Rhythm for Reading - sustainable reading intervention for schools

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The Rhythm for Reading blog

How does the Rhythm for Reading programme actually work?

5 November 2017

The Rhythm for Reading programme helps teachers to support children’s reading-related skills in a dynamic way, which complements the conventional bottom-up phonics-based approach. The programme simultaneously sharpens phonological awareness, reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension. A remarkable impact: a 20 month average gain in reading comprehension, has been achieved in 10 weekly sessions of 10 minutes.

How does it work?

Right from the start, the programme harnesses the children’s attention through a series of fast-paced games and routines. These have been developed in classrooms over several years to ensure that rhythm-based approaches are assimilated efficiently, particularly by those with weak cognitive control. Each tiny step has been selected, analysed and organised into sequences as part of a system of Prepsteps. Teachers can view these on our learning platform as videos and read the accompanying fact sheets, which explain how and why each tiny step impacts on children’s cognitive control. Most of these tiny steps take less than 30 seconds to apply.

How do they work?

A light-hearted and fast-paced delivery style, as well as a rhythm-based approach entrains (synchronises) children to respond, to anticipate, to expect and to predict what is about to happen next. Consequently, there is an immediate improvement in children’s precision, self-control and engagement while encoding (taking in) new information. This level of involvement automatically inhibits unhelpful habits of learning, such as mind-wandering, distraction and interruption. At the same time, the children’s efforts are generously rewarded by both the musical engagement as well as by the socially-satisfying experience of being part of a team.

Why use music?

Musical notation is an extremely effective tool for boosting reading fluency. Why is this? Let’s begin by comparing musical symbols with letters of the alphabet. Children learn to recognise the letters of the alphabet (graphemes) by associating the detail of their shapes, consisting of loops, lines, curves and even dots, with the sounds of the smallest units of language (phonemes). These details must be processed automatically before fluent reading can develop. Musical notes, on the other hand have a uniform shape, consisting simply of a head and a stem, similar to a flower, or a lollipop. The uniform appearance of musical notes lightens the cognitive load involved in reading and allows children to read rhythmical patterns with fluency and ease.

Why should fluency in reading musical notation transfer to the reading of language?

Our own work in schools across England and Wales indicates that teaching children to read musical notation in a rhythm-based approach significantly accelerates reading accuracy and comprehension (Long, 2014). A possible explanation for this may be that the uniformity of musical symbols reduces a processing bottleneck, first identified by reading experts as a barrier to efficient reading forty years ago (Cutting et al., 2009). This issue persists even today and is described in terms of a cognitive trade-off between the decoding of print and the ability to process coherence between words, given limited cognitive resources (Oakhill, Cain and Elbro, 2014).

Consequently, musical processing provides a form of ‘buoyancy aid’ for reading with ease, fluency and comprehension, when cognitive resources are limited. Released from the ‘bottleneck’ associated with inefficient processing of alphabetic code, children decode musical notation instead and are immediately immersed into the regularity of rhythmic processing. 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).

What is associative priming?

1. Associative priming is activated by relationships between words, for example between ‘water’ and associated words, ‘drink’, ‘swim’, ‘wash’, ‘fish’. The context for ‘water’ would influence the salience of possible candidate words. So, a story about having fun in the water on a visit to a river would activate one group of words, whereas a story about finding water in a desert would activate a different set of words.

2. Associative priming is also influenced by syntax, so if the word ‘hit’ occurs in the ‘root’ (first part) of the sentence, word candidates such as ‘hammer’, ‘tennis ball’ or ‘nail’ could assist with decoding the ‘stem’ (next part) of the sentence.

3. Associative priming is a mechanism that drives the internal cohesion between words in utterances as well as in fluent reading, enabling several hundreds of words to be understood per minute.

4. Associative priming is in fact a natural part of language processing, (working equally efficiently for regularly and irregularly spelled words). Consequently, it offers promise as a supplementary reading strategy for low and middle attaining students and is far more efficient than the laboured phonological decoding, which is a characteristic of fragile reading.

