When I meet with teachers, they want to know exactly how the Rhythm for Reading programme works. The first thing to establish is that rhythm is all around us. That cannot be denied. All around us there are tides, seasons, migratory flows of animals and birds. In our own bodies, the physicality of rhythm is present in our heartbeat, our breath, the way we chew food, run, walk and swim. There are also multiple rhythmic patterns in the way that we communicate with each other, ranging from soothing to abrupt utterances. These are universal responses to rhythms that the human nervous system recognises in relation to our breath, our heartbeat and our physical activity.
In fact, communication through language is related to the role of the nervous system in the regulation of our behaviour. If we say, “Watch out!” our message is urgent, abrupt and short. We would have delivered it with a boost of energy and a fast trajectory. The trajectory is the rainbow shape from the first word to the final word of an utterance and it is fuelled by the energy of speaker’s voice and secondly by the receptivity of the listener’s attention. Someone, hearing “Watch out!” who doesn’t speak English would have understood the meaning of the words, because of the universal shape of the abrupt utterance as a warning signal.
In a longer utterance, the opposite is true. The trajectory from the first word to the final word involves tiny adjustments in the lengths of syllables that relate to one another in grammatical speech. These subtle signals can only be detected if the energy in the voice is reliable and consistent enough to bring coherence to the shape of entire trajectory.
Fortunately, the evolution of our articulatory system in coordination with our breath and our ability to monitor our speech utterances ensures that we achieve all of these feats rapidly and automatically in hundredths of a second. This is why, for the most part, we’re unaware of the rhythmic patterns in our everyday speech.
Breath is an important part of the Rhythm for Reading programme. We use our voices as a team in different ways and this engages our breath. In the early stages of the programme we use rapid fire responses to learn the names of musical notes and our breath is short, sharp and strong - just like the sounds of our voices. Even in the first session of the programme we convert our knowledge of musical notes into fluent reading of musical notation and when we do this our breath changes. Instead of individual utterances, we achieve a flowing coherent stream of note names and our breath flows across the length of the musical phrase for approximately six seconds. This time window of between five and seven seconds is a universal in human cultures. Did you know that the majority of poems are organised rhythmically into meaningful units of between five and seven seconds in duration?
A long slow exhalation is associated with calming the nervous system, even though the energy in the Rhythm for Reading session is playful and the sense of teamwork is energising. The unity between the children and teachers taking part in the programme fosters a sense of belonging which further boosts well-being alongside the calming effect of the long slow exhale.
When I first meet teachers, they often share that they feel anxious about reading musical notation, but one of the most beneficial aspects of taking part, is that our long slow exhale as a group is actually an effective way to sooth anxiety. The smiles at the end of the first musical phrase show a powerful release of emotional tension through the unity of rhythm and breath.
There are many different forms of attention. Neuroscientists have studied the development of cognitive attention in children as well as the different types of attention that we experience. Boredom and repetition generate a trance-like state of attention, whereas novelty and a switch in the stimulus generate a shift and a rapid reset of attention. The attention span exists to protect us, to feed us and to ensure that our genes succeed us in future generations. This is why the attention span is adaptable and can be trained to become longer or shorter using reinforcements such as rewards or threats. Ultimately, the attention span is involved in predicting when and where the next reward or threat will take place.
If a chid has experienced a threatening situation such as a war zone, they are likely to flinch in response to loud noises and their attention is likely to be highly vigilant, having been trained by the environment to monitor potential threats. A chid raised in a calm and enriched environment is likely to have fostered a natural curiosity for the world around them and to have interacted in reciprocation with it. Conversational turns in such an environment are the rhythmic hallmark of social interactions, and according to researchers contribute to emotional well-being and language development (Zimmerman et al., 2009).
The Rhythm for Reading programme offers an opportunity to move children away from a vigilant state, to a rhythmically responsive form of attention that involves reciprocation and builds receptivity and stamina. The attention system is dynamic and is particularly responsive to setting and emotional set point. If a child was threatened repeatedly at school, for example by a bully, then vigilance in the attention system would affect the child’s learning to some extent.
