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Why empathy boosts reading comprehension in primary schools

23 February 2024

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

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

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

Empathy

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

Reading Comprehension

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

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

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

Empathy and comprehension in child development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The adaptive benefit of empathy

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

Conversations and language development in early childhood

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

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

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

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

Rhythm and connection 3/5

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conversations and language development in early childhood

14 February 2024

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

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

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

Language development

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

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

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

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

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

Parenting styles

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

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

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

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

Screen time

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

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

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

Sharing a book

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

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

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

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

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

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

If you have enjoyed this post, keep reading!

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

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

How we can support mental health challenges of school children?

The waiting lists for local child and adolescent mental health services- ‘CAMHS’ are getting longer and longer. Teachers and parents are left fielding the mental health crisis, while the suffering of afflicted children and adolescents deepens with every day that passes. Young people’s mental health challenges cannot be left to fester, as they affect their identity, educational outcomes, parental income and resilience within the wider community. Here are 10 key strategies that parents and teachers can use to support children and adolescents dealing with distressing symptoms of mental health challenges while they are waiting for professional help.

Narrowing the attainment gap through early reading intervention

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clowns and Chameleons on World Read Aloud Day

7 February 2024

Image Credit: Eder Pozo Perez via Unsplash
Image Credit: Eder Pozo Perez via Unsplash

World Read Aloud Day sounds like a lot of fun! Reading aloud in pairs for example, can really encourage expression and fluency, as well as enhance the joy of reading. When children share book together they are more likely to connect more deeply with the ‘voice’ of the author. This is amazing! Pairing up with a book creates the opportunity to open up to the narrative in a completely new way.

There is however, another side to World Read Aloud Day that is more complex. Some children are not able to ‘open up’ to sharing a book or to being part of a group. They are dealing with challenges of various kinds and the social expectation to ‘enjoy’ reading aloud might be too much for them. As educators, we can help these children to feel more ‘centred’ by letting them know that they are safe - for example by choosing to look at a picture book in a quiet space. Read on to find out why this is so important.

Making allowances for emotional, mental and physical health when teaching reading

Symptoms of anxiety and depression correlate with difficulties with reading, including processing speed, focus and concentration among children aged nine and eleven. To make matters worse, researchers have found that not only do these symptoms make reading difficult, but that experiencing trouble with reading and other academic skills affects children’s sense of self-worth and drives anxiety levels up (Lundy et al., 2010).

The stress associated with early childhood adversity can have a profound and substantial effect on the development of adequate reading skills as well as functions such as memory and verbal ability. Associated factors such as changing schools frequently, can exacerbate these learning differences. Taken together, the lack of structure in the child’s life can affect their ability to comprehend on-going themes while reading, and also their motivation to read (Yasik et al., 2007).

Physical challenges are no less valid. Children with glucose dysregulation, perhaps due to diabetes or hyperglycaemia are more likely to have an increased risk for difficulties with cognitive skills such as reading (Naguib et al., 2009). Physical health issues can disrupt learning through fatigue, and there may be multiple appointments and low school attendance.

All of these factors can build up to generate anxiety about falling behind, and it is this anxiety that is most likely to interfere with reading. Many studies have produced mixed results, so it’s not possible at present to generalise widely about the relationship between child health and reading development. However, it is good practice to assess physical and emotional health when identifying children with fragile reading, so that any underlying issues are not overlooked.

When children buck the trend

There are many wonderful teachers who are keen to protect children from stress. Child-led activities such as reading aloud, in which everyone muddles through are not always the answer, however. A more structured approach can be more helpful for disadvantaged children as it allows them to find an obvious path on which they can make clear progress. And yet progress, in the face of challenges requires grit!

There are children who exude grit - and grit is the strongest predictor of educational outcomes. Grit outperforms other factors - even the child’s age and IQ, which is amazing. Grit has been defined by Duckworth and colleagues (2007; p. 1087). as:

Perseverance and passion for long-term goals…[grit] entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over the years, despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress

The paradox of bilingualism

Of course, language skills are also among the strongest predictors of children’s reading development (Dickenson et al., 2010).

Interestingly, according to Siegal and coworkers (2011) when compared with monolingual children, bilingual children display:

  • better control of attention,
  • greater maturity and insight when understanding the meaning of spoken language, and
  • a more adult-like moral reasoning.

In my own experience of interviewing parents, who did not speak English, their bilingual children were able translate for them. I learned that these children helped their parents with ‘life-admin’ such as completing official documents and forms. Despite these responsibilities, or perhaps because of the stress of these experiences, these bilingual children struggled to achieve age appropriate levels of reading comprehension and academic attainment. Factors such as poverty and family mobility are thought to explain this paradox (Melby et al, 2014).

The challenges that children with ‘dyslexia’ face when reading aloud

Although I love the idea that reading aloud is fun, for some children reading aloud puts them at risk of ridicule. An unstructured activity may lead to them feeling anxious and unsafe. When children with specific learning difficulties are asked to read aloud in class, potential exists for a downward spiral to begin. Shameful feelings that begin in this way have the potential to shape a child’s future.

  • Teasing by classmates leads to social isolation
  • Inappropriate teaching such as memorising lists of words gives way to to frustration
  • Substandard work in class generates a label of laziness, followed by truancy and disaffection
  • Risk-taking behaviour develops into petty crime and
  • Poor choices over time lead to juvenile court and a possible conviction.

Dyslexia is an umbrella term for a wide range of specific learning perceptual difficulties with words, which might affect reading, writing or spelling. Some children manage to compensate for their dyslexia by developing coping strategies, whereas others do not achieve this. Stress affects the symptoms associated with dyslexia such as the visual illusion of the print wobbling or fading in and out. This instability also plays out in the child’s working memory.

Michael Thompson (1982d; cf 1990) compared a group of children identified with dyslexia with two control groups:

  • reading age controls, and
  • chronological age controls.

Both control groups outperformed the group with a diagnosis of dyslexia.

Reading age controls were four years younger than the ‘dyslexic’ group, but scored higher on reading rate. Chronological age controls matched the ‘dyslexic’ group on age, but they were more than four years ahead of the dyslexic group in reading.

The scores for the dyslexic group were approximately five years behind those of their classmates on reading rate and accuracy. Imagine for a moment how these children would have feltl when reading aloud in class, knowing that their peer group who were able to read with far more fluency and ease, were listening.

