The smarter you get, the slower you read,
says Naval Ravikant - a leading investor in the world of tech giants.
Yes, an appetite for absorbing the detailed content of a piece of text does lead to slower and closer reading. In fact, fluent reading is likely to vary in pace depending on the style of the writing. It’s a bit like driving in traffic. For conditions that demand sharp focus and concentration, we slow our driving down. Likewise, when we have more favourable conditions, we can drive with greater ease and enjoy the journey more. But no matter what the conditions are like, we don’t become reckless. We don’t lose control of any part of the driving. Let’s discuss this in relation to early reading, the development of reading fluency, and how it is taught.
The most proficient readers adapt their reading skills to match the text. In other words, being able to dial the reading speed up and down is a strong indicator of emerging reading fluency. Schools ensure that all children become confident fluent readers, so that every child can access a broad and balanced curriculum. Fluent reading underpins a love of reading and is an important skill for future learning and employment and it also enables children to apply their knowledge and skills with ease.
In the early reading phase, children learn to remember what they’ve been taught and to integrate new knowledge into larger concepts. In other words, children learn to coordinate different streams of information. This is a bit like learning to drive (for an adult), because many different elements need to be coordinated and practised until these become second nature - such as:
Fluent readers can:
In early reading, children who approach reading fluency without undue effort have coordinated their eyes, ears and voices:
Some of these channels of information are processed subconsciously and therefore at lightning speed. For example, the child’s lexicon (word bank) supplies the word that is the best match to the information on the page. The streams of information that contribute to the retrieval of a certain word are:
In the earliest stages of learning to read, as the child learns to processes information about letters and sounds, they do this relatively slowly and consciously, using the thinking part the brain. It’s important that children allow the knowledge that they acquire during phonics training to inform their recognition of words, because after a period of initial ramping up and practice, it’s vital that this skill becomes second nature and that the speed of processing rapidly accelerates.
Fluent readers can read quickly, accurately and with appropriate stress and intonation, which aids comprehension by freeing up cognitive resources sufficiently to focus on meaning. Therefore, after the children have achieved a secure knowledge of phonics, fluency becomes an increasingly important factor in the development of reading comprehension.
However, many children experience ‘bumps in the road’ when they’re learning to read. They may have some stronger and some weaker channels of information processing. If there are weaknesses in attention, phonological discrimination or visual discrimination, the child will not be able to coordinate the many different channels of information that contribute to fluent reading.
Reading word-by-word typically occurs among the lowest 20% of children: those who most need to improve in their reading. They need to refresh their attention for each word, as even reading an individual word can absorb all of their focus and attention.
Their fluency will not develop alongside that of their classmates and they will fall behind unless they receive an early reading intervention. Some teachers of reading assume that the skill of segmenting and blending phonemes is necessary for reading fluency to develop.
Actually, many children remain stuck at the ‘sounding-out’ stage of reading and do not become fluent readers, even though they know the correspondence between letters and their sounds. For these children, it’s likely that their attention is weak, and they lack the cognitive control to coordinate the various streams of information processing that support reading fluency.
Speed reading is measured in terms of how many words a person can read in one minute. This is known as words per minute (wpm).
Speed reading has been associated with having a higher level of intelligence, because people who read quickly are thought to consume more information and therefore become smarter. This association between speed reading and intelligence has led some teachers of reading to believe that reading faster is necessary for the development of good reading.
If building reading fluency were this simple, children with fast reading speeds would not -
Although speed reading might appear attractive as an idea, and it is likely that a good reader can read fast, reading fast in itself does not necessarily develop into good reading.
At the heart of this is a huge misconception:
If a child prioritises speed, they may learn to decode the print into words, phrases and sentences. But, they may not have engaged with the grammar of the text.
As discussed, encouraging a child to read for speed may do more harm than good. If a child is praised for reading fast, they are more likely to experience reading as unrewarding, boring, a waste of their time and pointless.
If a child is encouraged to slow down and to discuss what has happened in each sentence, they will engage with the text as meaningful, even if they struggle to read independently. This communicative approach shows the children that they are reading in order to learn. Therefore, interactions between an adult and a child that involve talking, reasoning and extending spoken vocabulary are highly valuable, and they have been found to have significant effects on the development of early reading.
When reading at home with their children, parents can easily adopt these communicative approaches. Reading aloud is a good way of developing vocabulary as well as expressive language skills. They might also encourage their child to notice punctuation, the development of the narrative and any dialogue in the text.
