Rhythm for Reading - sustainable reading intervention for schools

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The Rhythm for Reading blog

Visiting the library for the very first time

1 December 2015

Apart from our group teaching sessions, perhaps the most important part of what we do is to hear children read individually for twenty minutes at the beginning and end of the Rhythm for Reading programme. Through this process we measure their progress, provide useful data for the school and also extend our own expertise on reading development and reading intervention.

In a recent follow-up session, a Year 5 student had discovered to her great relief that she could at last understand the message carried by the words that she read. Her reading reading fluency and comprehension had transformed. With great excitement she explained that she planned to go with her cousin to visit the library in the centre of the city where she lived.

Her bold plan moved and inspired me to visit the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre to put together a list of books for children who have discovered the joy of reading and are preparing to visit their nearest library for the first time. The Norfolk Children’s Book Centre houses some 80,000 children’s books. As dolphins, dinosaurs and gladiators feature prominently in our resources and are extremely popular with the children, they provided an obvious starting point for our search for these particular books.

Davis, N. (2011, illus. Brita Granstrom) Dolphin Baby. Walker Books ISBN 9781406344011

Features such as the rhythmic swing of the language, subtle use of alliteration and the careful exploration of a dolphin’s sound world make this a book that strongly resonates with the musical resources of our reading programme.

Davis, N. (2013, illus. Annabel Wright) Manatee Baby. Walker Books ISBN 9781406340884

Inhabiting the mind of Manuela, we discover how it feels to paddle along the Amazon and to kill a Manatee, a protected mammal. The rhythmic flow of the language is powerful, steering the reader through lavish descriptive writing and moments of buoyant, lively interaction between the characters.

King Smith, D. (2005) Dinosaur Trouble. Penguin ISBN 9780141318455

This enjoyable story is perfect for Rhythm for Reading children who have started to read longer words with confidence and are highly motivated to develop their vocabulary.

Chambers, C. (2015, illus. Emmanuel Certissier) Dinosaur Hunters. Dorling Kindersley IBSN 9780241182598

This is an innovative story for older readers and is refreshingly free from cultural stereotypes. It is about three global citizens from England, Japan and Brazil, who meet through a time-travel App. The descriptive language supplies finely grained details both of historical settings and digital devices.

Burgan, M. (2015) Life as a Gladiator Raintree ISBN 9781474706773

This interactive history adventure allows the reader to construct his / her own storyline using metadata to link to any of three different historical perspectives. It is fast-paced, yet packed with fascinating detail and classical scholarship.

For a copy of the full list please email enquiries@rhythmforreading.com

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Have you heard about the auditory brainstem?

1 November 2015

Our ears are open all the time. Even sleeping newborn infants subconsciously respond to the sounds around them, indicating that from birth (1), humans are constantly exposed to their auditory environment.

In their review of the research evidence, Kraus & Chandrasekaran, (2) underlined the importance of the initial, subconscious (subcortical) stage of auditory processing. Before sound reaches our attention, the auditory brainstem responds to incoming information from our ears, integrating the spatial, rhythmical and acoustical features of sounds.

These features include frequency (high and low pitches), the timbre of the sound (for example, differentiating between human voices) and rhythmic features (such as the regularity or predictability of sounds). The auditory brainstem is extremely sensitive to very subtle differences in sound waves, such as individual phonemes in language (phonological awareness) and plays a critical role in early identification of sounds and their patterns in particular. Over time, the auditory brainstem produces an idiosyncratic response to sound that is unique to each individual.

Thus, the auditory brainstem response reflects the current state of the nervous system – the state at that time formed by an individual’s life experience with sound (ibid, 2010, pp. 601).

More recently, researchers have found that the auditory brainstem seems to respond with greatest clarity to the sounds with which the individual is most familiar. Having listened to brainstem responses of musicians, they found that for example, pianists’ brainstem responses to the sounds produced by a piano were unusually sharply defined when compared to those of non-pianists. Brainstem responses also appeared to receive feedback information from cortical areas of the brain (3).

