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The Rhythm for Reading blog

Journeying into Research

2 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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Sensitivity to Rhythm is a State of Mind

6 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Big is not enough

24 July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Progressive action in schools

25 June 2017

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

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

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On the importance of prediction in language processing

24 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The backdrop to reading is the space in the child’s mind.

31 March 2017

In a recent post, I referred to Ratner and Bruner’s (1977) article on ‘disappearing’ games such as peekaboo. The article is clear that play of this type contributes to an infant’s ability to engage and interact not only with the game, but with the world around them as well. The playful and even joyful energy of peekaboo accompanies each of these four stages of learning:

1. Maintaining focussed attention

2. Anticipating and predicting what will happen next

3. Synchronising with the game

4. Initiating the game.

Imagine for a moment that the infant did not respond at first. The adult would persist until the child’s attention had been captured, but in order to do this they would need to adopt a lighter tone and faster pace, achieving a playful and dance-like quality, key to achieving a state of alertness within relaxation.

What can we as educators learn from this?

A state of alertness within relaxation has been associated with flow, intrinsic rewards, growth mindset and even optimal experience. This state is desirable not only because it is pleasurable, but because it is highly stable and can therefore be maintained for long periods of time.

Stability in a state of mind suggests that mental poise can be thought of as a structure or scaffold and that this is essential to maintaining a state of relaxed alertness. Mari Reiss Jones (1976) proposed that attention was structured hierarchically around regularly occurring events. The regularity of the events (ie a rhythmic pattern of some sort) in turn builds up a sense of ‘expectancy’ of what will happen next at a specific point in time.

Understanding how to build stable patterns of attention is important for understanding how to support children’s learning.

In brain imaging studies, Merchant et al., (2015) have shown conclusively that attention is indeed organised in the way described in MR Jones and colleagues’ work on dynamic attending theory and that the brain’s reward system is involved in the cycle of correctly anticipating future events. Being able to anticipate what will happen next helps infants not only to develop ‘expectancies’, but also to experience human interaction as a rewarding and satisfying experience.

Peekaboo is important for another reason.

In the first few months, infants observe the movement of things in the world around them. They learn to differentiate between a person such as their mother and the stationary, unchanging (invariant) part of the scene, typically a room. The infant learns to perceive that a person is moving in a unified and coherent way through time and space in contrast to the unchanging backdrop of the room (Gibson, 1969).

However, in peekaboo games, the relationship between the figure and ground is disrupted by the disappearing and reappearing figure. Why does this matter? On the surface, peekaboo seems to cement the concept of object permanence through its concern with patterns of appearance and disappearance.

Superficially then, the backdrop of the room seems irrelevant.

When a disappearing game is viewed through a lens such as dynamic attending theory or theory of affordances (Gibson, 1950; Gibson, 1969), the backdrop of the room becomes more important. If the infant experiences the game as a pattern of events that can be predicted, then the backdrop of the room is a necessary constant against which the appearing and disappearing changes can be perceived and apprehended. In other words, the stability of the room provides a reference point, enabling the infant to gauge the game from the vantage point of the permanence and unchanging quality of the room, which enables a more sophisticated operation of extrapolation.

A similar judgement is made by a child learning to cross a busy road independently. To simply see whether or not traffic is moving along the road is insufficient. The child must learn to gauge how quickly the traffic is moving before deciding whether it is safe or unsafe to cross. As their experience of road safety accrues, the child becomes increasingly sophisticated in their ability to match what they see with their knowledge of the way that different types of vehicles move on different types of road (for example, approaching red versus green traffic lights, moving uphill versus moving downhill).

In terms of learning to read, the same distinction can be made. The print on the page conveys the sounds of language. Depending on how carefully phonics instruction has been delivered, the letters, b-i-r-d or b-ir-d may produce either ‘beard’ (unfortunately this is all too common) or ‘bird’. The structural cues of the unfolding, dynamic qualities of the sentence provide a grammatical framework against which the child inserts the decoded word. Of more use to the child though is the unchanging information that provides the backdrop to reading and allows the child to make accurate judgements about the nature and form of words to come.

The backdrop to reading is the space in the child’s mind.

This space is where images are conjured up based on what the child already knows, supposes and believes. This space is the place where the subject matter of the text meets the child’s own background knowledge, creating a state which motivates the child to read on and learn more. This state is desirable not only because it is pleasurable, but because it is highly stable and can therefore be maintained for long periods of time.

References

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

Jones MR. (1976) Time, our lost dimension: Toward a new theory of perception, attention, and memory. Psychological review; 83:323–355

Merchant, H et al. (2015) “Finding the beat: a neural perspective across humans and non-human primates.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 370.1664, 20140093.

