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The Rhythm for Reading blog

Fluency: Finding Flow in Early Reading

27 December 2023

Image credit: Picsea via Unsplash
Image credit: Picsea via Unsplash

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.

Distinguished pedagogue Professor Marie M Clay is best known for her Reading (and writing) Recovery programme. Her research began in 1976 and hundreds of thousands of children have benefited from her work. Her expertise in fluency in reading is based on her detailed observations of the experiences of struggling readers. For example, in her ‘hierarchy of knowing words’ we can appreciate the varied experiences of the children she taught as they grappled with new words, and practised these until they became familiar. This hierarchy provides a six step process, which is helpful because the teacher can identify and monitor progress long before the child becomes a fluent reader.

A six step process

The entry point in this hierarchy is as a ‘new’ word. Then, the word becomes ‘only just known’ as it still retains its novelty value and may protrude and not yet fall into its place with other words. As the word becomes more familiar, it is ‘successfully problem-solved’ by the child - in what Clay describes as one of a ‘repertoire of behaviours’. In the fourth iteration of this process, the word may be ‘easily produced, but easily thrown’ - in other words it might trip the child up and disrupt the flow of reading. The next level suggests that the word has become more integrated within the child’s lexicon, as a word that is ‘well known and recognised in most contexts’.

At this point, the child relies on context during the integration of external (print, illustrations and prompts from an adult) and internal processes (memory, including the sound and shape of the word in the articulatory system). Finally, when a word is ‘known in many variant forms’ it is likely to contribute to the fluent reading of a passage. This chimes well with the generative notion of language as recursive, with each word sparking a new stream of thoughts and ideas.

The meeting of the internal and the external aspects of decoding are described by Clay in terms of visual information (the ‘input’ from the eyes) merging with ‘vast amounts of information about that word gathered in past experiences’ so that the more familiar words are read ‘in a flash’.

Place not pace

Although, ‘new’ words are read slowly and it is appropriate for beginner readers to allow time to focus upon and to assimilate them, Clay was clear that the journey from slow word-by-word decoding to reading fast and with fluency was not about pace, but rather it was about the place of the word within a phrase:

“We have to think about phrasing in reading….To be more technical, the reader has put several words into a grammatical phrase (or into a grammatical context)” (Clay, 2005, p.150).

From a rhythm-based perspective, a musical phrase is also felt as a unit of meaning and context. And yet there is a broader context to consider. Let us pause to reflect for a moment on the importance of the context (and biographical narrative) of the child’s nervous system. This would include their perceptions of challenge, threat and fear versus those of safety, play and social engagement. We might ask to what extent does the emotional set-point of this child influence their capacity to engage with reading?

Building capacity for fluency

Reading at home every day with a parent or an older sibling fosters fluency through nurturing and social engagement. For children who have not had this level of input at home, co-regulation through one-on-one intervention may also be necessary to build the capacity that a child needs to engage with reading. After all, if their attention is disrupted by intrusive thoughts or if they are socially withdrawn, then they are likely to struggle with the level of cognitive processing that fluent reading demands.

The dynamic qualities of fluent reading are summarised by Clay here,

“When the reading is phrased as in spoken language and the responding is quite fast, then there is a fair chance that the reader has grouped together the words that the author has meant to go together….If the reader can do this easily then he attends to the letters, and the words, and the grammar ‘on the run’ and as a result he can give more attention to the messages.” (Clay, 2005, p.150)

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.

For a fragile reader, reading ’on the run’ could describe a single layer of fast-moving unrelated syllables and words that do not generate meaning as they are read. Many children can read fast and yet they do not process words within well-defined phrases and therefore do not assimilate meaning from their reading.

For a fluent reader however, reading ‘on the run’ would describe fast-moving syllables, words, and phrases that are grammatically and rhythmically aligned, and the message they convey is assimilated without additional effort.

Dynamic attending and language

When children process spoken language with ease and fluency, we must remember that this happens in the context of a social dynamic. The child takes into account the speaker, the context and the sounds of the language. This social dimension adds a lot of information. We could say that the speech stream is ‘gift-wrapped’ for the child. These outer layers of the sound spectrum convey three key signals about context of the message:

  • The relevance of the content capturing the child’s attention through curiosity or urgency.
  • The emotional content in the speaker’s voice reassuring or unsettling their sense of safety.
  • The rise and fall of intonation in the speaker’s voice and an emphasis on certain words helping them to process the context and content of the message ‘on the run’.

All of these outer layers of the speech stream are conveyed through the tone, timbre and rhythm of the speaker’s voice, and allow the child to feel the safety of their environment.

A child’s auditory environment is mapped out in utero from nineteen weeks gestational age and the home language is assimilated in an infant’s first year. Their emotional responses to the sounds of the care-giving environment are imprinted upon their nervous system, and embedded through a process called myelination. Myelin is a protective fatty coating that insulates nerve fibres and allows the information travelling along these fibres to move at lightning speed. The more these pathways are used, the faster they become.

The observations made by Marie Clay elude to this,

“It seems likely that if the learner develops faster responses racing around the neural circuits in his brain this will make reading more effective….” (Clay, 2005, p.151)

The emotional content of language processing has received little attention, though academics have studied the phonological, grammatical and semantic content of spoken language in depth. The ethical considerations when recruiting or identifying children with affective disorders relating to early childhood adversity are challenging, but studies of children in the care system and orphanages provide evidence of their difficulties with attention and reading. And of course, it is well-established that a warm, caring and sensitive environment in early childhood predicts strong educational attainment.

