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Promoting Literacy Through Music
Laura Woodall and Brenda Ziembroski

The successful acquisition of reading and writing in early childhood depends on a solid background in oral language skills. What better way to gain knowledge and confidence in oral language than through music? Oral language is an interactive and social process, and music is a natural way for children to experience rich language in a pleasurable way.

Young children seem to be naturally "wired" for sound and rhythm. Besides providing enjoyment, music can play an important role in language and literacy development. Strong social bonds are encouraged through music and songs beginning in preschool. Toddlers can begin to experiment with grammatical rules and various rhyming patterns in songs and other written text.

Establishing a sense of rhythm can be used to increase a student's awareness of rhyming patterns and alliteration in other areas of reading and writing. Through music, memory skills can be improved, and aural discrimination increased (Chong & Gan 1997). Music can focus the mind on the sounds being perceived and promote learning through an interactive process. It is important in teaching early childhood students to be conscious of auditory and discrimination skills. Music and songs help increase these listening skills in a fun, relaxed manner. Listening skills are key in singing, language and expressive movement, and later reading and writing (Wolf, 1992).

Music has always been a way for children to remember stories and learn about the world around them. Using music as a stimulus can effect one's emotions and make information easier to remember. Music also creates an environment that is conducive to learning. It can reduce stress, increase interest, and set the stage for listening and learning. The similarities between literacy acquisition and musical development are many. Therefore, teaching that combines music with language arts instruction can be the most effective (Davies, 2000). Furthermore, it is important for emergent readers to experience many connections between literacy in language, music, and in print.

Language in music and language in print have many similarities, such as the use of abstract symbols. Both oral language and written language can be obtained in the same manner. That is, by using them in a variety of holistic literacy experiences, and building on what the students already know about oral and written language (Clay, 1993).

For example, emergent readers will attempt to "read" along in a shared reading of a familiar text, just as they will join in a sing along to a familiar song. (Sometimes making up the words as they go!) Just as emergent reading and writing are acquired to drawing and pretending to write, musical learning is connected to song and movement. Children instinctively listen to music and try to identify familiar melodies and rhythms, just as early readers will look for words that sound alike, have patterns, or rhyme (Jalongo & Ribblett, 1997). Song picture books such as The Ants Go Marching or The More We Get Together, support early readers in this manner. They also illustrate how the use of familiar text, predictability, and repetition can encourage children to read. Using songs put to print can expand vocabulary and knowledge of story structure, as well as build on concepts about print. The use of music for reading instruction allows children to easily recall new vocabulary, facts, numbers, and conventions of print. For example,try to remember how you learned your ABC's or other memory skills -- many people learn them musically. Meet Me at the Garden Gate* can be used to teach children to skip count by two's; it is a song that is readily learned while at the same time assimilates the mathematical concept.

Repetition in songs supports and enhances emergent literacy by offering children an opportunity to read higher-leveled text and to read with the music over and over again in a meaningful context. Print put to music also allows children to build on past experiences, which in turn invites them to participate in reading and singing at the same time. Using Over the River and Through the Woods (Child,1996) for instruction affords first grade students the familiarity necessary to read a higher leveled text based on past experiences. Furthermore, teachers using repetitive text can easily model and exaggerate the repetition, rhyme, and rhythm of story, thereby encouraging the children to join in.

A child's initial introduction to patterned text often first occurs in songs, chants, and rhymes that are repeated over and over again throughout childhood. Once children become familiar with this patterning, they are excited and able to participate in shared reading, writing and other oral language experiences. Concepts about print become more meaningful, and conventions of print are learned in context. Additionally, substitutions in songs, chants or poems can provide for real language experience opportunities. When emergent readers see printed words in the text again and again, they come to identify those words and phrases by their similarities and configurations. Emergent readers who learn Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed (Christelow. 1989), for instance, can quickly spot the quotations marks and capital letters in the doctor's statement, "No more monkeys jumping on the bed!" (Jalongo & Ribblett, 1997).

The effects of music on the emotions are commonly known. However the effects of music on the brain and thinking are demonstrable. Research has shown that during an electroencephalogram (EEG), music can change brain waves and make the brain more receptive to learning. Music connects the functions of the right and left hemispheres of the brain so that they work together and make learning quick and easy. Brain function is increased when listening to music and studies have shown that music promotes more complex thinking. It can make connections between emotions, thinking and learning (Davies, 2000).

Howard Gardner's research on Multiple Intelligences supports this idea. He describes how people demonstrate different skills and talents while trying to learn. Therefore, classrooms must provide different approaches to meet an individual student's areas of strength in order to be the most successful. For example, Gardner's Musical-Rhythmic learners are sensitive to nonverbal sounds and are very much aware of tone, pitch and timbre. Using rhythm, chanting, and songs with these students can increase their attention and interest while motivating them to learn (Gardner, 1985.)

Advertisers and filmmakers realize and utilize the power of music to evoke emotions and get our attention. Educators need to learn from this multi-million dollar industry and use music to our advantage to help children to learn (Davies, 2000).
Good first teaching is based on using what children already know, and the influence of music on learning is clear. Therefore it seems that teachers should be motivated to incorporate music, rhymes, chants, rhythm, and songs in the classroom.
If music can set the stage for learning, increase a child's interest, and activate a student's thinking, what are we waiting for?

Music gives a soul to the universe,
Wings to the mind,
Flight to the imagination...
And life to everything.


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