I’d love to get a discussion going this week about the connections between music education and literacy. Please, chime in with comments and links if you have personal experience, professional education, or questions and comments about the links between the two. Do YOU think music education has a positive effect on literacy?
My early music education was limited to singing hymns and Sunday school songs at church, shouting out John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt with my Girl Scout troop, and occasionally whacking away at a xylophone while Sister Mary Music-Teacher tapped out the beat on a tambourine. I didn’t have instrumental lessons or learn to read music until my 30’s. And yet, I was a voracious reader from a very young age. Clearly, one doesn’t REQUIRE formal music education to develop literacy skills. But let’s take a look at the ways music education is purported to help with literacy.
Jonathon Bolduc from the University of Ottawa published a review of the research on the effects of music education on emergent literacy skills in preschool age children. He found that:
many authors and researchers claim that musical activities promote the development of three important components that are equally involved in the development of linguistic abilities: auditory perception, phonological memory, and metacognitive knowledge.
Let’s translate that into something we can talk about with other parents at the playground. The research is showing that music education promotes:
1. THE DEVELOPMENT OF AUDITORY PERCEPTION: So, listening ability. That seems logical. When children – or adults – learn to appreciate or make music, they learn to listen carefully. They learn to listen for tone, rhythm, repetition. They listen for patterns. They listen for changes in volume. They listen with the intention of gaining some sort of knowledge from what they are listening to – or with the intention of being able to repeat what they’ve heard. It’s pretty clear that these abilities will be helpful to children who are also developing early literacy skills. Listening for the rhythm of sentences, the pauses and breaks, the tone change at the end of a question, the letter sounds – listening for all these things as a caregiver reads aloud are essential skills for literacy development.
2. PHONOLOGICAL MEMORY: In simple terms, phonemes are the distinct sounds that make up words. To be able to read, you not only need to see the letters and recognize them, you need to match single letters and letter groupings with the sounds they make (and again, match those to meaning). Music education has been shown to improve the ability of the brain to remember phonemes. This, in turn, allows the reader to “sound out” words and to quickly recognize “sight words.”
3.METACOGNITIVE KNOWLEDGE: Ah, metacognition. Thinking about thinking. It can be a really difficult concept to understand and discuss. What metacognition means to early literacy – at least from my understanding – is that the reader needs to have:
- A. a plan, strategies, for working out what those sounds on the page mean. And then the reader needs to have
- B. a way of analyzing his or her success – did I make the right sound? Does it match the letters? Does it make sense? – and
- C. a back-up plan: What do I do if I’m not successful the first time?
All of this is part of metacognition in literacy. And studies show that music education improves these strategies – the ability to listen to your results, analyze if they match the desired result, and self-correct if needed. Like when I hit a wrong note in the middle of Twinkle Twinkle, hear the very wrongness of it compared to the expected sound, and then back up and play it correctly. Or when I’m reading a sentence and say “cloud” instead of “could,” I recognize that that doesn’t make sense in context, and I go back to try again.
There is a lot more information about music and academic performance online – arguments from many perspectives. Some of the things I read supporting music education were sheer nonsense, and some of the articles that attempt to argue against it were malicious and misinformed. It takes all types, I guess. I found this article from a workshop presented by the Las Vegas Philharmonic to be very helpful, easy to understand, and backed by sensible research.
Personally, the research – or scarcity thereof – once had me a little skeptical. But I enrolled my children in Music Together and KinderMusik classes, and later in Music for Young Children, because I wanted them to have the opportunity to learn more about music than I had. (Their dad is a drummer and guitarist, when he’s not crunching numbers. He felt the same way.)
Through these classes, I saw my children blossom in ways I didn’t expect. They learned so much that they could apply to other aspects of education. I watched in amazement as the children in the classes learned listening skills, speech skills, patterning, rhythm, alliteration, rhyme, counting, skip counting, and letter recognition all while having a wonderful time bonding with caregivers and new friends, AND moving their busy little bodies.
After years of group classes, my kids have moved on to individual lessons – my five-year-old in piano, my 7-year-old guitar, and my 9-year-old clarinet. They all know more than I do about reading music now – though I’m trying to keep up. I also catch them singing under their breath as they memorize spelling words, or setting their times tables to tune. My middle daughter likes to read books forward, then backward, and then sing them. They all make up wacky rhymes and song parodies that crack me up. Their math and language skills have certainly benefited from music lessons.
So tell me, what do you think? I’m looking forward to hearing your experiences with music and literacy.