Click here to see the full list of reading fluency tips in the Reading with Fluency Checklist.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, and you’d like to find out even more about the development of reading fluency, keep reading….
Reading fluency and comprehension in 2020 - here I discuss the relationship between resilience and fluency in relation to reading speed.
Discover the heartbeat of reading- this post explores the importance of bringing the grammatical cues in reading into systemic alignment.
Rhythmic elements in reading: From fluency to flow - a flow state is associated with reading for pleasure and fluency is a key to unlocking a flow state.
There is no doubt that the foundation of a good education, with reading at its core, sets children up for later success. The importance of phonics is enshrined in education policy in England and lies at the heart of teaching children to become confident, fluent readers. However, young children are not naturally predisposed to hearing the smallest sounds of language (phonemes). Rather, they process speech as syllables strung together as meaningful phrases.
Phonemes are more difficult for some children to detect than syllables, and they particularly struggle with learning to read, as they are unable to detect the boundaries between individual words and syllables. Schools are expected to give all learners the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life and to pay special attention to the children who need to improve their reading (the lowest 20%).
Phonemic awareness and the ‘alphabetic principle’ need to be explicitly taught until they become automatic. And yet, unlocking stubborn barriers to phonemic awareness can take years, if relying upon conventional approaches. However, a simple solution - a segmenting and blending game, can support teacher effectiveness, thus enabling these children to access phonics teaching. And it can be used right from the start! This strategy may also protect them from falling behind their classmates. Read on to learn this playful approach and practise it with a FREE downloadable word list.
Segmenting is a skill that breaks sounds down, by drawing attention to them and allowing awareness of the smaller units of language to emerge. Words can be segmented into syllables, and syllables can be segmented into phonemes. Mastering this skill involves holding a word or a syllable in mind and then breaking it down into smaller sounds. Thus, a word such as ‘seashell’ can be initially segmented into two syllables, which are, ‘sea’ and ‘shell’.
Taking this to the next level in terms of detail, each syllable can be segmented into the smallest sounds of language, which are phonemes. There are two phonemes in ‘sea’, which are:
However, there are three phonemes in ‘shell’, and these are:
So, if we take the word, ‘seashell’ as a whole, we have segmented the word into five phonemes, which are: /s/ea/sh/e/ll/.
Some phonics methods use ‘onset and rime’ to develop the skill of segmenting. This approach is designed to sharpen children’s sensitivity towards the boundaries within syllables, whilst retaining a sense of the syllable as an individual sound unit.
When teachers use the ‘onset and rime’ method, they segment a syllable into only two parts:
Using onset and rime, ‘seashell’ would be taken syllable by syllable. Each syllable would be segmented into two parts.
Blending is the skill that involves building words up, either from syllables, or individual phonemes.
There is one simple difference. Segmenting involves breaking a word down into smaller units of sound, whereas blending is a reversal of the process.
The two approaches can be taught side by side. Both segmenting and blending skills are necessary for decoding longer words and shorter words. Let’s take a shorter word, ‘then’.
‘Then’ using a purely phonemic strategy would be segmented as /th/en/ and these sounds, if blended together make the word ‘then’.
Teachers need to guard against a visual strategy (in which the reader has visually decoded ‘the’ as a familiar word that they recognise mainly by its shape) as it wastes a lot of time.
‘Then’ using a partly visual strategy would be segmented as /the/n/ and these sounds, if blended together could make a nonword that would almost rhyme with ‘fern’.
Children need to recognise that /th/ on its own is a phoneme that can be blended with many other sounds.
In the onset and rime approach, /th/ can be blended as follows:
Let’s take a longer word such as ‘umbrella’- there are three syllables here and seven phonemes.
As this is a longer word, segmenting at the syllable level would be a more successful strategy. When a child segments at the phoneme level, each phoneme has equal emphasis. However, in the English language, longer words have unequal emphasis - with some syllables assigned a little more energy (in terms of intensity) vocal stress, and length (in terms of duration). IN the word ‘umbrella’, it is the second syllable that carries vocal stress.
Segmenting at the syllable level allows the child to hear more easily where the stress may fall in the word. The assignment of stress is very important for recognising a word and immediately understanding the meaning of the word in context. For example, the word ‘record’ carries the stress on the first syllable when it functions as a noun (first bullet point) and on the second syllable when it functions as a verb (second bullet point). The vowel /e/ is also subtly different.
