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The Rhythm for Reading blog

Fluency and feeling in reading

22 March 2024

Image credit: CDC via Unsplash
Image credit: CDC via Unsplash

Fluency refers to the flowing qualities in the reading. And these flowing qualities are mercurial in the sense that it is difficult to measure and define them. In the Rhythm for Reading Programme, we use the metaphor of traffic flow to help us to monitor the development of fluency from week to week.

Traffic that is barely flowing stops and starts frequently, but there is still a general sense of moving forward on the journey to the destination. This feeling would apply to word-by-word reading.

Traffic that moves forward for a short period and then stops briefly has a sense of moving in undulating waves that lack real momentum, but despite this, there is a clear sense of moving forward. This feeling is fluent in short bursts, but not sustained enough to convey the shape of a phrase or a sentence.

The traffic that moves forward and then slows suddenly, but keeps moving has an undulating quality. This sense of movement is not yet strong, though it conveys some underlying momentum. This type of fluency communicates the shape and meaning of a phrase, but is not yet self-sustaining.

When traffic is flowing, it maintains a steady pace for the most part. This represents the fluency in reading that is self-sustaining and enjoyable. On occasion, there may be an unfamiliar word which needs a second look, but in the main, it flows well.

It is also possible to imagine the type of driving that is very fast and reckless. How might this sit within our traffic metaphor? Well reckless driving could be erratic, involve cutting corners and even jumping red lights. The same thing happens in reading that is fast but not fluent. Syllables, words and phrases are skipped over and punctuation is often ignored. The reasons for this can be seen in both reading and driving: there is a need to reach the destination, but this is achieved in an unstable, rather than a balanced way.

Balance in reading fluency

If balance is required, then we need to think about poise, stillness and patience. Recent posts have referred to the importance of conversation and social interaction in the early years before a child starts school. This same principle applies to reading fluency. The rhythm of a conversation involves an ebb and flow of turn-taking. This isn’t only about consideration and courtesy on both sides, it’s also about the child’s experience of balance as an integral part of social connection.

Social connection might be stressful, fun or even soothing. Each type of social connection generates its own rhythmic signature and has its own feelings.

  • Stressful conversations are likely to involve abrupt short phrases and there might be too little or no patience on both sides, generating frustration and imbalance.
  • Fun conversations are likely to involve ‘banter’ - everyone is playing along. The pace of the conversation is swift and the mood is buoyant. There is a heightened sense of timing. Explosive laughter punctuates the jokes, the quick-fire responses, the mystery and the punchlines. Phrases are sometimes long and sometimes short. The sheer variety is key to playfulness, with some unpredictability in the mix and all of this complexity is likely to elicit laughs, smiles and good cheer.
  • Soothing conversations are not meant to be entertaining. Rather, they offer reassurance and support, and there’s a timeless quality to these. The ebb and flow of phrases might drift in and out of focus, but momentum does not seem to matter at all. Sharing in the moment feels more important than what is said. In fact the words might be repetitive and uninteresting: tone of voice is key.

Different types of social connection and different types of driving are similar in one way. They require us to anticipate what is about to happen. The exception to this would be reckless driving, which is more erratic and therefore takes more effort to predict. Most of the time, however, it is possible to attune to the flowing qualities of traffic and conversations, and to make accurate judgments in terms of when and how to respond.

When children learn to read, they become fluent if they are attuned to the flowing qualities of the text. A text that encourages very short phrases and sentences will not support a child to read fluently, but one with longer sentences and a credible narrative will. This is because reading fluently requires immersion and a deeper level of connection with the text.

Anticipation in fluency, feeling and flow

To develop fluent reading, children are like drivers who can adapt to the flow of the traffic. It’s necessary to accommodate changes in the shapes and lengths of phrases. A good writer will vary these to maintain the reader’s attention. It is also important to anticipate what lies ahead. Failure to anticipate leads to loss of control for drivers and readers alike. What does anticipate mean? It is a very broad term, which involves projecting a number of possible outcomes at any one time.

For example, there might be a possibility that a lightweight lorry will overtake a heavier one. A driver anticipating this will already have prepared to move into a new road position: failure to do so would lead to braking and slowing down. In comparison, a fluent reader, aware that two characters are plotting against the protagonist might be looking out for small signs that something is about to happen. This sense of anticipation sharpens the involvement in the text, fluency intensifies and reading becomes more pleasurable and rewarding with rising levels of curiosity.

We can see from these examples that a sense of anticipation is fundamental to fluency. An involvement in the text sparks a degree of engagement and a guessing game begins. The text may be factual or fictitious, but once ignited, the reader needs to satisfy their appetite for information. And yet, if anticipation and igniting interest were all that was required to achieve reading fluency, there would be no need to write this post. After all, children are surrounded by adults who are helping them to become more involved and to think about what might happen next.

The missing piece of the puzzle

Like driving, reading fluency is in part, about safety. How safe is this child feeling in this situation? Are they willing to let their guard down? Are they ready to surrender to the power of the text or do they need to maintain their sense of control of their learning situation? Remember that fluent readers are able to ‘get lost in a book’. When children consider themselves to be vulnerable to educational failure because they are being judged as weak, fragile or struggling readers, they are unlikely to relax sufficiently to trust the process of learning and interacting, and are at greater risk of falling behind.

On the positive side, neuroscience has shown that when humans listen to someone speak, they are able to understand them (even as they talk at a pace of 250 words per minute) because they anticipate what they are likely to say. The details of the conversation are the ‘unknowns’, but the subject matter and all the related experiences of that topic are used to anticipate what is coming up in the conversation.

Selecting a topic of conversation opens up a ‘reference library’ of past experiences. If the conversation turned to attending a recent wedding, relevant information might include anecdotes about wedding cakes, family dynamics, embarrassing speeches and beautiful dresses. It would be possible to toggle between these for variety. In this way, the conversation is anticipated and enjoyed with ease.

Given that anticipation is an important part of our ability to predict and understand what is likely to happen next in different types of social interaction, we don’t need to teach this to children, but we do need to help children attune to an aspect of this process. This is known as ‘mentalising’ (or theory of mind) when they read. In other words, to be willing to figure out what others, such as characters or even the writer are thinking.

To return to the analogy with traffic as an example of mentalising, if a driver anticipates what another driver may do, they have also processed this in relation to the broader context. They are likely to avoid a collision and therefore feel safer when driving. If a driver fails to anticipate, they are unlikely to have fully processed the context of the situation. They may misinterpret the other driver’s signals, with a greater risk of an accident. This shows that anticipation and theory of mind are ‘life skills’ as much in reading the road, as in reading a book.

“The most effective teaching of reading is that which gives the pupil the various skills he or she needs to make the fullest possible use of context cues in search for meaning (The Bullock Committee, 1975, Recommendation 73)

It is not difficult to appreciate that making the fullest use of contextual cues involve a certain amount of integration. The information can only make sense if there are logical relationships between the different levels of information.

So, in terms of driving, knowing about the driving conditions would allow the driver to anticipate the flow of the traffic, such as whether

  • visibility is poor or good,
  • the road slopes uphill or downhill,
  • the surface of the road is dry or wet.

Conditions that change affect the speed of heavy vehicles such as lorries also affect the action a car driver takes to avoid slowing down or risking a collision. Thinking well ahead would allow time to process all the information, while at the same time, maintaining control of the car.

In reading, a change in a character’s behaviour might only make sense to a reader if the context has been fully understood. Anticipation of different possible outcomes would help them to adjust to the twists and turns of the storyline. Just as a speaker can anticipate topics and subtopics in a conversation, a reader co-opts this same behaviour when engaging with a text. The more at ease the reader is with that topic, the more integrated the context feels and making it easier to anticipate what is about to happen.

Fostering fluency and feeling

Humans have adapted to their environment, partly by harnessing the power of communication and by acquiring the perfect balance between curiosity and inhibition. Too little inhibition and we become reckless, putting ourselves and others at risk. Too much inhibition and we are unlikely to engage meaningfully with the social world at all. The point in between is where the ease and joy of learning and reading fluency exist.

According to educators, Purvis and Greenwood (1996), a ‘process approach’ can help children in the early years find safety in learning and to move beyond the boundaries of the immature, egocentric self.

The process approach involves assuming the role of a detective and practising eight different skills:

  • Describing,
  • Investigating,
  • Communicating,
  • Sequencing,
  • Explaining,
  • Observing,
  • Questioning
  • Hypothesising.

To put this into practice, they suggest that children sit in a circle and take turns to handle an unfamiliar object - such as a toy from the past, offering their impressions and ideas about this object. This approach promotes positive attitudes towards learning such as:

  • Motivation,
  • Curiosity,
  • Interest in people,
  • Concern for the environment,
  • Tolerance,
  • Self-esteem.

This approach is directly related to reading fluency because it supports vocabulary development, but more importantly, it models for the children the idea that exploration of an unfamiliar object or an irrelevant context may feel uncomfortable, but is perfectly safe.

