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The Rhythm for Reading blog

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

1 November 2023

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

The impact of fireworks on learning may have been underestimated as a factor that potentially limits some pupils’ capacity to access the curriculum. In terms of equipping all children and young people for future learning, sensitivity to environmental noise needs to be addressed, particularly in times of conflict. Also, our neurodivergent pupils may need time to centre themselves and recover from the inevitability of raised arousal levels. These sensitivities may manifest as excitability, anxiety and uncertainty around elevated exposure to noise. The increased stress from environmental noise exposure is a form of cognitive load. It is generally emotionally charged (loud, violent and unpredictable) with the availability of attentional resources diminished, working memory function compromised and access to learning constrained.

In this post I’ll unpack the ways in which resilience to environmental stress is influenced by regulatory circuits in the brain. These circuits process relative levels of adversity and support in the social environment and determine whether a person is more likely to approach or avoid neutral situations. When the emotion regulatory circuits are functioning well, people are protected against environmental stressors and sensory overload.

Researchers have found, for example, that children who grew up in inner cities, compared with those from rural areas, were more likely to have increased activity in the brain region of the regulatory circuit that is conditioned by social stress and adversity. In such instances, the ‘amygdala’ was implicated in children’s educational outcomes because it is particularly threat-oriented. This area of the brain drives fear-based responses and can modify behaviour by reallocating attentional resources to survival-type behaviours such as fighting back, escaping (absconding) or shutting down and withdrawing.

The capacity to down-regulate (relax) the amygdala is important for the development of social resilience, and this is best supported by a stable social network of friends and family, an inclusive school community and a healthy lifestyle. Researchers have proposed that oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding, protected individuals including those suffering from PTSD, hyper-arousal and high blood pressure: it also enhanced the management of stressful experiences.

How does the theatricality of fireworks impact people?

Fireworks create a ‘spectacle’ and if we include the earliest ‘fire-crackers’ they have been used by humans for more than two thousand years: imagine hearing the noises which were created naturally when bamboo stems were thrown in the fire. Air exploded loudly in the narrow stems and as far as people were concerned these sounds were protective - because they were larger than life and were considered a force for good.

At least five hundred years later, experiments with gunpowder in China generated the first man-made fireworks. Their use spread rapidly from Italy, across Europe and eventually to the U.S.. Their function was to illuminate palaces and castles at night time and to exaggerate the wealth and status of the land owners, long before people had electricity. Rhythmically vigorous music was usually deployed to amplify the theatrical effect, just as it is today.

The whole point of fireworks has remained the same: to enchant people, to impress them and to manipulate their perceptions. When fireworks were first used by the wealthy, no doubt in competition with one another, the effect would also have astounded local people, further exaggerating the hierarchical relationship between land owners and workers.

We are the only living species that has achieved mastery of fire as a tool. From cooking to metal working, from the combustion engine to missiles, we’ve found ways to harness fire in remarkable ways, such as:

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

This year, people are suffering in so many ways from the most destructive aspects of fire: the impact of rockets and shelling has tragically impacted communities around the world. As we light up and set off fireworks, let’s contemplate the fact that these sound effects signify death and mutilation to so many people, including traumatised refugees who have sought safety in welcoming countries and those who are suffering in war zones. Nearer to home, the sounds of fireworks will have some people bracing, cowering, shaking and flinching, not only this year, but for many more in the future.

Having said this, fireworks are widely available and are frequently used for all manner of celebrations. Some people mark anniversaries and religious festival days with their brightly coloured lights and spectacular sounds, and as a global community we all celebrate New Year with them. Although they are generally used to bring people together for special occasions, many children and animals are naturally frightened by their overwhelming effects and they can cause panic, anxiety and fear, as well as generate sensory overload and confusion.

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

The fire in the family hearth can roar, crackle and pop, whereas the sounds of fireworks whistle, scream and bang. This manipulation of manmade fire reminds us of violent sounds associated with war and fear. The sounds of fireworks exploit two different mechanisms. First consider the narrow tube - just like the original bamboo stem: this is the vessel - the container of the ‘managed’ sound. The second mechanism depends on the type of chemical reaction, which determines whether the flame burns quickly or slowly. The quick reactions are more explosive, whereas the slower ones are more expressive.

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

How do these sounds affect pupils?

Our auditory system is the first sensory system to develop in utero from about 19 weeks in gestation. From these very early days, the auditory system appraises the sounds of the environment while the foetus develops. We are wired to scan the environment using all our senses, but arguably, the most important and sensitive of these is the auditory system.

This system differentiates between the variety of emotional content of early memories, by processing the neutral ones in the left hemisphere of the brain, whereas upsetting early memories are processed in the right side. Researchers discovered that sensitivity to sound processing was more pronounced in the right than the left hemisphere, and that this occurred during recall of upsetting rather than neutral memories. The converse was also true. So, processing neutral memories was clearer in the left hemisphere, whereas auditory processing was less acute on the left side.

People with a history of childhood trauma and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have more activation of their right hemisphere when recalling difficult memories, and can be expected to be highly sensitive to sound. Every person diagnosed with a debilitating condition such as PTSD suffers a unique array of lived experiences and challenging risk factors. It’s also reasonable to generalise that this disorder reduces resilience, with people in this situation more likely to avoid a noisy environment as a way to prevent traumatic memories and emotional distress from resurfacing.

Using fireworks to develop literacy and expand vocabulary

Before the fireworks season begins, there is an opportunity for teachers to discuss the sounds that fireworks make and their impact. Naming and explaining things makes them less overwhelming, as well as easier to manage and process. Onomatopoeia - the literary device used to identify sound effects such as ‘bang’, is an obvious approach to take. Rather than simply referring to the novelty of the ‘fun’ sounds in fireworks, it’s also important to consider the unpleasant experiences that some children and young people in the classroom may need to have acknowledged, honoured and respected by their teacher. These pupils may very well wish that they could avoid being exposed to fireworks altogether.

Having included everyone’s points of view, the topic of ‘fireworks’ offers a huge opportunity for vocabulary development. A strong relationship between vocabulary and social background is well known as it exists the majority of research studies. Why not immerse children in evaluative language when discussing fireworks by:

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

If there are children in your class who are sensitive to the sound effects produced by fireworks, it may be helpful to embody the suddenness of the sounds by moving to music using starburst style movements, jumping jacks and also using art to release some of the complexity and intensity of any potentially overwhelming experiences.

Click the links to read related posts.

Rhythm, attention and rapid learning

Trance-like attentional states include boredom and repetition, whereas novelty and a switch in stimulus generate a shift and a rapid reset of attention. Ultimately the attention span is involved in predicting where and when the next reward or threat will occur.

Big is not enough

Sensory shock is one of those overworked, high impact, culturally jarring phrases bandied about to solicit attention. Its use speaks to violation, but of what? It points to a loss of cognitive control that is immediate and devastating. Even seemingly small changes in the tone of voice of someone new, can be experienced by some of the students, as a sensory shock.

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

Young people’s mental health challenges cannot be left to fester, as they affect their identity, educational outcomes, parental income and resilience within the wider community. Here are 10 key strategies that parents and teachers can use to support children and adolescents dealing with distressing symptoms of mental health challenges while they are waiting for professional help.

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Skulls and Magic: Ancestors, Trances, Dancing and Tea

25 October 2023

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

Did you know that ninety per cent of our vocabulary is encountered in reading and not in everyday speech? Books can introduce us to some spectacular ideas and gruesome knowledge at Halloween. Folk tales and myths in particular can induct us to knowledge about our world and rituals that date back many thousands of years. Although the origins of Halloween are attributed to the Celtic tradition, many of its themes as we know them today have rich and ancient origins. dating back to the beginnings of the Neolithic period. Humans have preserved, decorated and celebrated their ancestors’ skulls for thousands of years.