Reading Recovery

In Marie Clay’s original Reading Recovery programme (consisting of twenty ‘book levels’) there is an emphasis on the importance of a reading lesson every day for the children and she herself observed that a process of consolidation from one day to the next was important.

“If the child moves forward slowly, possibly missing lessons here and there, the end result is not as satisfactory as speedy progress through the book levels. It is as if the brain cells need to be involved tomorrow in what they explored today to consolidate some permanent change in their structure. This is a possible explanation.” (Clay, 2005, p.151)

Drilling into this a little further, if we consider the social dynamic between the specialist teacher and the child as a ‘dyad’ (an emotional pairing), then the continuity from one day to the next becomes more relevant in terms of the bond that accumulates from day to day and it is not surprising that the cumulative progress is described by Clay as ‘advantageous’.

Using the lens of child development, research conducted by Clay’s contemporaries Kuhn and Stahl (2003) showed that reading fluency was not limited to word recognition. The study concluded that among children in the first and second year of school, reading fluency was characterised by the prosodic features of language, which the authors defined as: rhythm, expression and perception of the boundaries of phrases in speech and text.

Phrases and fluency

From a rhythm-based perspective, the expressive element of fluent reading is underpinned by the temporal structure of clearly defined phrase boundaries. When the phrase boundaries are well-defined, the rhythm of the narrative ebbs and flows - good storytelling also has this wavelike motion of tension and release. Of course, a child listening to a story is mesmerised by the rhythmic features of the language and the expressive flow of the narrator’s voice. There are also peripheral signals that are a valuable part of holding a child’s attention: the stillness and poise of the narrator’s posture establish an atmosphere of trust, whereas their animated face and gestures, use of silence and the expressive qualities of their voice all contribute to the ‘suspension of belief’, which help to bring the events of the story to life.

It is interesting that using a rhythm-based approach to boost reading fluency requires a tiny fraction of the time taken by Reading Recovery. As a small group intervention that only requires ten minutes per week, in the Rhythm for Reading programme, the children are out of the classroom for only one hundred minutes across the entire course, and yet they experience a deep and meaningful shift in their ability to process printed language at the level of the phrase. Word accuracy also improves because the context of the words becomes clearer.

If you would like to read about the impact of the programme on different schools and children, click here. And to read more about fluency, here are links to related posts.

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

All children from all backgrounds need to learn to read fluently so that they can enjoy learning and fully embrace the curriculum offered by their school. A key challenge for schools is identifying an appropriate intervention that effectively supports reading fluency. This is a necessary part of a coherently planned, ambitious and inclusive curriculum that should meet the needs of all children.

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.

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: Reading, fast or slow?

Schools ensure that all children become confident fluent readers, so that every child can access a broad and balanced curriculum. Fluent reading underpins a love of reading and is an important skill for future learning and employment and it also enables children to apply their knowledge and skills with ease.


Clay, M.M (2005) Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals: Part Two Teaching Procedures, New Zealand, Heinemann Education.

Kuhn, M.R. and Stahl, S. (2003) Fluency: A review of developmental and remedial practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 1: 3-21.

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Wishing you Peace at Christmas time: Rest and Replenish

20 December 2023

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

Tomorrow night is the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere and here in London, the heavy grey clouds and the weight of the damp atmosphere have added a dense layer to the fatigue we are all feeling right now.
So as the school term draws to an end, I thought I’d share reflections on one of my favourite picture books: “A Seed is Sleepy,” by Diana Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long, published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California.

‘A seed is sleepy.

It lies there, tucked inside its flower,

On its cone, or beneath the soil, Snug, Still.’

This is the time to reclaim our need to sleep, and to sleep long and deeply. This is the season for rest, and teachers, having given out so much energy every single day, need this. Nothing is more important than rest and recovery after a long term of thirteen or even fourteen weeks. This is the time to be still and snug in the dark and the quiet of the longest winter night.

The time that a seed may take to reveal itself is encoded in its DNA. Each seed needs its own allotted period of time. There is no rushing this process. Some seeds need ten years and some need even longer.

‘Not all seeds are eager to germinate.

Some have lain dormant, or slept undisturbed,

For more than a thousand years.’

We need sufficient time to replenish our own physical energy and this applies to each and every cell. There might be a feeling of numbness. We might feel a little spaced out because of sheer exhaustion - a bit like being jet-lagged. We might feel tearful and emotional, or jittery and struggle to unwind. This is especially true if we have been chronically overstretched and have strained our nervous system without having a chance to recover. The seed shows us what to do.

‘Part of the seed, the root,

Feels the tug of gravity and

Digs down deep.’

The work of the seed is nourishment. Resting and recharging is also about spending time on replenishment. Just like a seed, our nervous system seeks out minerals and hydration. Little by little, as recovery progresses we realise that we are ready to receive light and love from our friends and family. There is, however no rush in the life of the seed. It can take time to reach upwards.

‘It knows to seek the sunlight

To push itself up, up, up

Through the soil But it must

Wait awhile before that happens.’

Each seed takes its own time. The diversity of seeds is part of the great mystery of nature. The tallest trees grow from the tiniest seeds and the most exquisite fruit of all (coco de mer) sprouts from the largest pod. Every shape and size in between has been designed through millions of years of evolution, adaptation and plenty of rest.

