Rhythm for Reading - sustainable reading intervention for schools

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The Rhythm for Reading blog

Rhythm, attention and rapid learning

3 October 2022

By @cdc via Unsplash
By @cdc via Unsplash

There are many different forms of attention. Neuroscientists have studied the development of cognitive attention in children as well as the different types of attention that we experience. Boredom and repetition generate a trance-like state of attention, whereas novelty and a switch in the stimulus generate a shift and a rapid reset of attention. The attention span exists to protect us, to feed us and to ensure that our genes succeed us in future generations. This is why the attention span is adaptable and can be trained to become longer or shorter using reinforcements such as rewards or threats. Ultimately, the attention span is involved in predicting when and where the next reward or threat will take place.

If a chid has experienced a threatening situation such as a war zone, they are likely to flinch in response to loud noises and their attention is likely to be highly vigilant, having been trained by the environment to monitor potential threats. A chid raised in a calm and enriched environment is likely to have fostered a natural curiosity for the world around them and to have interacted in reciprocation with it. Conversational turns in such an environment are the rhythmic hallmark of social interactions, and according to researchers contribute to emotional well-being and language development (Zimmerman et al., 2009).

The Rhythm for Reading programme offers an opportunity to move children away from a vigilant state, to a rhythmically responsive form of attention that involves reciprocation and builds receptivity and stamina. The attention system is dynamic and is particularly responsive to setting and emotional set point. If a child was threatened repeatedly at school, for example by a bully, then vigilance in the attention system would affect the child’s learning to some extent.

By the same token, it’s important that Rhythm or Reading sessions take place in the same place, on the same day of the week and at the same time of day to establish the regularity of exposure to rewarding experiences. Knowing where and when positive experiences occur, such as feelings of personal safety, social connection, a boost to well-being, engagement with rewarding patterns and calming breath work, which are nurtured during Rhythm for Reading sessions is important. The anticipation and experience of weekly Rhythm for Reading sessions enables a child’s attention system to recognise the sessions as a ‘real’ part of their environment. A consistent pattern in the children’s lives enables a deeper sense of anticipation and supports rapid learning during the programme.

Zimmerman, E.J., Gilkerson, J.,Richards, J. A., Christakis, D.A. Xu, D., Gray, S., Yapanel., U. (2009) Teaching by listening: The importance of adult-child conversations to language development. Pediatrics, 124 (1), 342-349, doi: 10.1542/peds 2008-2267

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Fluency, Phonics and Musical Notes

26 September 2022

Jess Bailey via Unsplash
Jess Bailey via Unsplash

The phonics wars raged back in the days leading up to the publication of the 2006 Rose Review. The value of synthetic versus analytical phonics was a key educational debate of the decade. At that time, the fragile readers that I was working with as part of my PhD, struggled to decode a simple C-V-C word (consonant-vowel-consonant) such as ‘cat’. I was glad that all children would be taught systematically to recognise letter-to-sound correspondence, as well as drilled in the smallest sounds of language. It was unacceptable to me at that time that a simple three letter word such as ‘c-a-t’ was a new concept for some children at nine years of age.

Below the radar of the mainstream media, music educators were digging deeply into their own entrenched positions around the teaching of musical notation. Unfortunately, these ideologies and their false narratives have limited access to musical knowledge. Decoding musical notes (like any other form of reading) opens up access to participation in a multicultural global community - in the case of music - of performers, listeners and composers who engage across ever-expanding musical genres. Music educators’ ideologies have limited access to creative opportunities.

Most children start school with thousands of words and hundreds of melodies in their heads. Yet, in schools and music studios, one of the most limiting and perhaps most misunderstood ideologies stemming from high profile music educators, is that of ‘sound before symbol’. Music teachers have been told for decades that best practice involves singing and naming the shapes of tunes using doh, re, mi. Only when the tune has been learned ‘by ear’, are the visual symbols introduced. The idea that a sound must be taught before introducing a symbol to represent it, has a certain logic, which quickly becomes redundant as soon as we acknowledge that sound does not need to be taught. Sound is processed incredibly rapidly in the auditory system and was the first of our sensory processing systems to reach full maturity in utero.

Ofsted’s July 2022 publication supports moving away from the principle of sound before symbol and recommends a stronger commitment to the teaching of musical notation as a part of a broad and balanced curriculum. In the teaching of reading, automated phoneme-to-grapheme correspondence is the key to the rapid development of fluency. Indeed this usually involves presenting the sound with the symbol using rapid response multi-sensory teaching methods. In the Rhythm for Reading programme, we teach sound with symbol correspondence using a rapid response multi-sensory approach to musical notation and therefore prioritise fluency as the overriding goal.