Communicative approaches such as drawing attention to letters and sounds in early reading, combined with teaching effectiveness are strong predictors of pupils’ progress throughout school. And yet, for some children, a weak working memory means that manipulating sounds in real time is difficult because attention fades, before the child has:
And there may be a deeper resistance in the breaking down of words. A two syllable word, such as ‘sunshine’ represents a concept, vital for life, that is associated with similarly important one syllable words, such as ‘light’ and ‘sun’. For some children, who are more literal in their approach, segmenting a word may, for them, symbolise breaking down their experiential knowledge.
Although many children may enjoy pulling words apart and rebuilding them, there are some who may feel that a word cannot be segmented without being permanently ‘damaged’. For these children, the playfulness of segmenting and blending needs greater emphasis.
But fundamentally, this is not a trivial matter. If a child cannot read, they will not be able to access the curriculum and will be seriously disadvantaged. Phonemic awareness needs to be explicitly taught until it becomes automatic. So, here’s how to unlock blocked phonemic skills, that are vital for the development of blending and segmenting.Blending and Segmenting Game
This is a technique that has worked with mainstream children aged from five to seven years, as well as with older children in special schools, who are not progressing with phonics.
First start with blending:
This ‘game’ helps children to:
Would you like to have a list of two syllable words to use while playing this game?
Click here to receive a pdf of the Blending and Segmenting Game and a Wordlist.
Continue reading about the fascinating world of phonological processing.
When rhythm and phonics collide - discover the confusable features of certain phonemes and why rhythm brings clarity to this issue.
When rhythm and phonics collide part 2 - explore rhythmic and prosodic differences between consonant and vowel sounds
Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap - a rhythm-based perspective on the influential Hart & Risley study of the ‘word gap’ between affluent and disadvantaged families.
Rhythm and probability underpin implicit language learning - this is about information processing in the first eight months of an infant’s life.
Early reading was hit hard by the pandemic and in this coming academic year we’ll see a real focus on narrowing an attainment gap between stronger and weaker early readers. Although children are taught the phonics skills that they need to read well in school every single day, reading at home with an adult builds the foundations for strong progress. Every child needs to make strong progress to read well, to develop their confidence as well as their enjoyment in reading. Read on to start the new term with good reading habits and get a FREE downloadable Good Reading Habits Checklist.
Good reading habits develop at home every time a child:
Good reading habits are easier to maintain, more rewarding and productive when:
Choosing the same time of day, every day, creates a strong and consistent reading habit.
The best times to open up the book bag are either straight after school with a drink and a snack or, first thing in the morning before getting ready for school (set the alarm clock!).
Reading at home is a bit like talking at home. It doesn’t need to be measured by time. Reading sessions can be spent talking about the pictures, the characters and the words in the book. By simply helping the child to enjoy reading, the time will fly by.
A child might need reassurance and plenty of encouragement to stay engaged with the book and to practise the words. And that’s absolutely fine! However, the main goal is to support the child’s reading skills. So spend at least ten minutes every day on reading and re-reading the words in the book.
Parents who read at the same time every day with their child set them up for success at school.
Anything new, noisy or shiny will distract a child from reading. Good reading habits are easier to maintain in a calm, quiet and gentle atmosphere.
Parents can avoid interruptions if they:
One of the biggest challenges at the beginning of the new school year is supporting children’s reading AND preparing food for the family.
Inevitable disruptions to good reading habits come around every year shortly after the beginning of term.
For instance, there are:
No, it’s not okay because the effects of falling behind in reading impact the rest of the child’s schooling. And parents need to avoid making this very common mistake:
There are clear advantages, as an early morning reading routine:
It’s fun to ask these questions, as they will give the parent a sense of their child’s level of curiosity and connection with reading a particular book.
A playful attitude, with parent and child ‘learning together’ helps the child to develop problem-solving skills and strategies, such as:
Sometimes, a phonics-based approach, which focuses on the sounds of words is something of a barrier for parents, particularly if they themselves had struggled to learn to read. I’ve seen very successful workshops in schools called ‘Family Phonics’. These workshops not only break down parents’ fears around phonemes, but also help parents and teachers to build wonderful collaborations for the benefit of the children. And everyone wins because we want all our children to become confident fluent readers!
Many teachers and parents use a reading record or a reading diary. This records the number of times the child reads to the parent and the teacher. It’s a vital tool as it proves that at home and at school there is enough input to keep the children’s reading development on track. Remember to put a pen or a pencil in the book bag to make it easier to make updates every day.
Many parents and teachers use star charts or stickers to encourage desired behaviour from children. However, reward systems are more powerful when they are reserved for unexpectedly good behaviour. Reading is a necessary life-skill. It’s like brushing your teeth. It should be part of the daily routine.
