The Musical Story—The Power of Music to Aid Early Literacy
By Simon Firth, Writer and Bing Parent
Regular visitors to Bing’s classrooms will know how music permeates every child’s experience of the school—from surprise encounters with musicians wandering through the play yards, to post-snack dance parties, to whole mornings spent making elaborate sets and props and then acting out a favorite song. All are fun activities, of course, and all enrich children’s lives in the same way that music adds to the fullness of our own.
But more than a simple hope of enrichment informs the choices Bing teachers make when planning musical experiences for their students. They back every musical encounter with careful thought about how music aids a young child’s social, emotional, and intellectual development.
On May 9, head teacher and music specialist Beth Wise and Two’s and West PM teacher Michelle Forrest shared some of that thinking with more than 60 Bing parents as part of the 2007 Bing Parent seminar series, in a talk titled “The Musical Story.” Some highlights:
Exposure: Just the starting point
Any effective music program for young children needs to do more than simply expose them to music. Bing’s teachers and many parents with musical skill bring their own music-making into the class, but the school’s children also need to be musicians themselves.
“We want children to experience real-live music and work with real instruments,” explained Forrest as she introduced some of the instruments—shakers, drums, bells, xylophones, maracas, and rhythm sticks—that children regularly play in class.
Equally important is the attention teachers pay to every child’s very different relationship with music. Not every child, for example, will want to join in every musical activity, said Forrest. “But even if a child isn’t singing,” she said, “they may still be connecting in a different way.” During a song about ducks disappearing one by one, perhaps, a silent child may well be concentrating on counting, and thus develop an important skill.
Knowing every child well helps immeasurably in suggesting how music might best reach each of them, said Wise. “I have found throughout my teaching that the key is really developing a relationship,” she recalled. “The first thing I need to know is ‘Who are you? What are you thinking today? What do you want to tell me about yourself?’ And through that really close development of a relationship, I can find out what motivates you musically and what motivates you in other ways.”
The enjoyment that most children naturally find in music makes it an especially valuable tool when it comes to developing early literacy. No child can be literate without first being able to understand and reproduce speech, for example, and music has a key role to play in developing those language skills.
“In music,” said Forrest, “children are paying attention to the auditory sounds and signals they hear. That is exactly what they’ll have to do when they’re paying attention to speech and listening in the language process.”
Experiencing songs that vary in pitch, tempo, and beat and that feature word games such as rhymes helps children discriminate between words and sounds. Singing a song that rhymes “hat” with “sat,” say, helps you understand that there are differences between the words, and what those differences might be.
Just the ability to keep a basic beat is important, Wise explained. “We try to do a lot with rhythm sticks or drums,” she said, “just to really have that one-to-one correspondence of word to sound. When you hear a child beginning to read, “The. Cat. Went. To. The. Store.” there’s sort of a cadence to it. And it really helps if you’re playing an instrument and you’re learning to keep that beat.”
A single song can offer help to children across the school’s developmental age range. Take the pre-school classic BINGO. “As children develop linguistically,” Wise noted, “they begin to separate the letters in the song. You’ll see children at first say, “B-I-N-G-O.” And then as they’re a little older, it’s B. I. N. G. O. And then as they’re even older they’re actually nodding their head and they’re being able to separate the letters, which shows their ability and their awareness that the letters are separate.”
The simple act of storytelling in a song helps ease a child into the act of reading, said Forrest. “When they’re going to be reading,” she explained, “children are going to incorporate sound and the visual text. And so this is a way to parallel that process and to start it earlier before they’re able to read.”
Teachers can even incorporate literacy directly into musical games, suggested Forrest. When singing A Tisket A Tasket, for example, she noted that Bing teachers often encourage children to actually write a letter, put it in a basket, carry it around and drop it off for someone else.
Any parent who’s tried to help a child learn their ABCs knows that setting them to music makes the sequence instantly easier to learn, remember, and recall. The same principle applies to literacy more broadly, Wise and Forrest explained. Essential skills for being able to read and write come much easier when put in a musical context.