Happy Christmas! Rest well dear friends!

Danna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long (2007) A Seed is Sleepy, Published by Cronicle Books, San Francisco, CA

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

13 December 2023

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

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

Working memory capacity

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

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

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

A diagnosis of ‘severe dyslexia’

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

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

‘Fuzzy’ phonemes

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

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

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

Confusable sounds and conflated ideas

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

Are there different types of dyslexia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

When phonics and rhythm collide part 1

A child with sensitivity to rhythm is attuned to the onsets of the smallest sounds of language. In terms of rhythmic precision, the front edge of the sound is also the point at which the rhythmic boundary occurs. Children with a well-developed sensitivity to rhythm are also attuned to phonemes and are less likely to conflate the sounds.

When phonics and rhythm collide part 2

Vowel sounds carry interesting information such as emotion, or tone of voice. They are longer (in milliseconds) and without defined edges. Now imagine focussing on the onset of those syllables. The consonants are shorter (in milliseconds), more sharply defined and more distinctive, leaving plenty of headspace for cognitive control. If consonants are prioritised, information flows easily and the message lands with clarity.

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

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

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Is learning to read music difficult?

6 December 2023

IMage credit: Soundtrap via Unspash
IMage credit: Soundtrap via Unspash

Some of the most sublime music is remarkably simple to read. Just as the balance of three simple ingredients can make your taste buds ‘pop’, a few notes organised in a particular way can become iconic themes. The opening of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and the beginning of the ‘Eastenders’ theme by Simon May are examples of this - as is ‘Jingle Bells’ - (as we are now in December). The point I want to make is that music, like nature, requires balance if it is to feel and sound good. We humans are part of the natural world and our music - varied as it is - is an important part of our natural expression. By this I mean that like other species, we use our voices to attract, bond with, (or repel) each other, socially. In the past two thousand years, music has been written to represent the full range of our social behaviours: from the battleground to the banqueting hall, from the wedding to the funeral, the shop floor to the dance floor, the gym to the sanctuary. We use music to regulate our emotions, to develop our stamina and to motivate ourselves as social groups which behave in particular ways.

We don’t need to read music to enjoy singing with friends at a party or to chant with fans at a sports stadium or to create our own music in the quiet of our own homes. However, if we want to share our own process of creating or performing music, we need to notate it (to write it down) so that we are literally ‘on the same page’ and therefore are able to collaborate more efficiently.

Can you learn to read music without an instrument?

It is very easy to learn to read music ‘without an instrument’ because our voice is our natural instrument. It is also possible to imagine a sound - in the same way that one can imagine a colour or a shape. Musicians can ‘read’ a sheet of music and use the ‘inner ear’ to hear the sounds. When we read a book, our inner voice reads the words in a similar way.

A debate raged for a long time in music education around the idea of ‘sound before symbol’. Some people believed that children were a ‘blank slate’ and needed to learn musical ‘sounds’ before they saw musical symbols in notated form. Others argued that children knew songs before they even started school, and could a manage a more demanding approach such as, ‘sound with symbol’. Fortunately, the era in which ‘sound before symbol’ dominated is now over and teachers can teach musical notation without being regarded as deviant or backward looking. Expensive musical instruments are not necessary for learning to read music. Each child’s voice is a priceless musical instrument, and every child can benefit by developing its use.

Music for health and well-being

Humans have been using music for self-expression for thousands of years. It has been used by people to manipulate perceptions of potential competitors or predators. In situations where people have felt threatened, singing together has helped them to feel strong and brave. Sea shanties are an example of this and in traditional societies people sing through the night to make themselves appear ‘larger’ to predatory animals. To regulate and balance the nervous system, people all around the world soothe themselves through music when they are dealing with grief, using elegies, dirges and laments. When parents comfort infants and young children they sing lullabies to them and also provide a rocking motion, which can ‘lull’ them to sleep.

The human voice can signal alarm through a blood-curdling scream, but it can also provide comfort through well chosen words. Musical expression mirrors this wide range of functions, but it goes much further than language by making use of the exhaling breath. Manipulating the slow exhale, humans have discovered how to shape the voice into elaborate patterns. We can hear this particularly in gospel and operatic traditions - where the feel of improvisation involves an outpouring of emotion. Is it possible to notate these beautiful elaborations? Yes they can be transcribed, but their beauty lies in their spontaneity and the feeling that they emerged from an impulse in a moment of inspiration.

Why do some people struggle to read music?

This is a great question. Given that I’m arguing for music as the natural ‘song’ of our species, why would this natural behaviour flow more easily through some people than others?

Reading as a skill is quite a recent addition to our repertoire of social behaviours. Music and language are natural to us and are ‘hard-wired’ into our nervous system, whereas reading is not - but we are able to learn to read. This skill is well-practised as humans have been using various signs and symbols to communicate for tens of thousands of years.

The main difference between reading music and reading words is that the rhythmic patterns in music are relatively inflexible, whereas printed language is rhythmically malleable. A three word phrase in a printed conversation, such as, ‘I don’t know’ can be reinterpreted by adapting the rhythmic qualities to convey a full range of emotions from exasperation to mystification. When we read, we are guide by the context of the passage. The context would help the reader to identify the most appropriate rhythm for the words. In this respect, rhythm in language reflects context as much as it does the underlying grammatical structure of the sentence.