As is often the case, the dyslexic group had a very uneven performance on reading. Their understanding of the text was two years behind their actual age, and thirty months more advanced than their reading rate score. Being able to understand the text in this sketchy way would have felt limiting and frustrating, and at the same time they would have known that ‘reading’ as a developmental ‘milestone’ had not been met.

In the classroom setting, stress, shame and anxiety can send the struggling child into a downward spiral of low-self-esteem. Some children manage these heavy feelings by ‘performing’ for their classmates. They want to reclaim their identity and to normalise their reading situation as ‘a bit of a joke’. Playing the ‘fool’ or ‘clown’ to distract everyone enables them to find their place among their peers once again. This is amusing for classmates and dissipates any temporary feelings of humiliation or ‘loss of face’. And yet, deeper down, the unprocessed shame is stored and slowly builds up day by day. The teacher might go along with the humour, perhaps not quite aware of the pain it attempts to conceal, before settling the class into a new task.

An alternative strategy adopted by other struggling children is to become ‘invisible’ all of the time. Their goal is to become so quiet that they are overlooked. They hide behind a mask of silence, stillness and impeccable behaviour. They are so successful that no one really notices that they are left behind. In fact, the more conspicuous ‘clown’ posturing of the extrovert members of the class helps these quiet chameleons to blend into the background with even more ease.

As increasing numbers of children become vulnerable to poverty, as well as emotional and mental health challenges, it is even more important for schools to consider the emotional well-being and safety of children who struggle with reading aloud. Sadly, a child’s trajectory of self-worth and emotional balance can be changed permanently through reading aloud, with devastating effects going forwards into adolescence and adult life. Dyslexic children do learn to read, but it takes them significantly longer than other children. Supportive strategies can definitely help them to accelerate along their reading journey.

Read our case studies - we’ve helped so many children who struggled to learn to read. Book a discovery call to discuss you school’s needs.


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

Children with a specific learning difficulty often find that as they start to make marks on the page, the words in their mind fade or fragment. For these children, every hour of every day spent in the classroom, presents a new mountain to climb. Their working memory capacity always lets them down, no matter how hard they try to focus their attention.

Fluency! Finding Flow in Early Reading

From a rhythm-based perspective, the key words in this quotation are ‘attends’ and ‘attention’. The child’s capacity to sustain their attention determines the fluency of their reading. Attention is the cognitive ‘fuel’ necessary to ‘drive’ this fluency and to extract the author’s ‘message’ from the alignment of the letters, words and phrases as units of meaning.

‘Temenos’ and safety in school

We often hear about the dangers of cyberspace, where cyber-bullying is rife and children are vulnerable. Now imagine for a moment the relief of reaching the ultimate refuge. Temenos is a Greek concept that describes a sanctuary, a space of absolute safety and harmonious balance, where individuals uphold an immutable self-respect and where criticism and judgment are suspended.

Ears, Eyes, Voices and Early Reading

The development of early reading depends on the efficient coordination between the ear and the eye. Strong associations between letters and their sounds help children to learn to recognise words on the page. Voices matter too. Educators have realised that poor oral language skills are a strong predictor of poor literacy (Stackhouse & Well, 1997) and that socially disadvantaged children are more likely to lag behind in their vocabulary development when compared with more affluent peers (Fernauld et al, 2013) and require a reading intervention. Indeed, research indicates that sharpening rhythmic awareness supports children’s ability to process information (Long, 2016), better perceive the sounds of language, to read more fluently and with more understanding (Long, 2014).

References

Dickenson et al., (2010) Speaking out for language: why language is central to reading development.Educational Researcher, 39, 305-310

Duckworth et al., (2007) Grit, perseverance and passion for long-term goals, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92 (6), 1087-1101

Lundy et al., (2010) Cognitive functioning and academic performance in elementary school children with anxious / depressed and withdrawn symptoms, open Paediatric Medicine Journal, 14, 1-9

Melby-Lervåg, M. and Lervåg, A. (2014) Reading comprehension and its underlying components in second-language learners: A meta-analysis of studies comparing first and second-language learners, psychological Bulletin, 140 (2), 409-433

Naguib et al., (2009) Neuro-cognitive performance in children with type-I diabetes: A meta analysis, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 34, 271-282.

Siegel et al., (2011) exploring the effects of bilingualism on children’s conversational understanding and moral sense. In M. Siegal and L. Syrian (Eds) Access to language and cognitive development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, M. (1982) Reading and spelling errors in dyslexic children: delayed or deviant?

Thompson, M. (1990) Developmental Dyslexia, third edition, Cole & Whurr Ltd: London

Yasik et al., (2007) Posttraumatix stress disorder: Memory and learning performance in children and adolescents, Biological Psychiatry, 61, 382-388

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Reading Fluency: Three Key Executive Functions

31 January 2024

Image credit: Sven Brandsma
Image credit: Sven Brandsma

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing accurate decoding with reading fluency

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

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

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

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

Executive functions are essential for learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

  • Control of inhibition
  • Working memory
  • Task switching

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

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

If you enjoyed this topic, keep reading!

Fluency! Finding flow in early reading

From a rhythm-based perspective, the key words in this quotation are ‘attends’ and ‘attention’. The child’s capacity to sustain their attention determines the fluency of their reading. Attention is the cognitive ‘fuel’ necessary to ‘drive’ this fluency and to extract the author’s ‘message’ from the alignment of the letters, words and phrases as units of meaning.

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

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

Considering reading fluency

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

Reading fluency again - looking at prosody

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

References

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

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

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Phonics and Executive Functions in Reading Development

24 January 2024

Image credit: Ben Wicks via Unsplash
Image credit: Ben Wicks via Unsplash

A good education, particularly in reading, sets the foundation for later success. The challenge for schools is to provide a broad and rich curriculum that is ambitious, inclusive and accessible to all children, including the most disadvantaged. As researchers gain a deeper understanding of the human nervous system, brain networks such as the central executive network and its functions, such as working memory, cognitive flexibility and control of inhibition, we as educators are able to embrace innovative approaches with greater confidence, and bridge gaps in children’s development that need to be addressed.

Following the COVID pandemic and the current ‘cost of living crisis’, over a quarter of children are not reaching a good level of development by the age of five. Delays for example, in spoken language skills are likely to affect the development of executive functions such as emotional self-regulation, inhibitory control and sustained attention. Subtle or profound impairments in early reading skills and executive functions may have a cascading impact on educational success, well-being and good health.

