Teaching young children about the rhythms of everyday speech can "significantly" improve their reading.

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Wednesday 01 June 2016

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New research by Coventry University has revelaed teaching young children where to put the stress and intonation in words and sentences can have a “significant impact” on their reading progress.

A team of academics from Coventry University has found that children who understand the rhythms of speech, such as which syllable to stress and rising intonation at the end of a question, make faster immediate progress in their reading than those who have less awareness of the elements of spoken language. 

Now two new studies by the team have shown for the first time that explicitly teaching children about stress, intonation, pitch and timing in everyday speech can boost children’s early word reading.

The speech-rhythm intervention resulted in significant gains for children who were just beginning to learn to read and for seven and eight-year-olds who had hitherto struggled with their reading.

Clare Wood, Professor of Psychology in Education at Coventry University, said:

“We know that children’s sensitivity to rhythm, and to the rhythm of speech, is linked to their reading ability. What we are now seeing is evidence that not only is sensitivity to speech rhythm trainable in young children, but that such training benefits their early progress with word reading.”

On the back of the research findings, the educational publisher Rising Stars has developed a revolutionary new reading programme, Reading Planet, which incorporates speech-rhythm training in to the daily diet of phonics teaching that children are already receiving in primary school.

Reading Planet, which will be launched this month, is the first reading scheme to be designed following the changes to the primary curriculum and key stage assessments that came in to force in 2015 and is the most up-to-date and fully compliant with its new requirements.[1] 

Helen Parker, the publishers of Reading Planet, said:

"The research shows that children with speech rhythm sensitivity make better progress in their reading. But current resources in schools pay little or no attention to this component.”

A new nationwide independent survey[2] of primary teachers – commissioned by Rising Stars to mark the launch of Reading Planet - has revealed their concerns about the current reading schemes in use in schools.

Half of teachers (50 per cent) said they supplemented the reading scheme with their own resources and 16 per cent do not rely on the schemes at all even though they are used in the school.

The research also reveals that teachers thought  that some children may lose  interest in reading because of boring storylines, out of date content, one-dimensional characters and a lack of humour.

One in five (20 per cent) thought the reading scheme in their school was too prescriptive and did not allow for children who were ahead or behind. A similar proportion said current reading schemes were “boring, unimaginative”. 

Teachers also raised questions about whether current reading programmes were compliant with the government’s tough new primary curriculum and would help prepare children for national assessments. 

More than one in ten teachers (12 per cent) were worried that  current schemes could contain  language and grammar that was not in line with the overhauled curriculum. Half of teachers (50 per cent) supplement reading schemes with their own work sheets to ensure classes met the rigorous new standard. 

The survey also asked teachers to quantify the advantage that children who read at home most night with their parents have over classmates who do not.

More than 80 per cent estimated that reading at home regularly put children months ahead. Nearly a quarter (22 per cent) said the advantage was over six months and up to a year. A similar amount (22 per cent) put children with a regular reading regime three to six months ahead.

Nearly a third of teachers (31 per cent) said that pupils who did not regularly read at home were likely to always remain behind their peers who do.

Phonics teaching in primary schools is rightly recognised as giving children the essential building blocks to learn to read.  But there is another element to successful reading - the rhythmic components of spoken language, such as stress placement, intonation/pitch, and timing.

There is a growing body of evidence which supports the view that sensitivity to these rhythmic components can aid reading acquisition and comprehension and help to overcome reading difficulties.

The Coventry research has established that children who have reading difficulties also tend to have poor speech rhythm awareness. The better a child’s speech rhythm sensitivity is, the better their reading skills tend to be.

In the latest studies, which were funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and are in the process of being published, the team designed a programme to train children in awareness of speech rhythm to test its ability to enhance literacy skills.

Two sets of children took part: a group in reception class who were just beginning the journey of learning how to read, and a group of Year 3 pupils who had been identified as falling behind in their reading.

Over a ten-week period, children were shown picture cards and a corresponding pre-recorded audio sound for each item. For instance, a picture featuring a parrot had a recording of the word with the stress placed on the first syllable and then on the second syllable. Children were asked to choose the right version. Along with a card showing a rainy day, pupils would hear a recording of the statement “it is raining”. The intonation of the sentence would then be changed to make it into a question. Children would be asked to identify which version was asking a question.