When reading music, the prescribed rhythmic element reflects the musical context and style. A march, a samba and a ballad each have their own distinctive rhythmic feel. Repeated patterns need to be rhythmically consistent to sound ‘catchy’ or convincing. In this way, rhythm is the stylised and ritualised aspect of music and it can even be hypnotic. This quality in rhythm is the reason it is used by people as a motivational tool, or for self-regulation when the nervous system feels dysregulated.

When reading music, some people struggle to process the rhythmic element. The same people may struggle to move in time with the beat, but this is certainly not an insurmountable problem. It is a question of placing an emphasis on feeling the rhythm first, and then reading the rhythm, once the feeling has been established. This is not always easy because people sometimes feel anxious and believe that they are not ‘rhythmical’ enough.

Children who struggle to read printed language, have learned to read simple musical notation with ease and have responded very well to the Rhythm for Reading Programme. There is a remarkable shift in these children when they realise that by reading musical notation as a group, and through a very profound experience of well-being, belonging and togetherness that this brings, their reading fluency and comprehension also improve.

Our very simple introduction to musical notation involves:

  • working with music that is rhythmically balanced,
  • an atmosphere that is informal,
  • music-making that is joyful.

How to long should it take to learn to read music?

It takes only a few minutes to learn to read simple musical notation. Even children with very weak language reading skills can achieve fluent reading of musical notation in only ten minutes. We focus on integrating each sensory aspect of reading music: the children’s eyes, ears and voices. Children are able to bring their attention into sharper focus when they read musical notation because the rhythmical element, which for them represents emotional safety, has been addressed through our highly structured approach.

If you have enjoyed reading about musical notation…

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Discover more about the impact of Rhythm for Reading on children’s reading development in these Case Studies

These posts are also about musical notation

A Simple View of Reading Musical Notation Here are some very traditional views on teaching musical notation - and the Rhythm for Reading way which avoids loading the children with too much information at once.

Fluency, Phonics and Musical Notes Presenting the sound with the symbol is as important in learning to read musical notation, as it is in phoneme-to-grapheme correspondence. Fluent reading for all children is the main teaching goal.

Musical notation, full school assembly and an Ofsted inspection Discover the back story…the very beginning of Rhythm for Reading - this approach was first developed to support children with weak executive function.

Empowering children to read musical notation fluently The ‘tried and tested’ method of adapting musical notation for children who struggle to process information is astonishingly, to add more markings to the page. Rhythm for Reading offers a simple solution that allows all children to read ‘the dots’ fluently, even in the first ten minute session.

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Improving reading comprehension and awareness of punctuation

29 November 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is reading comprehension?

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

What is the most important key to good comprehension?

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

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

What is punctuation?

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

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

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

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

Why is punctuation important in reading comprehension?

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

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

Why do children struggle with punctuation?

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

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

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

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

Rhythm, punctuation and meaning

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

Stepping up: from phonemes to comprehension

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

Discover the heartbeat of reading

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

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

22 November 2023

All children from all backgrounds need to learn to read fluently so that they can enjoy learning and fully embrace the curriculum offered by their school. A key challenge for schools is identifying an appropriate intervention that effectively supports reading fluency. This is a necessary part of a coherently planned, ambitious and inclusive curriculum that should meet the needs of all children.

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.

An evidence-based, rigorous approach to the teaching and assessment of reading fluency leads to increases in children’s confidence and enjoyment in reading. Whilst logic might suggest that the difficulty level of the reading material is the main block to the development of reading fluency, manipulating the difficulty level does not actually address the underlying issue.

Reading fluency involves not only letter to sound correspondence, but also social reciprocity through the medium of print and therefore the orchestration of several brain networks. The social mechanisms of a child’s reading become audible when the expressive and prosodic qualities in their voice start to appear. This is why a more holistic child-centred perspective is helpful - it allows children to experience learning to read as a playful, rather than a pressured experience.

The pressure felt by children with poor reading fluency arises because of inattention and distractibility, as well as variability in their alertness, which pull them off-task. Compared with their classmates, these children are either more reactive and volatile in social situations, or quieter, and more withdrawn. Our rhythm-based approach uses small group teaching to reset these behaviours, by supporting these children into a more regulated state. Working with the children in this way helps them to adapt to the activities, to adjust their state and to regulate their attention within a highly structured social situation.

What are the key components of reading fluency?

Different frameworks describe fluency in different ways. From a rhythm-based perspective, the components of expression, flow and understanding are the most important. There is one more to consider - social engagement with the author - the person who wrote the printed words. The extent to which the child reads with expression, flow and understanding reflects the degree of social engagement while reading. One of the ways to accomplish this is to free the volume and range of the voice by encouraging a deeper involvement with the text. It’s easy to achieve this in books that invite readers to exaggerate the enunciation of expressive or onomatopoeic words.

Flow in reading fluency

The flowing quality of fluent reading shows that the child has aligned the words on the page with the underlying grammatical structure of the sentences. This sounds more complicated than it actually is and doesn’t need to be taught, because children activate these structures in the first eight months of life, when they acquire their home language. Accessing these deep structures during reading enables them to feel the natural rhythm in the ebb and flow of the language. However, there are many different styles of both spoken and printed language, as each one may have a different rhythmic feel. Feeling the rhythmic qualities of printed language is inherently rewarding and motivating for both children and adults: it allows the mind to drop into a deeper level of engagement and achieve an optimal and self-sustaining flow state.

