Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Using Music and Songs to Improve Literacy

Above: Courtesy 'Cottage by the Sea'
I have commented previously on the power of music to help children to acquire a love of language and literacy (see my piece on rap music). I have also made reference to students who while reluctant writers have wanted to compose music (here). But might music have a more direct role to play in literacy acquisition. First Grade teacher Becky Iwasaki thinks so and has used music to great effect in her classrooms as reported in the October 2013 edition of 'The Reading Teacher'.

The authors of the article in 'The Reading Teacher' cite research that found that struggling students improved their reading ability as a result of regular repeated singing and reading of songs over a period of just 9 weeks. The reasons for this would appear to be:

  • When we sing using written music we are also reading.
  • Specific features of music make the reading more memorable, including the rhythm and melody of the songs.
  • Memorising songs for younger children helps to teach sight word recognition.
  • Songs like poetry are often characterised by rhyme, sound repetition and alliteration and can enhance phonemic awareness.
  • Songs become a form of repeated reading without the boredom of regular class repeated reading.

Becky Iwasaki decided to try to use music with grade 1 to improve reading ability by teaching them at least two songs each week. She used a consistent format that included the following structure that requires 10-15 minutes each day:

Day 1 - She chooses a relatively common song and has it playing in the background when the children arrive at school. She then introduces the words to the song on a chart and encourages them to follow the words as they try to sing it. She repeats this several times during the day. Later in the day she leads a discussion concerning the meaning of the song. She might also use the song to do word searches, sight words etc.

Above: Image courtesy Wiki Commons
Day 2 - The same song is sung chorally using the chart and also their own printed copies. She encourages them to identify words from the song that they recognise as sight words. She might discuss words that rhyme, word families (e.g. 'un' as in run, fun, sun etc).

Day 3 - She again starts the day by singing the song and then follows it with focussed word study using word families, writes them on the board, gets the students to read them, find others like them etc.

Above: Courtesy Wiki Commons
Day 4 - They again sing the song and follow this by sharing favourite parts of the song, and finish the day by writing in their journals about the feelings evoked by the song.

Day 5 - The song is again sung then it is performed for another audience (e.g. another class, parents, school principal etc).

While I don't find the elements of the structure used in the above approach all that novel and exciting, the approach clearly worked. My suggestion is that the above approach could be supplemented in other ways to make it even more engaging if repeated a number of times. To give more variety to the approach I would suggest:

  • Careful choices of songs that have appropriate words and topic interest for the age group.
  • Supplementation of the Iwasaki approach with some related literature or poetry (this would be ideal on day two or three).
  • The use of craft, drama, dance and art in association with the learning of the songs (this would be a great thing to do on day 5).

Of course, none of my suggested supplements should reduce the time spent actually reading the words and singing the song, for time on task reading is critical to improvement. I would love to hear from readers who have also found that music can help literacy.


Sue Pearce said...

Very interesting....this also links through to the use of nursery rhymes and songs and other rhymes prior to school in developing phonemic awareness. You would also think it could encourage parental engagement with sending songs home.

Trevor Cairney said...

True Sue, nursery rhymes, jingles and chants all encourage play with language. You just need to connect them later with print.

Unknown said...

I have watched students begin a testing session in an English classroom and before the test starts the first thing a student will ask is- “can we listen to music? Earlier generations may consider music a distraction especially when students have passages to read. However, with a new generation of students music may really help because they are so accustomed to being surrounded by some type of sound-whether it is a computer, a cellphone, headphones, etc… I have seen high school students create raps to remember dates in social studies classes and to learn concepts in a biology class. Many high school libraries are different as for as noise level. They are no longer environments of sssh… Quiet please, no talking. Students are talking, studying for a test with headphones and an ipod, creating projects with music as the background. Teachers are playing classical music in the background as teachers enter the room. This seems to have a calming effect on students and they become more focused to learn. It does bother me to watch a student try to read a passage and try to come up with a correct answer. Even though this is a different generation, I still see this as a distraction. However, if music will help students to become better readers and to do better in school we should allow them to listen and to use music.

Susan Esra said...

I really like the ideas shared here about using songs to teach literacy skills. I teach kindergarten students with special needs, and music is very motivating to them. We use similar strategies to the ones listed in your post when we study nursery rhymes, but I hadn’t thought about using songs. My students attend better to musical activities than to any other kind, so I think that these activities would hold their attention well. I will definitely be using the words to songs to work on sight words and word families. There are so many songs that my students love and request daily that we could work on these strategies using those songs for many weeks. I think that your urging to carefully select songs is critical, and I would probably begin with shorter songs with more repetition within the lyrics. I also had never considered songs as journal topics, but I think familiar songs would be a motivating topic for students, as well.

Unknown said...

I agree that music and songs can absolutely be used to help improve literacy. I have had students in the past that really struggled with remembering enough of a story to have even basic comprehension, but somehow these students could sing and write all the words for their favorite songs. There is something about setting the words to a specific rhythm or tunes that somehow helps us to remember it.
While teaching 7th grade social studies several years ago, I did a lesson using songs when teaching about the Vietnam War. I not only played the songs for the students, but I also gave them copies of the lyrics so that they could follow along. We then look them apart line by line to talk about meaning and the feelings that were being conveyed. I made sure that I had songs that represented both sides of the public opinion related to the war; those that were opposed and those that were for it. I also asked students to research on their own other songs that related to this issue. Using the music and lyrics as a way to express and explain this time in world history had a great impact on my students. It made it much more personal and “real” to them than the information presented in the textbook.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comments Terri and Susan, some great insights.

Alyssa said...

I am a strong proponent for music within the classroom. As a general education classroom teacher, I had music playing all day for my students. Depending on the activity, we could go from upbeat music students could sing and move to, to slow and calm music that allowed the brain to be calm and effective. My students thrived on the music and enjoyed it being a part of their routine. During reading and writing, students tended to remain more focused as music was playing and were able to produce far better work.
I always think back to when I was younger and my parents would say “how do you always remember the lyrics to the songs, but not your______________.” As you can imagine, this always stuck with me, and as I see my students growing as learners, I see similar traits. I would like to incorporate music and song into my classroom to see how students progress with those topics as well. Even if that means students are creating a song based on their understanding, it would be something meaningful and hopefully something they can hook onto in remembering.
You bring up a good point as making sure the song choice is appropriate. Students may use different songs, or hear different songs, that aren’t necessarily appropriate. As the teacher, supporting this inclusion, it would be critical that I choose appropriate songs to support student learning rather than hinder it.

Unknown said...

I teach special education in the self-contained setting, and I must say, music is one of the only things that all of my students enjoy. I know that some of my students enjoy painting, while others prefer to write down their thoughts and ideas; some enjoy hands-on experiments, while others don't like to get their hands dirty. But the one thing that they all enjoy is music. If I can find a way to incorporate any type of music into my lessons, their attention span doubles!

What is so interesting to me is how much putting a concept to music helps it "stick" in a child's brain. For example, while reading an adapted version of Frankenstein, we were discussing the bones in the human body and the various parts that Dr. Frankenstein sewed together to make his monster. One student jumped up and began singing "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes". Before I knew it, a new connection was made in each student's brain and they had a song to relate to the story.

My students read on a very low level, and I am always looking for new strategies to assist them while reading. One thing that this post has encouraged me to do is add more music to their literacy instruction. I considered music and literacy two separate entities (except for rhyming) until reading this article.

Thank you!