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Children's Music and Pre-Literacy

09 May 08 - 10:16 AM (#2336528)
Subject: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: black walnut

I am studying the impact of early childhood music on pre-literacy and reading skills. The music includes traditional and newly composed songs and tunes, as well as spoken rhymes (songs with out tunes). Movement is an important component of the whole experience as well.

I am wondering if anyone here has expertise in this particular field of study, or if anyone has specific resource ideas to share. I am not thinking so much of the individual songs and rhymes themselves, but of the actual study of the impact of music on configuring the brain to enhance speech and reading skills.



09 May 08 - 11:28 AM (#2336567)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: katlaughing

Wow, this is going to be an interesting one to read, bw. The only things I have are anecdotal and observed by my amateur eye so to speak. I look forward to the responses you get from others.

Great to see you!


12 May 08 - 09:32 AM (#2338315)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: black walnut

Okay everybody. Jump in right - NOW!

(p.s. You too, kat!)

12 May 08 - 10:00 AM (#2338333)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: Willa

My mother had great expertise in this area, though not a qualification to her name! I owe her a great deal for all the pre- school music, singing, talking that she did and have tried to pass it on to my children/ grandchildren; this should be an interesting thread.

12 May 08 - 02:59 PM (#2338579)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: Fred McCormick

I have no expertise to offer, but a couple of tentative possibilities come to mind. Firstly, there might be something among the writings of the late John Blacking, who was interested in music as "a species specific characteristic" of humanity. Also, there is Stephen Mithen's book, The Singing Neanderthals. This doesn't deal directly with the question you have raised, but Mithen is interested in understanding how humanity developed musical abilities, and it seems to me that you are pursuing a similar area. So it may be that his book could point you to some parallel research.

Finally, and this really is about as vague as it can get, but in the early 1970s, A L Lloyd broadcast a series of programmes on BBC radio, called Music of the People (or some such title). In an episode dealing with lullabies he said something like "there are certain scholars who claim that a nation's music is shaped by the melodies a child hears when it is put to sleep".

That does admittedly sound like the sort of journalese which Bert was prone to lapse into. But it is possible that he was referring to a piece of genuine research - perhaps by one of the Eastern European scholars whom Bert was fond of rubbing shoulders with.

13 May 08 - 05:16 AM (#2339059)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: Mo the caller

Your study sounds very technical.

Most of us will just have 'practical' experience and a strong conviction that singing to and with young children is a good thing to do.
Parents and educators have always used song for teaching arithmetic - ten green bottles; 5 little speckled frogs; 1 man went to mow- etc etc.
And rhymes draw attention to sounds which may help with phonic spelling later (drat, the example in my head is - Five six, pick up sticks - so that idea doesn't work)

From my playgroup days I found that a music session (singing, listening or playing percussion) was a good way of getting the attention of the group, and developing concentration.

13 May 08 - 07:23 AM (#2339111)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: Azizi

I'm sorry, black walnut, that I'm not able to help with you identify studies that speak to these conclusions that I've reached through my experiences as a child, and my experiences with children on an informal and more formal basis.

I agree with what Mo said.

And I would also add [and I believe that Mo would agree} that music also helps develop, teach, and reinforce other cognitive and social skills.

For instance, I think that, in addition, to teaching the importance of individuals working together as a group, "show me your motion" circle [ring] games with one person in the middle that were performed during African American slavery times, helped teach and reinforce survival skills. Among those survival skills were being alert {since you never knew when it would be your turn to be in the center of the circle}, moving quickly {when it was time to move into the center of the circle, or move out}, and thinking ahead {having alternative plans}. That last skill was important in group play because the center person was usually supposed to perform a different movement than those who had preceded her or him in the center. Because the action was supposed to flow with no gaps in time, the center person had to be ready with alternative plans of action. And these strategies would be important survival skills in real life.

For what it's worth, although I have found that African American children beyond pre-school ages don't play circle games anymore [and those pre-schoolers who play them, almost always do so at an adult's inititive and direction], the concept and practice of "show me your motion"/ selecting a new movement as the "soloist" has "survived in the performance of some contemporary girls' foot stomping cheers.