If young children start to learn to read with limited skills in executive function, they may struggle to allocate the cognitive resources necessary for processing text, with slower or more effortful decoding, which would impact the development of new vocabulary and place increased demand on cognitive resources, setting up a negative spiral.

According to the so-called ‘Matthew Effect’ (Stanovich, 1986) ‘the rich get richer and the poor poorer,’ the children who fall behind in reading, continue to fall behind as they go through school. This spiralling effect has been described as a reciprocal relationship between the efficiency of decoding and the development of executive functions (Stanovich, 2009). Indeed, longitudinal studies have linked warm and responsive parenting with good levels of development in:

  • executive functions such as sustained attention and emotional self-regulation,
  • spoken language skills prior to starting pre-school,
  • fluency and enjoyment in reading,
  • later academic achievement.

Phonics and executive functions

The most obvious milestones of child development include learning to walk, run, jump and talk, but executive functions are relatively nuanced and reach maturity in early adulthood. They include the a child’s ability to regulate their emotions, sustain their attention, suppress their impulses and choose goal-directed rather than impulse-driven behaviour.

It is interesting to consider the relationship between executive functions and phonics because executive functions are generally regarded as ‘top down’ processes, whereas language is processed from the bottom up, primarily as a sensory experience, whether through speaking, reading or listening. However, in the context of decoding the words on the page, a child in the early stages of learning to read must tackle word reading as a code breaker would using various tools:

  • phonological awareness,
  • knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds,
  • visual memory of the shape of the word,
  • cues provided by the context.

If we focus in on this problem-solving aspect of learning to read, we can see why ‘top down’ processes such as executive functions are so important. In this post, I’ll discuss the executive functions of working memory, cognitive flexibility and control of inhibition. However, the control of sustained attention, which is also considered an executive function, is a prerequisite for focused reading and learning (Diamond, 2013). If a child is hungry, tired or anxious, even in the most calm, orderly and consistent of learning environments, they are likely to struggle to focus their attention and their other executive functions: the development of learning and reading is therefore arrested for the most fundamental of reasons.

Phonics and working memory

Given that executive functions develop throughout childhood and adolescence, it is not surprising that researchers have found a general correspondence between the development of decoding ability and executive functions. Therefore, as children develop into fluent readers, they rely less on the problem-solving aspect of decoding and on maintaining the letters and their corresponding sounds in working memory while they decipher each of the syllables in turn. However, decades of research have provided evidence of an association between working memory and decoding skills for children with fragile reading.

A key difference between fragile and fluent readers has been explained by the Dual Route Model of visual word recognition and reading aloud (Coltheart, et al. 2001). According to this model, during the development of early reading, decoding skills require both a phonological processing route (for the smallest sounds of language) and an orthographic route (for the visual recognition of the whole word). Children with fragile reading tend to spend more time and effort in the phonological route, whereas children with fluent reading are able to recognise whole words without an emphasis on effortful and slower phonological processing. This learning difference is likely to cascade into all areas of learning, leaving the fragile reader struggling with fatigue in the long term, unless their reading becomes fluent.

Phonics and task-switching

‘Task-switching’ is also known as ‘cognitive flexibility’. Imagine a bi-lingual child who speaks a different language depending on the context. Perhaps they speak English at school and a different language at home. This ‘top down’ switch from one language to another is an example of the type of shift that children learn to make in many areas of everyday life.

The Dual Route Model offers a way to understand the role of ‘task-switching’ in reading development. Reading experts (Cartwright et al., 2017) have argued that fluent readers have the ability to toggle between phonological and whole word processing, whereas novice readers do not and the researchers attribute this flexible dimension of reading fluency to ‘task switching’. As we have already seen, the need to apply this level of flexibility and ‘top down’ control would decrease as reading fluency develops (Guajardo and Cartwright, 2016).

Phonics and control of inhibition

Inhibitory control plays an important role in children’s learning behaviour. It is obvious that some children are very distractible and chatty in class. Those who cannot focus their attention and suppress internal impulses at will are more likely to struggle with hearing the smallest units of language (phonemic awareness). A longitudinal study that tracked the reading development of children from kindergarten (age five) to second grade (seven years of age) demonstrated an indirect relationship between inhibitory control and phonological awareness (Van de Sande et al, 2017). Another study (Ober et al., 2019) focused on adolescents and demonstrated associations between their decoding ability, inhibitory control and task-switching, which underscores the need to remediate struggling readers as soon as they are identified.

A Meta-analysis

Although an association between executive unctions and reading comprehension has already been established, the relationship between executive functions and decoding skills requires a degree of clarification, partly because decoding skills and executive functions mature in tandem in typically developing children (Ober et al, 2020).

A meta-analysis was conducted by Ober and colleagues (2020). Across 65 studies, covering a wide range of languages there were 165 significant associations between decoding and executive function skills and the mean effect size was ‘moderate’ for both word reading and nonword reading. In a large sample, it is easier to achieve statistical significance, but far harder to achieve an effect size of this magnitude, which indicates the considerable strength of the relationship.

The meta-analysis showed that associations were significant and generated moderate effect sizes for the following executive functions:

  • working memory and word reading (as well as nonword reading)
  • task-switching with word reading (as well as nonword reading)
  • inhibitory control with word reading (as well as nonword reading)

Characteristics of different languages

Languages such as English, French, Chinese or Arabic have relatively deep orthographies, which means that the relationship between the sounds of words and the way that they are written is multi-layered. This is because of the way the language developed over thousands of years. Languages such as Spanish and Greek are mainly regular in the relationship between the sounds of language and their appearance on the page.

As a consequence, in English, words such as, ‘said’ or ‘water’ are taught by visual recognition as they cannot be learned by relying on entirely the smallest sounds of language (phonemes) to lead the child to the correct spelling.

In 1969 a team of researchers (Berdiansky and colleagues) looked at the 6,092 most common one and two syllable words extracted from the schoolbooks of children aged between six and nine. They found that there were 211 symbol-to-sound correspondences and of these, 166 could be described as rule-based, whereas 45 were exceptions to these rules. A rule was established if it occurred at least ten times in the 6092 words.