Achieving a sense of safety when encountering unfamiliar objects in the classroom will help all the children to feel more in alignment with others. This improvement in social cohesion will help them find greater ease and fluency when reading and learning. Of course, the unfamiliar object would need to be so unusual that none of the children in the classroom would recognise it.

To a large extent, socially disadvantaged children are expected to take part in activities that feel alien to them, whereas these same activities are safe and familiar to more advantaged children in that classroom. It is likely that these early experiences of school life are reciprocated by the children’s learning behaviour and attitudes towards learning. Those who feel safe will learn, while children who feel unsafe will put up barriers to learning. If the dynamics of inequality were not reinforced by subtle cues in the classroom in day-to-day activities, disadvantaged children would feel safer and that they had a fairer chance at school.

In the Rhythm for Reading Programme, safety in learning lies at the heart of our ethos. Everyone learns to read a musical notation system that they are unfamiliar with, as we use the bass clef, which is largely new to everybody. The rhythm-based actions that we use are also novel as they are unique to the programme. This sense of fairness - genuine team working in which everyone feels equal - is an important element of the programme. Working as part of a team therefore, and in the context of equality, each child succeeds in reading simple musical notation fluently. Once this is established in a matter of five minutes, the programme builds on fluency and feelings of safety by cultivating ease, engagement and empowerment in the children’s reading skills.

To find out more about the Rhythm for Reading Programme, click here.

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If you enjoyed this post, I’ve picked out a few more!

Fluency: Finding flow in early reading

The pupils who most need to improve in terms of reading fluency (the lowest twenty percent of children) require support from the most effective teachers. Teaching effectiveness is known to be a strong predictor of pupils’ progress throughout school and for these children, pedagogy that develops a sense of mastery through repetition, reviewing and building familiarity with new words, supports the development of confident and fluent reading.

Rhythm, flow, reading fluency and comprehension

There’s evidence to show that feelings of cooperation and safety are experienced when humans sing and dance together and many people report being able to sustain hours of music making, when in a group. Other species such as birds and fish also deter predators by forming a large mass of synchronised movement patterns. Murmurations form before birds roost for the night and shoals of herrings achieve the same mesmeric effect when they are pursued by predators such as sea bass.

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

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.

Considering reading fluency

Earlier this year, we started to measure our impact in a slightly different way. Many teachers and head teachers have remarked on the improvement in their pupils’ reading fluency, so it seemed important to try to capture what has been happening. Of course, there are different ways to define and to measure reading fluency, but here is a snapshot of what we found when using two types of assessment.


Purvis, S. and Greenwood, J. (1996) ‘Mrs Rainbow told us what things were like when she went to school.’ History in the early years. In:D. Whitebread and P. Coltman, Teaching and Learning in the Early Years, London and New York, Routledge.

The Bullock Committee (1975) A Language for Life. (The Bullock Report). London. Department of Education and Science.

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Has the teaching of synthetic phonics addressed ‘Matthew effects’?

15 March 2024

Image credit: Marisa Howenstine
Image credit: Marisa Howenstine

‘Matthew effects’

Given everything that educational researchers have uncovered about reading and the attainment gap between socially advantaged and disadvantaged children, it is dismal that the ‘gap’ has widened, even though the teaching of reading has been delivered in a specific way, across the nation for the past fourteen years.

Historically, there was a concern that an emphasis on independence in the early years classroom (e.g. Whitebread et al., 1996); and a ‘loose framing’ of learning worked rather well for children from middle class backgrounds, but less well for disadvantaged children. Going back a little further, to Hart and Risley’s (1995) research on the ‘vocabulary gap’ we can see that fundamental inequalities in educational outcomes pointed to differences in exposure to language itself in the child’s home environment.

The link between the attainment gap in reading and Matthew effects (Stanovitch, 1986) in which the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, has been shown to play out not only throughout a child’s school career, but also in adult life as well. For decades, researchers from different nations have used ‘Matthew effects’ to explain the achievement gap in reading and eventually identified ‘school readiness’ as key (Duncan et al., 2007).

A more structured, tightly-framed and traditional form of pedagogy was proposed, but the allocation limited educational resources is always a matter of debate. Intergenerational cycles may influence these decisions, such as persisting patterns of aversion toward school. Within schools, some families have complex needs, such fundamental push and pull factors influence opinion on whether it is even feasible to reverse ‘Matthew effects’.

High standards for all children

Viewing education through the lens of equality - every child should be offered the ‘same chance’ at learning. An equitable viewpoint would offer a more nuanced approach - every child should be given the opportunity to learn in the way that is most appropriate to them. Offering every child the ‘same chance’ is too blunt a tool, whereas the equitable approach is too individualised. The nature of learning is related to the nature of everything because the set point and state of a child’s nervous system is set by their environment, and it is this that has a direct impact on a child’s capacity to learn. By improving the early environment of the child, therefore, there was a good chance that ‘Matthew effects’ could be addressed.

Policies that have improved the early environment for disadvantaged children have provided security and safety, and enabled parents to move out of a fear-based state of pure survival. Initiatives such as ‘Sure Start’ supported the early life experiences of children through a range of services that were tailored to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged families. Single parent families in particular needed support not only to budget carefully, to make healthier choices for their children’s nutrition, but also to cope with depleted reserves of energy and low levels of emotional well-being. Since austerity measures were put in place, however, many ‘Sure start’ centres lost considerable amounts of funding or were closed. In addition to losing those resources, disadvantaged families were forced to choose between heating and eating. For families who chose to eat, the growth of black mould has impacted their children’s respiratory health, whereas families who chose to heat their homes have had hungry children and have relied on free school meals and food banks.

The Rose Report

If addressing the basic needs of disadvantaged families through the ‘Sure Start’ scheme was a first step in reversing ‘Matthew effects’, the second step was a recommendation by the House of Commons Education Select Committee, that the government commissioned an enquiry into the teaching of reading. It was led by Sir Jim Rose, former Director of Inspection for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. The report recommended that the ‘Simple View of Reading’, wherein reading was the product of ‘word recognition’ and ‘language comprehension’, as proposed by Gough and Tumner (1986), would serve as a model for reading development. An approach known as synthetic phonics became statutory, amid reservations from many influential educationalists, but this was deemed the most appropriate solution to the issue of the decade: the ‘long tail of educational underachievement’.

Gough and Tumner’s theoretical model, like most strong theories is remarkably simplistic and thus, robust. The ‘Simple View of Reading’ was proposed some ten years before the so-called ‘vocabulary gap’ had been identified by Hart and Risley (1995). Viewed through the lens of the ‘vocabulary gap’ it is not difficult to appreciate that socially advantaged children were more likely to find the vocabulary in books to be relevant and relatable. They were also more likely to have longer attention spans, constructed through years of experience ‘conversational turns’ in day-to-day life, and would be expected to sustain their attention from the beginning to the end of a story.

Perhaps most important of all, advantaged children were more likely to have had stories read to them in a nurturing environment and therefore would readily associate reading within an atmosphere of comfort and security. I would imagine that this feeling would predispose them to approach learning with ease and confidence.

Do schools widen the attainment gap?

Arguably then, children from advantaged backgrounds would experience school as an extension of home, as evidenced in Whitebread and colleagues’ chapter, “Our classroom is like a cosy little house,” (Whitebread et al., 1996) and that access to books and enrichment would be a strong part of the continuity between the two. Contrastingly, some children from disadvantaged backgrounds start school with only 30-40 words in their vocabulary according to an Ofsted Report, (2014). And according to child development experts, children would be expected to have fifty words in their vocabulary by their second birthday (Wise and Bradford, 1996).

If a child from a disadvantaged background was already struggling with a fragmented attention span and a style of language comprehension that had been forged in a stressful environment, then listening to stories, would prove challenging, (particularly if the child was also hungry). Imagine also, that this socially disadvantaged child must then cope with learning words that are deliberately nonsensical, such as ‘vol’, ‘teg’, ‘jat’ and ‘ind’ (Standards an testing Agency, 2014). This type of teaching has always been controversial, but in the context of social disadvantage it is arguably unethical and presents struggling children with an unnecessary educational hurdle, adding insult to injury to a child with an already strained nervous system.

Verifying ‘Matthew effects’

Educational policy alienates all children, through the Year 1 Phonics Check, which tests children’s knowledge of phonemic-graphemic correspondence by including pseudo-words. Perhaps this amounts to nothing more than a playful ‘curved ball’ for some children, but by Year 1, teachers have already identified those at risk of failing the phonics check and have informed their parents to this effect.

Thus, ‘Matthew effects’ are verified, even at this early stage. One of the functions of baseline testing is to place the children on trajectories of predicted progression, and to hold schools accountable to realising those outcomes. An idealised view of an education system would include the aspiration that it mitigates social disadvantage. The current system however, does not appear to aspire in this way. Typically, it is the children in need of the most support who spend the most time out of the classroom, working with the least qualified members of the teaching team. The most qualified members of the team meanwhile stay in the classrooms, working with socially advantaged children.