These cheers are a relatively new genre of children's recreational movement that are performed by two or more children {usually girls 8-12 years old} while chanting and doing choreographed movements which emphasize bass sounding foot stomps and [individual] hand claps or body pats...

13 May 08 - 08:19 AM (#2339152)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: Marje

I'm sure that music does help to develop all sorts of other skills, but I hope this isn't the only way in which it can justify its inclusion in children's education. It may (or may not) help them be better at maths, reading, etc etc, but musical development should be an end in itself, not just a means to other ends.

I'm sure a lot of those who are reading this thread will wish (as I do) that they'd had more musical education - not to develop or support other skills, but to help them enjoy and appreciate music, and participate in musical activities throughout their lives.

I don't mean to suggest that your research, Black Walnut, isn't worthwhile, but please don't lose sight of music's value for its own sake.

13 May 08 - 10:26 AM (#2339256)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: Dave Ruch

black walnut,

Check out this guy. As someone who works in schools a fair amount, I have heard his name for years. Not only does he use traditional folk songs as a specialty, but he also has studied some of the very things you mentioned. Several articles he's written are linked from this page:

John Feierabend

13 May 08 - 10:58 AM (#2339289)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: black walnut

Thank you all (so far!). So many good thoughts and directions!

Do NOT worry - for almost 20 years I have been an ADVOCATE for teaching music for the sake of music, for the sake of the moment, for the sake of the relationship built between the partners and in the group. The FACT that doing so enhances other kinds of learning is something that is very exciting though, and doesn't diminish in any way, shape or form, the other.

My (now 20 year old) daughter was born with speech difficulties and is dyslexic. Making music in groups, in speech therapy and in the house helped her enormously.   I know that it is right to link these two aspects of learning and enjoyment (let's not forget that the act of reading and writing can be enjoyable too!).

The reason I called my latest CD "Simply Beautiful" is that I believe (HUGELY BELIEVE!) that we don't so things such as supporting reading and writing and speaking skills by boring children with didactic alphabet and phonics songs. We do so by engaging them - and ourselves as adults - with simple beautiful (ie. art) songs filled with images, stories, rhythm, rhyme and movement. Material which is carefully chosen or written by the music leader is special for it's own sake - but has the added bonus of enhancing language and pre-reading skills in young children. And for that I send up fireworks of delight.

Thanks again for your references. Yes, I know some of the work of John Feierabend and attended one of his workhops in Toronto a while back. Yes I know that there is a wealth of informal (not to say not worthwhile) knowledge about this topic on planet Mudcat - I've been here for many years and would be a fool to ignore or deny that - but I am also putting out feelers for someone here who might have a researcher's badge as well - or point in that direction.   For instance, last evening I was speaking with a children's speech therapist who is also a folkie singer/songwriter, and got some great ideas from her.

All of your wisdom is precious to me. Often your contributions - such as Azizi's thoughts on movement songs, and Fred's mention of The Singing Neanderthals - will take me on journeys of thought that will keep me busy and fascinated for a long, long, long time.

Thank you!


13 May 08 - 01:04 PM (#2339428)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: GUEST,TJ in San Diego

My mother sang songs and introduced books to me as early as I can recall. I did the same for my two sons, both of whom are lovers of both music and literature. Both credit the association of words with music as a memory enhancement. My grandson, age three, has already been introduced to all the instruments in the orchestra, to the sounds each makes and to the sound of the ensemble. He seems to be advanced in his command of words and his ability to recall detail. He remembers the words to songs we sing and repeats them back.

While we probably all suffer from above average intelligence, I do not think this is any extraordiary achievement. I believe that music can be a positive influence on learning and should be returned to the school curriculum for that reason. I certainly claim no scholarly credentials in this discussion, but from what I have observed, there has to be a positive connection between music, memory and literacy.

17 May 08 - 09:25 PM (#2343261)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: black walnut

I have found quite a few leads both here and on internet searches...but I've just started reading This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. It looks like it's going to be a really good book - not focussed on what I'm researching, but definitely interesting reading, and discusses certain aspects of children's learning. His purpose is to write as a scientist/musician in a way that everyone can understand, in order to enhance the magic of music by becoming aware of scientific discoveries.


