As we move deeper into the digital era, we are faced with new challenges for the future of our education system. Independent online learning and unlimited access to information is our new reality. We are striving to adapt to innovative new ideas, to release familiar old ways, and to step up and out of comfort zones into dazzling new ways of thinking and responsiveness in a faster-paced world.
In an age in which skilled manual labour is increasingly being replaced by robots and highly sophisticated technology, reading at a ‘functional’ level has become a massively out-dated concept. Similarly, the widespread practice of training children to answer a question about a written passage by identifying a key word in the question, locating it in the text and then writing out the sentence that surrounds it, is not only a waste of time, but this sham practice is harmful: it allows children to assume that reading is nothing more than a mundane word search exercise.
A specific and urgent challenge for educators today is this: to find a new type of reading intervention that will equip children to read with fluency and understanding. The current emphasis on systematic phonics is disproportionate. We must remember this: phonemes are the smallest sounds of language, each phoneme occupies only a tiny proportion of any sentence, amounting in natural speech to only a fraction of a second. A reading programme with a focus on static individual sounds has a decontextualising effect and dilutes the natural rhythmic flow of language comprehension.This is why a disproportionate amount of time spent on phonics in group teaching can, over the long term, interfere with the development of reading with ease, fluency and comprehension.
Reading well is a feat of delicate coordination between the reader’s eyes, ears and mind in alignment with the ‘voice’ of the author. Achieving this alignment is the process that allows the reader to assimilate meaning as it ‘flies’ off the page (or screen) into the reader’s consciousness.
Reading well depends on an intuitive response to the underlying binary relationship between the subject and predicate in every sentence. The syntax determines the rhythmic structure of the sentence. Consequently, the rhythmic ebb and flow of written language should be felt as intuitively as the rhythmic ebb and flow of speech utterances, even though styles of writing and of speech vary widely. The sentence as a whole and coherent unit is vibrant, elastic and flexible with its meaning perceived not through the synthesis of its many phonemes, but through its overall rhythm and structure.
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As educators we are required to make thousands of small but important decisions everyday. Striking the right balance involves blending professional judgement with our integrity and experience. Through reflection perhaps with colleagues, we are constantly learning from our experiences.
I have been thinking hard about special education (SEND) recently. The Rhythm for Reading programme promotes inclusive approaches. Students with learning differences are fully involved alongside their classmates and the programme is accessible even to those who cannot yet read simple words such as ‘cat’. This is what a child said recently to me about the programme: “I liked how we had to keep it in the team at the same time. I felt more surrounded. I had people to keep me upright.” So, when a pupil shows absolutely no desire to contribute to even the most basic of Rhythm for Reading exercises, whilst all around him others are learning rapidly and having fun, my own personal learning journey fires up in a big way.
Each Rhythm for Reading session is only ten minutes long and so every second is precious. Is this child withdrawn, overwhelmed, lacking in confidence, lacking social skills, frightened or generally resistant to new things? What is clear and of concern to me is that he is ignored by the other children and hardly responds to anything I say or do. His teachers are highly protective of him and they can recite a list of issues and medical problems: he is a special child.
I believe that if a child processes and performs tasks more slowly than his classmates, as educators we must help him to develop the strategies that he needs to adapt to different settings. Self-regulation strategies for example, are key for learning road safety skills: learning to judge the speed of traffic, inhibiting the impulse to wander into the road, as well as being able to find a safe place to cross are essential to every child’s survival, no matter how special that child’s needs might be. While road safety lessons are clearly a matter of life and death, it is the quality of life of each child that is determined in the classroom. To teach a special child to cope with a broad range of settings with confidence is a highly worthwhile investment of our time and energy. There are so many benefits of joining in with others in a structured group teaching activity. It is enormous fun and a profound sense of belonging and unity develops through cooperation. Of course, this outcome can only be fully enjoyed by everyone, if everyone has contributed wholeheartedly to the success of the task.
If you have enjoyed this blog, you might also like to learn more about our work on metacognition and self-regulation. If you’d like more information about the programme, contact me direct, or sign up for free weekly ‘Insights’, which launches next week!
By nine years of age, children have assimilated a vast amount of information about their culture simply by learning through experience. Enculturation is a particularly powerful form of deep learning that shapes children’s attitudes and perceptions of the world in which they are growing up. Through working in many schools, I’ve observed that by the age of nine years, children have, through this process of enculturation developed a strong emotive response to the concept of ‘teamwork’.