Further developing the line of enquiry, scholars (4) proposed that the availability of cortical feedback (from the cognitive processing of sound) allowed the brainstem response to become increasingly specific over time. For instance, musical expertise that has accumulated over a lifetime leads to extremely fine-grained auditory brainstem responses among professional musicians, not only to musical sounds, but also both to phonemes and the pitch contours of language (5). Once the brainstem has adapted to cortical feedback, it appears to retain its enhanced structures as confirmed by a recent study of speakers of Mandarin and amateur musicians (6).

Overall these studies show that an overlap exists between early stage auditory processing of spoken language and musical experiences. Cognitive feedback informs development of these structures and expertise in music appears to enhance the auditory brainstem response to language, which coincides with group teaching in the Rhythm for Reading programme and can inform early reading intervention.

1. Nameth, R., Haden, G., Miklos, T. & Winkler, I (2015) Processing of horizontal sound localization cues in newborn infants, Ear and Hearing, 36 (5), pp. 550-556

2. Kraus, N and Chandrasekaran, B. (2010) Music training for the development of auditory skills, Nature Neuroscience, 11, pp. 599-605

3. Strait, D.L. Chan, K., Ashley, R., & Kraus, N (2010) Specialisation among the specialised: Auditory brainstem function is tuned to timbre, Cortex, 48, pp. 360-362

4. Skoe, E., Krizman, J., Spitzer, E., & Kraus, N. (2014) Prior experiences biases subcortical sensitivity to sound patterns, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27 (1), pp.124-140

5. Musacchia, G., Sams, M., Skoe, E. & Kraus, N. (2007) Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104.

6. Bidelman, G.M., Gandour, J.T., Krishnan, A., (2011). Cross-domain effects of music and language experience on the representation of pitch in the human auditory brainstem. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 23, 425–434.

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Rhythm and probability underpin implicit language learning

2 October 2015

How do tunes and rhymes find their way into our heads? Although repetition seems to be important for any type of learning, patterns of words and tunes seem to have an almost magnetic quality in the way that they spontaneously stick in the mind. This type of learning is extremely powerful. It’s known as implicit learning as it appears to require no effort at all.

Scholars have identified the importance of implicit learning for infant language development. In fact, they have revealed that infants are naturally sensitive to the distribution and frequency of patterns. The power of this, so-called statistical learning was clearly demonstrated when infants responded to rhythmic patterns in language, even when the natural intonation or prosodic features in speech had been removed (Saffran et al., 1996).

It seems that implicit language learning is a natural response to regular occurrences such as rhythmic patterns and sequences in the sounds of language. Infants hear these in their everyday exposure to language and also by producing patterns through babbling. According to Vihman (2015), this is why the development of language is to a degree, individual for each infant. A virtuous cycle soon develops once infants have realised that things around them have names and begin to learn words more deliberately and explicitly, storing phonological representations of words as symbolic, semantic associations. Language learning continues as infants identify probabilistic patterns within words, again through implicit learning and this leads to sensitivity and production of grammatical structure.

The importance of rhythm in underpinning implicit language learning is one of the key findings of the ground breaking research (Saffran et al, 1996). This is why it is important to focus on a child’s sensitivity to rhythm. If conventional reading intervention and early reading programmes have failed to support children’s reading fluency and comprehension, the Rhythm for Reading programme can empower teachers and children to reignite reading and learning through powerful group teaching.

Saffran, Jenny R., Richard N. Aslin, and Elissa L. Newport (1996). “Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants.” Science 274.5294, 1926-1928.

Vihman, M. (2015) Handbook of Language Emergence. MacWhinney, B. & O’Grady, W. (eds.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 437-457

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Starting a new school year: Mixed ability group teaching

1 September 2015

The energy of a new school year is incredibly positive and also very demanding. Some students will begin the term refreshed, starting the year with high aspirations, new stationery in their new school bags, whereas others will have anxiety or feel angry that the work ahead of them will be even more difficult to understand than it was the year before. Many will look forward to seeing classmates again, but socially less well-adjusted children, will dread a return to taunts and jibes and loneliness.

Many will be beginning the new school year with the best of intentions, wanting to please teachers, trying to organise themselves with greater success than before and to contribute in lessons. Some will lack motivation, and for complex reasons, will continue to struggle, as despite everyone’s best efforts, the school system does not really help them.