17 May 08 - 10:00 PM (#2343283)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: GUEST,Fantasma

There is a lot of research out there, but I can't speak to the efficacy of it. Is there a Mozart effect, for instance, or not?

Doing a quick Google Scholar search using 'music and literacy' brings up 120,000 hits.

Music therapy is very common with high functioning autistic kids, who may prefer singing instead of speaking. There may be studies there that give some insights, but likely nothing beyond that.

The idea that reading can be taught through musical study, while intriguing and undoubtedly popular among music teachers, likely wouldn't have many reading teacher converts, especially if you work with kids who are not native English speakers or fall in that depressing catch-all category known as "at risk" students.

17 May 08 - 10:06 PM (#2343289)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: GUEST,Fantasma

Though now that I think of it, you might find something in the Waldorf literature.

18 May 08 - 12:24 AM (#2343369)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: katlaughing

bw, you know my grandson has had music in his life from Day One. It has become evident that he also inherited some musical "talents" or abilities. I think it is no small thing that at about 2.5-3 he was able to sing a separate song while I was singing another one to him.(Still is.) He did this on his own, unprompted, thinking it was funny to do so to "mama." He also seems to be advanced with his language skills. It seems everyday something he says or I say or his mom or whoever, brings to mind some song we will sing OR we make up a song about whatever we are doing or talking about. Rhyming while doing so is already showing up in his very early reading skills. He is making up songs almost daily and eagerly grabs the ukelele or my dulcimer, with permission, to strum a bit and act out what he sees musicians doing.

Not much as it's just anecdotal, but it's fun to catch you up, anyway. Oh, and I love the reasoning behind Simply Beautiful which IS simply beautiful and Morgan loves it!

18 May 08 - 12:26 AM (#2343371)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: katlaughing

Forgot to say the head teacher at the preschool he attends plays guitar everyday while they sing AND they have songs throughout the day for reminders of what they are to do, are doing, etc., plus they play beautiful instrumental music when they have rest time. I know his teachers value the way the music focusses and directs the children, while making it fun. Morgan often comes home and will sing one of the rhyming directive songs he's learned in school.

18 May 08 - 01:38 AM (#2343392)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: robinia

Singing songs sure helps in learning a foreign language too (that's when I started singing German folksongs).

18 May 08 - 09:54 AM (#2343564)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: black walnut

I'm not going to go into my thoughts about "The Mozart Effect" here except to quote from 'This is Your Brain on Music' (Levetin) page 9 - you can see I'm whipping along, folks! - where he says:

"Music listening, performance, and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have so far identified, and involve nearly every neural subsystem. Could this fact account for claims that music listening exercises other parts of our minds; that listening to Mozart twenty minutes a day will make us smarter?"

* * * *

Robinia, I'm sure you're right! That's how I wish I'd learned French in school. For some reason the Latin seemed easier - maybe because the Latin teacher was my music teacher?!

Ah, Kat, darlin', some day I will meet this fabled Morgan of yours.

Questions come to my mind...does deafness inhibit literacy skills? How does someone like Helen Keller come to be not only literate but a wonderful author? Certainly music is not a necessary step to literacy. Is it possible to put too many eggs into this basket?

I used to teach English and Music in high school. Now I teach early childhood music and lead workshops for teachers, librarians and parenting groups....but sometimes I feel like such a rank beginner in this whole field! There is so much to learn. Thanks all - there are so many branches to look into - Fantasma's Waldorf suggestion, for instance. I love reading your personal stories here too!!


18 May 08 - 10:40 AM (#2343588)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: GUEST,Fantasma

You won't get any argument from me on the Mozart effect. However, I believe visual arts narratives hold the same power in building reading skills for many children as music does. As does rhythmic activity connected to phonetics, be it chanting or dancing or atheletic games. Arts based instruction in the primary years is the curriculum model Waldorf schools use, so they are a really good source of ideas.