A few months ago, I sat down on the floor of the school hall with ten children as they embarked on their first Rhythm for Reading group teaching session. I explained that we would be doing lots of teamwork. Four of the children said “Yessss” in a loud stage whisper and wriggled in delight, huddling cosily together. The others looked at me in complete horror. Although they sat quietly, their sharply drawn breath, their tense shoulders and stunned faces communicated their utter dread of teamwork clearly enough.Obviously, when a teacher chooses two team captains and tells them to pick teams in front of the class for a games lesson, each child’s worth or ‘value’ to their peers is revealed. To be picked first for a team is a deep honour and to be picked last, a deep humiliation. Presumably, these feelings have an enhancing or diminishing influence on the child’s performance in the team, but these experiences will over time impact on a child’s self-esteem. This harmful practice can be avoided by asking the team captains to privately pick their teams from a list of names at the teacher’s desk.
Musical teamwork on the other hand is highly inclusive and ensures that nobody is first and nobody is last. In the same way that every fish in a shoal will suddenly change direction at exactly the same time, musical teamwork requires that all students contribute in the appropriate way and at exactly the right time. In the Rhythm for Reading programme, the main priority is that the students work together confidently, collectively and synchronously, an approach that is underpinned by published research (Long, 2008; Long & Hallam, 2012; Long, 2014). Neuroscientists (Bhide, Power & Goswami, 2013) confirm that learning collectively in this way, i.e. via ‘entrainment’ has a statistically significant and powerful impact on academic attainment, as detailed in this recently published report by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. http://tscouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/COMPLETE-REPORT-Goswami-Childrens-Cognitive-Development-and-Learning.pdf
Bhide, A., Power, A.J., & Goswami, U. (2013). A rhythmic musical intervention for poor readers: A comparison of efficacy with a letter-based intervention.Mind, Brain and Education 7(2), 113-23.
Long, M (2014) “I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read”: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading, Research Studies in Music Education, 36(1) 107-124.
Long, M and Hallam, S. (2012). Rhythm for Reading: A rhythm-based approach to reading intervention, Proceedings of Music Paedeia: From Ancient Greek Philosophers Toward Global Music Communities, pp.221-232, 30th ISME World Conference on Music Education, 15-20 July, Thessaloniki, Greece.
Long, M. (2008) A Rhythmic View of Reading: From word recognition to reading comprehension, A submission to ippr’s Britain’s Got Brains Competition, Institute of Public Policy Research. www.ippr.org.uk/researchthemes/education
The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people, by internationally renowned Professor Susan Hallam MBE, University College London, Institute of Education was published at the end of January 2015. The review brings together more than 600 scholarly publications, which provide compelling evidence of the positive effect of music on literacy, numeracy, personal and social skills to support the argument for the inclusion of music in the education of every child and young person.
Music, more than any other discipline consists of ways of doing things (techniques and methods) and ways of being (empathy, intention, style etc). Perhaps, the most important of these is how to listen well. Children, immersed in their family and home environment from pre-birth to school age, have learned nearly everything they know about their language and culture through listening. A high quality musical education develops listening far beyond the everyday level by enhancing and deepening communication; it also refines physical coordination skills far beyond what can be achieved through sport. The unique combination of these elements contributes immensely to pupil well-being and to learning.
The value of a high quality musical education in primary school, consisting of the integration of listening skills with singing, physical coordination and notation reading skills cannot be overstated. As musicians we have a huge responsibility to equip primary teachers with great tools, and training of the highest quality so that they feel confident, secure and empowered in this exciting and creative role. Through the Rhythm for Reading programme, with access to our group teaching methods and with all the tools and training that we have developed, all primary teachers can deliver a high quality musical education, bring the power of music into their classrooms and witness the profoundly vibrant effects of music education on reading fluency, listening skills and much more.
Reading is mysterious. It can be deconstructed into its constituent parts such as vocabulary, contextual knowledge, grapheme recognition, phonological awareness and so on and represented in flow diagrams. However, after many years of scholarly research, the processes that contribute to fluent reading are still not fully understood.
When a child’s reading fails to flow, they receive phonological awareness training, a staple reading intervention strategy in schools. This is fairly unsurprising because research suggests that difficulties with phonemic awareness are strongly related to specific problems with reading and spelling.
Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in language and each of these tiny sounds occupies a fraction of a second in the flow of spoken language in real time. Although the development of phonological awareness is necessary at the early stages of a reading programme, it is not sufficient for the development of reading with ease, fluency and comprehension.