The closeness between the parent and child whilst reading at home IS an important factor. But there are also many invisible rewards of good reading habits that last a lifetime:
If you enjoyed this post, click here to receive the Good Reading Habits Checklist. it’s FREE!
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Louis Vuitton began his career in logistics and packing, before moving on to design a system of beautiful trunks, cases and bags that utilised space efficiently and eased the flow of luggage during transit. He protected his designer luggage using a logo and geometric motifs. The dimensions of each piece differed in terms of shape and size, and yet it was undeniable that they all belonged together as a set - not only because they matched in appearance, but also because each piece of the set could be contained within a larger piece. In fact, the entire set was designed to fit into the largest piece of all.
The grammatical structures of language and music share this same principle that underpinned the Louis Vuitton concept. In a language utterance, the tone, the pace and the shape of the sound waves carry a message at every level - from the smallest phoneme to the trajectory of the entire sentence.
The shapes of individual syllables are contained within the shapes of words. The shapes of words are contained within the shapes of phrases and sentences. Although these are constantly changing in real time - like a kaleidoscope, the principle of hierarchy - a single unit that fits perfectly within another remains robust.
In music, the shapes of riffs, licks, motifs, melodies and phrases are highly varied, but the hierarchical principle remains a constant here too. The musical message is heard in the tone, the pace and the shape of the smallest and largest units of a musical phrase.
Just as Vuitton used design to create accurate dimensions at every level of his luggage set, the same degree of precision is also achieved at a subconscious level in spoken language and in music. A protruding syllable, the wrong emphasis or inflection can throw the meaning of an entire sentence out of alignment. A musical message is similarly diluted if a beat protrudes, is cut short or is lengthened, because the length and shape of an entire phrase is distorted.
Arguably, the precise dimensions in Vuitton’s groundbreaking designs reflect a preference for proportion and balance that also underpins human communication involving sound. Our delight in the consummation of symmetry, grammar and rhyme is present in the rhythm of language and also in music. At a conceptual level, it is ratio that unifies the Vuitton designs with language and music, and it is ratio that anchors our human experience in interaction with one another and our environment.
This concept of ratio, as well as hierarchical relationships and the precision of rhythm in real time underpin the Rhythm for Reading programme. Think of this reading intervention as an opportunity to reorganise reading behaviour using a beautiful luggage set, designed for phonemes, syllables, words and phrases. It’s an organisational system that facilitates the development of reading fluency, and also reading with ease, enjoyment and understanding.
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 to receive free access to 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.
“No!” they protested. “It’s too hard.”
“After all these lessons, do you really think I would allow you to struggle?” I asked them.
The following week, I introduced the group to very simple notation and developed a system that would allow them to retain the name of each note with ease, promoting reading fluency right from the start. This system is now an integral part of a reading intervention called the Rhythm for Reading programme. It was first developed for these children, who according to their class teacher, were unable to focus their attention and learning with the rest of the class.
After only five minutes, the children were delighted to discover that reading musical notation was not difficult after all.
“I can do it!” shrieked the most excitable child again and again and there was a wonderful atmosphere of triumph in the room that day.
After six months, the entire group had developed a repertoire of pieces that they could play together and as individuals. It was at this point that Ofsted inspected the school. These children were invited to play in full school assembly in the presence of the Ofsted inspection team. They played both as a group and as soloists. Each child announced the title and composer of their chosen piece, played impeccably, took applause by bowing, and then walked with their instrument to the side of the hall. At the end of the assembly the children (who were now working at age expectation in the classroom) were invited to join the school orchestra and sit alongside their more privileged peers. The Ofsted team placed the school in the top category, ‘Outstanding’.
If you would like to learn more about this reading programme, contact me here.
In the Rhythm for Reading Programme, progress in reading is measured using the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability 2nd edition revised (NARA II). Reading comprehension is one of three standardised measures in this reading assessment. There are many good assessments available, but I’ve stuck with this one because it offers three supportive features that I think are particularly helpful. If you are unfamiliar with NARA II, let me paint a picture for you. Detailed illustrations accompany each passage of text. For a child grappling with unfamiliar vocabulary or weak decoding, the illustrations offer a sense of context and I’ve seen many children’s eyes glance over to the illustration, when tackling a tricky word.