In the meta-analysis the various languages were organised into two groups:

  • Deep orthographies: Chinese, English, Danish, French
  • More transparent orthographies: Croatian, Dutch, German, Greek, Spanish, Turkish

The researchers looked at the extent to which age interacted with the effect sizes in the studies. Interestingly, the effect of age on these data depended on which executive function was studied, with age as a predictor of performance on ‘task-switching’. Here, the association between decoding and task-switching became smaller as the age of participants increased.

Drilling down into the data, the researchers found that the longitudinal studies (which tracked children’s performance on working memory, task-switching and inhibitory control and decoding over time), showed that the strength of the relationship between executive function skills and decoding was more reliable in early rather than late childhood.

With respect to different types of language, those with deep orthographies were more likely to demand a more frequent toggling pattern between the phonological and the orthographic processing routes during reading development, but the need to toggle would diminish with age once reading fluency has been established.

However, for weaker readers who do not develop reading fluency, a language with a deep orthography such as English provides an additional challenge in terms of ongoing effortful phonological processing and falls into a spiral of diminishing returns, as increased effort leads to cognitive fatigue and a sense of disempowerment.

If you are interested in finding out more about how the Rhythm for Reading programme can help, click here.

If this topic is of interest, keep reading!

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

If we turn to auditory problems faced by people with dyslexia, there are two interesting things to consider. One is fuzzy phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest sounds of language. If we break the sound wave of a phoneme down into its beginning, middle and end, this can help us to think about the very first part of the sound. Among children with dyslexia, there is a lack of perceptual clarity at the front edge of a phoneme.

When phonics and rhythm collide part 1

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

When phonics and rhythm collide part 2

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

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

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

REFERENCES:

Berdiansky, B., Cronnell, B. And Koehler, J. (1969) Spelling-sound relations and primary form-class descriptions for speech comprehension vocabularies of 6-9 year olds. Technical Report No 15. Los Alamantos. CA. Southwet Regional Laboratory for Educational Research and Development

Cartwright, K.B., Marshall, T.R., Dandy, K. L. and Isaac, M. C. (2017) Cognitive flexibility deficits in children with specific reading comprehension difficulties, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 50, 33-44

Coltheart, M.,Rastle, K., Perry, C., Langdon, R. And Ziegler, J. (2001) DRC: A dual route cascaded model of visual word recognition and reading aloud, Psychological Review, vol.108, no.1, pp. 204-56

Diamond, A. (2013) Executive functions. Annual Review of psychology, 64, 135-168

Guarjardo, N.R. and Cartwright, K.B. (2016) The contribution of theory of mind, counterfactual reasoning and executive function to pre-readers’ language comprehension and later reading awareness and comprehension in elementary school. Journal of Experimental Child psychology, 144, 27-45.

Ober, T.M., Brooks, P.J., Plass, J.L. & Homer, B.D. (2019) Distinguishing direct and indirect effects of executive functions on reading comprehension in adolescents. Reading psychology, 40 (6), 551-581.

Ober, T.M., Brooks, P.J., Homer, B.D. and Rindskopf, D. (2020) Executive functions and decoding in children and adolescents: A meta-analytic investigation, Educational Psychology Review,

Perfetti, C. (1985) Reading ability, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Perfetti, C. (2007) Reading ability: Lexical quality to comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 20 (4) 325-338

Stanovich, K.E. (1986) Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21 (4), pp.360-407

Van de Sande, E., Segers, E., & Verhoeven, L., (2017) how executive control predicts early reading development. Written Language and Literacy, 20 (2), 170-193

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

17 January 2024

Image credit: Jessica Hearn via Unsplash
Image credit: Jessica Hearn via Unsplash

The narrowing of the curriculum has squeezed the arts and humanities and this is likely to affect pupils from a lower socio-economic status (SES) background more than relatively advantaged children, according to the Sutton Trust (Allen & Thompson, 2016). In England, headteachers are tasked with challenging the effects of economic disadvantage by ensuring children are able to access a broad and balanced curriculum, rather than an impoverished one. However, given that the allocation of teaching time is such a precious resource, how might primary schools devise a curriculum that includes musical notation? Traditional approaches are time-consuming and use complex mind-boggling mnemonics that are not sufficiently inclusive. However, a rhythm-based approach avoids cognitive loading and requires short weekly sessions of about ten minutes. This uses short, sharp quick-fire responses that are fun and facilitate group learning.

Teaching musical notation with a sense of mastery

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

There is minimal input in terms of ‘teacher talk’. Instead, explicit instructions from the teacher, based on the rubrics of the programme outline the specific details of each task. This approach is known to support novice learners and a clear expectation on the part of the teacher is that every child contributes to the team effort and is key to the programme’s impact.

Teaching musical notation and cultivating executive functions

The Rhythm for Reading Online Training Programme offers individually tailored CPD.

Teachers are immersed in a completely new knowledge base and a comprehensive body of work, including theory, research and practice, that has successfully evolved over a period of three decades.

The Rhythm for Reading approach stimulates children’s executive functions using simple repetitive techniques that feel like a fun group activity and are easy for all children to master.

The programme has been shown to transform reading development in:

  • young people with severe learning needs in a special education setting
  • Pupil Premium children in mainstream schools
  • children with specific learning difficulties
  • children who simply need a ‘boost’ in their reading

By following the simple rubrics and rhythm-based exercises of the online programme, teachers are able to accelerate children’s reading development and cultivate their executive functions during ten weekly sessions of about ten minutes.

Teachers need to practise using these fresh and exciting new teaching methods for at least a couple of terms. Ongoing mentoring support is available throughout the programme, as is follow-up support. For further details click here.

As teachers develop a practical understanding of how to nurture children’s executive functions through rhythm-based exercises, they feel empowered by changes in the children’s progress.

Reading fluency is monitored by teachers throughout the programme using a dedicated ‘Reading Fluency Tracker’ which takes two minutes to complete each week. There is also, if needed, an option to focus on deeper levels of assessment of learning behaviour.

Teacher enrichment and reflexive practices are keystones in the CPD of the Rhythm for Reading programme and there is a strong emphasis on supporting teachers’ well-being. A workbook is available for teachers to record their personal experiences of the programme and these can be referenced in weekly one-on-one mentoring calls.