Fluent readers intuitively convert print into meaningful language. To do this, they focus their attention in a particular way, which enables them to monitor and assimilate meaning from the content of printed language while they read. Their experience of reading is dynamic and responsive. Fluent readers are simultaneously aware of grammatical structures, evocative details in the language and the resonance of these details with their knowledge of the context.
When a learner’s reading doesn’t flow easily, it is likely that that their attention has for too long supported their reading as relatively static experience, rather than as a dynamic activity. If you’d like to know more, sign up for weekly insights into the Rhythm for Reading programme.
As the year draws to a close, i’d like to say a heartfelt thank you to all the school staff and leadership teams who have invited Rhythm for Reading into school to work with their pupils in 2014. This truly has been an amazing year and it has been an incredible privilege to work alongside so many extraordinary professionals.
Perhaps, these individuals and teams are special, not only to me but to us all in the sense that they are ‘early adopters’ within the education community. According to Rogers’ famous “Diffusion of Innovations”, ‘early adopters’ comprise 13.5 % of any given population. These are the professionals who are most likely to particularly influence those around them. Having worked closely with them, I have been blown away by their exceptionally energised, informed, confident and remarkably positive approach to teaching and learning.
Working within schools, our experiences have closely echoed Rogers’ observations of early adopters. These are the qualities that we experienced when we worked in these remarkable schools with these wonderful teams. These bullet points are quoted from ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ to explain how the early adopter category, more than any other:
• ‘Has the greatest degree of opinion leadership in most social systems’
• ‘Is considered by many as “the individual to check with” before using a new idea’
• ‘Is a role model for many other members of a social system’
• ‘Is respected by his or her peers, and is the embodiment of successful and discrete use of new ideas.’ (Rogers, 1983; 248)
In fact, many of the teachers that we have worked most closely with this year have been invited to speak at one or more high profile events or have previously come to prominence as recipients of education awards. This suggests that Rogers’ theoretical approach resonates with what we are seeing in the schools that are currently using the Rhythm for Reading programme. These teachers’ attitudes to everyday work and their relationships with their pupils and wider communities are enlightening, intensely curious and insightfully engaged. It has been truly inspiring to work with each and every one of them.
If you have seen our website and thought, “Okay, but what does rhythm have to do with reading?” - here’s a post that explains one aspect of the Rhythm for Reading programme and the way that it helps pupils to read for pleasure. Language, in speech and written form, is all the more evocative and intelligible when its sounds, syntax, style and structure cohere to compelling effect. Reading for pleasure, becoming completely immersed in a book, appears to be effortless because our fluent reading skills generate a self-sustaining momentum. Let’s unpack this.
Every sentence, no matter how simple it appears to be is remarkable in that it is shaped from a seemingly infinite range of possibilities. Sentences vary enormously in their length and complexity, yet they are essentially binary in their structure: consisting of a subject and its predicate. The tension between these grammatical elements plays an important role in generating the self-sustaining momentum of language.
To read a simple passage of printed language without undue effort, a reader needs to be able to negotiate the shape and structure of the sentence in addition to recognising the words. Word recognition skills are necessary for the development of fluent reading, but are not sufficient. Reading for pleasure involves being able to ride the rhythm generated by the grammatical structure of language and being able at the same time, to respond to the shape and pace of each sentence. During Rhythm for Reading intervention sessions, pupils are immersed in a series of reading tasks that are enriched by musical shapes, styles and structures. As a form of group teaching, this approach offers a unique opportunity to develop the dynamic processes that contribute to reading for pleasure without front-loading pupils with decoding, vocabulary and word recognition.
Whether chanting slogans, learning times tables, conjugating verbs, memorising telephone numbers or reciting poetry, the chances are that most people have at some point relied on their sense of rhythm to memorise units of information. The regular beat underpinning a rhythmic pattern generates a stable framework, pulling discrete units of information together into chunks that are more easily remembered. The regular beat is as predictable (and cyclical) as the sound of waves breaking on the shore. However, the presence of rhythm in our everyday lives is relatively subtle, particularly where language is concerned. This may be because our perception of time is predominantly linear in terms of having a past, present and future or in terms of structure, a beginning, middle and end. We make linear arrangements of words on a page and are usually fixated on the end point – debating how effective and how satisfactory the resolution might be.
Both the process of reading in order to learn and the sense of reading with ease and fluency and understanding that we experience when reading for pleasure are little understood by researchers, but the role of rhythm is key, as the Rhythm for Reading blog will explain in the posts that follow.