I am frequently inspired by children who do not understand what they read, but trust that with more reading practice, their experience of reading will become more rewarding. Unfortunately, practising reading as a decoding skill is not going to help them to achieve fluency and comprehension. Unless word recognition skills are integrated with the child’s speech and understanding of language, for example, through a reading intervention, a profound disconnection between these processes will persist.

Equally inspiring for me, are the teachers and classroom practitioners who are faced with the enormous task of teaching children with extraordinarily wide-ranging attitudes to learning. I see wonderful group teaching in classrooms week after week, year after year. We really should celebrate that we have such a high calibre workforce in our schools.

There are new case studies on our website, illustrating how the Rhythm for Reading programme continues to support teachers in resolving the difficulties that children experience with reading fluency and comprehension. Click the link to read more.

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Connectedness in the Rhythm for Reading programme

16 July 2015

At this time of year it’s good to feel that much has been accomplished. Reading programmes have been completed, training delivered, progress measured, reports read, certificates received and so on. However, educating children and young people is about so much more than ticking lists of to dos.

I’m so grateful to work with fabulous teachers in the schools that I visit on my travels with the Rhythm for Reading programme and I’ve experienced close-up their boundless enthusiasm, interest in trying new things and dedication to supporting their pupils in every possible way. Accelerating progress and boosting wellbeing are important educational goals of course, but equally prominent should be the development of a very profound sense of social connectedness in our group teaching. A ten-year old boy explained this very clearly to me recently,

“It made me feel welcome to the group because everyone was doing the same thing. Everybody knew it. I didn’t feel left out because usually I feel left out in a group.”

For me, this suggests that some children respond particularly positively to the highly structured group activities of the reading intervention. The phrase, ‘Everybody knew it’ mirrors the emotional security that develops when the certainty of knowing exactly what to do and say, is complemented by knowing how to contribute with confidence. When the barrier of uncertainty has been eliminated, learning can be experienced as a limitless, virtuous cycle.

In this particular instance, the virtuous cycle was achieved through highly structured Rhythm for Reading programme group sessions in which the synchronised response of the group was an intrinsic element of the pedagogy. The group grew in confidence week by week, as the tasks that they accomplished together during the reading programme became increasingly intricate, fast-paced and complex; consequently they enjoyed a profoundly social experience of learning.

I’m reminded by Hall, Curtin & Rutherford to mention Lave’s pertinent advice – which is so relevant here and now: Learning is not something in itself, it is part of social life. (Hall et al., 2014, p.166)

Hall, K., Curtin, A. and Rutherford, V. (2014). Networks of Minds: Learning, Culture and Neuroscience, London and New York, Routledge

Lave, J. (1996). Teaching, as learning, in practice. Mind, Culture and Activity 3(3): 149-164

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Narrowing the gap through early reading intervention

15 June 2015

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.

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. At that time, I saw the programme as ideally placed to support older children, and yet a body of research evidence has established the relationship between rhythmical awareness and phonological awareness in young children. The research literature argued that a strong awareness of rhythm is a reliable predictor of phonological awareness, which in turn is a strong predictor of reading attainment (see Hallam, 2015, for a comprehensive review).

However, since 2013 I’ve found that the most obvious barriers to learning for the key stage one children that I’ve worked with are fragmented, scattered attention, weak inhibition and a very short attention span of only a few seconds. Unsurprisingly, emotional insecurities are very common as well. As you may realise, children experiencing these particular difficulties would certainly struggle to discern, to retain or accurately produce a rhythmically aware response. It’s clear too, that when elevated or low arousal levels have been alleviated during Rhythm for Reading programme sessions, dramatically improved levels of attention, awareness of rhythm and phonological awareness soon follow.

In the context of the Rhythm for Reading programme for key stage one children, the most important adaptation has involved developing simple, fast-paced team-building games which focus on ears, eyes and voices. A subtle form of metacognitive training for group teaching, these help the children deepen and extend their attention. Combining the games with music and rhythm-based approaches to reading make it possible, in a few short sessions to support them in reading music fluently and inhibiting inappropriate responses, whilst enjoying working together as a team.