Research Studies in Music Education

Research on the benefits of music training to executive function is inconclusive. According to academics, the mixed bag of findings reflects differences in the types of musical activities. At present, the relationship between musical training and any effect on executive functions is unclear to the music education research community. However, based on a review of the latest research, academics offered this recommendation:

Ideally music lessons should incorporate skills that build on one another with gradual increases in complexity. (Hallam and Himonides, 2022; p.197).

Potential exists for each executive function to play an important role in music making as follows:

  • Inhibitory control is essential to the element of teamwork in music-making, such as community singing, where people are encouraged to participate with others in a balanced and proportionate way.
  • Cognitive shifting, also known as cognitive flexibility, is activated every time a change occurs in a melodic or rhythmic pattern, and also when the relationships between the musical lines or voices, also known as the texture, changes.
  • Working memory is constantly activated in the same way that it would be in a conversation, with updating, assimilating and monitoring, as a person participates in the music.
  • Sustained attention is necessary for the coordination of cognitive shifting and working memory. Just as interaction in a conversation is predictable at the beginning and the end, but may have a ‘messy middle’ (a loss of predictability), the same can be said to exist in music.
  • To maintain the necessary level of sustained attention in the dynamic activity of music making, each performer engages inhibitory control of internal and external distractions.

In a particularly well-controlled, and therefore robust study, there were strong positive effects of musical training on executive functions, particularly inhibitory control among children (Moreno et al., 2011, cf. Hallam and Himonides, 2022).

Although the expressions, ‘getting lost in the music’ and ‘getting lost in a book’ are figurative and imply a perception that the external world has temporarily ‘ceased to exist’, there is also an implication that the individual has entered into a meditative ‘flow state’, suggesting that the executive functions are working together in a coherent and self-sustaining way.

Reading musical notation, reading a text and executive function

Given that musical notation as a symbol system that describes what should happen during music making, there is a strong logical argument for musical notation to act as a stimulus for activating executive functions.

A ‘Yes-But’ response resounds at once because the research literature is ‘mixed’ in terms of findings. Bear with me as I offer a few thoughts…

When researchers used a brain scanner to study the parts of the brain involved in reading musical notation, they asked professional musicians to read musical notes, a passage of printed text and a series of numbers on a five-key keypad (Schön et al., 2002, cf. Hallam and Himonides, 2022). Unsurprisingly, similar areas of the brain were activated during each type of reading activity. Over millennia humans have developed many symbol systems, including leaf symbols, hieroglyphs, cuniform, alphabets and emojis. This research is very reassuring as it suggests that the brain adopts a standard approach for reading different symbol systems. As there was no evidence that reading musical notation was any different to reading text or numbers, then presumably musical notation and other types of reading share the same neural structures. If this is the case, then this might explain an acceleration of reading skills in struggling readers after a six-week intervention in which children learned to read musical notation fluently (Long, 2014).

Reading musical notation differs from reading text or numbers in one important way: each symbol has a precise time value, which is not the case when we read words or numbers. However, when reading connected text or musical notation, there is an important element that is relates directly to rhythm, which is that musical phrases and sentences tend to be read within similar units of time. By coincidence (or by way of an explanation), this time window happens to fit with our human perception of the duration of each present moment.

So, given that working memory fades after about five to seven seconds of time have elapsed, we can understand that musical phrases and utterances in spoken language are closely tied to executive functions of working memory and sustained attention.

Reading musical notation and executive function

Many people’s experience of reading musical notation begins at the moment when they are learning to play a musical instrument. The physical coordination required to produce a well-controlled sound on any musical instrument draws upon sustained attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility (adapting to the challenges of the instrument). The engagement of these executive functions in managing the instrument may leave very few cognitive resources available for reading notation, leading to frustration and a sense of cognitive overload.

Using the voice rather than an instrument offers a possible solution, as singing is arguably the most ‘natural’ way to make music. Learning a new song however, involves assimilating and anticipating both the pitch outline and the words before they are sung. As these tasks occupy working memory, it is possible that cognitive overload could arise if reading notation while learning a new song.

Chanting in a school context - a rhythm-based form of music-making that humans have practised for thousands of years, whether in protest or in prayer is relatively ‘light’ in terms of its cognitive load on working memory. All that is required is a short pattern of syllables or words. Repetition of the pattern allows the chant to achieve a mesmeric effect. This can be socially bonding, hence the popularity of chanting in collective worship around the world.

Although researchers have demonstrated that musically trained children have higher blood flow in areas of the brain associated with executive function (Hallam and Himonides, 2022 ), it is important that researchers specify the musical activities that activate executive functions.

Comparing the three options: learning an instrument, a song or a chant - it is clear that they could develop executive function in different ways.

Learning to play a musical instrument demands new levels of physical coordination, involves deliberate effort and activates all of the executive functions for this reason.

Learning a new song places a high demand on verbal and spatial memory (working memory) as the pitch outline and the words of a song must be internalised and anticipated during singing.

Learning a simple chant places minimal demand on cognitive load. This makes it is easy for individuals drop into a state of ‘autopilot’, allowing the rhythmic element of the chant to keep their focus and attention ‘ticking over’ without deploying executive function.

So, chanting, with its lighter cognitive load offers the most inclusive option for teaching musical notation in these settings:

  • in mixed ability groups in mainstream schools
  • among children with learning differences in mainstream or special educational schools

You might be thinking surely, ‘mindless’ chanting has no place in 21st century education? Yes, I would agree - but the exception to this notional rule would be this: chanting is appropriate for children with fragile learning and reading if they also display hypo-activation of executive function:

  • weak attention,
  • limited working memory
  • poor impulse control
  • slow cognitive switching

Children with weak executive functions are better able to learn to read musical notation using chanting (rather than playing an instrument or singing) for the reasons outlined above. A rhythm-based approach (using a structured and cumulative method) restores executive function and reading development among these children in a very short period of time.

According to Miendlarenewska and Trost (2014) enhancing executive functions through rhythmic entrainment in particular would drive improved reading skills and verbal memory: the impact of the Rhythm for Reading programme bears this out (Long, 2014; Long and Hallam, 2012).

If you enjoyed reading this post, keep reading:

A simple view of reading musical notation

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?

Musical notation, a full school assembly and an Ofsted inspection

Many years ago, I was asked to teach a group of children, nine and ten years of age to play the cello. To begin with, I taught them to play well known songs by ear until they had developed a solid technique. They had free school meals, which in those days entitled them access to free group music lessons and musical instruments. One day, I announced that we were going to learn to read musical notation. The colour drained from their faces. They were agitated, anxious and horrified by this idea.