Here, I review two new Halloween books ‘Where’s my Boo!?’ by Nicholas Daniel, and ‘The Skull’ by Jan Klassen. “Where’s My Boo!?” is superficially an adorable story that actually deals with fear - the type of fear that steals your voice, that leaves a person feeling frozen and silenced. A ghost goes on a quest to ‘reclaim’ its ‘Boo!’ and even borrows the voices of others. This book delights in three ways. First, it uses a predictable pattern of rhyming couplets that is consistent and make it fun to guess the final word. Also, there’s a persuasive feeling of buoyancy in the illustrations and a font that pretty much mirrors the lilting feel of the language. Lastly, a huge sense of relief is palpable when the ghost stops searching and listens to the voice within. The encouraging message of this book is that our ‘true Boo!’ is the one that everyone loves and needs to hear.

‘The Skull’ is a retelling of a Tyrolean folktale. It’s a fascinating blend of folklore and symbols, reworked through a contemporary lens. Skulls have been polished and cherished for millennia, and in Halloween season, surrounded as we are by skeletons and carved pumpkins, I was curious to dive deeply into the underpinnings of this story.

The original version of this folk tale is deeply symbolic. The most mysterious and magical elements of the story, to my mind, have been ‘cleansed’ during Klassen’s retelling. However, the relationship between the main character, ‘Otilla’ and the ‘Skull’ remains the same across three different versions - and I’ll unpack a few points for the sake of comparison. The character of ‘The Skull’ is best described as a cherished ancestor, perhaps as a once precious elder of the community. There’s evidence that ten thousand years ago, people polished and decorated skulls, perhaps as a token of respect for deceased loved ones, or as a way to maintain a ‘connection’ with them. In each version of the story there is also a ‘Skeleton’ character, which wants possession of the ‘Skull’. The child ‘Otilla’ confronts the ‘Skeleton’ in the climax of the story and after this point, each reworking retells the folk tale in a different way.

In the original, according to Klassen, once the curse of the ‘Skeleton’ has been broken, it vanishes. At that moment, the ‘Skull’ turns into a beautiful lady dressed in white and the castle is filled with children and lovely things to play with. This lady gives everything in the castle to ‘Otilla’ before disappearing into the sky.

Another earlier version, written by Busk and edited by Rachel Harriette dates from the nineteenth century, entitled, “Otilia and the Death’s Head’ or, ‘Put your trust in providence’. It was published in London in 1871 and resonated strongly with the opening section of the well known tale ‘Cinderella’, as the young Otilla was both orphaned and resentful of her stepmother.

Overwhelmed by grief and her own vulnerability, Otilla runs away from home into the Tyrolean forest, all the while hearing her deceased father’s voice guiding her and urging her to trust in God. Hungry, cold and close to death herself, she discovers a castle and is welcomed by a speaking ‘Death Head’.

She undertakes specific tasks for the ‘Death Head’. She cooks in the kitchen, sleeps in a strange bedroom and faces her fear of the ‘Skelton’ that rattles its bones at her. However, guided by her father and trusting in God, she is resolute and fearless. The next morning, the ‘Skeleton’ is transformed into a beautiful lady dressed in white, who, having shown a lack of appreciation for all the wonderful things that life had given her, had been trapped in the castle. She turns into a dove before flying away.

Otilla displayed no fear when confronted by the ‘Skeleton’ and had broken the spell through the strength of her faith. Having inherited the castle from the lady in white, she invites her stepmother to enjoy it with her, and domestic peace and harmony are restored.

In a wonderful book called, ‘Decoding Fairytales’ by Chris Knight, Professor of Anthropology at UCL, the reader is guided through a system of symbols and signs based on the division of lived experiences as either ‘Other World’ (the world of trance, near death experiences, ceremonial masks and rebellion) or ‘This World’ (the orderly world of compliance, harmonious living and surrender). ‘Halloween’ of course is a celebration of the ‘Other World’.

To appreciate the contrast between each ‘world’ we need to think about life before the internet, telecommunications, and even the use of electricity, when moonlight was the most important source of light after sunset. The phase of the moon was believed to control not only the tides and peoples’ physical safety, but also to influence their emotions.

In this list I’ve summarised Knight’s observations of the two ‘Worlds’.

‘This World’ versus ‘Other World’

  • Moon Waning versus Moon Waxing
  • Midday Sun versus Eclipse
  • Silence / calm versus Thunder
  • Day versus Night
  • Life versus Death
  • Dry versus Wet
  • Cooked versus Raw / Blood
  • Feasting versus Hunger / Being eaten
  • Emergence versus Seclusion
  • Harmony versus Noise / Chaos
  • Surrender versus Rebellion
  • Available versus Taboo
  • Human Identity versus Animal Mask

‘The Skull’ is not a story about ‘This World’. In all three versions of the tale, Otilla leaves the mundane world of her old life behind and journeys into the ‘Other World’ - the liminal world where she encounters the transition between life and death, enchantment and rebellion.

In many fairytales, a young girl finds herself lost in a forest or has been secluded in a forest (by someone in her matrilineal line). Although the forest was familiar to Otillla, as she lay in the wet snow crying, she confronted her fear of the dark, of danger and of being alone at night. Klassen allows the reader to decide whether or not it was the wind calling Otilla’s name, whereas Harriette and Busk were unequivocal that Otilla could hear her late father’s voice guiding her onwards through the darkness. The forest is both a psychological and physical barrier, carrying the risk of death and cutting her off from the safety of her domestic mundane life.

In the Harriette and Busk version of the story, Otilla is given tasks to perform. The first is to carry the ‘Death Head’. The second is to take it into the kitchen and to make a pancake. To do this she uses eggs - a universal symbol of rebirth. In Klassen’s version however, she eats a pear (carrying connotations of fertility) with ‘The Skull’, makes a fire for them both and they ‘drink tea’ (we must imagine the type of tea) by the fire. Both versions feature the fire, and in fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel or the Gingerbread Man, a kitchen fire, in a cottage in the middle of a forest traditionally cues an opportunity for children to be cooked alive.

In the Klassen version of the story, the ‘Skull’ shows Otilla a wall where ceremonial animal masks hang, explaining that they were not to be worn (i.e. taboo). However, they walk down the steps to the dungeon and look at the ‘bottomless pit’ (a familiar theme in many myths and legends, perhaps representing an ‘underworld’ or the subconscious mind). In the accompanying illustration Klassen depicts both characters wearing the animal masks, which signals that they have crossed the threshold into the ‘Other World,’ the space between life and death where it is appropriate to wear animal masks and where taboos may be broken without consequences.

Otilla has spent the first night drinking ‘tea’ and exploring the dungeon with the ‘Skull’ and now trusts sufficiently to be taken to the top of the turret. The turret, like the dungeon was traditionally a place of seclusion for girls in many fairytales. As they climb the steps from the dungeon to the balcony and move from darkness into light, we may assume that a new day, the second day of the adventure has dawned.

They remove their masks as they reach the daylight and emerge into fresh air, but then the ‘Skull’ immediately takes Otilla into the ballroom, where the sun streams in through the window. The adventure continues as they wear the ceremonial masks and dance until evening. Traditionally, wearing an animal mask simply meant acknowledging the ‘animal side’ of the self, (the side that was inhibited by social norms during domestic day-to-day life). Having danced the second day away with the ‘Skull’, Otilla makes another fire and they ‘drink tea’ in the evening. She looks into the fire, it becomes a source of inspiration and cerebral power while the ‘Skull’ tells her about the threat of the ‘Skeleton’. Otilla sleeps with the ‘Skull’ on the second night and falls into a ‘deep sleep’.

In the middle of the night, the ‘Skeleton’ appears just as predicted and tries to steal the ‘Skull’ from Otilla. The girl prevails and shows the ‘Skeleton’ that she is stronger and smarter in Klassen’s secular version (and spiritually disciplined and protected in the Harriette - Busk version).

According to Klassen, the ‘Skeleton’ chases the girl, who clutching the ‘Skull,’ leads it up to the top of the turret, throws it over the edge, and hears it shatter upon impact with the ground.