The Rhythm for Reading programme has substituted words with musical symbols and offers an elegant solution to persistent verbal inefficiency and processing bottlenecks. Find out more here.

Cutting, L. E., Materek, A., Cole, C. A., Levine, T. M., & Mahone, E. M. (2009). Effects of fluency, oral language, and executive function on reading comprehension performance. Annals of dyslexia, 59(1), 34-54.

Jones, L. L., & Estes, Z. (2012). Lexical priming: Associative, semantic, and thematic influences on word recognition.

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.

Oakhill, J., Cain, K., & Elbro, C. (2014). Understanding and teaching reading comprehension: a handbook. Routledge.

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The importance of timing for self-regulation: The tale of the tortoise and the hare

29 October 2017

From the age of three years, children spend much of the school day honing their capacity for effortful-control and mental focus. These efforts help to build foundations for self-regulation and goal-directed behaviour, which gain momentum from four years of age (Rothbart, Sheese, Rueda and Posner, 2011). Self-regulation involves the use of behaviours and strategies that support a desired outcome, as well as the suppression of any unhelpful impulses that would divert attention away from the desired goal.

It is unsurprising therefore that self-regulation, characterised by cognitive control, perseverance and self-discipline predicts academic attainment, and it is fascinating to find that this topic chimes in an interesting way with Aesop’s Tale of The Tortoise and the Hare. The fable tells of a boastful hare, who when challenged to a race by a tortoise was so confident in his ability to outrun the tortoise at the very last minute, that he went to sleep. The hare failed to wake up in time and the tortoise won the race.

Just as Aesop’s hare misjudged the timing of the race and underestimated the perseverance of the tortoise, so too are children with poor self-regulation prone to problems relating to social communication and overcoming procrastination. The underlying problem is this: unless attention is rhythmical, all of the child’s efforts to concentrate are spent on suppression. This is why a meaningful deadline appears to be helpful; it generates a target that enables the child to organise their attention ‘in time’. In truth, the systematic use of sanctions and rewards to manage difficulties with self-regulation and social communication may appear to ‘work’, but the danger of this type of approach is that it simply trains the child to become increasingly dependent on the intervention of a specific teacher, further decreasing their capacity to self-regulate.

What is required is a programme that realigns the child’s inherent sensitivity to timing in terms of (i) language and reading skills, (ii) selective attention and (iii) social group skills. Realigning a child’s sensitivity to rhythm at several levels simultaneously achieves an integrated result and lasting impact on several domains: phonemic awareness, cognitive control, inhibition, reading accuracy, reading comprehension, reading fluency, a sense of self-worth and a sense of social belonging. Addressing the underlying issues of weak self-regulation in this comprehensive and natural way, resets the child’s educational outcomes in alignment with an emotionally healthy and academically positive path. Read more.

Rothbart, M.K., Sheese, B.E., Rueda, M.R. and Posner, M.I. (2011). Developing mechanisms of self-regulation in early life, Emot rev: 3 (2) 207-213.

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What are metaphors for?

22 October 2017

As we hurtle ever-faster into the age of digital communication, I find myself wondering whether metaphors are still useful in everyday life. Skilled journalists have always produced headlines using sharp, snappy metaphors to sensationalise, to ridicule and to frame an event, generating huge ripples of influence and instant impact. The pacy style of tabloid newspaper headlines is absolutely aligned with the short staccato formulaic styles of digital communication in everyday life. However, the sheer volume of electronic communication allows insufficient space and time for a metaphor to unfold. Far from allowing details to clutter the basic outline, the message must be brief, clear and direct. Any potential for misunderstanding can therefore be circumvented in advance.

We all share a common heritage that stems from traditional pre-literate societies in which metaphors have been extraordinarily important tools of diplomacy and ingenuity. Using the richness of imagery, they allowed delicate messages to be conveyed indirectly, thereby fortifying relationships between different groups of people. The use of metaphor assisted the settlement of disputes because grievances could be powerfully expressed in novel and flexible ways. The free-floating nature of a metaphor enabled negotiations to ebb and flow within a conceptual framework and for objections to be recanted without fear of recrimination or loss of face (Samatar, 1997).