Empowering children to read musical notation fluently

Schools face significant challenges in deciding how best to introduce musical notation into their curriculum. Resources are already stretched. Some pupils are already under strain because they struggle with reading in the core curriculum. The big question is how to integrate musical notation into curriculum planning in a way that empowers not only the children, but also the teachers.

Teaching musical notation, and inclusivity

For too long, musical notation has been associated with middle class privilege, and yet, if we look at historical photographs of colliery bands, miners would read music every week at their brass band rehearsals. Reading musical notation is deeply embedded in the industrial cultural roots. As a researcher I’ve met many primary school children from all backgrounds who wanted to learn to read music and I’ve also met many teachers who thought that reading music was too complicated to be taught in the classroom.This is not true at all! As teachers already know the children in their class and how to meet their learning needs, I believe that they are best placed to teach musical notation.

References

Allen & Thompson (2016) “Changing the subject: how are the EBacc and Attainment 8 reforms changing results? The Sutton Trust,

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

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. [MP282] Proceedings of Music Paedeia, 30th ISME World Conference on Music Education, pp. 221-232

Miendlarenewska, E. A. and Trost, W. J. (2014) How musical training affects cognitive development: rhythm, reward and other modulating variables. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7.

Moreno, S., Bialystok, E., Barac, R., Schellenberg, E.G., Capeda, N. J. & Chau, T. (2011). Short-term music training enhances verbal intelligence and executive function, Psychological Science, 22 (11), 1425-1433

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To what extent is reading comprehension supported by executive functions?

10 January 2024

Image credit: Ronald Felton via Unsplash
Image credit: Ronald Felton via Unsplash

Although it is widely known that information is best presented with a degree of repetition, as well as by repeating and reviewing key concepts, such an approach is most effective when pupils are able to read widely and often, with fluency and comprehension. Decades of research point to the importance of self-regulation and metacognitive awareness as key predictors of reading comprehension and the ability to access a broad and rich curriculum. Teaching in small chunks with repetition and being mindful of activities that require too much memory capacity in the spirit of ‘cognitive load theory’ is likely to hold many pupils back, so in this post I examine the relationship between reading comprehension, executive functions and rhythm-based teaching.

What are executive functions and why do they matter?

Just as we may need to ‘read the room’ to gauge a social context, mood and emotional tone, we also need to ‘read’ information on the page or screen with the same level of sensitivity and awareness. However, while the dynamics of a live social situation, or the events of a movie play out in real time before our eyes and ears, the situation on the page requires a more sustained and selective engagement on the part of the reader if they are to extract and assimilate the maximum understanding of the text.

This level of engagement involves ‘metacognition’, which is an aspect of social understanding that requires a person to monitor the degree to which they are successfully appraising a situation.

Metacognition is a form of social awareness, whereas self-regulation is more about a person’s awareness of their own behaviour and priorities.

Self-regulation is a form of goal-directed behaviour that includes:

  • prioritising relevant actions,
  • inhibiting (suppressing) those that are less relevant.

Therefore, inhibition is a core aspect of self-regulation. Both metacognition and self-regulation can facilitate reading comprehension in terms of the degree of overall engagement. There is also a more dynamic quality to understanding a text, which involves:

  • being able to adapt flexibly to the development of the narrative,
  • the shifting of perspective as necessary in order to maintain comprehension.

So far we have considered forward planning, cognitive flexibility - also known as ‘shifting’,and control of inhibition. These elements of cognitive control are referred to under the ‘umbrella term’, ‘executive functions’.

Are executive functions mentioned in the Simple View of Reading?

When people read a text, they draw upon prior knowledge, whether they realise it or not. They assume that the most likely course of events will unfold. For example, baking a cake precedes eating a cake. An unexpected turn of events might derail this assumption if say, the cake turned out to be a birthday present. Under the altered circumstances, the reader would adapt and apply a new schema (prior knowledge of birthday cakes) and reappraise their orientation and understanding of the text.

One of the most discussed aspects of executive function, ‘working memory’, varies considerably between people. In the context of language comprehension, in speech and in print, ‘working memory’ holds fragments of information in such a way that new information can be assimilated immediately, enriching, evolving and expanding previous impressions. Encoding (the process of updating or taking in information from the senses) is likely to involve both verbal and envisioned impressions, as creating this record of verbal information in the form of an image (like a movie in the mind) helps to enhance long-term memory formation.

In social situations, people tend to use language to imply what has taken place, and this means that an important part of social engagement involves filling the gaps with inferences that make use of tone of voice, gestures and facial expression, for example. Children with a limited working memory capacity are more literal in their response to language - relying more on a skeleton framework, whereas those with a more capacious working memory are more likely to enjoy a more playful and exploratory approach, to making these inferences.

In the Simple View of Reading (SVR), Gough and Tumner (1986) stated that reading comprehension is predicted by fluent decoding skills and oral language skills. Their model did not included executive function. Given that working memory, inhibition, sustained and selective attention, and cognitive flexibility underpin reading comprehension, this would appear to be an overly simplistic view.

However, in a study that examined the role of executive functions on young children’s reading comprehension (Dolean et al, 2021), a large proportion of the variance in reading scores was explained by executive function at the initial (baseline) testing, but not at the follow-up six months later. The authors noticed that this outcome was likely to be due to the high number of fluent decoders in their sample. However, language skills at baseline did predict reading comprehension in the follow-up tests. The researchers seemed to assume that executive functions, like language skills would accumulate with time in children. It is possible that these are more dynamic than language skills and are more likely in the short term to change in response to the immediate environment.

The relationship between executive functions, reading comprehension and rhythm-based training.

An interesting pattern has emerged from the research literature on the development of reading comprehension:

  • Struggling readers rely more on fluent decoding.
  • Fluent readers rely more on oral language skills.

The effects of executive functions on reading comprehension scores were stronger among children who relied on decoding rather than language skills

This findings bring us back to a ‘common sense view’ of reading comprehension which is:

  • Weaker executive functions such as working memory, control of inhibition, attention and cognitive flexibility are associated with children who rely more on decoding strategies in their reading comprehension.
  • Children who rely more on oral language skills and less on decoding, access reading comprehension with minimal effort in terms of executive function.