Later in the story, while the ‘Skull’ sleeps, Otilia cremates the ‘Skeleton’s’ fragmented bones. [According to Knight, fire is a traditional symbol of marriage and stands in opposition to blood, a traditional symbol of kinship.] In Klassen’s contemporary narrative, Otilla accepts an invitation to cohabit with the ‘Skull’, having made the ‘Skeleton’ disappear, and thus she emerges on day three of her adventure into a new domestic life.

In the original version and Busk’s retelling of it, the ‘Skeleton’ transforms into a beautiful lady at the end of the story, reminiscent of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. In both fables, the young girls have a strong affinity with the tempering and purifying power of fire, and both have lost their mothers. It would also seem that bereavement, extreme anxiety, fear and stress in a pubescent child, particularly after drinking a herbal brew such as tea, might induce such visions. But, in Klassen’s telling of the tale, these magical ‘other worldly’ elements have been removed. Instead, the ‘Skull’ offers Otilla companionship and a new home.

If the underlying elements of this story resonated, you might enjoy reading more about trance, rhyme, rhythm and language in these posts:

Rhythm, Flow, Reading Fluency and Comprehension: In extant societies, traditional life ways include hunting and gathering. For sheer survival, loud communal singing and drumming are also essential for deterring the big cats that may predate infants on the darkest of nights.

Rhythm, attention and rapid learning: Boredom and repetition generate trance-like states of attention, whereas novelty and a switch in stimulus create a rapid reset. Ultimately the attention span plays a role in predicting where and when the next reward or threat is likely to occur.

Practising poetry - The importance of rhythm for detecting grammatical structures: Rhythmical patterns in language cast beams of expectation, helping to guide and focus our attention, enabling us to anticipate and enjoy the likely flow of sound and colour in the atmosphere of the poem.

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A simple view of reading (SVR) musical notation

18 October 2023

Image credit: M. Weston via Unsplash
Image credit: M. Weston via Unsplash

Many people think that reading musical notation is difficult. To be fair, many methods of teaching musical notation over-complicate an incredibly simple system. It’s not surprising that so many people believe musical notes are relics of the past and are happy to let them go - but isn’t this like saying books are out of date and that reading literature is antiquated? In homes all around the world, parents of all nationalities can teach children as young as three to read musical notation, as this has for a very long time, become an internationally standardised system. In many schools in all parts of the UK, I’ve taught children at risk of failing the phonics screening check to read simple musical notation fluently in ten minutes. There are distinct differences in my approach and I’m sharing these here.

What is musical notation?

Musicians refer to musical notation as ‘the dots’!

These little marks written on five lines show musicians not only the musical details, but also the bigger picture - they can see the character and the style of the music by the way ’the dots’ are grouped together. Imagine you are looking at a map of your local area - you’d be able to see where buildings and streets are more densely or sparsely grouped together.

This is the skill that musicians use when they look at a page of music - it’s simply a convention for mapping musical sounds.

When was the first music written down?

Early evidence of this practice of notating music can be traced back to its archaic roots in Homer (8th century B.C.E.) Terpander of Lesbos (c. 675 B.C.E.) and Pindar (5th century B.C.E.). However, following the fall of Athens in the 5th century B.C.E., there was a break with tradition. Aristoxenus (c.320 B.C.E..) documented the cultural revolution that had taken place - the rejection of all traditional classical forms. Traditional music had been replaced by -

  • a preference for sound effects imitating nature
  • free improvisation
  • a new fashion for lavishly embellished singing

The rejection of the old ways, including the ‘old music’ appeared to allow space for a new level of freedom. The new emphasis on individual expression rejected:

  • traditional tuning systems and forms of both music and poetry
  • being part of something greater than oneself
  • creating something that would endure.

Musical notation, as the history shows, is less related to individual expression and more to the concept of building a musical canon - a collection of forms, styles and conventions, which are best represented in certain iconic ‘classical’ works. As such, there’s an emphasis on a standardisation of musical language, one that is mathematically well-proportioned, enduring and able to be passed on from generation to generation.

The most ancient system of musical notation, ‘neumes’ in ‘sacred western music’ was used between the 8th and 14th centuries, (C.E.) and was built upon Greek terminology. Most interestingly, the use of the apostrophe /‘/ ‘aspirate’ in the ‘neumes’ survives in today’s musical notation and shows when a musician takes a new breath or makes a slight pause. Part of the standardisation of musical notation has been that it is written on five lines.

What are the five lines called?

These lines, called ‘the stave’, show musicians whether the sounds are higher or lower in frequency (pitch). To take an extreme example, the squeak of a mouse is a high frequency sound (high pitch), and to show this frequency, the dots would be written far above the stave. Conversely, the rumble of a lorry has a low frequency sound (low pitch); to map this sound accurately, the dots would be written far below the stave. Extending the stave in this way involves writing what musicians call ‘ledger lines’.

In a central position within the spectrum of these very high and very low pitched frequencies, we have the pitch range of the human voice. Consider the sounds of the lowest male voice and the highest female voice and it’s clear that the spectrum of frequencies is still very wide. To accommodate this broad range of sounds, musicians write a different ‘clef’ sign at the extreme left of the stave. There are four ‘clef’ signs in common use: the treble (named after the unbroken boys’ voice), alto, tenor and the bass; these clefs are used by singers and instrumentalists alike. The two most commonly used are the bass and treble clefs.

  • The bass clef indicates that the pitch range is suited to lower frequency sounds, matching the range of broken male voices.
  • The treble clef at the extreme left of the stave indicates that the pitch range matches that of children’s and female voices.

What is the line between the notes called?

In the early 1600s, for reasons of clearer musical organisation, vertical lines started to appear in notation, which divided the music into ‘bars’ (UK) or ‘measures’ (US). For the most part, the number of beats is standardised in each bar. Keep reading to find out more about the beats!

Many of the most catchy pieces of Western music rely on simple repetition of short patterns as well as predictable beats. We perceive these to fall naturally into a regular grouping, and most melodies fall into a pattern of two, three or four beats, spread across the piece or song. Here are two recognisable examples, the first in three time, the second in four time:

  • God save the King (UK) or God Bless America (US)
  • Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

Of course, we all know music that’s more complex than this. For example, traditional dance styles from all around the world are often more elaborate and combine rhythmic groupings of faster-paced patterns such as:

  • 2s with 3s
  • 4s with 3s
  • 4s with 5s

Although these occasionally appeared in iconic classical works of the 19th century such as Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, they became more commonplace in the early 20th century. These slightly irregular groupings create subtle feelings of asymmetry that is as delightful to the ear as new taste sensations are to the palette.

If there are five beats, as in ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck, then after each group of five beats a vertical line shows the end of the ‘measure’ (US) also known as the ‘barline’ (UK). The bars or measures are units of time that show the organisation of the beats in the music.

Generally, ‘the dots’ and rhythms show the structure of a piece, or how it ‘works’ musically. In performance, a musician would maintain a consistent rhythmic ‘feel’. So these two essential notational elements offer a framework of predictability, which the musician reads, understands and feels:

  • the number of beats in each bar
  • the grouping and rhythm of the beats and notes within these bars

However, too much emphasis on the predictability and the vertical organisation of the beats can produce an effect that is wooden and robotic. Although a strict sense of rhythm and pulse (the beat) is essential for successful music making, the actual phrasing of these is more horizontal and somewhat elastic in feel.

This can work by making more of the musical tension, by stretching it in time and intensity, as well as making it louder and moving forward; it can help the listener wait in anticipation for the all-important climax and moment of release. This is incredibly effective at all levels of music making, and is known to us all in the more familiar context of telling jokes and stories, where the pacing is as important as the details.

So, this is why experienced musicians use ‘the dots’ only as a map, and allow their ‘feel’ for the rhythm, the harmony and the style to bring freedom and individuality to their expression.