Naturally, a beautifully-crafted metaphor, enhanced by a heartfelt and expressive delivery could be highly persuasive and help to establish trust between all parties. The power of the metaphor has been driven by cultural traditions infused by intricate systems of symbol and superstition, which in historical terms have played an important role in everyday language. However, in the digital age of mass communication and scientific method, we seem to be leaving those magnificent days of rich and flexible communication behind. Perhaps the omniscient light-hearted face of our diminutive electronic emissary Mr Emoji is a direct descendant of the metaphor, arguably the greatest literary device of the ancient scribes and archive of oral folk-lore.

Samatar, S (1997) Sarbeeb: ‘The art of oblique communication’ In J.K. Adjake & A.R. Andrews (Eds) Language, Rhythm and Sound, University of Pittsburgh Press.

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Journeying into Research

2 October 2017

About twenty years ago, on a wintry Saturday afternoon in one of London’s most beautiful churches, I stood with a few musicians during a tea-break chatting about my ideas on rhythm and then someone mentioned educational research. The idea that research might answer some of the questions that had been buzzing about my brain for a few months seemed magnetic and I wondered how on earth I would meet the ‘ideal’ person who would actually do this research.

Eventually, it dawned on me that the researcher that I so desperately needed to meet, might one day be me. For a while it was difficult to reconcile the hard-working musician (who knew a lot about only one discipline) with a projection of myself as a researcher, who had amassed decades of specialised reading on the brain, had a broad skillset, produced presentations, publications and documents, but most importantly could answer my own questions about rhythm.

The journey from musician to researcher had very ordinary beginnings. Once I had read every relevant book in my local library, I took two post-graduate courses in the evenings (after work) and then I began doctoral research, travelling regularly to London, this time during the day. At that time I had more than five part-time roles in schools, as well as my work as a professional musician and also a research officer role at the Institute of Education – quite the plate spinner.

In education, there are powerful overlaps in the way that research is done by researchers, teaching is done by teachers and learning is done by learners. When these roles genuinely intersect and flow together, when thinking is shared, when communication is effective, innovation can be explored with potentially powerful impact. Recently, the journey into research came up in conversation with an enthusiastic teacher, who was keen to answer her own research questions. She mentioned to me that it was difficult as a parent to fit research into her hectic schedule. I could sympathise because a shortage of time is something that we all share. My own experience had been that limiting all trivial tasks to a ten minute ‘quick-zoom’ of frenetic activity turned out to be the most ridiculously satisfying way to create quality time. Most importantly, because time for studying was so precious, it was important to plan exactly what had to be accomplished in that time.

It’s my personal belief that a parent’s care and concern for their own intellectual development benefits their children hugely. It sets a calm atmosphere in the home as well as a deeply and sincerely-shared focus on curiosity and wonder. My children have only known me as someone with a pile of books, ideas and goals ‘on the go’ and have seen close-up, the importance of perseverance and consistent effort for generating an impact on the lives of others. They also know that the journey from musician to researcher started small, but with plenty of conviction. The librarians at our local library checked the maximum number of books that could be borrowed for one adult and two children every Wednesday afternoon. That weekly library routine certainly provided plenty of momentum for our reading habits and I’m pleased to say, has vastly transformed our lives.

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Sensitivity to Rhythm is a State of Mind

6 September 2017

Back in July I accepted an invitation to lead a workshop at the Music Mark North West Teachers’ Conference. The event took place yesterday and it was fantastic to have a chance to share much of the philosophy underpinning Rhythm for Reading with so many receptive music educators.

I have had first hand experience of teaching and researching in several parts of the North West region including Bradford, Keighley, Bolton, Oldham and The Wirral. Each of the schools I have worked in was situated in a complex community and I recall being so impressed firstly by the professionalism and resilience of the staff working in these schools and secondly, by the parents who were coping with economic hardship, mental health problems and family difficulties.