If performance on executive functions does predict fluent decoding in reading development, then it follows that changes in executive function would impact fluent decoding and influence reading comprehension scores.

There are many studies showing the effects of musical training on executive function (Hallam and Himonides, 2022). In particular, these studies have repeatedly shown the benefits of rhythm-based training on working memory. One recent study, measured working memory before and after a rhythm-based music intervention in young Finish children, and showed a statistically significant effect of:

  • rhythm-based training on working memory,
  • improved reading development among the children with lower baseline reading scores.

The three studies mentioned in this blog post point to three key findings:

  • the importance of executive function for the development of reading,
  • that children who are more likely to struggle with reading at school are more likely to need support through the development of executive function,
  • that rhythm-based training supports the development of executive function among children who have lower baseline reading scores.

Rhythm and executive functions

The studies also showed that we can think of executive functions as ‘team players’ in the following way:

  • Inhibitory control is an important element of sustained and selective attention and self-regulation.
  • Sustained and selective attention is an important component of working memory.
  • Working memory capacity enables cognitive flexibility.
  • Cognitive flexibility and working memory capacity enable metacognition.

As teachers are well-aware, if executive functions are limited or imbalanced, they can lead to low-level disruption in the classroom, and the extent to which a positive day-to-day learning environment can be maintained.

Schools using the Rhythm for Reading programme have discovered it has developed children’s executive functions. For over a decade, many children have benefited from the effects of the ten week programme of rhythm-based training (only ten minutes per week) with substantial improvements in:

  • Reading behaviour - accuracy, fluency and comprehension,
  • Sustained and selective attention - better ability to focus and concentrate in the classroom,
  • Improved working memory - increased assimilation of meaning while reading - ie comprehension,
  • Inhibitive control - stronger self-regulation and the ability to ignore distractions and complete given tasks,
  • Cognitive flexibility - improvement in updating and predicting the likely direction of events in the passage of text,

To learn more about the Rhythm for Reading programme and executive function, click here.

To read about our results in case study schools, click here.

To discuss having Rhythm for Reading in your school, click here to book a discovery call.

If you enjoyed this post on reading comprehension, keep reading!

How does the Rhythm for Reading programme actually work?

The logical forms and hierarchical structures that are integral to the Rhythm for Reading audio-visual resources automatically train children to recognise grammatical structures, align with phrase contours and activate the associative priming mechanism (Jones and Estes, 2012) while they read printed language (Long, 2014).

Three factors to take into account when assessing reading comprehension

Factor one: There is minimal cognitive loading of working memory as the child can refer back to the text when answering questions. In other words, they do not need to remember the passage of text, whilst answering the questions. This approach prevents a conflation between a test of comprehension and a test of working memory. Children may score higher on NARA II if working memory is likely to reach overload in other reading test formats, for example, if the child is required to retain the details of the text whilst answering comprehension questions.

Rhythm and Reading Comprehension 1/5

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

References

Ahokas et al., (2023) Rhythm and reading: Connecting the training of musical rhythm to the development of literacy skills,PsyArXiv; 2023. DOI: 10.31234/osf.io/7ehwu.

Dolean, D. et al., (2021) Language skills, and not executive functions, predict the development of reading comprehension of early readers: evidence from an orthographically transparent language, Reading and writing, 341: 1491-1512.

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

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

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Child development in 2024: Learning versus hunger

3 January 2024

Credit image: Hollie Santos via Unsplash
Credit image: Hollie Santos via Unsplash

I had planned to find a light-hearted piece of new music education research for the first post of 2024 and maybe a few fun facts. I considered a study on the benefits of chanting, another on whether rats feel groovy (and yes, rats do feel the groove), but eventually I chose a new piece of research on the benefits of singing to infants because it drilled down into a possible relationship between rhythmic movement and expressive vocabulary development (Nguyen and colleagues, 2023).

At the same time, I considered recent topical pieces on child development and education in the mainstream media. Suddenly, this post became much heavier as it was destined to contrast the challenges of struggling families against the privileges of those who shape music education as research participants.

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

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

In a balanced and caring society in which there is time to sing, to tell stories, and to enjoy family life without grinding hardship, music has its own role to play. People feel more inclined to engage socially and to look out for each other when they feel safe. From this perspective, is music important or not? When people need food to survive, food is more important than music. If people want to build a balanced and cohesive community, both music and food are fundamental for establishing trust and strong relationships whether in family life, business and trade, or diplomacy.

How do we know that music is important for child development?

According to decades of research, infants are exposed to music every day, particularly as their caregivers sing to them to entertain, to soothe and to share emotions with them. Even in utero, at 35 weeks gestational age, foetuses show more movement to musical sounds than to speech sounds, whereas at two months of age, an infant coordinates their gaze with the ‘beat’ of their caregiver’s singing. It is clear that music captures their attention and in this post I’ll point out how it seems to further their development.

What is infant-directed singing?

Infant-directed singing (compared with singing in general) is characterised by a slower tempo, more regularity in the pulse and a relatively wide range in terms of louder and quieter volume. The features of live infant-directed singing include positive emotional expression, accompanied by gestures and facial animation. In play songs there are also actions such as bouncing, jigging or sudden playful movements, whereas slower calming rocking movements characterise the soothing nature of lullabies.

How do infants respond to infant-directed singing?

As infants develop, they begin to adapt their rhythmic movements to coordinate with the rhythmic structure of music that they listen to, but the reasons for this are not well-understood. In terms of language development, years of research on infant listening has indicated that infants are sensitive to the rhythm, volume fluctuations and comprehensibility of speech, including sensitivity to these in nursery rhymes. Recent findings showed that newborn infants’ ability to track fluctuations in singing predicted their expressive language at 18 months.

What is the mechanism?

Researchers have found that these early life experiences of infant-directed singing endow children with sensitivity to the tempo (pace), changes in melodic patterns, harmony and rhythmic patterns of musical extracts. There’s been a recent focus on whether fluctuations in volume map directly onto the listening child’s brain activity, and most recently the same approach has been investigated in listening infants. The researchers refer to the term ‘neural tracking’ and by this they mean the extent to which brain activity is synchronised (entrained) with the features of the singing.

Who took part?