PreK-1st grade or so is also the time when children learn languages best, so it is no coincidence that languages of the arts give them a strong start.

I am an elementary school librarian (PreK-6), so I see all types of learners in a pre-literacy setting. You have to mix it all up with the little ones for it to be effective.

And one final thing from me. I don't think it matters if it is hip hop or Mozart, Van Gogh or Grandma Moses. The one thing to help children become literate, especially kids who aren't native English speakers or who come from high poverty homes, is to instill a love of stories and books. You do that with ALL the tools available, and you can have great *eventual* success with those kids as competent readers.

19 May 08 - 05:33 AM (#2344210)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: Mo the caller

Fantasma, I agree SO Much.
It's all about love. Not drill.
If we have a love of learning, music, books, stories words, rhymes and rhythms, and mostly a love of children, we will instill the conviction that learning is fun and they can succeed.

I disliked the way preschool education was going when I left it 10 years ago, the National curriculum seemed to be reaching down, and vouchers and inspection seemed to be forcing people to work in particular ways. I found that you could teach OR measure what children knew, it was very hard to do both at once

19 May 08 - 10:23 AM (#2344363)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: black walnut

I am thrilled...teachers are coming out of the woodwork! I love to hear your voices. While I have visited classrooms as a visiting musician, I really spent most of my teaching years leading music classes for young children with their parents/caregivers. The purpose of the classes was to teach children and grownups to enjoy making music and dance together. [Little did they know of the other things that were happening at the same time - better relationships between child and grownup, ESL learning by caregivers new to the country, magic moments where children and grownups were partners rather than stuck in their usual age=authority structure...]

Please don't misunderstand me, Mo, but I think that I do not totally agree with you . If it was all about the LOVE of folk music, then I could play the fiddle, but in truth I would have to diligently learn and practice various parts of fiddle playing over and over in order to be fluent and really have joy playing it. On the same strand, if it were all about the LOVE of reading and books (and music and rhythm and stories...) in our house, then our speech-LD and dyslexic daughter would have been able to read C.S.Lewis all on her own just as her big brother had done at the age of 6. Instead, she valiantly conquered her difficulties, with us and with some wonderful specials, through carefully constructed learning systems. For instance, when she could not say the word "ball"...we put a picture of a ball in her "talking picture book" and repeated the first sound "b...b....b..." for the word "ball". "Ball" was too long a word for her! "B....b....b..." was a drill I suppose, but she found it fun - because it gave her a label she could articulate and because it was something at which she could succeed when saying the whole word was far too difficult for her. Now, at the age of 20, she is studying very happily at the London University of the Arts, U.K. - passionately interested in costume and costume management - she reads novels for fun! - and although she still isn't crazy about writing essays, she does them for the sake of her art.

Love is ESSENTIAL - a passionate teacher/parent/model is motivating to the Nth dehgree. I couldn't agree with you more. But I do not believe that we need to divorce passion and love from method and science. I think that children can fall through the cracks that way. If science is now telling us that music is a full-brained art, not just one-sided, then perhaps it is even meore important that we encourage the inclusion of it in every kind of other learning, rather than drop the funding for the "fluff" teachers (music teahcers and librarians are often considered "fluffs" where I live).

I do believe that science can be misconstrued. Teachers (where I live) are told that they must include a certain music in the classroom every day. Well, who could argue with that? Except that often the music making is very didactic....a means to an end. If the majority of the singing is to get children to line up, to be quiet, to get out their books, to put on their coats, to buckle up their boots, to learn their ABCs, to sound out their phonics...then the curriculum is accomplished but the children are being cheated.

I think that music is magical - that it is a key that opens doors, many kinds of doors. I believe that rich music creates rich magic.

And I don't think that it is unscientific to say so. :-)


19 May 08 - 11:01 AM (#2344381)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: black walnut

OY - in the above, "some wonderful specials" should read "some wonderful specialists". Sometimes I can't think and type at the same time. Where's the coffee....