By the same token, it’s important that Rhythm or Reading sessions take place in the same place, on the same day of the week and at the same time of day to establish the regularity of exposure to rewarding experiences. Knowing where and when positive experiences occur, such as feelings of personal safety, social connection, a boost to well-being, engagement with rewarding patterns and calming breath work, which are nurtured during Rhythm for Reading sessions is important. The anticipation and experience of weekly Rhythm for Reading sessions enables a child’s attention system to recognise the sessions as a ‘real’ part of their environment. A consistent pattern in the children’s lives enables a deeper sense of anticipation and supports rapid learning during the programme.
Zimmerman, E.J., Gilkerson, J.,Richards, J. A., Christakis, D.A. Xu, D., Gray, S., Yapanel., U. (2009) Teaching by listening: The importance of adult-child conversations to language development. Pediatrics, 124 (1), 342-349, doi: 10.1542/peds 2008-2267
The phonics wars raged back in the days leading up to the publication of the 2006 Rose Review. The value of synthetic versus analytical phonics was a key educational debate of the decade. At that time, the fragile readers that I was working with as part of my PhD, struggled to decode a simple C-V-C word (consonant-vowel-consonant) such as ‘cat’. I was glad that all children would be taught systematically to recognise letter-to-sound correspondence, as well as drilled in the smallest sounds of language. It was unacceptable to me at that time that a simple three letter word such as ‘c-a-t’ was a new concept for some children at nine years of age.
Below the radar of the mainstream media, music educators were digging deeply into their own entrenched positions around the teaching of musical notation. Unfortunately, these ideologies and their false narratives have limited access to musical knowledge. Decoding musical notes (like any other form of reading) opens up access to participation in a multicultural global community - in the case of music - of performers, listeners and composers who engage across ever-expanding musical genres. Music educators’ ideologies have limited access to creative opportunities.
Most children start school with thousands of words and hundreds of melodies in their heads. Yet, in schools and music studios, one of the most limiting and perhaps most misunderstood ideologies stemming from high profile music educators, is that of ‘sound before symbol’. Music teachers have been told for decades that best practice involves singing and naming the shapes of tunes using doh, re, mi. Only when the tune has been learned ‘by ear’, are the visual symbols introduced. The idea that a sound must be taught before introducing a symbol to represent it, has a certain logic, which quickly becomes redundant as soon as we acknowledge that sound does not need to be taught. Sound is processed incredibly rapidly in the auditory system and was the first of our sensory processing systems to reach full maturity in utero.
Ofsted’s July 2022 publication supports moving away from the principle of sound before symbol and recommends a stronger commitment to the teaching of musical notation as a part of a broad and balanced curriculum. In the teaching of reading, automated phoneme-to-grapheme correspondence is the key to the rapid development of fluency. Indeed this usually involves presenting the sound with the symbol using rapid response multi-sensory teaching methods. In the Rhythm for Reading programme, we teach sound with symbol correspondence using a rapid response multi-sensory approach to musical notation and therefore prioritise fluency as the overriding goal.
Get in touch by visiting the contacts page if you would like to boost reading fluency in a ten-week period and gain the additional benefit of teaching every child to read musical notation fluently in the very first session of the programme.
I believe that together, as educators on a mission to make a difference, we can raise standards in reading. The Rhythm for Reading programme offers a mechanism to achieve this. The programme provides a cumulative and structured approach that supports inclusive teaching and learning.
For instance, in the programme, there is absolutely no need to break down tasks. We strive to lighten the cognitive load on working memory and a light cognitive load is an inbuilt feature of the programme. This is why pupils experience the satisfaction of reading musical notation fluently in the very first week of the programme.
Although most curriculum subjects encourage specialisation in speaking or writing or problem-solving, our approach is multi-sensory and we develop the rhythmic sensitivity of the children in a range of different ways. And so, though its systematic approach, the Rhythm for Reading programme celebrates the multi-sensory elements of music-making.
On the one hand, the materials and resources of the programme are designed to sustain the fluency of the children’s reading, and on the other hand we adapt the level of challenge by working with the children’s ears, eyes, voices, hands and feet in ever-changing combinations.
The programme engages working memory with sensitivity. It systematically strengthens cognitive control across the ten weeks by gradually increasing demands on cognitive flexibility week by week. In each weekly session, the pupils build up their repertoire of routines and techniques. Ease is maintained all the while, supporting fluency and control in the execution of all the tasks. Most importantly of all, the primary goal is to support an ethos of inclusivity by maintaining the pupils’ emotional security at all times.Fluency is established at the start of the Rhythm for Reading programme and it is maintained right through to the end of the ten weeks. Fluency is not just our goal, fluency is our foundation.