The pandemic has widened the attainment gap. Children are still suffering and CAHMS is overstretched, with long waiting lists, with high levels of risk of self-harm placing children and adolescents in urgent need of professional help. At the same time, the culture of scrutiny, and accountability in schools has intensified, and now more than ever, there is an urgent need for balance in education.

Children are more likely to recover their equilibrium and confidence following the pandemic with regular access to opportunities to develop their self-expression. The mode of self-expression would of course vary from child to child and might include sport, martial arts, storytelling, pottery, art, music or dance. As a nation with a strong creative sector, we have ample resources to support children in this way. Time spent in nature, nurturing friendships, and in recreational play is also necessary for well-being, and will help children to gain a sense of safety in the wider context of social life.


Together, children with their capacity for play and self-expression can help each other to feel a renewed sense of safety and belonging through friendship, creativity and self-expression. Most importantly, when children feel safe, they begin to focus their attention. This enables generalised states of vigilance and anxiety to stabilise and move towards a more balanced state. When children realise that they are able to learn, their desire to learn grows.

The sense of relief that follows, relaxes their muscles around the shoulders, the voice and the neck. They perceive phonemes more clearly and begin to enjoy their learning journey. A structured, small group teaching environment is highly effective in this context and resets a child’s feeling of ease in their social environment. The Rhythm for Reading Programme has a strong track record in helping children to feel happy at school (in mainstream and special schools alike) as well as improving their early reading skills and phonological processing.

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If you enjoyed this post, keep reading!

Conversations and language development in early childhood

The Hart and Risley (1995) study showed perhaps surprisingly that infants initiate conversations with their parents more than the parents do. This may happen at the most inconvenient moments for the adults, but if parents are aware that their child needs to interact in order to develop language skills, that would set them up for life: they would probably pay closer attention to these subtle attempts to initiate interaction.

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

Although the richness of vocabulary was hugely advantageous for children from better-off homes in the Hart and Risley study, researchers have discovered that the opportunities for conversational turns between parents and their children, for example when sharing a book, were even more beneficial than vocabulary development. Conversations have also been identified as a marker for maternal responsiveness, positive emotional exchange and social engagement (Paul & Gilkerson, 2017).

It’s anti-bullying week: How does fear affect learning?

Recently, I read that an act of aggression is a natural ‘active coping strategy’ and is rewarded by a dopamine hit. Conversely, a submissive, ’passive coping strategy’ results in stress-induced withdrawal and even generates a ‘shutdown’, an immediate energy-conserving behavioural response. The setting for these social experiments was a laboratory. The brains of mice and rats were dissected following each behavioural task. Slices of tissue were examined to determine the levels of reward and stress induced by each type of ‘social situation’ manipulated by the researchers.

How does this relate to anti-bullying week? Well, in terms of brain structure, neurochemistry and behavioural responses, mice and rats are considered to bear a close enough resemblance to humans to deem such work ethical, justifiable and relevant.

Child development in 2024: Learning versus hunger

In recent weeks, there has been coverage on the rapid rise of ‘baby banks’ (Chloë Hamilton, The Guardian Newspaper). These are like food banks, but specialise in providing free nappies, baby formula, clothes and equipment. We have 200 branches in the UK and just as the Christmas holidays were about to start, there was also a piece about headteachers reporting malnourishment among their pupils (Jessica Murray, The Guardian Newspaper).

Having delivered the Rhythm for Reading programme in schools that also function as community food banks, and having seen children faint from hunger while at school, I am in no doubt that nothing can be more important to a civilised and caring society than children’s physical well-being - hungry children cannot learn anything at all.


Duncan et al. (2007) School readiness and later achievement, Developmental Psychology, 43 (6), 1428-1446.

Gough, P. and Tumner, W. (1986) Decoding, Reading and Reading Disability, Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6 -10

Hart, B. and Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American Children, Baltimore, M.D., Brookes.

Office for Standards in Education (2014) Are you Ready? Good Practice in School Readiness, London

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (The Rose Report). London Department for Education and Skills.

Standards and Testing Agency (2014) Phonics Screening Check: Children’s Materials. London: Standards and Testing Agency

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

Whitebread, D. Et al., (1996) “Our classroom is like a little cosy house!” Organising the early years classroom to encourage independent learning, In D. Whitebread and P. Coltman, ‘Teaching and Learning in the Early Years, London and New York: Routledge.

Wise, D. and Bradford, H. (1996). “You’re supposed to tell me your name now!” Speaking and listening in the early years. In D. Whitebread and P. Coltman, ‘Teaching and Learning in the Early Years, London and New York: Routledge.

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Sharing Stories: Reflections on World Book Day

8 March 2024

Image credit: Steve Libralon via Unsplash
Image credit: Steve Libralon via Unsplash

Our love of stories, whether fiction or non-fiction creates an appetite for more information. Stories are irresistible to us because they reward our curiosity about others’ experiences. They inspire us and invite us to consider the unimaginable possibilities that exist outside our familiar day-to-day lives.

According to psychologists we are hard-wired to enjoy stories. This is for reasons that are inextricably linked to our survival. Our instincts interpret day-to-day events as stories and the majority of these never reach our conscious awareness; but on the other hand, the most salient moments stand out because they were unusual in some way: it is that that made them memorable.

Narrative and the nervous system

About twenty years ago, I remember riding on a small, rickety electric train. Like most trains, it had seats, mini carriages and wheels, but no sides and no roof. It jolted as it carried us on a miniature railway deep underground. The air became colder and everyone was chattering quietly as we rumbled deep down into the limestone rocks. We were on our way to see prehistoric cave art. In the distance a low murmuring caught my attention. I hoped it might be an underground flow of water, but suddenly our train stopped and the low vibration became louder as it approached us. I had no idea what to expect. The noise was deafening and the lights went out. We sat not only in silence, but in dread.

This is a true story based on the uncertainty that we, the tourists, all experienced in an unfamiliar place, cut off from the outside world and in fear of impending doom! As it turned out the trains always passed each other in this way and the matter of altering the points on the tracks was done manually. Once the lights came back on, and having experienced an immense surge of relief, I think we enjoyed the cave art even more.

Perhaps the drama of the half hour ride into the hillside put us all in touch with the deepest feelings of terror that the nervous system is primed to deliver. There was nowhere to hide during that unusual experience and we all felt vulnerable for about ten minutes. Perhaps it was by design that we experienced what the early artists may have felt when they made the cave art at ‘Grotte de Chauvet’, so far away from the familiarity of mundane life on the surface.

And as today is International Women’s Day, I’d like to acknowledge that the cave art at Chauvet, was most likely made by women. It was executed in red and depicted the female form in relation to sacred animals, as well as handprints of red ochre (Fagan, 2005).

Reflecting on the life ways of ‘Cro Magnon’ man at the end of the Ice Age, Brian Fagan acknowledged the importance of music and stories when he described the challenges of living within the natural world. There were long hard winters and an unpredictable supply of food; but the rhythm of the seasons remained unchanged:

‘People thought of themselves as part of a living world, where animals, plants, and even landmarks and inanimate objects had lives of their own. The environment lived and surrounded one, defined by intangible forces and personalities, whether human or not. To live in such a way required a powerful imagination, the ability to conceptualise, to chant, to make music, and to tell tales that validated human existence and explained the natural order of things.’ (Fagan, 2005, p.142)

However, only a few thousand years later human societies experienced a technological revolution. They harnessed the cyclic seasonal rhythms of nature and through the advent of farming, created a more predictable supply of food. In the transitions from hunter gatherers to farmers, and then into city dwelling civilisations, the functions of storytelling also changed to reflect the new challenges that humans faced. Living in closer proximity, humans experienced profound changes in terms of sanitation and disease.

In his ‘Selfish Gene Theory’, Dawkins (1976) proposed that humans were susceptible to stories, particularly those that involved supernatural powers, (not because our sensibilities were finely attuned to the natural environment throughout our evolution), but because they were gullible and self-delusional. In a similar vein, Humphrey’s ‘Machiavellian Theory’ (1976) acknowledged that as humans became more socially sophisticated, they were better able to deceive and outwit each other. This would involve inferring and anticipating the thoughts of another and also an ability to envision imaginary scenarios. The creation of fiction and story-telling may well have become more important for navigating social structures in the new villages and first cities - anticipating an unpredictable supply of food was no longer society’s primary concern.

Before the first books were written

Before the first books were written, people would share the most iconic stories in verse form or as ballads. The couplets of verse and the regular structures of songs helped with learning and recalling all the details, and this was important for maintaining the integrity and credibility of the narrative with each retelling. The most important information, such as the early laws in Ancient Greece for example, were recited in verse for this reason.