What are ‘heads’ and ‘stems’?

The anatomy of ‘the dots’ tells musicians about the pitch and the time values of sounds they make.

The ‘heads’ are the oval shaped part of a note, whereas the ‘stem’ is the line that may be attached to the ‘head’. The ‘head’ of the note moves around on the stave and tells the musician about pitch and depending on whether it’s filled (black) or open (white), about time value. The ‘stem’ of the note can join with other ‘stems’ (called ‘beaming’) and tells the musician about time and emphasis.

Some teachers of musical notation are very ‘head’ focussed and have elaborate mnemonics for memorising the positions of ‘the dots’ on the stave. Here are some examples:

  • All Cows Eat Grass (the spaces of the bass clef - A,C,E,G)
  • Good Boys Deserve Fun Always (the lines of the bass clef - G,B,D,F,A)
  • FACE (the spaces of the treble clef - F,A,C,E)
  • Every Good Boy Deserves Food (the lines of the table clef - E,G,B,D,F)

The major problem with this approach is that it involves cognitive loading, as remembering these patterns rapidly absorbs a child’s finite cognitive resources. As a prerequisite for learning to read notation, these mnemonic patterns must be memorised and then applied in real time. Although this approach is not difficult for pupils with a strong working memory, it is absolutely why reading musical notation has gained its reputation for being ‘too difficult’ for some children to engage with.

Some leading musical education programmes in use today, are very ‘stem’ focussed and have elaborate time names for longer and shorter durations: ‘ta’ ‘ti-ti’ ‘tiri-tiri’ and ‘too’. Or, ‘Ta-ah’ ‘Ta’ ‘Ta-Te’ ‘Tafa-Tefe’ and there are many more to choose from.

The issue here is that the sound names are confusable because they sound so similar. Children with specific learning difficulties are likely to conflate these, and experience rhythm as confusing. This is unnecessary and easily avoided. Furthermore, it places children with weak working memory and weak sensitivity to phonemes at a considerable disadvantage.

We have completely avoided these issues in Rhythm for Reading and have opted for something simpler that does not front-load children’s attentional resources. In addition, our approach allows reading fluency to develop in the very first session.

We use simple and familiar language. ‘The dots’ are compared with lollipops and described as ‘blobs’ and ‘sticks’. Time names ‘ta’ and ‘ti-ti’ are simplified as ‘long’ and ‘quick quick’. There’s no confusion. This allows us to get on with the business of reading - fluently.

We offer professional development (CPD) that is deeply rooted in neuroscience, the development of executive function and of course, cognitive load theory. You can find out more in the following links.

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-grapheme correspondence. Fluent reading for all children is our main teaching goal.

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

Empowering children to read music 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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How we can support mental health challenges of school children?

11 October 2023

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.

1. A calm educational environment

The size of the school seems to determine the quality of the learning environment to some extent. If every class takes place in a tranquil atmosphere, this means that every teacher takes responsibility for the ambience in every lesson. In ‘creative’ subjects such as music, art and drama, it is particularly vital that children participate in lessons where respect both for learning and for every student is maintained. An ethos of respect for every student is easier to sustain in a calm atmosphere. Children with mental health challenges are more likely to cope for longer in this setting, where they are better able to self-regulate any difficult feelings that may arise.

2. A space to talk

In a school it is important that teachers and children have spaces where they are able to discuss and resolve pastoral or academic challenges in privacy, rather than for example, in the middle of a busy corridor. This is incredibly important for the more vulnerable pupils in our communities. Those with special educational needs and disabilities need to be supported with a particular focus in terms of social, emotional and mental health. A place where children are able to ask for help or advice from the pastoral team immediately shows all pupils that this is a caring school that values their feelings, responds to their questions and most importantly, takes their mental health challenges seriously.

3. Listening from the heart

The pressure of workload on teachers is enormous, and yet according to research, teachers are more effective in the classroom when they not only show their passion for the subject, but also that they care deeply about the children they are teaching. Both these factors unfortunately can lead to teacher burn-out, which would obviously diminish their capacity to listen from the heart.

Arlie Hoschild’s ’The Managed Heart,’ discusses ‘emotional work’ as an integral but undervalued and unrecognised aspect of many public-facing roles.

Teaching is clearly one these, requiring intense and constant emotional input. Sadly, many of the best and most dedicated teachers suffer because they are so invested in pupils’ learning and personal development.

It is vital that school leaders cultivate an environment that values the well-being of teachers, protects them from abuse, prevents them from burning out and avoids unnecessary workload. Teaching can be incredibly fulfilling, but often feels all-consuming. It is therefore vital that teachers have realistic and sustainable workloads. Our teachers deserve to have time to recharge during the school day so that they are better able to support pupils’ mental health challenges, particularly if they work as part of a pastoral team.

4. Compassionate reassurance

Much has been said about empathy in recent years, but compassionate reassurance achieves a stronger outcome in less time. Compassion involves complete acceptance of the situation, as well as the capacity to hold all the challenges of that situation in mind, which is why it is easier to help students to feel emotionally ‘safe’, as they are more likely to begin to self-regulate. This involves being able to breathe deeply and slowly, feel physically more relaxed and more connected to their body, which may enable them to be better able to express their feelings and to share their concerns more openly.

5. Offering quality time with no distractions

Imagine a nine year old child, overwhelmed by a challenging situation and dealing with a mental health challenge, such as acute anxiety. One day, they feel ready to trust a teacher, to open up and to disclose their concern, but to their disappointment, the teacher must rush away to deal with something rather ‘more urgent’.

Their rational response would say, ‘Yes, emergencies happen, but my feelings are not as important as an emergency.”

At the same time, their vulnerable feelings might achieve a ‘shut down’ in their central nervous system and a dread of abandonment or rejection could trigger an acute attack of panic or anxiety or other distressing feelings and thoughts.

It is important for the child that the teacher stays physically present with them until that conversation or connection has reached a mutually agreed end point. If not, a negative spiral can quickly gain momentum if the ‘end’ of the conversation or connection feels abrupt or unplanned.

6. Practising gentle kindness

In day to day life, if we practise gentle kindness, it is obvious that we are not interested in conversations that are unkind. By walking away, we are showing that unkind remarks are not taken seriously. Gentle kindness begins in the mind, replacing judgmental thoughts with compassionate ones. It is arguably far easier to prevent mental health challenges than to treat them. Gentle kindness is a strong starting point for effective prevention.

7. Honouring the feelings

We all have feelings. Most people are uncomfortable with accepting all their feelings because difficult emotions such as shame or guilt or a belief that they are ‘not enough’ are pushed under the rug and barely acknowledged in our society.

Children and young people make comparisons between themselves and an ‘ideal’ version that they have seen online or experienced through parental scripting.

Here are a few examples of parental scripts or expectations of their child:

  • To get married and have children
  • To support the same sports teams as their parents
  • To attend a certain school or university
  • To take on the family business or join a certain profession
  • To live in a particular geographical area

Sometimes this form of scripting is very ambitious and the child is expected to achieve one or several of these:

  • To qualify to represent their country in an elite sports team or even in the Olympics,
  • To win a scholarship to a particular school or university
  • To have top quality examination results
  • To break records or ‘be the first’
  • To become so special and so talented that they are recognised for their accomplishments.

If these expectations are not fulfilled, harsh self-judgments and self-criticisms are likely to follow.

All of these negative beliefs, thoughts and feelings may well become so toxic that they may have a detrimental effect on the individual.

Conversely, a child who has too little support or stimulus from their family may well feel neglected and frustrated by a lack of attention and display challenging and self-pitying behaviour.

It is important to protect children from creating idealised versions of themselves. Even conscientiousness, which is often encouraged at school and is intrinsically admirable rather than harmful, can develop into an unhealthy source of anxiety and low-self-worth in certain situations.