Understanding in reading fluency

There is one prerequisite! Understanding printed language requires motivation to engage. Let’s call this the ‘why’. It involves a degree of familiarity with the context and a basic knowledge of vocabulary, which are both necessary to stimulate the involvement of long term memory, as well as a desire to become involved in the narrative. Many books introduce us to new concepts, vocabulary and contexts, but the ‘why’ must act as a bridge between what is already known and the, as yet, unknown. This ‘why’ compels us to read on.

About the ‘Why’

In a conversation there is a natural alignment between expression, flow and understanding. The energy in the speaker’s voice may signal a wide range of expressive qualities and emotions which help the listener to understand the ‘why’ behind the narrative, as well as keeping them engaged and encouraging reciprocation. The ‘why’ in the narrative is arguably the most important element in communication as it conveys a person’s attitude and intention in sharing important information about challenges or changes in everyday life and the experiences of individual characters - the staple features of many storylines or plots.

‘Handa’s Surprise’ by Eileen Browne

So, in Eileen Browne’s beautiful telling of ‘Handa’s Surprise,’ a humorous book about a child’s journey to her best friend’s village, the reader learns about the names of the fruits in her basket, the animals that she encounters and becomes curious to learn what happens to Handa as she walks alone in southwestern Kenya.

It isn’t necessary for young children to know the names of the fruits, such as ‘guava’, ‘tangerine’ or ‘passion fruit’. Despite the irregularities of words such as ‘fruit’ and ‘guava’ (and the need to segment ‘tangerine’ with care to avoid ‘tang’) children understand the story, having been introduced to the new (unknown) vocabulary in the (known) context of ‘fruit’. The child’s long term memory offers up the background knowledge of ‘fruit’ as a broad category, but adds the names of the new fruits under the categories: ’food-related’ and ‘fruit’ for use in future situations in their own life.

The new vocabulary in the story enriches children’s knowledge of fruit, but the ‘why’ of this tale is the bigger question… Will Handa complete her journey safely? Empathy for, and identification with Handa elicits, (subconsciously), an increase in the reader’s curiosity and brings further focus to the mechanisms of reading fluency. Once each new word has been assimilated into the category of ‘fruit’, reading fluency is self-sustaining and driven by plot development and empathy for the main character. Having read this story (and many others) with children, I have become aware that reading fluency must become closely aligned with the rule-based patterns of grammar, as these enable irregular words such as ‘fruit’ and ‘guava’ to be quickly assimilated into the flow of the story.

‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll

A more famous and exaggerated example of this effect is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. Many of the novel ‘words’ invented by Carroll for this poem must be assimilated into the reader’s vocabulary. The process is much the same for made up, as it is for unfamiliar words. Long term memory offers up categories of animals and their behaviour, relative to the evocative sounds of ‘words’ such as, ‘slithy’, ‘frumious’ and ‘frabjous’.

The grammatical structure of each line of verse is kept relatively simple, allowing the narrative to feel highly predictable, as it is clearly supported by the regular metre. The repetitive feel of the ABAB rhyme structure guides the reader to use the conventions of grammar in anticipating, and thus engaging with the unfolding, yet somewhat opaque narrative.

Together, the features of repetition, rhythm and predictability strengthen coherence, so that the words are chunked together in patterns based on the statistically learned probabilities of spoken language. Deeper grammatical structures that sit beneath these rhythmic patterns are logic-based: they offer up meaning and interpretation based on micro-cues of nuanced emphasis, intensity and duration within the fluent stream of language, whether spoken or read.

Why is reading fluency important?

Reading fluency is important for three reasons and these also act as drivers of motivation and learning.

  1. Reading fluency brings the rhythmic patterns of language into alignment with deeper grammatical structures that are necessary for meaning-making.
  2. These structures - which are probabilistic - bring into awareness the most likely next words, phrases, and developments in the story. These are not based on pure guesswork, but reflect the reader’s understanding of the genre, the context and text-specific cues.These include appraising the shape of the word, and automaticity in recognising the shapes of letters (graphemes), words and their corresponding sounds (phonemes). These cues are necessary, but not sufficient to orchestrate fluent reading.
  3. Reading fluency supports children as they expand their vocabulary.

The majority of studies show that:

  • A strong relationship exists between vocabulary size and social background,
  • Up to ninety per cent of vocabulary is not encountered in everyday speech, but in reading,
  • Vocabulary is particularly important for text comprehension,
  • Children’s books tend to include more unfamiliar words than are found in day-to-day speech.

The first two mechanisms work together symbiotically to anticipate, adapt and adjust to what is coming up next in printed language, similar to when we hear someone speaking. The third mechanism changes a child’s perspective on life. Teachers and parents need to expose children to printed language, including the unfamiliar and orthographically irregular words, simply because it is through reading fluency that these words are assimilated into a child’s lexicon.

How do you measure reading fluency?

Listening is key to measuring reading fluency. If a child practises a sentence by repeating it at least three times, there should be a natural shift in the level of engagement. In a child struggling with reading fluency, four attempts may be necessary. Here is an example of the process of refinement through repetition.

