Is there a right way to learn to read?

Reading requires more than just your ABCs. www.shutterstock.com/Tatiana Bobkova

Phonics teaching in UK primary schools is rightly recognised as giving children the essential building blocks needed to become successful readers. Indeed, we are so pro-phonics that little is done to raise awareness about other methods, even those which might be seen as an accompaniment to phonics, not a replacement for it.

Schools tend to stick to what they know and, with more and more demand being put on teachers to raise standards and achieve excellent Ofsted reports, there is little in the way of “free time” to be allocated to testing out new methods, even those aimed at children who have had phonics training but who still have reading difficulties.

Phonics is based on training children’s “segmental phonological awareness” (that is, raising their awareness of letters and sounds and teaching them segmenting and blending skills). But there is a second part to phonological awareness known as “suprasegmental phonology”. It refers to the rhythmic components of spoken language that accompany the segmental elements, such as stress placement, intonation or pitch, and timing.

Phonics teaching in practice.

There is a growing body of evidence which supports the idea that awareness of, or sensitivity to, these rhythmic components is related to reading at various levels, including reading acquisition, comprehension and, more interestingly, reading difficulties. What this means is that children who have reading difficulties also tend to have poor speech rhythm sensitivity – and the better a child’s speech rhythm sensitivity is, the better their reading skills tend to be.

Surely, if we can somehow improve childrens’ speech rhythm sensitivity, their reading skills will also improve, right?

During my time at Coventry University, this question interested us enormously, yet there was no intervention that had attempted to train children on their awareness of speech rhythm as a possible way of enhancing literacy skills. So we set about designing a set of materials to help children gain better awareness of these rhythmic elements of spoken language.

We wanted the intervention to be suitable for children who were non-verbal – that is, children who do not speak, whether this is due to a disorder or just shyness – as well as children across a range of ability levels, so we decided on a picture and sound format, where children were presented with a picture card and a corresponding prerecorded audio sound for each item. This meant that children didn’t have to give a verbal response and that the format of delivery was repetitive to ensure some level of understanding between sessions. The intervention was designed to run for ten weeks, giving time for pre and post-test assessments to be administered within a school term.

We ran two experiments, one with reception children, age four to five years of age, who were just starting to learn to read – and one with children in year three, aged seven to eight years, who were falling behind in their reading. In each study, the intervention was compared to a traditional phonological awareness intervention and a control.

Reading rhythms

The results were very promising. In both the beginners 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.

One of the things that interested us most is that the children in the second study were categorised as being struggling readers. For the speech rhythm intervention to work for these children is heartening and important. It means that this could be an alternative way in to teaching these children the skills they need to become successful readers.

Two papers describing similar findings, supporting the notion of speech rhythm training in struggling readers, have also since been published. However, there are no other studies to date which have investigated the effects of such training methods for beginner readers.

What our research adds is that speech rhythm training can also be effective in children who have yet to receive formal reading tuition, meaning that it can be implemented effectively from the start of primary education.

This is an exciting prospect for reading researchers – and it opens many doors for further investigation. It also has the potential to significantly improve reading instruction in schools – and will in fact soon be doing so, through a new programme which incorporates this speech rhythm sensitivity training.