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Chocolate, Cake and Honey – Is it Time to Think of Speech Rhythm as Another Element in a Balanced Reading Curriculum?

Professor Clare Wood looks to see how much value there is in training speech rhythm in young children...

  • Chocolate, Cake and Honey – Is it Time to Think of Speech Rhythm as Another Element in a Balanced Reading Curriculum?

My interest in speech rhythm originated with a simple question: why is it that some children, despite years of good phonics tuition, still experience difficulties learning to read?

Phonics-based intervention studies always seemed to show a small number of children who failed to improve. To understand the reason for this, we have to go to an earlier point in children’s development, and look at how they first come to learn to break speech down into words.

Infants appear to learn to break continuous speech into individual words by tuning into the rhythmic properties of their first language: speech rhythm is used as a cue to where the beginning of words may occur. This enables infants to make their first guesses about where words begin and end in speech, and facilitates word recognition and vocabulary acquisition.

I see this as an early phonological segmentation task – the words are large units, but rhythm is providing a foundation to phonological segmentation ability. It is possible that if children have difficulties with hearing rhythm, their ability to segment speech into units of sound may be disrupted in important ways: their word recognition and vocabulary could be impacted, awareness of individual phonemes slower to develop, and this could impact their ability to benefit from phonics tuition.

Research shows that children with reading difficulties show impaired sensitivity to speech rhythm. This supports the idea that there is a link between speech rhythm sensitivity and progress in reading. Links have also been found between children’s performance on speech rhythm tasks and both reading comprehension and word decoding skills, including phonological awareness.

It was therefore important to know whether there is value in training speech rhythm in the early years, to support reading development. To explore this, The Leverhulme Trust funded two research studies that were designed to develop an initial set of activities that could be used to teach awareness of speech rhythm.

The first study assessed Reception children and the second looked at children aged seven and eight who were showing signs of reading delay. The children received a weekly 10-minute session of speech rhythm activities in small groups for 10 weeks.

Their progress was monitored for three months after the last session, and was compared to two other groups of similar children who received a non-literacy-based intervention, or a phonological-awareness-based programme. In both studies, the speech rhythm trained children showed improved speech rhythm and word reading – seemingly benefiting from a more-rapid boost to their word reading relative to the children who received phonological awareness training (as this normally requires more than 100 minutes of activities before results are observed).

Moreover, they continued to outperform the non-literacy control groups three months after the end of the intervention.

So what sort of activities can you use? Well, you could take a simple sentence and change which word you stress and discuss how it changes the meaning. For example:

  • Henry has a blue truck
  • Henry has a blue truck
  • Henry has a blue truck
  • Henry has a blue truck
  • Henry has a blue truck

You can consider with pupils how the timing of what you say affects whether you hear it as one word or two. Show children one picture that features a bar of chocolate, a pink cake and a bowl of honey, and another showing a brown chocolate cake and a bowl of honey. Read out either ‘Chocolate cake and honey’, or ‘Chocolate, cake and honey’, and see if they can pick out the correct picture.

Compound nouns, used in this way, are a good tool for making children think about how we use our voices to indicate word boundaries.

Use instruments to tap out the rhythm of a poem or piece of rhythmic writing. Try reading out a section of rhythmically written text, leaving off the last line, and ask the children if they can supply a new sentence which ‘fits’ the original rhythm. Different options could be supplied if the children are very young.

Many teachers already draw on material that can resource activities and conversations about rhythm in speech. Perhaps it is time to think of speech rhythm as another element in a balanced reading curriculum.

Clare Wood is professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent University, and has researched children’s reading development for 20 years. She is academic consultant for new reading programme Rising Stars Reading Planet for Reception and KS1.

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