve: How long and short vowel sounds differ

It is essential to identify any pupil who is falling behind the pace of the school’s phonics programme and to put effective support in place, but the quality of such support must withstand scrutiny. A certain amount of cognitive bias has been identified and found to disadvantage the lowest attaining children.

When phonics and rhythm collide part 1

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.

When phonics and rhythm collide part 2

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.

Phonemes and syllables: How to teach a child to segment and blend words, when nothing seems to work

There is no doubt that the foundation of a good education, with reading at its core, sets children up for later success. The importance of phonics is enshrined in education policy in England and lies at the heart of teaching children to become confident, fluent readers. However, young children are not naturally predisposed to hearing the smallest sounds of language (phonemes). Rather, they process speech as syllables strung together as meaningful phrases.

Improving reading comprehension and awareness of punctuation

29 November 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is reading comprehension?

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

What is the most important key to good comprehension?

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

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

What is punctuation?

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

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

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

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

Why is punctuation important in reading comprehension?

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

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

Why do children struggle with punctuation?

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

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

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

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

Rhythm, punctuation and meaning

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

Stepping up: from phonemes to comprehension

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

Discover the heartbeat of reading

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

Fireworks and noise: How do the sound effects affect us?

1 November 2023

Image credit: Jakayla Toney via Unsplash
Image credit: Jakayla Toney via Unsplash

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.

How does the theatricality of fireworks impact people?

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:

  • Insulating ourselves from the natural environment,
  • Flying through the air,
  • Devastating large areas of land and its inhabitants from a considerable distance.

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.

What are the three types of noise makers used in fireworks?

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.

  • The whistling sound is a slower reaction and is achieved by reserving half of the narrow tube of the firework for the sound vibration. Many whistling fireworks also spin, either in the air or on the ground and accelerate until they ultimately explode, and some erupt into a spray of sparkles.
  • The screeching or screaming sound is given out by fireworks that are similar to missiles and are powered by a slower time to react chemically. There is a small hole in the tube and this squeezes the chemical gases out through a very focused and pressured space, thus generating the shrill sounds.
  • The extra loud bangs are made by adding particular compounds, such as aluminium and other metals to the firework’s shell. The bang type sounds are caused by vary fast chemical reactions. The loudest over-the-counter firework sold in the UK is required to remain under 120 decibels, whereas licensed displays specialise in louder explosions of up to 170 decibels. Some of the loudest fireworks have names such as, ’Mine’ - in other words the manufacturers deliberately evoke a war zone, presumably meeting and possibly creating a consumer demand.

How do these sounds affect pupils?

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.

Using fireworks to develop literacy and expand vocabulary

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:

  • Drawing comparisons between the sounds, and
  • Drilling down into near synonyms.

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.

Rhythm, attention and rapid learning

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.

Big is not enough

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.

How can we support the mental health challenges of school children?

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.

Three factors to take into account when assessing reading comprehension.

28 November 2022

Image credit: Adam Winger via Unsplash
Image credit: Adam Winger via Unsplash

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.

Fluency is not just our goal, it’s our foundation

20 September 2022

By Jelleke van Ooteghem via Unsplash
By Jelleke van Ooteghem via Unsplash

I believe that together, as educators on a mission to make a difference, we can raise standards in reading. The Rhythm for Reading programme offers a mechanism to achieve this. The programme provides a cumulative and structured approach that supports inclusive teaching and learning.

For instance, in the programme, there is absolutely no need to break down tasks. We strive to lighten the cognitive load on working memory and a light cognitive load is an inbuilt feature of the programme. This is why pupils experience the satisfaction of reading musical notation fluently in the very first week of the programme.

Although most curriculum subjects encourage specialisation in speaking or writing or problem-solving, our approach is multi-sensory and we develop the rhythmic sensitivity of the children in a range of different ways. And so, though its systematic approach, the Rhythm for Reading programme celebrates the multi-sensory elements of music-making.

On the one hand, the materials and resources of the programme are designed to sustain the fluency of the children’s reading, and on the other hand we adapt the level of challenge by working with the children’s ears, eyes, voices, hands and feet in ever-changing combinations.

The programme engages working memory with sensitivity. It systematically strengthens cognitive control across the ten weeks by gradually increasing demands on cognitive flexibility week by week. In each weekly session, the pupils build up their repertoire of routines and techniques. Ease is maintained all the while, supporting fluency and control in the execution of all the tasks. Most importantly of all, the primary goal is to support an ethos of inclusivity by maintaining the pupils’ emotional security at all times.Fluency is established at the start of the Rhythm for Reading programme and it is maintained right through to the end of the ten weeks. Fluency is not just our goal, fluency is our foundation.

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