According to Thucydides, the citizens of Ancient Greece were schooled in a rich oral culture through the recitation. These were later written down by Homer as the famous Iliad and Odyssey, which detailed the epic feats of supernatural figures: Greek gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines. The driving metre and melodious quality of the poetry, in particular the rhythmic and repetitive lines, helped the young citizens to commit large amounts of material to memory (Wolf, 2007, p.57). Arguably, the Ancient Greeks had learned to hone and develop executive cognitive functions through these techniques as the benefits of committing large amounts of material to memory included achieving mental focus and control of distraction. Hierarchical structures in the form of the poetry would have supported logical and philosophical thinking as well as provided the ability to ‘step back’ and see the ‘big picture’.

As a side note, today’s professional musicians, dancers and actors in the creative sector’s performing arts are trained through the traditional discipline of each art form to commit large volumes of information to memory for public performances. These are now celebrated and ‘consumed’ via live streaming, broadcasts and recordings, and enjoyed by audiences all around the world.

Prehistory ended when the first story was written down

According to art historian, Zainab Bahrani, the first stories ever recorded were ‘ancient myths of origins’, which dated back to Mesopotamia of the historical era, when higher levels of art and architecture began to emerge. The Mesopotamians credited a god known as ‘Enki’ (Sumarian) and also known as Ea (Akkadian) and this deity was associated with the creative origin of the world.

Similarly, there was a Babylonian myth that described a place called ‘Eridu’. This was thought to be the first place to be created by the gods and ‘Eridu’ was sacred to ‘Enki’, the god of water, wisdom and craftmanship’ ((Bahrani, 2017, p. 42).

‘The city of ‘Eridu’ is recounted here, and even in this early story, translated into English (Bahrani, 2017, p. 36), it is clear that the narrative is presented in a rhythmically coherent way and with a clear structure:

“A holy house, a house of the gods in a holy

place had not been made, reed had not come

forth, a tree had not been created,

A brick had not been laid, a brick mould

had not been built,

A city had not been made, a living creature

had not been placed (within)

All the lands were sea,

The spring in the sea was a water pipe.

The Eridu was made.”

The city of Eridu was discovered in the twentieth century and this work revealed that people had first lived there some seven thousand years ago, and had created no less than eighteen excavated levels of occupation. By studying these levels, academics have been able to map the story of cultural development of this society over many generations, from hunter gatherers, to farmers, to citizens dwelling in complex cities. The stories of this civilisation were first written down in the fourth millennium B.C.E..

The invention of writing was a cultural advance that took place alongside the development of high art and architecture, refined craftsmanship and image making. The creative endeavours of the extraordinary Sumarians involved complex aesthetic structures, ordered and planned spaces and were known collectively as ‘ME’. This word is usually, according to Bahrani, translated as ‘the arts of civilisation’ (Bahrani, 2017, 46). The oldest written texts, which were found in Uruk in Iraq, recorded administrative matters, such as the trade of local produce including cattle and crops. Evidence also existed of other forms of writing in the third millennium B.C.E., and included poetry, sciences and mathematics (Bahrani, 2017).

Why do humans find stories so irresistible?

Prominent thinkers have attempted to answer this question. The classical view was that humans are cooperative and wanted to trade rather than wage war with each other. We only share personal stories when we feel safe and people feel privileged when someone confides in them and builds trust in this way. For this reason, stories may have been an effective means to attain non-kinship ties. These were hard won and even today, families and nations work hard to sustain these links through successive generations. The diplomacy of such bonds requires maintaining trust through high levels of respect and courtesy, verbal and non-verbal social interaction, as well as the sharing of food together. Each level of social bonding would have required a delicate balancing of different perspectives, achieved in such a way that they could not destabilise the all-important trade network.

Perhaps metaphors became important as key negotiating tools of the early traders, when first brokering these networks. The social value of a metaphor for example, could lie in its value as a symbol for relaying sensitive information. Sharing a symbolic reference ( a pair of doves as a gift, representing peace) would build mutual understanding and protect the traders from causing unintended offence. Travelling long distances, they most likely spent considerable time exchanging hospitality with trading partners, and stories would have helped to pass the time, whilst also building bonds of trust.

Most importantly, a story carrying a metaphor could potentially cloak a direct message through its simple arc of beginning, middle and end, and also carry a deeper meaning. The value of sharing a story would have allowed people from different backgrounds to understand one another’s situation from a higher perspective or from a ‘neutral’ point of view.

Anthropologists believe it was possible to build strong networks of social cooperation on a rich understanding of symbolic culture, and this may explain the importance of stories in our evolution in increasingly complex societies. (Dunbar et al., 1999).


Despite the importance of storytelling for the smaller social groups and the development of large trading networks, its power continuous to mesmerise children and adults alike, whether through films, radio or books. In celebrating World Book Day, many children have created costumes to reflect the characters in their favourite books. This gesture perhaps reminds us all of the importance of stories in our cultural history and prehistory, when humans understood their lives within the narrative of a broader, more cosmic and supernatural context. Although children are not expected to recite poetry as their great grandparents did, it is interesting to see thats superheroes and magical characters are still relevant today. Even more remarkable, the heroes and heroines of today’s literature still embark upon epic journeys of self-discovery, just as they had done thousands of years ago in Homer’s poetry.

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Confidence and happiness in the Rhythm for Reading programme

Optimal experiences are life-affirming, intrinsically rewarding and in terms of pedagogy, they are highly desirable because they boost students’ confidence and motivation. They can be very helpful in realigning attitudes towards reward, so that students become motivated by the sheer joy of taking part rather than wanting to know what they will ‘get’ in return for taking part.

Statistically significant impact after only 100 minutes

As the approach is rhythm-based instead of word-based, pupils with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or English as an Additional Language (EAL) benefit hugely from the opportunity to improve their reading without using words. It’s an opportunity to lighten the cognitive load, but to intensify precision and finesse.

What are metaphors for?

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.

Visiting the library for the very first time

This child’s bold plan moved and inspired me to visit the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre to put together a list of books for children who have discovered the joy of reading and are preparing to visit their nearest library for the first time. The Norfolk Children’s Book Centre houses some 80,000 children’s books. As dolphins, dinosaurs and gladiators feature prominently in our resources and are extremely popular with the children, they provided an obvious starting point for our search for these particular books.


Z. Bahrain (2017) Mesopotamia: Ancient art and architecture, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London.

R. Dawkins, (1976) The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University press

R. Dunbar, C. Knight abd C. Power (1999) The Evolution of Culture, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

B. Fagan (2010) Cro-Magnon: How the ice-age gave birth to the first modern humans, New York: Bloomsbury Press

J.R. Humphrey (1976)’The social function of intellect, In Bateson P.P.G. and Hinds R.A.. (Eds.) Growing Pains. Ethology Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

M. Wolf (2008) Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain, London: Icon Books

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Musical teamwork and empathy

28 February 2024

Image credit: S.B. Vonlant via Unsplash


There’s tension in teamwork! On the one hand there’s the idea that ‘teamwork makes the dreamwork’, pointing to the ideal situation in which everyone pulls together to attain goals that are shared and for the good of the whole community - for instance in a social enterprise. The maxim, ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team’ tells us that people sometimes contribute to teamwork with other intentions - perhaps they see it as an opportunity to outshine, usurp or even exploit the efforts of others.

Let us think for a moment about a community of traditional hunter gatherers, researched by anthropologist Jerome Lewis at ULC. They have life ways built on teamwork: - Women and men carry out their day-to-day roles in separate groups and the two groups alternate in terms of taking on the responsibility for leadership and decision-making. In this way, the community maintains a rhythmic balance, like the swing of a pendulum, between the perspectives of the men and then the women. The elders of the community, particularly the women, encourage everyone to ridicule any young person who wants to be louder, faster or smarter than others in the group.

The qualities of teamwork have also been studied by neuroscientists and there are no surprises here. Teamwork involves joint action, communication and empathy: people’s actions naturally fall into coordination with one another. We see this in social situations where there is obvious mirroring - one person sips water from a glass and then others at that table do the same, perhaps as a symbolic intention of unity.

On the one hand, there are distinct disadvantages to group behaviour and teamwork, because imbalances within the group can generate a false sense of security, potentially affecting many people:

  • ‘groupthink’ - when people are not able to discuss matters openly and one opinion dominates,
  • bias - when clear thinking is sidelined by ideology and the whole group loses touch with reality,
  • double standards - when a minority abuse the value system held by the group to dominate and repress the majority.

On the other hand, the advantages of teamwork and a sense of group membership are beneficial in the long term for our health and well-being. For example, it is easier for us to coordinate repetitive actions with others and to communicate regularly in small groups. This is because as humans, we are hard-wired to rely on group effort to guide both our day-to-day behaviour as well as our longer term goals. Teamwork is advantageous in the long term in the following ways:

  • it is economical in terms of energy expenditure,
  • coordinated actions look and sound impressive to outsiders,
  • predators will likely be deterred, and
  • people feel they belong and are safe.

Musical teamwork

In both contemporary western cultures and extant hunter gatherer societies, humans are coordinated in time by feeling a shared rhythm - whether that is via a physical action, a chant or a song. The repetitive nature of many actions means that the movement is not only coordinated in time but also refined in space.