Hallam, S. (2015) The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Music Education Research council (iMERC)

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Stepping up: From phonemes to comprehension

14 May 2015

As we move deeper into the digital era, we are faced with new challenges for the future of our education system. Independent online learning and unlimited access to information is our new reality. We are striving to adapt to innovative new ideas, to release familiar old ways, and to step up and out of comfort zones into dazzling new ways of thinking and responsiveness in a faster-paced world.

In an age in which skilled manual labour is increasingly being replaced by robots and highly sophisticated technology, reading at a ‘functional’ level has become a massively out-dated concept. Similarly, the widespread practice of training children to answer a question about a written passage by identifying a key word in the question, locating it in the text and then writing out the sentence that surrounds it, is not only a waste of time, but this sham practice is harmful: it allows children to assume that reading is nothing more than a mundane word search exercise.

A specific and urgent challenge for educators today is this: to find a new type of reading intervention that will equip children to read with fluency and understanding. The current emphasis on systematic phonics is disproportionate. We must remember this: phonemes are the smallest sounds of language, each phoneme occupies only a tiny proportion of any sentence, amounting in natural speech to only a fraction of a second. A reading programme with a focus on static individual sounds has a decontextualising effect and dilutes the natural rhythmic flow of language comprehension.This is why a disproportionate amount of time spent on phonics in group teaching can, over the long term, interfere with the development of reading with ease, fluency and comprehension.

Reading well is a feat of delicate coordination between the reader’s eyes, ears and mind in alignment with the ‘voice’ of the author. Achieving this alignment is the process that allows the reader to assimilate meaning as it ‘flies’ off the page (or screen) into the reader’s consciousness.

Reading well depends on an intuitive response to the underlying binary relationship between the subject and predicate in every sentence. The syntax determines the rhythmic structure of the sentence. Consequently, the rhythmic ebb and flow of written language should be felt as intuitively as the rhythmic ebb and flow of speech utterances, even though styles of writing and of speech vary widely. The sentence as a whole and coherent unit is vibrant, elastic and flexible with its meaning perceived not through the synthesis of its many phonemes, but through its overall rhythm and structure.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, Rhythm for Reading programme weekly insights will be of interest. You can sign up for these at the top of the page.

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“I used to say things quite slow, but now I say them fast”

15 April 2015

As educators we are required to make thousands of small but important decisions everyday. Striking the right balance involves blending professional judgement with our integrity and experience. Through reflection perhaps with colleagues, we are constantly learning from our experiences.

I have been thinking hard about special education (SEND) recently. The Rhythm for Reading programme promotes inclusive approaches. Students with learning differences are fully involved alongside their classmates and the programme is accessible even to those who cannot yet read simple words such as ‘cat’. This is what a child said recently to me about the programme: “I liked how we had to keep it in the team at the same time. I felt more surrounded. I had people to keep me upright.” So, when a pupil shows absolutely no desire to contribute to even the most basic of Rhythm for Reading exercises, whilst all around him others are learning rapidly and having fun, my own personal learning journey fires up in a big way.

Each Rhythm for Reading session is only ten minutes long and so every second is precious. Is this child withdrawn, overwhelmed, lacking in confidence, lacking social skills, frightened or generally resistant to new things? What is clear and of concern to me is that he is ignored by the other children and hardly responds to anything I say or do. His teachers are highly protective of him and they can recite a list of issues and medical problems: he is a special child.

I believe that if a child processes and performs tasks more slowly than his classmates, as educators we must help him to develop the strategies that he needs to adapt to different settings. Self-regulation strategies for example, are key for learning road safety skills: learning to judge the speed of traffic, inhibiting the impulse to wander into the road, as well as being able to find a safe place to cross are essential to every child’s survival, no matter how special that child’s needs might be. While road safety lessons are clearly a matter of life and death, it is the quality of life of each child that is determined in the classroom. To teach a special child to cope with a broad range of settings with confidence is a highly worthwhile investment of our time and energy. There are so many benefits of joining in with others in a structured group teaching activity. It is enormous fun and a profound sense of belonging and unity develops through cooperation. Of course, this outcome can only be fully enjoyed by everyone, if everyone has contributed wholeheartedly to the success of the task.

If you have enjoyed this blog, you might also like to learn more about our work on metacognition and self-regulation. If you’d like more information about the programme, contact me direct, or sign up for free weekly ‘Insights’, which launches next week!

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