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Mary Mountstephen explains how rhythmic exercises can engage pupils and improve academic performance


As a doctoral researcher, I am looking at the role of physical interventions to improve performance in cognitive, social and emotional aspects of learning. Whilst these are particularly significant in early years education, they are also relevant to older students.

Research suggests that competence in the development of rhythmic abilities is closely linked to effective phonemic awareness and fluent reading, as well as exerting an impact on the wider aspects of learning. Dyslexic students often demonstrate poor ability to clap to a beat and there is evidence to suggest that phonological awareness and reading ability may be improved through engaging in regular rhythmic exercises and training, such as clapping routines and singing nursery rhymes.

Goswami, of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge, has written about the associations between music, dyslexia and rhythm and suggests there is “strong support” for a link between musical rhythm perception and reading.


Many children are poor at copying or participating in routines such as nursery rhymes, clapping patterns (using simple to more complex clapping routines and routines that involve pauses) and physical patterns that involve, for example, moving forwards and backwards with arms performing cross lateral movements.

Reinforcing development

Early classroom programmes should integrate the use of nursery rhymes such as “Incey Wincey Spider” that include fine motor skill movements to develop foundations for learning alongside rehearsing rhythms that can help stimulate and support language development.


Children need daily practice in observing and participating in rhythmic activities to integrate these into their development, just as children need to crawl every day in order to move on to the next stage of development. Rhythm and rhyme skills are less likely to be reinforced at home due to other demands on parental time. Nursery rhymes provide many opportunities for children and parents to interact by sharing speaking or singing together.

Clapping routines
Teachers and parents can develop simple clapping routines to be copied, depending on the ability of their students. These can vary in speed: 1, 2 slow; 1, 2, 3, 4 fast. They can vary in volume: very soft/quiet to very strong/loud; or in terms of location: high/low/right/left. These routines also provide many opportunities to develop the related vocabulary and to develop cross-lateral activities.

Motor patterns
The next step is to integrate the activities into marching on the spot and then introduce moving forwards and backwards. This provides the participants with an additional challenge that may need to be developed over many months. This type of intervention relies upon an understanding that children need daily input to develop basic skills that help them to become attuned to rhythms, rhyme and tempo. Such interventions will help with:

  • auditory attention – paying attention to what they are being asked to do and ignoring distractions
  • verbal responses – responding to the input by repeating the rhymes accurately
  • fine motor skills – for example copying finger movements associated with rhymes
  • gross motor skills – the ability to move, talk and move their hands at the same time.

I believe that this kind of intervention has the potential to contribute to improved classroom performance and pupil focus by using a multi-sensory approach that is effective over time and engages pupils.

Further information


A former headteacher and SENCO, Mary Mountstephen is an SEN trainer/consultant, SEN Magazine’s book reviewer and the founder of KidsCanSucceed Ltd. She is currently looking for parents and professionals who are interested in integrating the above approach into their practice:
www.kidscansucceed.com


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