This is a natural phenomenon that applies to most species - for example, bees secrete wax and form hexagonal cells in honeycomb because a hexagon shape allows for economic use of repetitive, rhythmic movement and energy, without compromising the stability and strength of the cell walls. We see a stylised version of this in formal military displays around the world, and a more relaxed version in informal crowd behaviour (such as a ‘Mexican wave’ or clapping in time) at cultural events for example at a sports stadium - whether enjoying a match or a pop concert.

The formation of a group identity in the context of working together involves mutual trust, respect, a desire to achieve results through coordinated precision and also the flexibility that is needed to achieve an optimal result. In musical teamwork, this level of cooperation is practised as a discipline ‘for its own sake’ because the people involved share joint musical goals. These might be modest such as journeying through a new musical score, or writing a new song together. The joint experience of traversing the musical ‘unknown’ is mysterious and requires coordination and coherence - similar to navigating a cave in the dark. Or, the goal might be more aligned with artistry, such as working together to balance all of the nuances of a known piece of music, so that the performance of a particular work comes across as a sublime entity of perfectly structured, balanced, ’architectural’ proportions, although in real time.

So, in describing different types of joint action in music - as in many things - it becomes obvious that some teams could be described as ‘elite’ and some as ‘inclusive’. In both groups (provided there is a sense of joint action, trust and positive teamwork) the neuropeptide, oxytocin (aka ‘the love hormone’) works quickly to build bonds between people and to form what are known among social psychologists as ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’ (a power imbalance usually favours the ‘in group’).

For instance, in the Rhythm for Reading programme, we uphold an inclusive ethos. This is very important as everyone involved must feel that they can play a meaningful role in contributing to the effort of their group, each week. When, on occasion, a teacher has tried to introduce a new child into a group of ten children, or to swap two children between different groups (there may be six groups of children taking part in one school), the trust and the bonds in the affected groups may be dissolved, probably because of the influence of oxytocin on group identification..

So, to sum up, teamwork is an important and impactful aspect of the Rhythm for Reading programme.

Musical teamwork and empathy

An abundance of research findings point to the ‘prosocial’ impact of joint music-making (Hallam and Himonides , 2022). Being involved in music making requires sustained and coordinated joint action. For example, each person is aware of their own contribution, but they also have oversight of, as well as respect and responsibility for, the overall effect. In other words, each person would be listening and personally invested in the balance of the music in terms of its:

  • musical texture - anticipating and blending their own sound in proportion to the sounds of others,
  • pitch and melodic line - anticipating and aligning a single pitch or a melody with the pitch of others,
  • rhythm and tempo - keeping in time with others, anticipating and contributing to the vibrancy of shared rhythm, and
  • harmony - phrasing and blending their own sound within a shared ownership of harmony and structure.

In the anthropological work of Jerome Lewis, joint music making within the community of hunter gathers involved singing to their homeland - the nature around them in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Each level of richness of the equatorial forest was represented in their complex music, so that within communal music making, many rhythms and melodies were sung, balanced, and harmonised together. If one person protruded or was conspicuous, the precious balance of the musical ecosystem was lost and that person would be known as, ‘an energy thief’.

In music education in the UK, different types of music tend to require different kinds of musical interaction. These might include:

  • playing in time with others, focussing mainly on synchrony and tight coordination,
  • holding a completely different line and harmonising, with additional demands on cognitive control, or,
  • alternating with each other, with room for greater individual expression, improvisation and flexibility.

Each of these examples emphasises what could be loosely described as a different musical skillset, but at the heart of all of these examples is the need for: empathy and ‘theory of mind’ - being able to read the intentions of others and respond accordingly,

Musical notation, teamwork and empathy

  • If we feed a child nourishing food, we can say this has enhanced their health.
  • If we place a child into stimulating musical training, we can say this has enhanced their empathy.
  • If we place a child into an intervention which teaches them to read musical notation, we can say this has improved their reading skills.

There is a clear pattern of cause and effect, but millions of years of evolution have primed us to respond to optimal experiences that promote health, empathy and communication. This is why children are known to respond positively to an enriched environment (and why an enriched environment is also known to accelerate learning in animals, such as mice and rats).

A more worrisome situation arises when children from disadvantaged social backgrounds, whose fundamental needs of adequate nutrition, shelter and safety (physical, social and psychological), may not have been addressed, are placed into underspecified musical interventions where they are expected to thrive. This may be why many music education research studies have achieved such mixed results (see Hallam and Himonides, 2022 for a comprehensive review).

Closing thoughts

In the Rhythm for Reading Programme, the safety of the children is always the top priority, and this includes ensuring that on a weekly basis they experience a strong sense of:

  • belonging - through working as a team, and coordinating with the specially composed music in a consistent way,
  • fluency and ease - through reading simple notation enriched by patterns, repetition and novelty,
  • happiness and enthusiasm - through participating in shared moments of collective joy.

To read about the extraordinary impact of the Rhythm for Reading programme on children’s reading comprehension click here.

To book a call and discuss group teaching and the needs of children in your school, click here.

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Rhythm, breath and well-being

Breath is an important part of the Rhythm for Reading programme. We use our voices as a team in different ways and this engages our breath. In the early stages of the programme we use rapid fire responses to learn the names of musical notes and our breath is short, sharp and strong - just like the sounds of our voices.

Confidence and happiness in the Rhythm for Reading programme

This post describes the tenth of ten Rhythm for Reading programme sessions. By this stage in the reading intervention, everyone in the group can sight-read both simple and comparatively complex music notation with ease and confidence. To do this, our eyes are glued onto the board, our voices are synchronised and we’ve gelled through teamwork.

The Joy of Teamwork

By nine years of age, children have assimilated a vast amount of information about their culture simply by learning through experience. Enculturation is a particularly powerful form of deep learning that shapes children’s attitudes and perceptions of the world in which they are growing up. Through working in many schools, I’ve observed that by the age of nine years, children have, through this process of enculturation developed a strong emotive response to the concept of ‘teamwork’.

Learn to read music and develop executive functions: The exception rather than the rule

The Rhythm for Reading Programme creates an environment that allows pupils to focus their attention right from the start. They learn to read music by repeating, reviewing and practising key concepts each week, consistent with the principle of ‘spaced practice’. Consistent rehearsal of musical notes using visual images, as well as hearing and saying the note names, illustrates the principle of ‘dual coding’. The programme is built on a cumulative structure that prioritises fluency, as well as a light ‘cognitive load’ and there is a gradual increase in the complexity of tasks within the context of working together as a strong and enthusiastic team.


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

NB References to Jerome Lewis are from personal notes taken during public lectures given by Radical Anthropology Group, Department of Anthropology, University College London.

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Why empathy boosts reading comprehension in primary schools

23 February 2024

Credit image: Andrew Ebrahim via Unsplash
Credit image: Andrew Ebrahim via Unsplash

The importance of respect lies at the heart of school ethos and is the foundation for cooperative behaviour and positive attitudes towards learning. In practice, it is possible to cultivate these positive attitudes deliberately, particularly in early reading development if sufficient empathy and sensitivity exists. This means acknowledging cultural diversity - both in depth and breadth, and recognising the linguistic richness of the school community.

Confidence in learning is one of the greatest gifts that education can offer children, but this too requires empathy. Advantaged children start school socially well-adjusted and ready to learn, whereas disadvantaged children lag behind their classmates in this respect. For example, effective teaching that models thinking and reasoning is essential for disadvantaged children, when their attainment is behind age expectation in early reading development. In this post I look at ways in which a focus on empathy breaches social disadvantage and boosts reading comprehension.


Let us remind ourselves that the first relationship that infants have is critical to development, because it precedes their own character formation and the sense of self. The primary caregiver is usually the mother in the first weeks of life, but not always. These early weeks of engagement with the infant are thought to influence the child’s development based on two types of maternal caregiving: sensitivity and intrusiveness.These qualities exist at opposite ends of a continuum and there is a general consensus that if the primary caregiver is sensitive about one third of the time, then the child will be socially well-adjusted and attach securely to the mother-figure. Sensitivity refers to the mother’s ability to empathise with her child, to infer her child’s basic requirements, as well as to respond to the child’s need to be soothed or to engage playfully. Traditionally, mothers have responded to their infants’ needs and desires by singing to them, playing peek-a boo style games and reciting stories. The effects of these activities on the developing brain of the infant have been researched and may help us to understand how to support the young children who struggle with early reading when they start school.

Reading Comprehension

The effect of storytelling on the human brain was first reported in 2010 by Silbert and Hasson. The research used a brain scanner to record brain activity as each participant listened to a story. The findings showed, perhaps unsurprisingly that in the auditory areas responsible for processing sound, the brain waves tracked the voice of the person reading the story. However, language areas of the brain and the areas responsible for the sense of self and others, lagged behind the auditory areas. The authors thought that the meaning of the story was being shaped by these slower processes. Further research showed that inserting nonsense words into the story scrambled the areas of the brain, assumed to be involved in processing context and comprehension (Silbert and Hasson, 2010).