In practice, children come out of class one at a time for individual reading assessment. Each reading assessment lasts twenty minutes on average. The main advantage of an individual assessment over a group assessment is that the assessor is permitted to prompt the child if they get stuck on a word. In fact the assessor can read the tricky word after five seconds have elapsed, which helps the child to maintain a sense of the overall narrative. This level of support is limited by the rigour of the assessment. For example, an assessor would not give the definition of a word if a child asked what it meant and sixteen errors in word accuracy on a single passage of text signals the end of the assessment.
This particular individual format is more sensitive that all others in my opinion, because it minimises the influence of three cognitive factors on the scores.
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.
Factor two: There is no writing involved in NARA II, so a child with a weak working memory achieves a higher score on the NARA II than on other formats if writing in sentences is a specific area of difficulty for them.
Factor three: The assessor keeps the child focussed on the text. This makes a big difference if a child is likely to ‘zone out’ frequently and to experience scattered or fragmented cognitive attention. In this instance, a child with weak executive function is more likely to achieve a higher score on the NARA II than on other formats, because of the support given to scattered or fragmented attention.
At the end of the ten weeks of our reading intervention, children have achieved higher scores not only in NARA II, but also in the New Group Reading Test and the Suffolk Reading Scales. Many children experience gains in cognitive control as well as reading fluency and comprehension.
In extant societies that live as hunter-gatherers, loud communal singing and drumming creates the illusion of a large coherent entity, large enough to deter big cats that predate on the darkest of nights. Arguably, communal singing through the night may be a key human survival strategy. There’s evidence to show that feelings of cooperation and safety are experienced when humans sing and dance together and many people report being able to sustain hours of music making, when in a group. Other species such as birds and fish deter predators by forming a large mass of synchronised movement patterns. Murmurations form before birds roost for the night and shoals of herrings achieve the same mesmeric effect when they are pursued by predators such as sea bass.
Detecting rhythm and moving in time creates a trance-like state, which allows the perception of time to shift such that the focus narrows onto staying in time with the beat of others, nearby. Anticipating what will happen next is a key element of this narrow focus. If we break that down, it involves anticipating the regularity of the beat, whether within simple or complex rhythmic patterns.
Reading for pleasure can be framed as a social situation in which the reader synchronises with the writer’s style. To ‘get into a book’ we need to achieve a flow state - which is a trance-like state resulting in relatively narrow focus. This means everything else, but the book (or screen) disappears from our attention. The entranced state induces reading fluency and comprehension, drawing us deeper into the text where we might feel that we have ‘escaped’. To escape into a book means to suspend our usual sense of who we are, having become engrossed with the text, perhaps by empathising with the characters, or simply by synchronising with the flow of the writing. A close level of synchrony between the words on the page, and our anticipation of what comes next is arguably similar to the defensive mechanism of creating a larger entity in real time because it involves losing the usual sense of self and becoming part of something larger than day-to-day life - which brings us all the way back to communal singing and dancing.
A few weeks ago, in an inset session at a wonderful school with beautiful inclusive approaches in their group teaching, I mentioned that rats have the same limbic structures as humans. The limbic system is the part of the brain that deals with our mammalian instincts. These keep us in tune with social information, such as social status and hierarchy, protecting and nurturing our children, bonding with sexual partners and managing affiliation. It’s a logical assumption that if we share these limbic structures, rats like humans should be able to keep time with a musical beat - or their equivalent of that. So, it was no surprise to learn that Japanese researchers have shown that rats can indeed bob along and keep time with a musical beat.
It was back in the 1980s, when American scientists first discovered the genes that determined the rhythm of the mating song of fruit flies. If we think of rhythm as a musical trait exclusive to humans, these findings in rats and flies are simply amusing, novel or entertaining. On the other hand, the bigger picture behind these findings would suggest that the natural world is inherently structured by environmental and behavioural patterns organised by rhythm. If we think of rhythm as a system of ratios, proportions and repetition, then the math of rhythm is obvious. There are cycles and rhythmic flows in tides and weather systems and indeed, migration patterns follow these cycles. In individual organisms, as well as in shoal, pod, flock and herd movement, rhythmic patterns underpin locomotion and communication. Even a human infant’s stepping reflex is organised around the inherent rhythmic systems that we share with many other species.
We humans are particularly happy when our stylised rhythms achieve a hypnotic effect, for example in Queen’s ‘We will rock you,’ - one of the songs used by the Japanese scientists to detect the sensitivity to rhythm in rats. Halfway through the Rhythm for Reading programme, this same rhythmic pattern appears and is always greeted with enthusiasm by teachers and children as a fun part of the reading intervention. Look out for the next post, which explains the connection between hypnotic rhythm, flow states, reading fluency and reading comprehension.