When I started to devise this workshop, I thought it would be interesting to pose the question: should rhythm be counted or felt? In dance and music and also acting, it is not difficult to find instances when counting is used as a device for organising choreography or the duration of time in the interplay between musical ideas or characters in a drama. Yet, audiences will agree that the best performances in any medium contain exquisitely sensitive moments, which certainly are not counted, but are felt with such intensity by the performers that a ‘moment’ of sensitivity can take on a particularly enhanced quality that is felt collectively by everyone in the room.

Similarly, most poetry ebbs and flows with the pulsations of thinking and breathing, which unfold naturally with the development of the poetic idea. Some poems are deliberately written so that the words emphasise a particularly regular metre. As a ‘device’, this is sometimes used lightly for humour, or when the syllables carry greater weight, to create a darker, fear-inducing atmosphere of suspense. Indeed, our awareness of rhythm can quickly evoke fear: the relationship between primary emotion and rhythm is a deeply rooted one.

It is certainly easier, in my opinion, to nurture sensitivity to rhythm in schools where the cultural ethos is strong. In such schools, pupils know that their ideas and contributions will be acknowledged and treated respectfully and they will therefore feel secure when trying something new in front of their classmates. On the other hand, in schools where the culture is relatively weak, pupils maintain a state of vigilance, attending to and monitoring their own safety whilst learning. It is far easier for pupils to cultivate sensitivity to rhythm in a supportive and safe school environment that ensures a consistently-strong culture of respect throughout the community. Sensitivity to rhythm could also be described as a flow state. Flow states are highly desirable as they nourish intrinsic motivation, resilience and self-esteem, which support a life-long love of learning (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).

So, yesterday’s workshop was a behind-the-scenes view of Rhythm for Reading in which we considered the emotional and cultural challenges that pupils might be facing in NW schools, including newcomers to the region, pupils with SEN, pupils with EAL and how rhythm can support these pupils to cope with their challenges. The impact of increased sensitivity to rhythm is apparent in various ways. Teachers have rated improvements in social behaviour, learning behaviour and reading behaviour. Each of these domains is served by the attention system, which of course is highly influenced by state of mind and constantly attuned to the regularities in environmental sounds that envelop our everyday lives.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness, London: Rider, Random House Group

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Big is not enough

24 July 2017

What could be better than big data? It has been a huge privilege to spend the past six months visiting an outstanding special school, which has commissioned research on the impact of the Rhythm for Reading programme.

Sensory-shock is one of those over-worked, 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. In this school I learned that even seemingly small changes in the tone of voice of someone new, can be experienced by some of the students, as a sensory-shock.

Imagine the atmosphere. The school succeeds in providing an optimal learning environment. The students’ sensibilities and sensitivities are the priority – not simply on the mission statement, but always, everyday, all of the time. The students feel good; therefore they make progress, are productive and stay focussed. Maintaining high performance conditions for the students is what makes this special school extra special.

Having learned so much by visiting every week, I continue to learn as I engage with the data. In a natural setting where stress is minimised at all times, the effect of the Rhythm for Reading programme on learning is evident. On the other hand, when one class had a change of teacher, thus generating a shift in the conditions, the data clearly showed the effect of stress, which is also of interest.

Big data are not responsive to isolated events in individual lives; such events are simply aggregated into the muffled ambience of the overall picture. In other words, the immediate and devastating temporary loss of cognitive control caused by stress cannot be sensed by big data unless it is a relatively-widely occurring trend. Humans have evolved to be highly attuned to the emotional responses and needs of others, but our socio-cultural scripts have determined that our emotional sensibilities are relatively suppressed, which is why the big data revolution appears to be moving in the right direction.

Just as the school provided an ideal learning environment tailored to meet the students’ needs and sensitivities, it is appropriate to reflect in depth on the progress made in the specific setting, to map the trajectories of individual students and groups of students and to keep the influence of the context and conditions very much to the fore. This type of approach is grounded in the detail, conditions and context and therefore provides high levels of internal validity. The data collected from teachers and students also speak to the context and equip the school to contribute confidently to a wider debate about progressive teaching and the future of SEN education. Real data, grounded in the context of the real world, could be better than big data.