According to the well known Simple View of Reading Model (Gough and Tumner, 1986), two foundational skills: linguistic comprehension and decoding are essential for the development of reading comprehension. Decoding is complex: it involves sounding our letters (transforming graphemes into phonemes and syllables) and then blending these into words (Ehri 1995; 1998). Even though individual differences affect the development of decoding, researchers assert that ability in decoding is closely aligned with reading comprehension skill (Garcia and Cain, 2014).

However, individual differences in terms of control of working memory, control of inhibition and the ability to update and adapt with flexibility to the development of the text affect children’s reading comprehension and researchers now think that these abilities also account for the difficulties with decoding as well (Ober et al., 2019). How might teachers make use of this information in a classroom scenario?

Empathy and comprehension in child development

Imagine for a moment that two children have been playing together with a spaceship. The adult supervising them hears that one child has monopolised the toy and the other child is crying in protest. To contain the situation the adult acknowledges and describes the feelings of each child and invites the two children to:

  • read one another’s feelings by looking at their facial expressions,
  • ask why their friend is feeling this way,
  • imagine how they could make this situation better, and
  • figure out a way to share the spaceship.

These are important steps because the children then take on a deeper sense of responsibility for:

  • self-regulating their own behaviour,
  • monitoring their friend’s feelings as well as their own, and
  • planning how they might play together to avoid this happening again.

Through playing together, under sensitive professional guidance, these children are able to develop important life skills such as cooperation, learning to adapt to each other’s feelings, as well as planning and executing joint actions in the moment.

It’s also important to recognise that many children do not receive nuanced guidance from adults. Investment in early years provision and training is vital to address the effects of an exponential rise in social and economic disadvantage, but also, sensitivity to culturally and linguistically diverse children for example of asylum seekers and refugees is just as important. Children and adolescents who receive empathic guidance from adults, would for example need to be trusted by the parents of those children, and need to be appropriately culturally and linguistically informed (Cain et al., 2020).

The most important attribute of empathy is that it involves one person being able to connect their personal experiences with those of another individual. Learning about empathy under sensitive adult guidance promotes the development of inhibitive control. Control of inhibition strengthens working memory. Stability and strength in working memory fosters flexibility in thinking. Each of these executive functions lays strong foundations for the development of inference, fluency, and comprehension in reading behaviour, as Maryanne Wolf says,

An enormously important influence on the development of reading comprehension in childhood is what happens after we remember, predict and infer: we feel, we identify, and in the process we understand more fully and can’t wait to turn the page. (Wolf, 2008, p.132)

The adaptive benefit of empathy

The social benefits of empathy are wide-ranging and in terms of human evolution, the ability to act collectively, maintain social bonds and close ties with others has most likely helped our forebears to envision and execute large scale plans for the benefit of a whole community. For example, collections of animal skeletons have led researchers to conclude that more than 20,000 years ago, parties of hunter gatherers had developed killing techniques, honed over generations to take advantage of the seasonal movement of horses. In one site in France, more than 30,000 wild horses were slaughtered, some were butchered, but many were killed unnecessarily and were left to rot (Fagan, 2010).

Humans are like other mammals in the way that we are able to synchronise and move together. When humans gather socially and dance together this behaviour fosters empathy and social cooperation (Huron, 2001;2003).

Indeed, these types of activities have been shown to enhance the development of empathy and school readiness in young children (Ritblatt et al., 2013; Kirschner and Tomasello, 2009;2010), children in primary school (Rabinowitch et al., 2013), and after only six weekly sessions of ten minutes of synchronised movement, entrained to background music, research findings showed significant improvements in reading comprehension and fluency (Long, 2014).

Bringing this back to empathy again, a large scale study involving 2914 children showed that the benefits of shared musical activity were associated with the development of inhibitory control and a reduction of behaviour issues, particularly among socially disadvantaged children (Alemán et al., 2017).


Our human brains are wired to be social. Our ancestors worked cooperatively and were able to read their environment and infer the seasonal movements of animals. They planned, coordinated and executed hunting plans with devastating precision. Our ability as modern humans to read printed language with fluency, ease and comprehension is perhaps the most advanced act of human social collaboration of all, as it allows us to receive an enormous volume of information from each other about challenges that face us as a global collective. To what extent are we willing to empathise, to infer, to plan and to work together for our common good in an era that demands we now find our common purpose and act upon it?

Why not read about case studies of the rhythm-based approach in schools? Then click here to find out more about the Rhythm for Reading Programme and discuss it with me in person.

If you have enjoyed the themes in this post keep reading.

Conversations and language development in early childhood

Spoken language plays a central role in learning. Parents, in talking to their children help them to find words to express, as much to themselves as to others, their needs, feelings and experiences.

‘As well as being a cognitive process, the learning of their mother tongue is also an interactive process. It takes the form of continued exchange of meanings between self and others. The act of meaning is a social act.’ (Halliday, 1975: 139-140)

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

In their highly influential study of vocabulary development in the early years, Hart and Risley (1995) showed that parents in professional careers spoke 32 million more words to their children than did parents on welfare, accounting for the vocabulary and language gap at age 3 and the maths gap at age 10 between the children from different home backgrounds.

Rhythm and connection 3/5

Mythical tales of abandonment, involving fear of the jaws of death followed by the joy of reunion are familiar themes in stories from all around the world. Sound is a primal medium of connection and communication via mid brain processes that are rapid, subjective, subtle and subconscious. Similarly, the telling of stories, the recitation of poems and songs are also examples of how auditory signals are woven together to communicate for example fear, distress and joyful reunion, or other emotions.


Alemán et al (2016) The effects of musical training on child development: A randomised trial of El System in Venezuela, Prevention Science, 18 (7), 865-878

Cain, M. et al (2019) Participatory music-making and well-being within immigrant cultural practice: Exploratory case studies in South East Queensland, Australia, Leisure Studies, 39 (1), 68-82

Ehri , L.C. (1995) Phases of development in learning to read words by sight. Journal of Research in Reading, 18 (2) 116-125

Ehri, L. C.(1998) Grapheme-phoneme knowledge is essential for learning to read words in English. In J.L. Metal & L.C. Ehri (Eds.), Word recognition in beginning literacy (pp.3-40). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Fagan, B. (2010) Cro-Magnon: How the ice age gave birth to the first modern humans, New York, Bloomsbury Press.

Frith, U. And Frith, I (2001) The biological basis of social interaction. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 2001, 10, 151-155.

Gough, P.B. and Tumner, W.E. (1986) Decoding, Reading and Reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7 (1), 6-10

Huron, D. (2001) Is music and evolutionary adaptation? ANYAS, 930 (1), 43-61

Huron, D. (2006) Sweet anticipation. The MIT Press

Kirschner, S. & Tomasello, M. (2009) Joint drumming: Social context facilitates synchronisation in preschool children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 102 (3), 299-314

Kirschner, S. & Tomasello, M. (2010) Joint music-making promoted prosocial behaviour in 4-year old children. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 31 (5) 354-364

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

Ober et al (2019) Distinguishing direct and indirect influences of executive functions on reading comprehension in adolescents. Reading psychology, 40 (6), 551-581.

Rabinovitch, T., Cross, I. and Bernard, P. (2013) Longterm musical group interaction has a positive effect on empathy in children. Psychology of Music, 41 (4) 484-498.

Ritblatt, S. et al (2013) Can music enhance school readiness socioemotional skills? Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 27 (3), 257-266.

Silbert, G.J. and Hasson, U. (2010) Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proc. Nate Acad. Sci. USA 107, 14425-14430

Wolf, M, (2008) Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, London, UK, Icon Books

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Conversations and language development in early childhood

14 February 2024

Image credit: Mark Zamora via Unsplash
Image credit: Mark Zamora via Unsplash

The child’s task is to construct the system of meanings that represents his own model of social reality. This process takes place inside his own head; it is a cognitive process. But it takes place in contexts of social interaction, and there is no way it can take place except in these contexts. As well as being a cognitive process, the learning of their mother tongue is also an interactive process. It takes the form of continued exchange of meanings between self and others. The act of meaning is a social act. (Halliday, 1975: 139-140)

Echoing Halliday’s beautiful description of a child’s construction of a model of his social world, the link between talking, the development of vocabulary and reading comprehension was made by Hart and Risley in their book, ‘Meaningful Differences in Everyday Experience of Young American Children’ (1995). In these studies, they focused on word frequency counts and the number of conversational turns between adults and children. It was ten years later when researchers showed the importance of the quality of the interaction between adults and children for the development of language skills, and thus established that educational outcomes for children were built on the foundations of both speaking and listening.

Language development

Decades before Hart and Risley’s landmark study, the Plowden Report had emphasised the importance of spoken language in learning.

Spoken language plays a central role in learning. Parents, in talking to their children help them to find words to express, as much to themselves as to others, their needs, feelings and experiences. Through language children can transform their active, questioning response to the environment in a more precise form and learn to manipulate it more economically and effectively. The complex perceptuo-motor skills of reading and writing are based in their first stages upon speech and the wealth and variety of experience from which effective language develops. (The Plowden Committee, 1967, paragraph 54).

