Tune in to the rhythm of words

31st August 2007 at 01:00
When children ask for a drum kit, prudent adults should consider stocking up on books. Academics say youngsters with a strong sense of rhythm learn to read easily, while those with little or no sense of rhythm struggle to make sense of the written word.

Researchers from Queen's University in Ontario, who examined factors that determine poor readers, said: "Rhythm is an important part of language, becoming salient almost from birth." For example, at seven-and-a-half months, babies are able to differentiate between the cadences of English and those of Japanese.

The researchers observed 53 children over three years, from the ages of six to 10, testing their reading ability repeatedly. Using clapping, tapping and marching tasks, they also tested their sense of rhythm and ability to pick up rhythmic sounds.

Over the course of the study, the researchers found that sense of rhythm was a clear indicator of reading ability: those children with the weakest sense of rhythm were usually the weakest readers.

And sense of rhythm at six years old also reflected a child's later reading ability: those with a poor sense of rhythm were poor readers at nine or 10 as well. What's more, 10-year-olds who had difficulty reading were far more likely to have little sense of rhythm than six-year-olds who were unable to read.

Meanwhile, those children who were more sensitive to rhythm were better able to use linguistic rhythms to help decode more difficult written words.

The researchers said: "As children progress ... reading increasingly requires the ability to tackle polysyllabic words, which involve the rhythmic alternation of strong and weak syllables.

"Rhythmic intonation is necessary for reading polysyllabic words, as it is required in order to assign stress properly."

The researchers concluded that more work is necessary before they are able to establish how to use this link in the classroom.

* wadewool@educ.queensu.ca

Photograph: Jim Wileman

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