Get in touch by visiting the contacts page if you would like to boost reading fluency in a ten-week period and gain the additional benefit of teaching every child to read musical notation fluently in the very first session of the programme.

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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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Memories of Her Late Majesty the Queen

12 September 2022

Like so many people, I’ve been deeply saddened by the passing of our Queen. Even though I never had the honour of meeting her, I now realise the powerful extent to which she has provided a reassuring presence in my life. HM the late Queen presided with an incredibly serene sense of duty, but above all she led by example. I remember, as a seven year old child, learning to play the piano and reading for the very first time, the back cover of my piano music booklet. There was detailed information about the ABRSM exam board and I saw that the Queen was their patron. My attitude changed immediately. I straightened my back and doubled down on my efforts. As far as I was concerned, this slim red music book obviously mattered to the Queen, and so it now mattered to me, so much more. That day, I made a childish wish to play for HM the late Queen and seven years later that wish came true, when a small musical ensemble I played with was invited to provide the music at the opening of our local shopping centre. I caught a glimpse of the Queen that day, which was thrilling for me. I am deeply grateful for her undiluted dedication to us all throughout her magnificent reign and send my deepest condolences to her family.

The Queen as she arrived at Wood Green Shopping City, 1981
The Queen as she arrived at Wood Green Shopping City, 1981

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Education for Social Justice

5 September 2022

Thanks to Jonathan Borba / Unsplash
Thanks to Jonathan Borba / Unsplash

The Rhythm for Reading programme is deeply rooted in education for social justice. My personal mission, driven by my commitment to developing inclusion in society, is built on my principles of equity and social justice in education.

I have worked in top independent schools such as Alleyn’s, teaching the children from some of the country’s most privileged families. I believe in empowering all children and I am writing this to share with you the mechanism that we can use together to raise standards in reading. I believe that together, we can raise standards in reading and the Rhythm for Reading programme offers a mechanism to achieve this.

There are two additional benefits. By empowering children with a lifelong love of reading, we can protect their mental health. An additional benefit of the Rhythm for Reading programme is that it launches the children into the world of musical notation, which they learn to read fluently, right from the start. This is what we do…

  • We raise standards in reading.
  • We empower staff to sustain those raised standards.
  • We train staff, especially the support staff who are helping readers to develop fluency and enjoyment in their reading.

At Rhythm for Reading, we recognise that phonological processing requires: phonological knowledge (letter-sound correspondence), but also phonological awareness (sensitivity to the smallest sounds of language) and the flow of sounds (rhythmic and grammatical context). The data gathered from the past 10 years shows that the Rhythm for Reading programme improves perceptual sensitivity to:

  • The sounds of language,
  • The rhythmic flow of language,
  • The grammatical structure and consequently, the comprehension of language.

Children have reported many changes in their learning behaviour at the end of the ten weeks of the Rhythm for Reading programme, including being able to follow their teacher’s instructions, knowing what is going on in the lesson, and being able to get on with their work because they are able to ignore distractions.

If you would like to find out more, visit the contact page to get in touch and sign up for weekly insights.

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I invested in a planner titled ‘Perfectly Planned 2020’

22 December 2020

Image by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash
Image by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

​I usually post at the beginning of the month and I had written a reflection on the year, but I held back because I needed to find something positive that I could say to round the year off. 2020 was the only year in which I have ever owned a desktop year planner. I can recommend a year planner, especially this one, which was called ‘Perfectly Planned 2020’. All I can say about this is that after March, the plans in the planner stayed in the planner.

Since March 2020, ‘Follow the science’ has become a wriggly little ear worm, as it has persisted over so many months. In the past few days, we were given a glimpse of what these scientists follow. They follow the 14 day mutation cycle of the virus - it’s rhythm. When all’s said and done, the guiding principles of rhythm, maths and geometry appear to govern the way that the natural world appears to us, whether that’s through our senses or through our instruments. None of this is new. Rhythmic cycles have fascinated people for thousands of years. The planets have been studied by astronomers of all ancient civilisations. The conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, a spectacle that is said to occur almost every 400 years near to Earth is happening as I write this. It seems extraordinary that an astronomical event of such cyclical magnitude has coincided with a year that was so dark for so many. It’s as if we are being reminded that we too are part of this infinite web of cycles and conjunctions.

Our own solar year is so familiar to us that the festivals which coincide with solstices and lunar cycles are experienced primarily through culture as times of nostalgia, family and community. To gather together as light reemerges following the darkest point in the year is comforting and instinctive, as our body chemistry tells us to seek the company of others at such times. No matter how advanced we think we have become, we remain exquisitely attuned to our natural rhythms. Not only are we creatures of habit in the social and emotional sense, but even at a cellular level, our biorhythms are governed every single day by the light receptors in our brains. We even have clocks in our internal organs which need to work harmoniously so that each part of the body has its allotted time for activity and rest. We tend to take our biorhythms for granted and discover that when we lose this balance, we also lose optimal health and well-being.Right now, this is a time for peace, rest and appreciation as we welcome the return of the light and the triumph over darkness. May our hearts be lit with hope for a future of health and happiness.