More recently, researchers have measured natural language in the homes of young children using a voice recorder that selected adult words spoken directly to the child, conversational turns - the back and forth of a conversation, the child’s voice and also sounds from televisions and electronic devices.

Whilst the Hart and Risley study showed that the number of words that parents speak to their child, and the number of times adults respond to their child’s voice are of critical importance to language development, a new study was commissioned (Zimmerman et al., 2009) to ask which type of exposure: words, interaction with parents or television, would best predict language development.

The findings showed that exposure to words and interactions with the parents had a significant and positive relationship with language development, whereas exposure to television had a significant and negative association with the development of language skills. When television, words and interactions were analysed together, in order to isolate the most important of these three, it was the interaction with the parents that carried the most influence - the other two variables, word frequency and television were no longer statistically significant.

Parenting styles

In the study, Zimmerman measured Interaction between the child and the parents by ‘turn count’ - in other words: the number of times that the conversation passed between the parent and the child. This metric would probably have been influenced by parenting style. For example, an ‘authoritarian’ parent would be more likely to shut the conversation down using a comment such as, “Because I say so.” Contrastingly, a more ‘authoritative’ parent would be more likely to encourage their child to develop self expression, using language to sustain attention and to develop self-confidence.

In addition to parenting styles, researchers have also considered two important factors which are known to have a positive impact on language development, as well as social and emotional health:

  • maternal responsiveness (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2001), and
  • a positive social and emotional environment (Knudsen et al., 2006).

Television and electronic devices occupy children far more now in 2024 than they did fifteen years ago when Zimmerman’s study was published. As ‘digital natives’ children are introduced to screens from the age of four months, and hours of exposure to screens continue to accumulate not only in the home, but also in the classroom, once the child starts school.

Screen time

According to recent research (Muppalla, 2023), children who engaged in screen time for more than two hours per day were associated with an increased chance of developing behavioural problems and a poorer vocabulary. Other factors such as a decrease in young people’s engagement with nature and the outdoors may account for increased concerns about mental health and well-being. However, among children of primary school age, concerns about anxiety, depression and aggression have been associated with excessive use of gaming, general screen use and television respectively.

There are various factors to consider, but particularly so if parents use ‘screen time’ as a reward, as there is the additional ‘specialness’ that comes with attaching a high symbolic value to a device even before the child engages with it. The fast-paced and noisy content of certain games, films and TV shows encourage an abrupt level of cognitive and emotional stimulation, which impacts the reward circuitry of the brain (in a similar way to ingesting an addictive substance). The spike in dopamine disrupts the sensitive balance of this brain circuit and can lead to craving behaviours that are associated with addiction. In terms of motivation and attention, the child may withdraw from everyday forms of social engagement with family and friends and their habit may develop into a compulsion, disturbing the delicate balance of the dopamine system even more.

This picture develops further in terms of its complexity if we factor in homework assignments that involve researching a topic on the internet. Children with a gaming habit are likely to struggle to focus on an assignment that does not consummate their ‘need’ to satisfy the gaming compulsion. If siblings share a device at home, one of them may have no choice but to complete the task late into the evening. As screen exposure at night is known to disrupt the wake-sleep cycle, homework assignments that involve using screens may also frustrate parents who are trying to limit their child’s screen time.

Sharing a book

One way to offset the disruptive effects of screens is to put them away and reach for a book. The interaction between a parent and child when sharing a book extends way beyond the narrative - (the telling of the story). In fact, this is an opportunity for the child and parent to get lost in the book together, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Exploring the illustrations, experiencing the build-up of tension of the structure and the suspense that this evokes offers parents a chance to accompany their child into a new world of ‘firsts’. Perhaps this story will be the first time the parent sees their child:

  • feel empathy for a character,
  • consider different possible directions for the plot,
  • detect the wicked intentions of the villain before these have been revealed in full.

Drilling into the detail of the text, the child might ask their parent about the meanings of words. This could develop into a guessing game or trigger a shared memory that helps a new word to make sense.

When researchers compared two consecutive days: one with and one without book reading, there was a 148 percent increase in the number of parent and child interactions which were specifically related to sharing a book. This concentrated period of interaction with the child is not only very nurturing for their well-being, but it also provides opportunities to share a different pace and style of language.

The language in a book may well be more descriptive and make use of phrases that would not naturally arise in everyday conversation, and would support children in the development of a broad and rich vocabulary. Not only that, but the length and complexity of sentences are more likely to sculpt a child’s attention in a way that everyday spoken language may not (Saracho and Spodek, 2010).

Key points

The Hart and Risley (1995) study showed perhaps surprisingly that infants initiate conversations with their parents more than the parents do. This may happen at the most inconvenient moments for the adults, but if parents are aware that their child needs to interact in order to develop language skills, that would set them up for life: they would probably pay closer attention to these subtle attempts to initiate interaction. The researchers found that the factors most likely to distract the parents included:

  • noise from the television,
  • the parent using a mobile phone,
  • depression and metal health issues.

The type of speech that parents use with their children actually stimulates the middle ear and changes the physiology of the muscles of the child’s head and neck, allowing the face to move in response to the parent’s voice. This beautiful and congruent system of social engagement is hard-wired into humans and all other mammals. It is through interaction between parent and child in the pre-school years that secure attachment bonds and well-adjusted character formation create the foundations for reading well and academic attainment at school.

In the past five years, researchers have found that conversations require active prediction as speech unfolds over time. Listeners anticipate what is coming up in the speaker’s voice as they infer the most likely content and meaning. Listening is very much an active process and involves entraining (matching) rhythmically with the speaker’s voice. This natural aspect of speech is a relatively new area of research in neuroscience (Lakatos et al., 2019) and allows us to understand the role of rhythm within the deeper structures of language and communication.

If this is of interest, click here to discover the impact of a rhythm-based intervention on reading comprehension.

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Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

In their highly influential study of vocabulary development in the early years, Hart and Risley (1995) showed that parents in professional careers spoke 32 million more words to their children than did parents on welfare, accounting for the vocabulary and language gap at age 3 and the maths gap at age 10 between the children from different home backgrounds.

How we can support mental health challenges of school children?

The waiting lists for local child and adolescent mental health services- ‘CAMHS’ are getting longer and longer. Teachers and parents are left fielding the mental health crisis, while the suffering of afflicted children and adolescents deepens with every day that passes. 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.

Narrowing the attainment gap through early reading intervention

The most important thing that I’ve learned in the past two years is not only to expect the unexpected, but to embrace it. I’ve noticed that the sharpest twists and rockiest turns along the way have often prompted some of the most intriguing insights into the integrated processes that contribute to reading and learning. Wearing my SENCO hat, I strongly believe that the principle of early reading intervention (as opposed to waiting to see whether a learning difficulty will ‘resolve itself’ over time), and a proactive approach, can narrow the gaps that undeniably exist when children enter primary school.


Halliday, M. (1975) Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. London: Edward Arnold

Hart, B. and Risley, T.R. (1995) Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children, Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.

Knudsen, E. I. et al., (2006) Economic neurobiological and behavioural perspectives on building America’s future workforce. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103 (27) 10155-10162

Lakatos, P., Gross, J. and Thut, G. (2019) A new unifying account of the roles of neuronal entrainment, Current Biology, 29, R850-R905

Muppalla et al (2023) Effects of excessive screen time on child development: An updated review and strategies on management, Cureus 15 (6) e40608. Doe:10.7759/ cures.40608

The Plowden Committee (1967) Children and their primary schools (The Plowden Report). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Available at: http://www.educationendland.org.uk/ plowmen Accessed 8.12.14.

Saracho, O.N. and Spodek, B. (2010) Parents and children engaging in storybook reading, Early Child Development and Care, 180 (10)1379-1389

Tamis-LeMonda et al., (2001) Maternal responsiveness and children’s achievement of language milestones, Child Development 72 (3) 748-767

Zimmerman F. J. et al. (2009) Teaching by listening: The impact of adult child conversations on language development paediatrics, 124 (1) 342-349.

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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

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Reading Fluency: Three Key Executive Functions

31 January 2024

Image credit: Sven Brandsma
Image credit: Sven Brandsma

It is essential that teachers of early reading are able to match the resources to the needs of the child, both in terms of teaching and materials. It is vital that they learn to read well so that they have full access to a broad and rich curriculum. This sounds reasonable enough, but some children are significantly disadvantaged in terms of their early childhood environment and their vocabulary development. The demands of adapting to school can feel threatening for these children and their chances of learning to read well can spiral into disaffection very quickly, particularly in the context of a reading scheme. It’s very obvious to all young readers that some of the class are whizzing through the different ‘colours’ of the scheme, whereas others are not. This experience of early reading supports many children, but does not help disadvantaged children to become confident, fluent readers because they get ‘stuck’ on one book, or a particular colour band.