  • A beard hoped up to my wind….ow.
  • A b….ir…d h…o….p…p….ed up to my w…in, win…..d…..ow.
  • A b…ear…ir…d, b..ird, BIRD…. hopped up to my wind…ow (long pause) window.
  • A bird hopped up to my window.

The pivotal moment was when ‘b-ird’ became BIRD. This would have sounded louder because the child’s voice would have become clearer once the (known) category ‘bird’ was activated in their long term memory and the meaning behind the word was understood. Long term memory offered up the strong likelihood of ‘hopped’ in relation to the category ‘bird’ and this helped the child to extrapolate that the final word must be a ‘thing’ to hop towards. This was not guesswork, nor was it an exclusive reliance upon phoneme-grapheme correspondence, but an alignment of 1. long term memory (including probabilistic language processing) with 2. visual recognition of letters and knowledge of the sounds they represent (including a degree of automaticity).

Reading fluency can be measured in terms of engagement, expression, flow and understanding and in the Rhythm for Reading programme we specialise in transforming children’s reading at this deep (subconscious) level. Children move from relying on unreliable decoding strategies (because the English language doesn’t follow the regularities of letter to sound correspondence), through to full alignment with the language structures that underpin their everyday speech. Once this shift has taken place, the children are able to enjoy interacting with books and they also grow in confidence in other areas of learning and social development.

We have helped many hundreds of children to engage with reading in this natural and fluent way using our rhythm-based approach, which is delivered in only ten weekly sessions of ten minutes. There are almost a thousand case studies confirming the relationship between our programme and transformations in reading fluency. Click the link to read about selected case studies.

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If reading fluency is of interest, you may enjoy these posts

Reading fluency: Reading, fast or slow?

Schools ensure that all children become confident fluent readers, so that every child can access a broad and balanced curriculum. Fluent reading underpins a love of reading and is an important skill for future learning and employment and it also enables children to apply their knowledge and skills with ease.

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.

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.


Eileen Browne (1995) Handa’s Surprise, Walker Books and Subsidiaries.

Long, Marion. “‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading.” Research Studies in Music Education 36.1 (2014): 107-124.

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

15 November 2023

Image Credit: Ditto Bowo via Unsplash
Image Credit: Ditto Bowo via Unsplash

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.

Are children born knowing that bullying is inherently immoral, or, are we dealing with impulses that are ‘natural’ and therefore ‘justified’ on the grounds that ‘children will be children’?

This is the question that Ruter Bregman addressed in his wonderful book, ‘Human kind’. On the one hand, there is the view that humans may possess abhorrent traits, for example, John Adams’ vision of all men as ‘potential tyrants’ and Sigmund Freud’s thesis that we descended from ‘generations of murderers’. On the other hand, Rousseau’s much earlier realisation that the moral compass of humans had in fact been corrupted by land ownership and the extent to which social institutions (such as the baronial system) rewarded competitive and ‘loyal’ behaviour with enhanced social status, titles and land. This socially hierarchical system was normalised to such an extent that as humans, we lost touch with our natural compassion, health and vigour. Moreover, Bregman’s research showed that Rousseau’s argument was supported by countless examples of human courage and kindness. Furthermore, he discovered that explorers of the eighteenth century and the mainstream media had constructed blatantly false narratives that claimed dreadful events of human brutality had taken place, particularly within communities that lived traditional life-ways.

In the past year, stories of bullying as a global phenomenon have peppered the mainstream news. These have included an account by Raphael Rashid of a weekend rally of 200,000 South Korean school teachers protesting against the harassment they received from parents and that among their colleagues, one hundred teachers’ lives had been lost to suicide.

In southern California, Ramon Antonio Vargas reported on the lawsuit brought by the parents of fourteen year old school boy Diego Stoltz against the school district. Two of Diego’s own classmates had verbally and physically assaulted him, and he had lost his life to the injuries nine days after the attack. This took place on the school premises at lunchtime and another child had videoed the violence. This story shows that there is no room for complacency when enforcing an anti-bullying policy. Bullying is not just dangerous and corrosive, it can be fatal.

Complacency can be driven by an unease around standing up to bullying. However, in a school with effective leadership, where it is not tolerated at all, a strong ethos exists in terms of respect for teachers, pupils, learning equipment, school uniform and the fabric of the building. Expectations of high standards, however, are not necessarily self-sustaining: they are earned through consistent maintenance - it takes effort to keep children safe.

I visit schools every week and see teachers working hard to ensure that respect is maintained by a deliberate commitment to upholding the high behavioural values of the school. This is clearly visible when pupils move between lessons in every corridor and flight of stairs.

It is easy for standards to slide. When this happens, how might bullying affect learning? There are two main ways. First, if the atmosphere in a school lacks respect and tolerance, then pupils will feel hyper-vigilant and their attention will drift because they are alert for the wrong reasons, anticipating threat and wondering how to strategically position themselves for safety. This response is a necessary behavioural adaptation, but it diminishes cognitive focus, control and recall. Learning suffers.

The second way bullying affects learning is more insidious. It’s a narrowing of the bandwidth of ideas that pupils are willing to contribute and the questions that they are willing to ask in a classroom where individual contributions are not respected. In a culture of bullying, the perspective of the bully overrules opportunities for discussion, clarification and exploration. To move beyond ‘one size answers’, to ‘multiple answers’, pupils need to feel comfortable with expressing individual opinions or engaging with perspective-taking and the influence of context.