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Reading fluency and comprehension in 2020

9 November 2020

Image by 'Atoms' via unsplash
Image by ‘Atoms’ via unsplash

A strong correlation exists between reading fluency and comprehension - one that has fascinated researchers for many decades (Long, 2014). In our current climate, children who read fluently are more likely to cope well with blended learning, self-isolation and other restrictions of the global pandemic on schools.

How can we move more children into the fluent reader category?

Proficient readers automatically use the most appropriate strategy on the fly, whereas fragile readers are more likely to depend on a single strategy and to transition less efficiently from one strategy to another. A fluent reader however, is able to decode an unfamiliar word using phonological skills, as well as orchestrating contextual and syntactic cues to decode whole phrases.

So, there are many processes that are coordinated during fluent reading. Reading comprehension is a cornerstone of these. However, comprehension is not a ‘layer’ of reading that magically ‘appears’ because it has been mechanically underpinned by good levels of decoding and fluency. Comprehension is a product of rhythmic awareness - an important element of language acquisition in infancy.

Though well-intentioned, the practise of timing children’s reading with a stopwatch, encouraging them to read more quickly week after week is not helpful for cultivating rhythmic awareness. Using a stopwatch may generate a degree of motivation to read, but a focus on acceleration forces the child to read without finding their natural rhythm. In fact, if children have learned to decode at a fast pace, they have been trained to enunciate the words without understanding them at all. Comprehension is not related to the pace of reading.

Comprehension and word recognition are coordinated by rhythmic processes during fluent reading that are similar to the natural unfolding of rhythm during speaking and listening. A rhythm-based approach fosters rhythmic awareness and supports fluent reading.

Long, M. (2014). ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading. Research Studies in Music Education, 36(1), 107-124.

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Where has all the chanting gone?

2 October 2020

Photo by Izzy Park via Unsplash
Photo by Izzy Park via Unsplash

When I watched the announcements about lockdown on March 23rd 2020 from a hard metal seat in Glasgow International Airport, I’d already made ten trips to Scotland and it felt so frustrating that the project would be interrupted when we were so close to its completion. Throughout the lockdown and the summer months, I hoped very much that we would have a chance to salvage and finish off the work. In the past two weeks it has been an absolute privilege to return to the schools with ‘refresher sessions’ and follow-up testing. So much has changed. The teachers vigorously spray, clean and ventilate the classrooms. Everyone is vigilant and determined to keep their community safe. It is obvious that this goal is shared and held dear by all. Even young children immediately take all their books and pencils with them when they sit on the floor while their tables and chairs are disinfected. Absolutely nobody needs to be reminded to do this.

In one of the schools, particular spaces are filled with food and clothing. The leadership team came into the school every single day of the lockdown, as well as throughout the summer months to keep everyone on track; teachers worked face-to-face with the children throughout this period. Stunning new displays made by the parents now explode out from the staffroom walls and thank you cards are pinned to the noticeboard of a beautiful new community room.

Rhythm for Reading has been modified to keep everyone safe. I visit only one school in a single day and wear a mask. The children remain in their ‘bubbles’ when they take part, and stand at least two metres away from me. In between each session, I ventilate and vigorously disinfect the teaching area. Of course, there is plenty of time for cleaning as each Rhythm for Reading session is, as always, only ten minutes in duration. Actually, this level of flexibility fits in very well with the dynamic teaching that I’m seeing in the schools - and the children are loving that they are being taught in small groups and in an increasingly nuanced way.

Robust, energetic chanting has always been an important part of the Rhythm for Reading programme, but chanting, like singing is strictly prohibited. For quite some time I have been resigned to mothballing the programme for this reason. Eventually however, a neat solution popped into my mind. With a bit of experimentation, I realised that it is possible to vocalise safely and precisely, whilst keeping the volume level below that of normal speaking. All that is required to make this modification fun, is a little imagination. Most children know how to squeak like a mouse - these high pitched sounds are made in the throat and involve minimal breath - far less than speech. So, my solution has now been ‘road-tested’ by the squeaky teams in Scotland and I’m happy to have found a safe and new way to offer the programme without diluting it.

I would like to say a huge thank you to these children, teachers and school leaders for the opportunity to come back and complete the programme. It has been utterly inspiring, humbling and uplifting to visit your schools these past two weeks.

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