Children who do not progress through the reading scheme must be identified and supported so that they are not left behind. Those who struggle with decoding are more likely to be identified than are those who struggle with fluency and this post will explain the key drivers of weak reading fluency. One of the most powerful techniques that a school can use to leverage remediation of reading and learning at this early stage, is a rhythm-based intervention.

Weekly rhythm-based intervention sessions of only ten minutes can boost early reading skills and fluency

Rather than targeting individual children for thirty minutes of one-to-one support, an alternative approach is a group programme, such as Rhythm for Reading. Small groups of children work together as a team using ears, eyes, voices and physical actions to develop self-regulation, control of inhibition, focused attention, including control of eye-gaze and control of their motivation to learn. Even more importantly, as the weekly sessions last only ten minutes, children receive an intensive boost to early reading skills, including fluency without being out of the classroom for too long.

When teachers see the impact of the programme, they typically ask if the children would make even faster progress if they had two sessions each week. As the sessions are very intensive and rich in terms of multi-sensory learning, children need a full week to assimilate and integrate the rhythm-based work they have done. As an analogy, imagine putting a rubber band around your thumb, pulling it back, then releasing it. Increasing the tension in the rubber band more gradually increases its power to travel forwards. The potency of Rhythm for Reading sessions works in this same way as illustrated by these case studies.

Comparing accurate decoding with reading fluency

There is an enormous difference between decoding accurately and reading fluently. Many children learn to think of reading as being able to sound out words and then recognise the words quickly.

When children learn to read rapidly without actually processing what they are reading, they are not really reading fluently. Fluent reading is closely aligned with reading comprehension because fluent readers understand what they read and use their understanding to predict what is coming up next in their reading.

Some experts describe this in terms of theory of mind, or being able to form inferences. I like to think of this as being able to feel socially engaged with the text. In other words, the language is being processed as it would be in a face-to-face conversation. Of course, the author’s face is not visible in the page and we cannot hear their voice, so the reader must supply many additional layers of information in order to read fluently.

In Maryanne Wolf’s beautiful analysis of the science of children’s reading development in ‘Proust and the Squid,’ she draws on the work of Richard Vacca, who speaks of ‘fluent decoders’ and ‘strategic readers’. This distinction brings us to the key roles of three executive functions in reading fluency.

Executive functions are essential for learning

Executive functions have developed in the frontal areas of the brain to achieve overall control in a wide range of situations that involve ‘goal-directed’ behaviour, through the supply of attention, focus, memory, flexibility and inhibition. Control of inhibition (ie being able to get on with a task without being distracted) may be the most relevant executive function to early reading, and it enables better performance in all areas of learning.

Wolf describes the process of fluent reading as turning ‘expert attention to letters’. ‘Expert attention’ is a beautiful phrase. I imagine that during our lives we develop ‘expert attention’ to a whole range of things such as:

  • reading the faces and body language of others
  • deciphering the weather from a sunset or sunrise, wind direction and cloud formations
  • a musician’s understanding of the ‘feel’ of a piece of music from a quick glance at a page of musical notes
  • a gardener’s understanding of what ails a sickly plant by examining markings or dryness of its leaves

In each case, ‘expert attention’ is cultivated through disciplined practice and the intrinsically-felt reward that accompanies and enhances it. We can break down ‘expert attention to letters’ into three key executive functions:

  1. Control of inhibition allows the fluent reader to focus their attention on the text in the first instance. Maintaining attention on the text is a matter of orientation, which in turn involves self-regulation and motivation to read. Perhaps reading is perceived as rewarding, fun, or interesting, or is a shared experience with another person and valued for being a chance to sit together and bond socially. When a child experiences reading as socially bonding, they are more likely to focus their attention on the page and to develop control of inhibition around reading. This is important because, without inhibitory control and sustained attention, fluent readers would not have access to the second key executive function of: working memory.
  2. Working memory allows readers to grasp information about the shape and sound of a word and hold it in mind until it has become integrated meaningfully into their understanding of the text. Imagine - a child has successfully read a word, such as ‘bird’, but does not fully experience the word as meaningful. As they say the word, they feel it and hear it internally and this helps them to realise that it refers to a very familiar word. In the moment when they recognise that the word they have read matched the word that they know, they have integrated their decoding skill with their memory of words and associated meanings. Children with limited capacity in working memory lose power in the process of integration prematurely. They can become good decoders, but never integrate the information, because the decoded word in working memory fades or fragments before it has been assimilated and recognised as meaningful. Children in this situation are likely to struggle not only with reading fluency, but also writing tasks.

Marie Clay’s work on reading has had a profound influence on pedagogy worldwide. In ‘Literacy Lessons’ she refers to the integration of information during reading as the ‘pulling together of everything you know’ and she explains that this involves two steps. The first one, which she calls ‘awareness and attention’ could describe the executive function ‘inhibitory control’, whereas the second, ‘the integration of different kinds of information’ perhaps refers to the executive function of ‘working memory’.

Children who have many skills and a fair grasp of letters and words may still find it hard to pull all of this information together when they are moving across the lines of continuous text. There are two sides to this challenge. On the one hand the child must sort out what to attend to on the page of print and in what order to use which pieces of information (awareness and attention). On the other hand he has to call up things he already knows from different parts of his brain to meet up with the new information in print in the text he is looking at (the integration of different kinds of information).(Clay, 2005, p.88)

In fluent reading, the process of integration can become very rapid. This is explained by neural plasticity. With daily practice of anything, the nerve fibres in the brain change and undergo a process called ‘myelination’. The nerves are coated in a myelin sheath, a white fatty substance that acts as an insulator. This process enables neural networks of the brain to become more specialised and more efficient as reading skills develop. The ease and efficiency of fluent reading allows the involvement of a third executive function. This is another form of top down control and is known as ‘cognitive flexibility’ or ‘task switching’.

3. Task-switching (cognitive flexibility) involves adapting while remaining engaged with the task. There can be many reasons to adapt while reading. For example, if there was a decoding mistake which changed the meaning of the text, then a feeling that ‘something has gone wrong’ would immediately activate ‘task switching’ and a quick repair to the reading.

In early reading, there are more likely to be errors in decoding, which alter the meaning: ‘horse’ instead of ‘hose’, ‘take’ instead of ‘talk’, ‘driver’ instead of ‘diver’, ‘lunch’ instead of ‘launch’. In each case, the child has opted for a more familiar, rather than a less familiar word and it is easy to see that probability may have influenced these choices.

Reading pedagogue Marie Clay refers to the process of self-correction from the point of view of the teacher. In this extract we can almost ‘see’ her observing the young reader and feeling into the strategies that the child has decided upon as they develop a meaningful connection with the text:

When a child initiates a self-correction we can sometimes tell when the child is (or is not) using meaning and / or structure and / or visual information and has tried to achieve a match across all of these. Even unsuccessful attempts to correct are indicators that the child is aware that these activities can be useful. Effective self-correcting follows from monitoring, searching, cross-checking and making all information match. (Clay, 2005, p.87).

The decision to ‘repair’ a word that does not make sense in the context involves an immediate eye movement back to the place of confusion, followed by the continuation of the reading, the coordination of working memory and the smooth assimilation of information. Although the decoding has not been flawless, a rapid repair that prioritises fluent comprehension is typical of reading fluency in action.


In this post I’ve described the importance of three ‘top down’ processes, known as ‘executive functions’ and their role in the development of early reading fluency.

  • Control of inhibition
  • Working memory
  • Task switching

These executive functions are mutually supportive and are essential to the development of fluent reading. Although there are many interventions available to schools for supporting decoding skills, there are virtually none that support executive functions, in this, the Rhythm for Reading programme can certainly help.

To find out more about the Rhythm for Reading programme click here to book a call.

If you enjoyed this topic, keep reading!

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.

What can we do to support the development of reading fluency?

The children who lag behind their classmates in terms of fluency are not a homogenous group. Although time-consuming and costly, one-on-one teaching is essential for those who struggle the most. However, short, intensive bursts of rhythm-based activity (Long, 2014) have been found to give a significant boost in reading fluency as a small group teaching intervention. This approach is a more efficient use of resources as it supports the majority of children who struggle with fluency in ten weekly sessions of only ten minutes.

Considering reading fluency

Many teachers and head teachers have remarked on the improvement in their pupils’ reading fluency, so it seemed important to try to capture what has been happening. Of course, there are different ways to define and to measure reading fluency, but here is a snapshot of what we found when using two types of assessment.

Reading fluency again - looking at prosody

Prosody is closely associated with skilled reading, being integral to fluency and a predictor of achievement in reading accuracy and comprehension. Prosody is not taught, but it is a naturally occurring feature of competent reading. The words on the page may be arranged in horizontal lines, but a good reader transcends the visual appearance of the words, allowing them to take on a natural, flexible and speech-like quality.


Marie M. Clay (2005) Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals Part Two Teaching Procedures, New Zealand, Heinemann Education, A Division of Reed Publishing Ltd.

Maryanne Wolf (2008) Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, London, Icon Books Limited

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