Like so many people, I’ve been deeply saddened by the passing of our Queen. Even though I never had the honour of meeting her, I now realise the powerful extent to which she has provided a reassuring presence in my life. HM the late Queen presided with an incredibly serene sense of duty, but above all she led by example. I remember, as a seven year old child, learning to play the piano and reading for the very first time, the back cover of my piano music booklet. There was detailed information about the ABRSM exam board and I saw that the Queen was their patron. My attitude changed immediately. I straightened my back and doubled down on my efforts. As far as I was concerned, this slim red music book obviously mattered to the Queen, and so it now mattered to me, so much more. That day, I made a childish wish to play for HM the late Queen and seven years later that wish came true, when a small musical ensemble I played with was invited to provide the music at the opening of our local shopping centre. I caught a glimpse of the Queen that day, which was thrilling for me. I am deeply grateful for her undiluted dedication to us all throughout her magnificent reign and send my deepest condolences to her family.
The Rhythm for Reading programme is deeply rooted in education for social justice. My personal mission, driven by my commitment to developing inclusion in society, is built on my principles of equity and social justice in education.
I have worked in top independent schools such as Alleyn’s, teaching the children from some of the country’s most privileged families. I believe in empowering all children and I am writing this to share with you the mechanism that we can use together to raise standards in reading. I believe that together, we can raise standards in reading and the Rhythm for Reading programme offers a mechanism to achieve this.
There are two additional benefits. By empowering children with a lifelong love of reading, we can protect their mental health. An additional benefit of the Rhythm for Reading programme is that it launches the children into the world of musical notation, which they learn to read fluently, right from the start. This is what we do…
At Rhythm for Reading, we recognise that phonological processing requires: phonological knowledge (letter-sound correspondence), but also phonological awareness (sensitivity to the smallest sounds of language) and the flow of sounds (rhythmic and grammatical context). The data gathered from the past 10 years shows that the Rhythm for Reading programme improves perceptual sensitivity to:
Children have reported many changes in their learning behaviour at the end of the ten weeks of the Rhythm for Reading programme, including being able to follow their teacher’s instructions, knowing what is going on in the lesson, and being able to get on with their work because they are able to ignore distractions.
If you would like to find out more, visit the contact page to get in touch and sign up for weekly insights.
I usually post at the beginning of the month and I had written a reflection on the year, but I held back because I needed to find something positive that I could say to round the year off. 2020 was the only year in which I have ever owned a desktop year planner. I can recommend a year planner, especially this one, which was called ‘Perfectly Planned 2020’. All I can say about this is that after March, the plans in the planner stayed in the planner.
Since March 2020, ‘Follow the science’ has become a wriggly little ear worm, as it has persisted over so many months. In the past few days, we were given a glimpse of what these scientists follow. They follow the 14 day mutation cycle of the virus - it’s rhythm. When all’s said and done, the guiding principles of rhythm, maths and geometry appear to govern the way that the natural world appears to us, whether that’s through our senses or through our instruments. None of this is new. Rhythmic cycles have fascinated people for thousands of years. The planets have been studied by astronomers of all ancient civilisations. The conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, a spectacle that is said to occur almost every 400 years near to Earth is happening as I write this. It seems extraordinary that an astronomical event of such cyclical magnitude has coincided with a year that was so dark for so many. It’s as if we are being reminded that we too are part of this infinite web of cycles and conjunctions.
Our own solar year is so familiar to us that the festivals which coincide with solstices and lunar cycles are experienced primarily through culture as times of nostalgia, family and community. To gather together as light reemerges following the darkest point in the year is comforting and instinctive, as our body chemistry tells us to seek the company of others at such times. No matter how advanced we think we have become, we remain exquisitely attuned to our natural rhythms. Not only are we creatures of habit in the social and emotional sense, but even at a cellular level, our biorhythms are governed every single day by the light receptors in our brains. We even have clocks in our internal organs which need to work harmoniously so that each part of the body has its allotted time for activity and rest. We tend to take our biorhythms for granted and discover that when we lose this balance, we also lose optimal health and well-being.Right now, this is a time for peace, rest and appreciation as we welcome the return of the light and the triumph over darkness. May our hearts be lit with hope for a future of health and happiness.