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Progressive action in schools

25 June 2017

The recent tragic events in London and Manchester have been deeply painful and have also been a sharp reminder of the importance of taking progressive action in education. In 2012, I embarked on an entrepreneurial journey because I wanted the benefits of rhythm-based learning to be available in classrooms everywhere, as well as to ensure that certain educational advantages that are available to the privileged who can afford high quality instrumental music tuition would be, in a condensed and concentrated format, available to all. We hear frequently about the importance of reading for the development of empathy, and in 2014, I decided to create a project which would combine the theme of empathy with rhythm-based activities, which enhance social cohesion, reading fluency, reading comprehension and engagement. With the help and support of the senior leadership teams of two neighbouring, but very different schools, Alleyn’s, an independent school, and Goodrich Community Primary School, we have established a bond based on empathy, cooperation, rhythm and reading.

The project has completed eight cycles so far. Each week a group of assured and enthusiastic Year12 Alleyn’s students have accompanied me to Goodrich School, where they have mentored wonderfully effervescent pupils in Year 3 and Year 4. Everybody benefits profoundly from taking part: the mentoring students quickly learn to build trust and communication with the younger children, who experience a remarkable transformation in their reading. I am very much looking forward to presenting on this topic on Saturday 1st July at the UKLA 53rd International Conference 2017 ‘Language, literacy and class: Connections and contradictions’ at Strathclyde University, Glasgow.

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On the importance of prediction in language processing

24 April 2017

In the past decade, several research papers on language processing have suggested that prediction is a necessary part of language comprehension.

In previous blog posts, I’ve referred indirectly to prediction by discussing work on statistical processing in infancy (e.g. Saffran, Aslin and Newport, 1996) and anticipation in ‘disappearing games’ (Ratner and Bruner, 1977).

Perhaps we could think of prediction as an idea that unifies probability, expectancy, anticipation, background knowledge, context and insight, not only in language processes such as listening and reading, but also in other forms of cognitive behaviour ranging from everyday activities such as preparing a meal to making complex executive decisions relating to long term planning and strategy.

Thinking for a moment about prediction in terms of linguistics, the traditional view favours generative models of language processing and these experts have assigned prediction a minor role or no role at all (for example, Jackendoff, 2007). However, since Giraud and Poeppel’s paper of 2012, there has been something of a shift towards the alternative view proposed by linguists interested in functionalist models such as computational modelling.

In discussing this topic, Heuttig and Mani (2015) have proposed a third way, which is that predictive processing may give language comprehension a ‘helping hand’. In their article they discuss findings which showed that the human brain’s beta rhythm activity is associated with a feed forward processing loop (Bressler et al., 2015; Friston et al., 2015) and an increase in beta rhythm activity in the brain when sentences are (i) syntactically and, (ii) semantically correct, (compared with sentences containing syntactic or semantic violations) (Kielar et al., 2014).

It is relevant therefore to note that during the Rhythm for Reading programme, teachers have noticed that pupils are better able to predict what is coming up in their reading, making a link between predictive processing and rhythmic processing highly plausible. In future posts I will delve deeper into this interesting topic.


Bressler, S. L., & Richter, C. G. (2015). Interareal oscillatory synchronization in top-down neocortical processing. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 31C, 62–66.

Friston, K. J., Bastos, A. M., Pinotsis, D., & Litvak, V. (2015). LFP and oscillations-what do they tell us? Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 31C, 1–6.

Huettig, F. and Mani, N. (2015) Is prediction necessary to understand language? Probably not. Language, cognition and neuroscience, 31 (1) doi:10.1080/23273798.2015.1072223

Giraud, A. & Poeppel, D. (2012). Cortical oscillations and speech processing: emerging computational principles and operations. Nature Neuroscience, 15(4), 511–517.

Jackendoff, R. (2007). A parallel architecture perspective on language processing. Brain Research, 1146, 2-22.

Kielar, A., Meltzer, J., Moreno, S., Alain, C., & Bialystok, E. (2014). Oscillatory Responses to Semantic and Syntactic Violations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1–23.

Ratner, N. and Bruner, J. (1977) Games, Social Exchange and the acquisition of language, Journal of Child Language, 5, 391-401

Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science, 274(5294), 1926-1928.

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