Music: Noteworthy for Developing Literacy Skills

From the Itsy Bitsy Spider to The Wheels on the Bus to Old MacDonald to lullabies you sang or played for your young children, music, and songs are an integral part of little people’s lives. When they go off to preschool, their teachers use songs to help teach routines and how things work. Elementary teachers use songs as mnemonic tools—and even upper-level teachers recognize the value of using music to teach language or incorporating music into their writing lessons.

You’re never too young to sing

How many times has your three-year-old requested a certain song over and over and over? That repetition helps to cement those words into your child’s vocabulary. Those familiar words become the building blocks, especially as young pre-readers rely exclusively on listening to oral language to acquire language skills.

For the youngest children—or for non-native speakers who are learning to speak English—songs teach a wide range of vocabulary. The Hokey Pokey is great for body parts, Five Little Monkeys for numbers, and ABCs for the alphabet.

Children’s songs also depend heavily on rhymes, which make the words easy to remember—and learning to rhyme is an important skill to cultivate in pre-readers, too. Rhyming teaches kids how language works and teaches them to anticipate what might come next in a text.

Even older students benefit from music education, especially if the students learn and play a musical instrument. According to Dr. Kraus, Director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, reading ability improves with musical training, and that includes populations of students who’ve experienced early language deficits that result from poverty.

How music primes young brains for learning to read and write

Music activates the brain’s language, hearing, and rhythmic motor control centers simultaneously, and a music-rich learning environment significantly increases literacy skills that include general vocabulary and verbal sequencing.

We are born with an ability to hear but not necessarily to listen. Listening requires the ability to focus on sounds that are produced. Music provides a great way to increase listening skills, especially in four- and five-year-olds who learn to recognize and respond to melody, rhythm, and dynamics.

The ability to hear the sounds that comprise words in a spoken language is called phonological awareness. Just as spoken language is made up of connected phonemes, or sounds, that the brain’s auditory center processes, music’s notes, and rhythmic values are similar—and researchers have concluded that musical instruction greatly benefits children’s phonological awareness.

Closely related is the ability to not only recognize the differences in phonemes (auditory discrimination) but also to reconstruct the order of sounds in a word or syllable (auditory sequencing). These skills are another necessary component for learning to read.

According to kindermusik.com, children develop an ability to distinguish between sounds when they learn to differentiate between fast or slow tempos, loud and soft dynamics, and up or down/ high or low melodies. So, as children learn those elements of pitch, timing, and sound from music, their language-processing skills increase, too.

Music also introduces children to the idea of a patterned text. Those verses, chants, and rhymes repeat in familiar songs, and as younger kids become familiar with each pattern, they begin to anticipate what’s next. This anticipation translates to texts—like Dr. Seuss, for example—where the repetition of the sounds and rhymes enables children to identify words and phrases by their similarities in sound.

Create an inviting space at home to practice and learn

Encourage your kids to embark upon a musical journey by creating space in your home that’s dedicated to their hobbies, including practicing and playing music. If you’ve got a separate room that you can turn into a music studio, great! But even with smaller constraints, set aside a comfortable and well-lit spot with space to store their instruments and stands.

Language literacy is one of the most basic and important skills children learn before and in school. Since young kids are naturally “wired” for sound and rhythm, incorporate a little music and movement into each day.

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