8. Expressing the emotions

To express anger, frustration or resentment appropriately is natural and necessary. An outlet for emotions can be through sport or dancing or even music and singing. Some writers claim that anger has fuelled their best work! The response to these emotions has been carefully honed by warrior disciplines where the balance of managing and harnessing energy is the product of many years of dedicated training - for example Samuri warriors who are taught not only combative skills but also flower arranging. Cultures all around the world have found different ways to manage and express emotion in a socially accepted way. All of these practices involve allowing the body to discharge the emotions, as this is healthy.

Insufficient access to the creative curriculum means that pupils are restricted in terms of self-expression, the development of executive function, personal development and critical thinking. One appropriate way to express emotion is to dance and move, or sing and play music, allowing the body to cast off all the explosive, the aggressive and fiery feelings. Another way is to write down how these emotions feel and to really vent this on the page. These forms of physical release are very cathartic, though this needs to be done in a place, ideally out in nature - or where others won’t be disturbed!

9. Sharing worries and concerns

Young people and their parents need to share their challenges, worries and concerns. If a young person’s mental health challenges start to spiral and the situation deteriorates suddenly, this needs a swift and orchestrated response from everyone with a duty of care. It is not enough just to prioritise the children’s development of topical concepts such as, ‘resilience’, ‘growth mindset’ and ‘perseverance’. Above all, young people should not be left feeling isolated and surrounded by adults who are uncertain about what they ought to do, when facing a child who feels seriously overwhelmed, depressed or anxious.

Charities run helplines, manned by volunteers, and they train their people to offer a compassionate listening service. No one needs to suffer in isolation while they wait for professional help. As well as pastoral teams and family liaison workers in schools, there are helpline volunteers who work for charities that exist outside school. Together we can make sure that we support the families coping with child and adolescent mental health challenges every day.

10. Helpline numbers

Family Lives: 0808 800 2222

The Samaritans: 116 123

Childline: 0800 1111

NSPCC: 0808 800 5000

In an emergency dial 999.

Did some of this post resonate with your own experience?

If so, you might be interested in the important role played by rhythm in the management of stress in these related blog posts:

Education for social justice - This post sets out the mission, values and impact of the Rhythm for Reading programme in terms of reading and learning behaviour.

Rhythm, breath and well-being - This post unpacks the relationship between rhythm, breath and well-being in the context of smaller and larger units of sound, comparing the different types of breath used in individual letter names versus phrases.

Releasing resistance to reading - Discover how self-sabotaging behaviour and resistance to reading can be addressed through a rhythm-based approach.

Rhythmic elements in reading: from fluency to flow - Discover the importance of rhythm in activities that involve flow states and the way that elements of rhythm underpin flow states in fluent reading.

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Thelonius Monk (1917-1982) A personal tribute

4 October 2023

Image credit: Horn Griner, Design: John Berg, Dick Mantel
Image credit: Horn Griner, Design: John Berg, Dick Mantel

Black History Month invites us to celebrate our differences more than ever. A knowledge-rich curriculum offers big ideas and invaluable depth of insight, but the creativity of Monk shows how knowledge can be developed to pioneer new forms and techniques. His music is unmatched in its capacity to inspire people of all ages because of its originality, which is preserved in the recordings. We are very fortunate indeed to be able to hear the playing and ideas of a musician who has led the development of an entire genre.
Having been hugely inspired by Thelonius Monk’s music, artistry and originality, I am going to express my appreciation for this exquisite musician here even though it’s impossible to do full justice to this musical icon through words alone. As a musician he is one of a kind - therefore this blog post will fall spectacularly short. But, as there is a huge gap between the struggles he endured during his lifetime and the huge amount of recognition that his artistry and humanity has received since his death, I’m going to highlight these contrasts here.

Back in the day…having graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in the late 1980s I was working with the superb musician, innovative pianist and inspirational composer, Roger Eno. I remember asking him about the artists he most deeply admired. Hearing Eno talking about Monk was so moving that I rushed out to buy a couple of albums - later that same day I listened closely to this giant of jazz.

A musician’s musician

Monk is truly a musicians’ musician. He inspires us to dig deeper and think bigger, to create with true integrity and honesty. There are forty-nine tribute albums made by admiring colleagues dating from 1958 right up to present times - the most recent was recorded in 2020. Posthumously, Monk has been awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1993), and the Pulitzer Prize (2006), but it wasn’t until 2009 that he was honoured by his home state in the North Carolina ‘Hall of Fame’.

My own first impressions, hearing this genius for the first time were a mixture of the deepest gratitude for his sincerity, and delighted astonishment in his freedom, playfulness and wit. There are other musicians who can match Monk’s dazzling piano technique - but what sets Monk apart for me, is that he took his mastery of the piano to a level of creativity that was utterly original.

Tenderness, wit and subversion

He used the piano to acknowledge tenderness, to dismantle and reweave others’ works and he delightfully subverted iconic works by other composers.Take for example, ‘Criss-Cross’ - in this track, Monk mocks Stravinsky’s ballet, ‘The Rite of Spring’ and we hear the saxophone and the piano calling out the famous opening motif played by the solo bassoon. Later Stravinsky’s ‘primal’ cross rhythms emerge through the composition, repurposed by Monk to restore percussive vibrancy to the nuanced rhythmic feel of these patterns.

Even more vivid perhaps, is ‘North of Sunset’. This track nods to the traditional blues which appear and disappear fleetingly, like shadowy outcasts in the glare of Monk’s quirky grammatical purity and the lean contours of his modern jazz style.

Architecture and musical form

Then there’s Monk’s relationship with depth and perspective. The best musical compositions of any genre have an architectural quality, with clearly defined form and proportions unfolding through sound. And yet in Monk we hear musical structures projected with the clarity of a hologram. For instance in the track, ‘Between the devil and the deep blue sea’ (based on Harold Arlen’s work of 1931) there’s infinite perfection in the proportions. Monk matches structural precision with a vivid portrayal of the title. At the end of his solo, he pushes the music over the edge and into vertiginous cascades of notes, shaking up our depth perception. Then there’s a curious restlessness that smoulders and smokes, depicting the title of the track perfectly.

Mimicry and magic

Other tracks that come to mind with a similarly dazzling precision are ‘Locomotive’ in which the breadth of the ‘groove’ evokes a driving mechanical feel, punctuated by crunchy chordal edginess. ‘Tea for Two’ is joyful in a suitably restrained and respectful way, but then unexpectedly explodes into a delightful sound world, mimicking the clatter of porcelain teacups and saucers. Elsewhere there are fleeting references to Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet, with Monk conjuring witty and magical surprises.

Contemplative mood

It’s not all about wit and clever jokes. One of the things I most admire most about Monk as a performing artist is his use of space and silence. In ‘Japanese Folk Song’ the lyrical melody is stripped back to an emaciated dry skeleton, devoid of unnecessary or extra sounds and yet this transformation makes it all the more potent. Sharing with us the nakedness of the folk song, he displays his extraordinary gift for working with the essence of melody and the spaces between notes - in this case the chasms between chords, which achieve alchemy in real time.

In these tracks he shows his powers in dismantling a melody, a musical style, and a genre, then rebuilding it, but with the precision of a watchmaker whose fingers were immediately able to align the sound with whatever his mind envisioned.

Creativity flowing from ambiguous moments

After my own thoroughly classical training, encountering the exuberance of his playing reminded me what music was really for and how our creativity is the most authentic gift humans can offer to one other. For an illustration of this, in ‘We See,’ the abrupt musical fissures in the seemingly conventional introduction metamorphose into an extraordinary spaciousness. We soon discover that this ambiguity is the precursor, the necessary foundation from which a richer harmonic language emerges. Complementing the depth and complexity of the harmonies, we hear Monk’s ability to stretch and mould the elasticity of cross-rhythms and lilting flexibility of the phrases. Monk was always searching for the edges of extremes within the logic of balance, but in this track he appears to explore the boundaries of what’s possible in a more playful and yet still profound way.