19 May 08 - 05:35 PM (#2344647)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: Booklynrose

Though I am primarily a literacy specialist, I teach educational psychology to people preparing to be teachers. Last year I had a student (a music major of course) who wanted to do her master's research paper on how music improves school achievement. She could not find any hard data supporting her hypothesis. Neither could any of my earlier students find direct links between music or art and literacy or school achievement. Music can make people happy, it can bring people together, familiar songs can reach people with alzheimers and some other brain disorders, BUT music does not transfer into literacy.
That said, you can introduce phonemic awareness with songs in which word sounds are featured if you point out the sounds before and after singing without being too didactic.
You can use songs that are linked to picture books. John Langstaff worked with a terrific illustrator to do books with folk songs, and there are many others.
You can introduce new background knowledge linked with songs (because background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension).
You can take things that children have to learn and set them to tunes.
Often older children who are turned off by writing are willing to write songs, especially if they can record their songs.
Anything that enriches language learning will improve literacy learning. Anything that makes the classroom welcoming will improve the atmosphere for learning. But learning doesn't usually transfer from situation to situation, and music itself does not strengthen emergent literacy.
I'm not good enough at Mudcat to know how to contact you directly, but if you want to contact me, I'd be happy to share sources about literacy learning and titles of children's books linked to folk songs. Have you contacted the Children's Music Network ( or the International Reading Association (

20 May 08 - 09:10 AM (#2345098)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: black walnut

Thanks Booklynrose! I'll PM you and we can get in touch that way.


20 May 08 - 11:25 AM (#2345202)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: Mo the caller

There was an interesting programme just now on BBC radio 4 Joan Armatradings favourite choirs/ (tues).
As well as visiting a choir she was talking to a scientist about health benefits of singing.

Black Walnut, I suppose I exagerated. I am not against practise and the scientific study of learning. I do think, though, that teaching something you are interested in is more likely to be successful. And with under 5s any learning that catches their interest is valuable. Young children are very diligent at practising the skill they want to master, if we provide equipment and environment to allow it.

20 May 08 - 11:52 AM (#2345239)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: GUEST,leeneia

'I am studying the impact of early childhood music on pre-literacy and reading skills.'

Well, bw, that sounds like a proper academic study. Trouble is, something like that is so hard to do. We can look at a child, and we can examine the child's eyes, but when the child is reading, listening or singing, we cannot study what is going on behind those eyes.

Of course, singing with the kids will help them. But how? And how do you prove it?

Let me leave the world of academic study and tell you a story. Last year I visited a national park, the Cahokia Mounds outside St Louis, Missouri. Busloads of school kids were coming in to visit the exhibits and see the mounds.

I don't have many children in my life, and I was deeply shocked by the behavior of those kids. It was like being in a cage with a horde of squirrels. They were running, screaming, yacking - anything but looking and learning. Dash across the carpet! Yank open a drawer of arrowheads! Slam the drawer shut! Run away!

Nobody was talking to them or attempting to calm them or enforce any rules of safety or politeness.

I'm talking about kids 8 to 12, not 4 or 5. And they didn't look like neglected kids from the slums, either. Their hair was nicely cut and they had nice clothes.

I spoke to a woeful volunteer about the kids, and he told me that this is normal for children nowadays. He did point to a small group that was walking around with an adult, clipboards in hand. (Evidently, if you want the kids to look at the exhibits, you have to be right on top of them.) But he said they were the exception.

So what would music with a loving adult offer to kids? Focus, personal attention, order, and increase in attention span.

Another story: I have a friend who is second-in-command of a suburban school system. (We are not talking poverty here.) I told her about two little neighbors of mine who always want to come over and talk.

Her response was 'Oh God, any adult who will TALK TO THEM!' Singing with them is no doubt desirable too.

04 Jun 08 - 02:24 PM (#2357406)
Subject: RE: Children's Music and Pre-Literacy
From: black walnut

"Focus, personal attention, order, and increase in attention span." and if that was ALL there was, wouldn't that be wonderful! And to think there's more!

There was a show on TV last week - a David Suziki look at music and the brain. Pretty interesting what the brain does to interpret the jiggling of a bunch of little hairs in the inner ear. Music - that touches us deeply, makes us laugh, moves us to tears, makes us feel that we belong to a community....