Deeper learning is also limited for one more reason, the so-called ‘narrowing of the curriculum’. The squeezing of arts subjects to the periphery of the curriculum is a huge loss in itself, but particularly so in this context, as arts subjects cultivate discipline, self-expression, dialogue, and prioritise collaborative working.

To conclude, the importance of enforcing an effective anti-bullying policy cannot be overstated. It is more than a matter of wearing odd-socks on ‘Odd socks day’. All schools must become places of safety, security and respect. Pupils who already carry visible negative effects from exposure to stress in early childhood, for example, need to know they will not be targeted, as they are vulnerable through no fault of their own. They deserve to focus their attention on learning and thriving as much as anybody else.

Research shows that headteachers who are successful leaders, with a strong vision and a clear set of values, have established an ethos of respectful conduct for everyone in the school community. An anti-bullying policy that works at all levels of implementation is the key to maintaining an effective and inclusive learning environment.

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Read more about this topic by clicking the links below

Temenos and Safety in Schools

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.

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.

Rhythm and reading comprehension 1/5

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


Rutger Bregman, Human kind: A hopeful history, Bloomsbury Publishing

Raphael Rashid, South Korean teachers stage walkout over harassment by parents and students 4th September 23, accessed 26th October 23

Ramon Antonio Vargas and agencies, Family of boy, 13, who died after bullying attack get $27 million from school district, 15th September 23, accessed 26th October 23

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Phonics:  Long and short vowels, and the influence of the vagus nerve

8 November 2023

Obviously, it is important that ALL children learn to read well. However, the lowest attaining twenty per cent of children are less likely to become confident, fluent readers. As a consequence, schools must monitor the development of pupils’ progress in phonics.

It is essential to identify any pupil who is falling behind the pace of the school’s phonics programme and to put effective support in place, but the quality of such support must withstand scrutiny. A certain amount of cognitive bias has been identified and found to disadvantage the lowest attaining children. Much of this is centred around verbal interactions - ie the spoken words between teacher and pupil. These verbalisations can be heard as criticism of the pupil and bias has also been found in the subtle manner in which expectations of the pupil are voiced.

In the teaching of early reading, communicative approaches are considered to have significantly positive effects. It is therefore important that when teachers are engaged in modelling language and reasoning, extending vocabulary and drawing attention to letters and sounds, they guard against cognitive bias, particularly in schools that serve disadvantaged communities. Given that unconscious bias can influence the way a child learns, it is important to understand how the emotional cues or ‘tone’ of the voice intersect with the human nervous system in the teaching of early reading.

Image credit - Michal Parzuchowski via Unsplash
Image credit - Michal Parzuchowski via Unsplash

What is phonemic awareness and how important are long and short vowels?

Phonemic awareness and decoding are essential for the development of reading. After all, as research has shown - guessing words from their context is only accurate for ten to twenty per cent of the time. As the foundation of a systematic approach to the teaching of reading, phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle need to be explicitly taught until they become automatic.

The principle of automaticity is key to the development of good reading. When the reader has internalised the correspondence between letters and their sounds, the cognitive load lightens and frees up capacity in working memory, as well as cognitive attention. As availability of both memory and attention expands, the reader engages with the text with increasing fluency, ease and understanding.

However, as each word consists of a unique combination of phonemes and each syllable is characterised by a vowel sound, awareness of the differences between long and short vowels can make or break the development of phonemic awareness. Why is this? Well, vowel sounds are particularly interesting because they carry information about the meaning assigned to a word, and in everyday speech, they also carry the speaker’s tone of voice, as well as their attitude or intention towards the listener, including any cognitive bias.

Arguably, if the sounds of vowels are associated in the mind of the child with feelings of confrontation, then the vowel sound may trigger an anxiety-inducing response that does not support learning.

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve relays sensory information that helps us to perceive the physiological signals that inform the brain of our internal state. As a cranial nerve, it connects the brain with almost every organ of the body and although the information travels in multiple directions, the majority of it flows upwards from the body to the brain. Certain parts of the vagus nerve are important for speech and are discussed below.

The vagus nerve descends on the left and the right of the neck. It innervates both sides of the larynx before it drops down into each side of the chest and then passes back up into the neck and into the larynx. On this ascending pathway the vagus nerve innervates all the remaining intrinsic muscles of the larynx, which are responsible for opening and closing the vocal folds. The nature of this return journey may account for why these branches of the vagus are known as the recurrent laryngeal nerve.

The larynx

The larynx (or voice box) has three important functions. One is to prevent us from inhaling food or liquids. Another is to support breathing. The third is to produce sound through speaking, singing, shouting and screaming. The muscles of the larynx adjust the length and tension of the vocal folds (vocal cords) and this is how people adjust the tone and pitch of the voice, though the nervous system usually takes care of this for us subconsciously.

The tone of voice can be modified to portray a wide range of emotions such as anger, fear, surprise, sadness and joy. In stressful situations, chronic tension in the larynx can arise and can weaken the coordination between the muscles controlling the vocal folds.

The job of the cricothyroid muscles is to tense the vocal cords, resulting in more forceful and higher pitch speech. This is the only muscle that is innervated by the superior (upper) laryngeal branch of the vagus nerve. This muscle fundamentally changes the main acoustic of the sound, in terms of the emotional content and the contrasts in tone.