Necessity as the mother of invention

When researching this post, I was sad to read about his struggles in life. He had even endured being beaten and unlawfully detained by the police. In every setback he displayed resilience and dignity. Surely the sophistication of his playing developed in part from sheer necessity: he had to create this unique style so that his music became his intellectual property - it was essentially impossible to copy. Listening to the melody in Monk’s ‘Bolivar Blues’ however, the ‘hit’ theme song ‘Cruella De Vil’ from Disney’s ‘1001 Dalmatians’ clearly shows more than a ‘homage’ to Monk. And he didn’t receive the full recognition that he deserved during his lifetime. Had Monk been awarded the Grammy and the Pulitzer while still alive, I would like to think that he’d have played more in the later years of his life and suffered fewer mental health issues.

Outcast or Genius?

Just as most books about reading development don’t mention rhythm, books about music tend not to mention Monk. But, Steven Pinker in ‘How the Mind Works’, is unequivocal under the heading ‘Eureka!’

And what about the genius? How can natural selection explain a Shakespeare, a Mozart, an Einstein, an Abdul-Jabbar? How would Jane Austen, Vincent van Gogh, or Thelonius Monk have earned their keep on the Pleistocene savannah?

Here’s part of Pinker’s brilliant answer to his own question:

But creative geniuses are distinguished not just by their extraordinary works, but by their extraordinary way of working; they are not supposed to think like you and me.

If you enjoyed reading about this giant of jazz, here are links to related posts about the value of music and creative subjects in the curriculum - (with a light touch of political opinion). As Brian Sutton-Smith once said,

The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.

Creativity, constraints and accountability - Creativity is hardwired within all of us and there’s a playfulness in the ‘what if…’ process which guides an unfolding of impulse, logic and design.

The Power of Music – This post discusses Professor Sue Hallam’s ‘Power of Music’ - a document that reviews more than 600 scholarly publications on the effect of music on literacy, numeracy, personal and social skills to support the need for of music in the education of every child.

Knowledge, culture and control - Is history cyclical? As we move rapidly into climate crisis, artificial intelligence (AI) and a school curriculum dominated by STEM subjects, this post questions the present lack of emphasis on critical thinking and creativity.

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Reading comprehension: How to stay connected with the text.

27 September 2023

Image credit: Ismail Dirir via Unsplash
Image credit: Ismail Dirir via Unsplash

In early reading, children must use their ears, eyes and voices in a very focused way. Their attention, already scanning everything that moves in the environment around them must suddenly narrow down onto a page, an illustration and then onto the tiny squiggles of black ink that they are learning to decode and understand. Many children willingly take on the challenges of reading. Some learn to read effortlessly, but what about those children who cannot focus their eyes and ears and voices onto the page? Read on to discover how to support all learners, particularly the most disadvantaged and those with SEND, as every child needs to connect deeply with reading in order to access the curriculum. If, like me, you are passionate about helping every child to access the curriculum and to overcome their challenges with connecting to the text, click the link to get the FREE downloadable pdf checklist.

What does connected to the text mean?

When writers convey messages through words, their readers receive those messages. For the development of reading comprehension, connections with the text should have been made between:

  • the writer and the reader,
  • the writer and the words,
  • the reader and the words.

The words are the ‘messengers’ that provide the link between the writer and reader. Even though communicating through written language is complex, as it involves knowledge and skill, it is also an important form of social connection that people use every day of their lives. Reading with fluency and understanding therefore builds a child’s resilience, confidence and independence. Until the invention of the telegraph, people wrote letters to each other when they needed to convey an important message. Emails have replaced letters to a large extent, but reading comprehension is important for understanding many different forms of written language such as:

  • text messages
  • emails
  • letters
  • news articles
  • stories
  • non fiction books
  • websites

How many types of connection are there between the writer, the text and the reader?

According to Keene and Zimmerman’s book, ‘Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader’s Workshop’, published 25 years ago, there are three main levels of connection and these make the text more relatable and meaningful to the reader.

  • text-to-text connections
  • text-to-self connections
  • text-to-world connections

Text to text connections allow the reader to grasp the style of language being used, which may be formal and using jargon, or informal and using everyday language. Reading a wide range of different texts helps readers to adapt to a variety of styles of language use, and also supports fluency and comprehension.

For example, the first time someone reads an official letter from an authority, the formality of the tone, and the use of unfamiliar words and phrases might be off-putting. However, when a similar letter arrives one month later, it’s easier to make connections with the underlying message, because the reader has already adapted to this particular writing style, with its ‘professional’ tone and use of formal language. This is one example of how text-to-text connection speeds up the process of understanding the message conveyed by the official letter.

Text-to-text connections also allow the reader to pick up the structure of a story. For instance, when a reader returns to a novel and starts reading a new chapter, there is a sudden recollection of the plot and characters from earlier chapters. Text-to-text connections are made as soon as the information from the earlier chapters of the book spontaneously arrive in the reader’s mind and provide the background information for a deeper and more satisfying understanding of the new chapter.

Text-to-self connections enable a reader to feel personally invested in a narrative. This might happen because the details in the text are similar to the reader’s own day-to-day, or perhaps even their imaginary life. How many children wish that they could fly and then feel connected to their favourite superhero? Even more importantly, some children may discover lifelong fascinations or passions through making text-to-self connections during reading.

Text-to-self connections also make the text believable. Even if the book is futuristic and seems unreal in many ways, human experiences such as danger, love, hunger and even boredom can spark text-to-self connections.

Text-to-world connections provide the reader with a sense of time, place and context. For example, many of the Rosie and Jim stories start with ‘One sunny day….’ which would always be followed by a description of where in the world Rosie and Jim were, as well as why they were there. Even very young children can discuss these text-to-world connections when parents are reading to them.

Both older and younger children can benefit from text-to-world connections by linking new to existing knowledge. This opens up into a powerful learning pathway because the children experience reading as rewarding and intrinsically motivating, which is why many develop a thirst for learning.

Text-to-world connections also show the reader how things work.Take for instance, the difference between rubber balloons that children can blow into, versus helium balloons or even hot air balloons. In a text about these different types of balloons, the reader might already have a text-to-world connection, as well as a self-to-text connection about ordinary ‘birthday party’ balloons that can be inflated at home. The reader’s text-to-world connection expands very quickly as they learn that helium balloons contain a gas that is lighter than air, and that this gas causes the helium balloon to disappear up into the clouds if released into the air outside. The text-to-world connection develops even further as the child reads that large hot air balloons work by heating the air with a controlled flame to make it rise to such an extent that it can carry people in a basket below.

How can I support reading comprehension through these connections?

In early reading there are many different ways to support the development of reading comprehension, such as taking turns to read aloud, talking about what was read, extending vocabulary by introducing new words in context and drawing attention to different letters and sounds.

Here are some effective ways in which adults can support children’s early reading before, during and after the reading activity.

Before reading the text, ask questions about the title, the author and the book’s cover. Help the child to think about similar texts they may have come across - perhaps by the same author or on the same topic or featuring the same character. The illustration is likely to show the context for the story and this is similar to something the child may have already experienced.

During reading, check with the child that they are making connections with the text. Help them to monitor the messages in the text by discussing the meanings of key words and probe their text-to-self connections by asking them how they may feel in a similar situation.

After reading, ask the child further questions about the text to help them find deeper connections with their understanding of the setting. This may involve talking about the characters’ intentions and feelings and what might happen in the next chapter. They may even want to think about an alternative ending.

What are word choices?

Word choices are the child’s solution to decoding - the words that ‘best fit’ the relationships between letters and sounds, the context and the grammatical structure of the sentence.

When a child is connected to the text, word choices are made more quickly and effectively. So a ‘text-to-world’ connection would allow a child to select ‘circus’ rather than ‘circle’, especially if the main characters in the story were, for example, acrobats.

Word choices based on connections to the text are also informed by the development of the text. Using likelihood to make word choices, based on connection to the text, is very different to a fundamental strategy of guesswork, in which children are usually correct between ten and twenty per cent of the time.