More than 70 children in two primary schools in the Midlands were involved in the research, which also included a control group and a group given traditional phonological awareness intervention.

The results of the study were significant and have the potential to transform reading instruction in schools.

Dr Emily Harrison, who was part of the team of researchers from Coventry University, said:

“The results are really exciting and part of an ongoing programme of research. In both the beginning readers, and the older struggling readers, the speech rhythm intervention resulted in significantly greater gains in reading than the control intervention. This means that speech rhythm training is effective both at the beginning of reading tuition, and once children have already received some formal training.”

Dr Harrison said she was particularly excited by the improved results of the children who had been categorized as struggling readers.

Henley Green Primary, in Coventry, took part in the research. Jacquie Turner, the literacy lead at the school, said:

“It is the case that children that read with the proper intonation tend to be good readers and vice versa. I instinctively felt that speech rhythm sensitivity probably did have an impact on reading so was very keen to get involved.

I am a great fan of phonics - it’s absurd not to teach children to read using phonics. But there are still children who have barriers to their learning and they often have problems with their speech. For them, speech rhythm training is another feasible way in.”

Wendy Whitt, a teacher at Wren Park Primary School, in Derby which also took part, said pupils enjoyed the activities from the start.  She said:

“The children participated with enthusiasm and looked forward to their speech rhythm sessions with excitement.”

Her colleague Katherine George said that the 10 to 15 minutes of speech rhythm training complemented the phonics work in the classroom and had a positive impact on children’s reading progress.

"The resources were engaging and accessible and allowed the children to consolidate their phonetic understanding," she said. "The programme complemented the ongoing work in the classroom and contributed successfully towards the children achieving well and making good progress with phonics and reading”.

Speech rhythm training, as part of Reading Planet, can be implemented effectively from the beginning of primary education and also incorporated in to nursery and reception class phonics teaching.

The research evidence, and its use in the design of the Reading Planet programme, presents an exciting prospect for teachers and literacy coordinators who are also looking for new ways to inspire children who are falling behind their peers.

Helen Parker, from Rising Stars, the publishers of Reading Planet, says:

“As little as 10 minutes a day of speech rhythm training can make a significant difference. It helps to ensure young children are ‘reading ready’, it makes it more likely that children who have started the reading journey make immediate progress and for children who may be struggling with their reading, it provides a fresh, new, evidence-based approach."

Reading Planet is made up of four stands providing a wide choice of books at every book band level.

With simple activities, schools can work on children’s sensitivity to the natural rhythm of language, helping to boost their progress in reading and comprehension. Step-by-step teacher guides provide activity sheets and assessment guidelines.

Written with “humour and heart” by some of the best authors and illustrators in the UK, the books allow children to practice their phonic skills in context with a comprehension quiz to deepen understanding. The range of books, including non-fiction, poetry, stories and plays, each with dyslexia-friendly coloured backgrounds, are packed with feisty modern characters that children, parents and teachers will love.

Reading Planet can be found at www.risingstarsreadingplanet.com


For more information, photographs of teachers using Reading Planet in a classroom setting and interviews, please contact:

Maria Boyle

MB Communications Ltd

0208 876 8444

07887 647855 

Notes to editors

About Speech Rhythm Sensitivity

Speech rhythm sensitivity is the ability to perceive aspects of spoken English, such as stress, intonation and timing, as well as the natural rhythm of language.  Children who have poor reading skills frequently lack this sensitivity, but it can be trained and enhanced with simple activities.

Reading Planet

When purchasing Teacher’s Guides schools will get access to downloadable PDFs of the Teacher’s Guide, audio versions of all the books that are included within the book bands that the Teacher’s Guide supports, CPD video on speech rhythm training, downloadable PDF of the Guide to Reading for parents, including translated versions into the top five languages in the UK – available to all teachers in the purchasing school via My Rising Stars.

[1] The new primary curriculum, which was introduced across all year groups in September 2015, applies to schools in England only.

[2] Research conducted by Opinion Matters 19 April to 21 April 2016, 251 primary school teachers of children 3-8; and 501 parents of 3-8 year-olds who go to primary school