The more gentle sounds of the human voice are produced by the muscles innervated by the recurrent laryngeal nerve, after it has travelled through the chest area. These muscles include:

  • The thyroarytenoid muscles, which relax tension and shorten the vocal folds.
  • The posterior cricoarytenoid muscles, which widen the space between the vocal cords and pull them away from the midline of the body.

According to research findings by Arnal and colleagues (2015), human screams exploit a unique acoustic property. They display a ‘roughness’ that activates not only the brain’s auditory system, but also the amygdala, a deep brain structure that is involved in processing fear and danger.

A scream is a long vowel sound, ‘ah’, characterised by its high pitch and initial loudness. The researchers showed that a scream is distinctive (when compared to high pitched singing) because of its rough rather than harmonious qualities. It is the roughness that produces the fear-inducing response in listeners. However, context is key. In school playgrounds, under adult supervision, many children let off steam by running fast and screaming as they chase each other. This is a healthy use of the voice to release emotion in a playful way. A fast-paced and playful environment with a lot of emotional release reinforces active coping strategies and builds resilience as well as social connection.

The vagus nerve, which ascends through the vocal folds, and into the brain innervates two areas that are important for managing emotional and physiological pain: the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. Given that our tone of voice can indicate how we feel in our social environment, and how we feel influences how we learn, how might this information apply to the way we approach vowels in the teaching of early reading? Let’s first consider vowel sounds in the context of phonemic awareness.

How are long and short vowels related to the vagus nerve?

The emotion in the voice is related to the variability of vowel sounds as well as vowel length and impacts the vagus nerve in the following ways.

Social engagement and learning

Given that the majority of our learning (via peers, experts, books or online media) is social, it’s interesting to know that the ventral part of the vagus nerve allows us to feel comfortable whilst we are socially engaged. This part of the vagus nerve is located towards the front of the body and opens up the heart space, allowing us to breathe more deeply. This is how the vagus nerve supports our ability to communicate easily with others. It ensures that we feel regulated and can handle what’s happening. In this socially engaged state, the voice shows variation in rhythm and pitch. An extreme example of this can be heard in the exaggerated rise and fall of the voice, as well as the lengthening of vowel sounds when parents interact with their young children. These particular sounds encourage feelings of safety and achieve an ideal environment, particularly for acquiring the child’s first language. In the majority of socially relaxed situations, people smile with their eyes and produce a calm friendly voice with warmth in both longer and shorter vowel sounds.

Confrontational behaviour and learning

When people feel threatened, learning continues as part of an active coping strategy, but this is a different kind of learning. There’s tension in the shoulders and the sides of the ribs are constricted. The jaw may be clenched and speaking will feel reactive and sound lower in pitch. The vagus nerve enables these changes by allowing the heartbeat to pick up pace as a reaction to a perceived threat or stressor. Learning therefore takes place in a competitive rather than an exploratory context. There’s potential for the individual to overcome the threat through assertiveness. There can be confrontation, criticism and aggression in the voice, as the rise and fall of a socially engaged voice has been replaced by a more defensive tone, with a distinctive roughness in the vowel sounds. Assertiveness may or may not prove to be a successful strategy, but either way, the behaviour and outcome are appraised and stored as a memory.

Defeated behaviour, dysregulated behaviour and learning

If a situation is intolerable, feelings of flight and anxiety increase arousal levels and produce shallow, fast breathing and a relatively high pitched, faster pace of speaking. A low-level sense of dread limits focus, absorbs attention and constrains learning, whereas the most passive coping strategy of all involves the dorsal branch of the vagal nerve, which decreases arousal by freezing behaviour to such an extent that the person’s own voice feels unavailable and socialising is unimaginable. Learning is impossible in this state, as the body is too busy conserving energy: it is difficult to imagine doing anything, but survive.

Concluding thoughts

Given that we are ‘wired’ to learn and to be social, it’s essential to understand the importance of tone of voice. The tone of voice can trigger a response from the vagal nerve and if the voice is perceived as threatening, this will impact learning. The teaching of vowel sounds in a phonics programme must be undertaken with awareness of the role of the voice, particularly in terms of tone quality. Any abrasion in the voice is likely to impact learning in very young children. So, let’s avoid an abrasive vocal tone in the teaching of reading and instead, allow ourselves to engage in that melodious sing-song voice that children find reassuring, because this signals safety for ALL children during the teaching of early reading.

If you enjoyed this topic, keep reading!

When phonics and rhythm collide part 1

A child with sensitivity to rhythm is attuned to the onsets of the smallest sounds of language. In terms of rhythmic precision, the front edge of the sound is also the point at which the rhythmic boundary occurs. Children with a well-developed sensitivity to rhythm are also attuned to phonemes and are less likely to conflate the sounds.

When phonics and rhythm collide part 2

Vowel sounds carry interesting information such as emotion, or tone of voice. They are longer (in milliseconds) and without defined edges. Now imagine focussing on the onset of those syllables. The consonants are shorter (in milliseconds), more sharply defined and more distinctive, leaving plenty of headspace for cognitive control. If consonants are prioritised, information flows easily and the message lands with clarity.

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

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


Arnal LH, Flinker A, Kleinschmidt A, Giraud AL, Poeppel D. Human screams occupy a privileged niche in the communication soundscape. Curr Biol. 2015 Aug 3;25(15):2051-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.06.043. Epub 2015 Jul 16. PMID: 26190070; PMCID: PMC4562283.

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