What is prior knowledge?

Prior knowledge is what the child already knows before reading the text. Prior knowledge develops every day of our lives and is more easily accessed when we feel relaxed and yet alert.

Children pick up prior knowledge through conversations as well as through media such as books, television, games and the lyrics of songs.

Even if a child has never been to the circus, they may have seen one on television, heard about another child’s visit, or even sung the song about ‘Nelly the Elephant’ (who belonged to a travelling circus).

What are the main things to consider in relation to reading comprehension?

Here are some tips, if a child makes an inappropriate word choice:

  • It’s a good idea to stop reading and talk with the child about their connection with the text.
  • It’s unhelpful to say, “That’s nearly right”. Instead, say, “Hang on a moment! Let’s think this through”.

If you notice that the child frequently misses the ends of words, (also known as ‘suffixes’), this does not mean they are being careless! It means they are not processing the deeper grammatical structures of the text and may need support through a reading intervention that deepens their level of engagement.

Please see below where I’ve linked to related blog posts for further information about this.

Did you enjoy reading about the different types of connection that support children’s reading comprehension?

Would you like to put these ideas into practice?

Then, click here to get a FREE Reading Comprehension checklist.

Here are links to related posts about the deeper levels of language comprehension.

Visiting the library for the very first time - Share in the joy of a ten year old who has just discovered that reading is meaningful!

Virtuous spirals - This is a brief look at the differences between skilled and unskilled readers.

Ears, eyes and voices - This explores early reading and the importance of speech perception and the arcticulatory system.

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Reading fluency: Reading, fast or slow?

20 September 2023

Image credit: Mael Balland on Unsplash
Image credit: Mael Balland on Unsplash

The smarter you get, the slower you read,

says Naval Ravikant - a leading investor in the world of tech giants.

Yes, an appetite for absorbing the detailed content of a piece of text does lead to slower and closer reading. In fact, fluent reading is likely to vary in pace depending on the style of the writing. It’s a bit like driving in traffic. For conditions that demand sharp focus and concentration, we slow our driving down. Likewise, when we have more favourable conditions, we can drive with greater ease and enjoy the journey more. But no matter what the conditions are like, we don’t become reckless. We don’t lose control of any part of the driving. Let’s discuss this in relation to early reading, the development of reading fluency, and how it is taught.

Is it better to read quickly or slowly?

The most proficient readers adapt their reading skills to match the text. In other words, being able to dial the reading speed up and down is a strong indicator of emerging reading fluency. 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.

In the early reading phase, children learn to remember what they’ve been taught and to integrate new knowledge into larger concepts. In other words, children learn to coordinate different streams of information. This is a bit like learning to drive (for an adult), because many different elements need to be coordinated and practised until these become second nature - such as:

  • selecting and operating either the brake or the gas pedal
  • steering the vehicle smoothly
  • communicating direction using the indicators
  • anticipating the speed of travel
  • aligning speed with changes involving gears and the clutch
  • monitoring what other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians are doing on the road.

Fluent readers can:

  • read accurately and with appropriate stress and intonation
  • coordinate different streams of information very easily
  • access each channel of information with ease
  • read quickly, but adjust the speed of reading to suit the challenges of each passage
  • monitor the meaning of the passage as they read.

In early reading, children who approach reading fluency without undue effort have coordinated their eyes, ears and voices:

  • to appraise cues from pictures accompanying the passage
  • to apply short term memory in order to locate the information in the passage in terms of time and place (context),
  • to recall general knowledge from long term memory of how things happen (schema)
  • to recognise the shapes of letters (graphemes)
  • to discern the smallest sounds of language (phonemes)
  • to articulate the relationship between the letter shape and its sound.
  • to decode the words and to assign the grammatical function of each word in the sentence
  • to access the lexicon (a child’s ‘word bank’) in order to retrieve the most likely words to match the information on the page.

Some of these channels of information are processed subconsciously and therefore at lightning speed. For example, the child’s lexicon (word bank) supplies the word that is the best match to the information on the page. The streams of information that contribute to the retrieval of a certain word are:

  • word shape,
  • sounds associated with the letters,
  • context in short term memory
  • schema (background knowledge) in the mind of the child.

In the earliest stages of learning to read, as the child learns to processes information about letters and sounds, they do this relatively slowly and consciously, using the thinking part the brain. It’s important that children allow the knowledge that they acquire during phonics training to inform their recognition of words, because after a period of initial ramping up and practice, it’s vital that this skill becomes second nature and that the speed of processing rapidly accelerates.

Fluent readers can read quickly, accurately and with appropriate stress and intonation, which aids comprehension by freeing up cognitive resources sufficiently to focus on meaning. Therefore, after the children have achieved a secure knowledge of phonics, fluency becomes an increasingly important factor in the development of reading comprehension.

However, many children experience ‘bumps in the road’ when they’re learning to read. They may have some stronger and some weaker channels of information processing. If there are weaknesses in attention, phonological discrimination or visual discrimination, the child will not be able to coordinate the many different channels of information that contribute to fluent reading.

What is reading word-by-word?

Reading word-by-word typically occurs among the lowest 20% of children: those who most need to improve in their reading. They need to refresh their attention for each word, as even reading an individual word can absorb all of their focus and attention.

Their fluency will not develop alongside that of their classmates and they will fall behind unless they receive an early reading intervention. Some teachers of reading assume that the skill of segmenting and blending phonemes is necessary for reading fluency to develop.

Actually, many children remain stuck at the ‘sounding-out’ stage of reading and do not become fluent readers, even though they know the correspondence between letters and their sounds. For these children, it’s likely that their attention is weak, and they lack the cognitive control to coordinate the various streams of information processing that support reading fluency.

What is speed reading?

Speed reading is measured in terms of how many words a person can read in one minute. This is known as words per minute (wpm).

Speed reading has been associated with having a higher level of intelligence, because people who read quickly are thought to consume more information and therefore become smarter. This association between speed reading and intelligence has led some teachers of reading to believe that reading faster is necessary for the development of good reading.

If building reading fluency were this simple, children with fast reading speeds would not -

  • make accuracy errors
  • need to reread the text to answer comprehension questions.

Although speed reading might appear attractive as an idea, and it is likely that a good reader can read fast, reading fast in itself does not necessarily develop into good reading.


At the heart of this is a huge misconception:

If a child prioritises speed, they may learn to decode the print into words, phrases and sentences. But, they may not have engaged with the grammar of the text.

As discussed, encouraging a child to read for speed may do more harm than good. If a child is praised for reading fast, they are more likely to experience reading as unrewarding, boring, a waste of their time and pointless.

If a child is encouraged to slow down and to discuss what has happened in each sentence, they will engage with the text as meaningful, even if they struggle to read independently. This communicative approach shows the children that they are reading in order to learn. Therefore, interactions between an adult and a child that involve talking, reasoning and extending spoken vocabulary are highly valuable, and they have been found to have significant effects on the development of early reading.

When reading at home with their children, parents can easily adopt these communicative approaches. Reading aloud is a good way of developing vocabulary as well as expressive language skills. They might also encourage their child to notice punctuation, the development of the narrative and any dialogue in the text.

Click here to see the full list of reading fluency tips in the Reading with Fluency Checklist.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, and you’d like to find out even more about the development of reading fluency, keep reading….

Reading fluency and comprehension in 2020 - here I discuss the relationship between resilience and fluency in relation to reading speed.

Discover the heartbeat of reading- this post explores the importance of bringing the grammatical cues in reading into systemic alignment.

Rhythmic elements in reading: From fluency to flow - a flow state is associated with reading for pleasure and fluency is a key to unlocking a flow state.

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

13 September 2023

Image credit: Sahand Babali on Unsplash
Image credit: Sahand Babali on Unsplash

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.