Gibson, J.J. (1950) The perception of the visual world. Boston, Houghton Mifflin

Gibson, E.J. (1969) Principles of perceptual learning and development, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts

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Gamification, Social Exchange and the Acquisition of Language

27 February 2017

Today ‘gamification’ integrates the reward-related and therefore motivational aspects of game-like participation, helping many people to achieve their goals or targets. Gamification appears in classrooms, businesses, The World Bank and lifestyle apps, and even in recruitment campaigns for the US Army (Stanley, 2014). It encourages increased engagement, productivity, motivation to succeed with a new project or development of a new skill, allowing individuals, employers and schools to monitor progress and promote competition between users and teams. The importance of games for human development first begins in early childhood when parents assist their children in the acquisition of language. In a study of the nature of early ‘disappearing’ games such as peekaboo and hide-and-seek played by parents with young infants, researchers discovered that although these games were entirely spontaneous in style, they tended to use the same restricted format and clearly repetitive structure (Ratner and Bruner, 1977). The motivation and purpose of early playful games appears to be driven by the sheer joy of human interaction. These positive experiences prove to be irresistible and highly rewarding and have likely contributed to the evolution of the human capacity for language.

Although Ratner and Bruner’s study was published forty years ago, their question about the ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games is still highly relevant today. According to an OECD published report, it is likely that learning environments, emotions and social interactions play an important role and combine to shape learning and memory processing, embedded in interconnecting neural structures (OECD, 2007, 37).

Interestingly, Ratner and Bruner concluded that parents’ practice of deliberately restricting and repeating the game provided opportunities for infants to anticipate what would happen next in the game, to initiate the game and even to generate a synchronised ‘boo’ response with the parent as the game developed during the child’s first year. During this period, the degree of restriction and repetition, combined with positive experiences of social and emotional interaction would have provided a rich and playful opportunity for focused learning and memory development.

According to neuroscientists, repeated use of specific neural pathways catalyses the maturity of the neural structures through a process known as myelination. Myelin, a fatty substance, insulates the axons of nerve fibres of frequently used pathways, and the insulating effect rapidly accelerates to a factor of 100 the transmission of signals between interconnecting neurons (OECD, 2007, 37). It is highly likely that the restrictive and repetitive ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games described by Ratner and Bruner (1977) would have triggered the myelination process. Therefore, in, referring back to Ratner and Bruner’s question about the ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games, it appears that language learning during infancy and early childhood coincides with spontaneous and joyful social interaction with an accompanying sense of intrinsic reward. This arguably contributes to successful social interaction throughout life.

References

OECD (2007) Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development, Center for Edonomic Research and Innovation, understanding the Brain: the Birth of a Learning Science (2nd Edition) Paris: OECD CERI

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

Stanley, R. (2014) Top 25 Best Examples of Gamification in Business, accessed on 27.2.2017, 19.40 https://www.clicksoftware.com/blog/top-25-best-examples-of-gamification-in-business/

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“What is the single mechanism underlying the impact?”

23 January 2017

“What is the single mechanism underlying the impact?” is the question that I am asked most frequently.

This question speaks to the idea that a process can be broken down into its components: understood, isolated, manipulated, digitalised, scaled-up, patented and so on. However, language processing, like learning is not static, but dynamic and highly influenced by context. The more interesting question is:

“What is the single process underlying the impact and what conditions ideally support this?”

The ideal conditions for the Rhythm for Reading programme are those in which pupils and teachers reinforce a culture of high expectation around self-respect and respect for each other. Inclusive approaches in teaching and learning are important too, but without a culture of high expectation around self-respect and respect for each other, inclusive approaches to learning are impeded.

Many pupils who are struggling to access the curriculum because they have low or middle attainment (with or without special educational needs / disability) are often those who are limited by working memory capacity or fragmented attention or both. On top of this, stressful conditions can interfere with efficient functioning of working memory and compromise learning. From background noise levels, to bullying, to the pressure of exams, various stressors interfere with efficient functioning of working memory.

Of course, some children (and adults) are more sensitive to stress than others. There may be high levels of stress and adversity at home, with a knock-on effect at school. However, having interviewed many teachers and parents on this topic, it’s certainly easier to build trust with parents at a school in which an ethos of high expectation around self-respect and respect for each other is rigorously practised. Interestingly, there is a difference between a ‘caring’ atmosphere and a school culture, which relentlessly pursues self-respect and respect for each other. A ‘caring’ atmosphere bends and sways in response to individuals and their circumstances, but this approach is not sustainable and leads to burned out staff. A culture of high expectation around self-respect and respect for others that is rigorously maintained is more effective because it provides a universal level of consistency and clarity in which everyone’s circumstances are supported.

The notion of ‘high expectation’ vibrates at the heart of an attitude of self-respect and respect for others. The practice of ‘high expectation’ does not succeed because it is simply ‘enforced’, but because it is embedded in the attitude of all of the adults in the school. The most extraordinary headteachers that I’ve worked with are those that practise an attitude of generosity in their vision for the school. They tend to look for opportunities to develop teachers as individuals with bright careers ahead of them and also to support those that may flounder from time to time. The commitment between each member of the teaching team and the headteacher is essentially a vibrant one in which the head might say, “I help you to help me”. This reciprocal approach demands that high expectations around self-respect and respect for others flourish, because it is in everyone’s interest that they do so.

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