The research involved two different groups of mothers who had expressed an interest in taking part in this research. These mothers aged between 29-39 years, were highly educated: more than 86 per cent of them held university degrees and more than half of them (55 per cent) played a musical instrument, whereas one fifth (20 per cent) had time for themselves and sang in a choir. The authors did not explain the working status of these women, and the amount of time they each spent with their infant, whether some of the infants were enrolled in a crêche, or whether the mothers had chosen to return to work.

During the initial part of the research, all of the infants were seven months of age, lived in German speaking households and were without developmental delay. Across the two groups of participants, nine infants in total were excluded from taking part because of ‘infant fussiness’. This is a common practice in experiments of this kind; this means that the findings reflected the behaviour of infants who were well-adjusted enough to cope with the research protocols (such as wearing an EEG bonnet). The research involved testing the infants’ responses to play songs and lullabies at seven months of age. Then at twenty months, the researchers collected data detailing the children’s expressive language development.

In psychological research, it is important to justify the sample because the characteristics of these individuals are likely to shape the findings to a large extent. It is very difficult to draw broad conclusions about the relevance of infant-directed singing to vocabulary development from this particular group of people, when it is well known that parents’ educational level is a strong predictor of expressive language development in young children (Hart and Risley, 1995).

What is the vocabulary gap?

Expressive vocabulary development and the vocabulary gap became very topical almost thirty years ago when Hart and Risley (1995) conducted their work on vocabulary development in different social groups in America. This groundbreaking study involved analysing 1,300 hours of observations. An average child in a wealthier family heard 2,000 words during an hour, whereas a child from a family receiving welfare, heard 600 words in one hour. By the age of three, children from wealthier backgrounds had twice as many words in their productive vocabulary.

The wider impact of the Hart and Risley research

This finding had a powerful impact and the UK government launched the Sure Start initiative in 1998. Funding became available to enrich the lives of new parents through antenatal classes, postnatal support, parenting courses, nutritional advice, and provided supportive opportunities for very young children living in the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK up to the age of four. This scheme was successful in terms of physical health outcomes; it reduced harsh parenting practices and hospitalisations among children at age eleven. Sure Start Centres lost two thirds of their funding in 2010 and a relatively small number of these centres serve deprived communities.

Will we continue to see malnourished children in 2024?

Unlike Sure Start Centres, which were run in dedicated buildings, the baby banks are grassroots projects and some are set up as a series of tents in deprived rural areas. In the article by Chlöe Hamilton, mothers, who seek help from baby banks cannot afford to heat their homes and feed their children. Moreover, these mothers opt not to feed themselves, even though they are pregnant.

It is in these rural areas that head teachers are very concerned about rising levels of malnourishment. The are seeing children’s teeth falling out, their pupils have bowed legs and stunted physical growth. In some schools, as many as half of the pupils receive free school meals and a free breakfast, which is supplied by the charity ‘Magic Breakfast’. School leaders are also very concerned about children who do not qualify for free school meals, as the lunch they bring to school contains nothing more than cheap sugary snacks.

It is poignant that the first baby bank was started shortly after the banking crisis in 2008. Now there are 200 banks in the UK and over fifty branches are run by one charity, ‘Baby Basics’. According to a London-based charity, ‘Little Village’ twelve per cent of parents needed to visit the baby banks for children’s clothes and toys in the run up to Christmas, 2023.

It is not possible for children to learn when they are hungry and stressed. The lessons of Sure Start apply here. Jessica Murray’s article highlighted how hunger leads to dysfunction in the family relationships and the consequences of this are far reaching according to Dr Sarah Hanson, Associate Professor in Community Health at University of East Anglia:

“There’s evidence that not getting enough to eat causes low mood and anxiety, and often leads to stricter discipline in households. For children, their behaviour worsens and it has been linked to increased asthma diagnoses, as well as significantly higher use of emergency care.”

How is the study on infant-directed singing relevant to this situation?

Although the findings of the infant-directed singing study are more relevant to families of similar social characteristics to the participants: German speaking and highly educated, the most important finding is that infants are listening to their caregivers.

Most interesting perhaps, was that when the researchers manipulated the acoustic features of the singing - the pitch, the tempo, the beat - there was no significant effect on the infants’ neural tracking and this finding is a very inclusive one - infants listen, no matter how strange the singing may sound.

In both lullabies and playsongs, researchers found that infants’ rhythmic movement during the singing was strongly related to their neural tracking. This association between rhythmic movement and neural tracking was statistically significant. Lullabies were notable because they elicited stronger neural tracking - but that is not surprising, given that lullabies are hypnotic by their nature.

The researchers also found that infants’ neural tracking of play songs at seven months was significantly related to their expressive vocabulary at twenty months. This was not a product of chance, (95 percent confidence level). By seven months, these children had already developed playful interactions (involving infant-directed singing and rhythmic movement) in a way that was priming them for productive language. This chimes with the Hart and Risley research and really illustrates the importance of a supportive environment, particularly in the earliest months of an infant’s life.

If your enjoyed this post, keep reading!

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

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

https://rhythmforreading.com/a/blog/entry/conversations-rhythmic-awareness-and-the-attainment-gap

Narrowing the attainment gap through early reading intervention

Wearing my SENCO hat, I strongly believe that the principle of early reading intervention (as opposed to waiting to see whether a learning difficulty will ‘resolve itself’ over time), and a proactive approach, can narrow the gaps that undeniably exist when children enter primary school.

In 2013, I adapted the Rhythm for Reading programme so that I could put in place urgently needed support for a group of Year 1 and Year 2 children, who struggled with their school’s phonics early reading programme. Their school had already seen impact of the programme on key stage two children, so the leadership team were keen to extend its reach.

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

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

Gamification, Social Exchange and the Acquisition of Language

According to neuroscientists, repeated use of specific neural pathways catalyses the maturity of the neural structures through a process known as myelination. 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

Hamilton, C., ‘A day at the baby bank: ”I feel at ease here, because I’m not the only one struggling”, The Guardian Newspaper, published on 19.12.23 accessed 30.12.23

Hart, B. And Risley, T.R. (1995) Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children, Paul H Brookes Publishing.

Murray, J, ’Children have bowed legs’: hunger worse than ever, says Norwich School, The Guardian Newspaper, published 21.12.23 accessed 30.12.23

Nguyen et al (2023) Sing to Me Baby: Infants show neural tracking and rhythmic movements to live and dynamic maternal singing, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 64, 101313

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