Phonemes are more difficult for some children to detect than syllables, and they particularly struggle with learning to read, as they are unable to detect the boundaries between individual words and syllables. Schools are expected to give all learners the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life and to pay special attention to the children who need to improve their reading (the lowest 20%).

Phonemic awareness and the ‘alphabetic principle’ need to be explicitly taught until they become automatic. And yet, unlocking stubborn barriers to phonemic awareness can take years, if relying upon conventional approaches. However, a simple solution - a segmenting and blending game, can support teacher effectiveness, thus enabling these children to access phonics teaching. And it can be used right from the start! This strategy may also protect them from falling behind their classmates. Read on to learn this playful approach and practise it with a FREE downloadable word list.

What is segmenting?

Segmenting is a skill that breaks sounds down, by drawing attention to them and allowing awareness of the smaller units of language to emerge. Words can be segmented into syllables, and syllables can be segmented into phonemes. Mastering this skill involves holding a word or a syllable in mind and then breaking it down into smaller sounds. Thus, a word such as ‘seashell’ can be initially segmented into two syllables, which are, ‘sea’ and ‘shell’.

Taking this to the next level in terms of detail, each syllable can be segmented into the smallest sounds of language, which are phonemes. There are two phonemes in ‘sea’, which are:

  • the first sound /s/
  • the vowel sound /ea/.

However, there are three phonemes in ‘shell’, and these are:

  • the first sound, /sh/
  • the vowel sound /e/
  • the final sound /ll/.

So, if we take the word, ‘seashell’ as a whole, we have segmented the word into five phonemes, which are: /s/ea/sh/e/ll/.

Some phonics methods use ‘onset and rime’ to develop the skill of segmenting. This approach is designed to sharpen children’s sensitivity towards the boundaries within syllables, whilst retaining a sense of the syllable as an individual sound unit.

When teachers use the ‘onset and rime’ method, they segment a syllable into only two parts:

  • its first sound, - (also known as the ‘onset’)
  • all the remaining sounds, (which make up the ‘rime’).

Using onset and rime, ‘seashell’ would be taken syllable by syllable. Each syllable would be segmented into two parts.

  • the ‘onset’ of ‘sea’ is /s/ and the ‘rime’ is /ea/.
  • the ‘onset’ of ‘shell’ is /sh/ and the ‘rime’ is /ell/.

What is blending?

Blending is the skill that involves building words up, either from syllables, or individual phonemes.

What’s the difference between segmenting and blending?

There is one simple difference. Segmenting involves breaking a word down into smaller units of sound, whereas blending is a reversal of the process.

  • The two syllables, ‘skate’ and ‘board’ can be blended together to make one word, ‘skateboard’.
  • The phonemes, /c/a/t/ can be blended together to form the word ‘cat’.
  • Using ‘onset and rime’ /b/ and /ell/ can be blended together to form the word ‘bell’.

Is it better to teach blending or segmenting first?

The two approaches can be taught side by side. Both segmenting and blending skills are necessary for decoding longer words and shorter words. Let’s take a shorter word, ‘then’.

‘Then’ using a purely phonemic strategy would be segmented as /th/en/ and these sounds, if blended together make the word ‘then’.

Teachers need to guard against a visual strategy (in which the reader has visually decoded ‘the’ as a familiar word that they recognise mainly by its shape) as it wastes a lot of time.

‘Then’ using a partly visual strategy would be segmented as /the/n/ and these sounds, if blended together could make a nonword that would almost rhyme with ‘fern’.

Children need to recognise that /th/ on its own is a phoneme that can be blended with many other sounds.

In the onset and rime approach, /th/ can be blended as follows:

  • /th/ blended with /at/ makes ‘that’
  • /th/ blended with /en/ makes ‘then’
  • /th/ blended with /is/ makes ‘this’
  • /th/ blended with /us/ makes ‘thus’.

What about longer words?

Let’s take a longer word such as ‘umbrella’- there are three syllables here and seven phonemes.

  • A child skilled in phonics, would immediately sound out the individual sounds, /u/m/b/r/e/ll/a.
  • A child skilled in ‘onset and rime’ would segment the word into syllables, /um/brel/la.

As this is a longer word, segmenting at the syllable level would be a more successful strategy. When a child segments at the phoneme level, each phoneme has equal emphasis. However, in the English language, longer words have unequal emphasis - with some syllables assigned a little more energy (in terms of intensity) vocal stress, and length (in terms of duration). IN the word ‘umbrella’, it is the second syllable that carries vocal stress.

Segmenting at the syllable level allows the child to hear more easily where the stress may fall in the word. The assignment of stress is very important for recognising a word and immediately understanding the meaning of the word in context. For example, the word ‘record’ carries the stress on the first syllable when it functions as a noun (first bullet point) and on the second syllable when it functions as a verb (second bullet point). The vowel /e/ is also subtly different.

  • Here is a change to his hospital record.
  • They record their music in a studio.

When segmenting and blending aren’t working

Communicative approaches such as drawing attention to letters and sounds in early reading, combined with teaching effectiveness are strong predictors of pupils’ progress throughout school. And yet, for some children, a weak working memory means that manipulating sounds in real time is difficult because attention fades, before the child has:

  • understood the task,
  • attempted the task,
  • completed the task.

And there may be a deeper resistance in the breaking down of words. A two syllable word, such as ‘sunshine’ represents a concept, vital for life, that is associated with similarly important one syllable words, such as ‘light’ and ‘sun’. For some children, who are more literal in their approach, segmenting a word may, for them, symbolise breaking down their experiential knowledge.

Although many children may enjoy pulling words apart and rebuilding them, there are some who may feel that a word cannot be segmented without being permanently ‘damaged’. For these children, the playfulness of segmenting and blending needs greater emphasis.

But fundamentally, this is not a trivial matter. If a child cannot read, they will not be able to access the curriculum and will be seriously disadvantaged. Phonemic awareness needs to be explicitly taught until it becomes automatic. So, here’s how to unlock blocked phonemic skills, that are vital for the development of blending and segmenting.Blending and Segmenting Game

This is a technique that has worked with mainstream children aged from five to seven years, as well as with older children in special schools, who are not progressing with phonics.

Blending and Segmenting Game

First start with blending:

  • think of a two-syllable word that will appeal to the child, such as ‘football’.
  • point to the ceiling using your left index finger (level with the child’s face) and say ‘foot’
  • point to the ceiling using your right index finger (level with the child’s face) and say, ‘ball’
  • bring the two index fingers side by side and say, ‘football’
  • ask the child to copy and then join in with you - exaggerate the syllables with a playful voice.
  • practise with other words until the child can do this independently.

Now segmenting

  • bring your two index fingers side by side, exactly as before and say, ‘foot…ball’,
  • make the right index finger ‘disappear’ into the right fist and say “Take away ball”
  • flex the left index finger a little and say, “What’s left?”
  • if they followed the game, they will say, “Foot”.
  • if they are confused, say, “Let me show you again…” and repeat the process exactly
  • once this technique has been understood, explore taking ‘foot’ away.

This ‘game’ helps children to:

  • understand that breaking and building sounds is playful and that words are malleable.
  • regard word games as similar to counting games - their fingers can help them.
  • develop an effective visual aid which allows greater stability in a weak working memory.
  • self-regulate any associated subconscious emotional responses, when breaking down words.

Would you like to have a list of two syllable words to use while playing this game?

Click here to receive a pdf of the Blending and Segmenting Game and a Wordlist.

Did you enjoy this post?

Continue reading about the fascinating world of phonological processing.

When rhythm and phonics collide - discover the confusable features of certain phonemes and why rhythm brings clarity to this issue.

When rhythm and phonics collide part 2 - explore rhythmic and prosodic differences between consonant and vowel sounds

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap - a rhythm-based perspective on the influential Hart & Risley study of the ‘word gap’ between affluent and disadvantaged families.

Rhythm and probability underpin implicit language learning - this is about information processing in the first eight months of an infant’s life.

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