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Are we missing a vital ingredient when teaching reading?

brought to you by Rising Stars

Phonics teaching in UK primary schools is rightly recognised as giving children the essential building blocks needed to become successful readers. But how aware are we about other aspects of learning to read that could just be the missing ingredient for some children?

Prof. Clare Wood explains what happens when we combine phonics teaching with focussed speech rhythm activities in our everyday teaching.

Phonics is based on training children’s “segmental phonological awareness” (that is, raising their awareness of individual sound structures in speech like letter sounds, syllables and rimes, and teaching them how to manipulate them). But there is another form of phonological awareness known as “suprasegmental phonological awareness”. This refers to the overarching sound structures we understand as the more rhythmic aspects of spoken language, such as stress placement, intonation or pitch, and timing.

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, 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.

You can see how important this speech rhythm aspect of reading is by looking at a couple of simple examples.

Speech rhythm has been found to be associated with levels of phonological awareness in beginning readers, such as children’s awareness of onset and rime boundaries and individual phonemes, as shown in the examples below:

  • Rime awareness “cat” – /k/ /at/
  • Phoneme awareness “cat” – /k/ /a/ /t/

Stress placement in words is also linked to word meaning. For example if we look at a word such as record, the stress placement here determines whether the word is a verb or noun.

  • record vs record

Intonation is also important in changing the intended meaning. If you take a look at the sentences below, you can see that by changing which word in the sentence is emphasised with your voice the meaning is significantly altered:

  • George had a red truck.
  • George had a red truck.
  • George had a red truck.
  • George had a red truck.
  • George had a red truck.

So how can we support children to develop these suprasegmental phonological skills alongside their segmental phonological skills?

The research we have conducted at Coventry University as part of a Leverhulme Trust funded project has revealed is that it is possible to train and enhance this rhythmical element of spoken language in children, simply by incorporating speech rhythm activities into their daily diet of phonics teaching.

You can view a few of these simple activities here.

We ran two trials over a 10-week period, one with reception children, aged four to five, who were just starting to learn to read – and one with children in year three, aged seven to eight, who were falling behind in their reading. The results of the trials were encouraging – in both the beginning readers, and the older struggling readers, the speech rhythm intervention resulted in significantly better development in word reading skills.

Some of the aspects of speech rhythm training will be familiar to you as they will be activities that you may already include in your everyday teaching. However we believe that setting aside 10-20 mins a week and dedicating that time to speech rhythm activities will complement your phonics teaching and ensure children are developing all aspects of their phonological awareness, significantly improving children’s reading development.

And you never know this could just be the missing ingredient of reading tuition in your school.


To find out more about the research project at Coventry University click here.

Did you know that Rising Stars Reading Planet already incorporates speech rhythm activities into the reading programme’s teaching guidance? Find out more here.

How can I tell if a child in my class has problems with speech rhythm?

Below are some indications that may mean that a child has difficulties with speech rhythm…

  • Reading in monotone – ‘word-by-word’.
  • Difficulties attempting to make the text sound like natural language when reading, even if this has been modelled to them.
  • Reading slowly and laboriously or far too rapidly.
  • Improper stress placed on words and within words
  • Poor intonation (e.g. doesn’t use voice to indicate ends of sentences).
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