Take the concept of sequencing, something children need to comprehend in order to understand a story, or even the idea that a text flows in a logical sequence (in English, from top to bottom and left to right). Songs with fun choruses and simple verses that move the action forward teach sequencing very effectively, Wise suggested.
She shared a video in which she led a group of children through a song based on the story of The Three Little Pigs. The children sang about each pig making its house, playing instruments to make the sounds of a hammer, saw and cement mixer, actively commenting and contributing ideas for it as it went along.
In particular, Wise pointed out, the video showed the children “relating the story in a logical sequence and identifying the characters. They’re beginning to understand the text as well as singing it.”
The song also illustrated how song can help children practice phonemes, like the “ssss” sound of a snake coming or the “whoosh” of the wind, and how it can encourage them to use their imaginations to say, for instance, “Look up. We don’t have a roof!” and then pretend to build it.
Using song in this way, added Wise, “makes many children want to participate because it has elements of excitement, elements of dramatic play as well as musical components. It’s very motivating.”
Why fun matters
It’s important that none of this seem like work to children, though. “We strive to bring out the joy of this experience,” she said. “You cannot overstate how important it is for them to just enjoy this and be free.”
Forrest quoted Bing teacher Kitti Pecka who likes to say that “music can be a very deeply emotional experience,” and then linked that notion to recent studies in developmental psychology that show how deep emotional experiences aide both memory and learning processes. Just to allow children to feel different emotions and go different places through songs, noted Forrest, is to aid in brain development and cognitive functioning.
The “magical road” to literacy
Forrest shared a second video where children acted out a song that she wrote herself based on Eric Carle’s classic picture book, The Tiny Seed. In preparation for the re-enactment, students worked for a week painting the set—four landscapes on which the seed falls during the song. The children took “seeds” they made with scarves and had them fall on the first three inhospitable landscapes—a desert, a mountain, and ocean—until the seed found a garden where it grew into a flower.
All worked hard to create the world of the song and even extended their play to depict other hostile environments for the seed (concrete, for example) that weren’t in the original story. The group collaboration allowed the children to work on things that interested them most, within a context that was supportive of literacy, Forrest recalled.
That concept of letting children make developmental leaps on their own is key, she said. “We think of their learning this way as a journey down a magical road,” said Forrest. Instead of pushing the children via formal instruction, “we’re taking them somewhere where they push each other to think about the content of the material they’re working with,” she said. In the process, they’re taking themselves to a higher level of cognition.” It’s an idea put into formal terms by psychologist Lev Vygotsky in his theoretical conception of a child’s “zone of proximal development.”
A role for parents
In response to questions after the talk, both teachers agreed there’s much that parents can do to foster both development and early literacy in their young children.
Parents, after all, know their children better than anyone and are therefore uniquely able to offer them engaging songs and stories.
If nothing else, suggested Wise, “read to them, sing to them, use simple instruments at home to tap out that beat—and when meshed with their having the chance to play and to be able to really develop who they are as individuals, it will give them a great skill set for entering a more formal educational system.”
Forrest and Wise first presented their talk in April, to a packed house at the annual gathering of the California Association for the Education of Young Children.
In preparing for that presentation, both teachers researched how well music at Bing met curricular standards for both music and literacy in pre-kindergarten schooling. To their delight, the level of understanding reached by Bing’s students in music met not only the National Association for Music Education music education standards for Pre-K music, but also many California kindergarten English language arts content standards as well.
Among the California state standards for kindergarten literacy, for example, are the expectations that students: Identify and produce rhyming words in response to an oral prompt; track auditorily each word in a sentence and each syllable in a word; follow words from left to right and from top to bottom on the printed page; make predictions about story content, retell familiar stories; relate an experience or creative story in a logical sequence; identify characters, settings, and important events.
It was especially exciting to discover that Bing was meeting these goals through a play-based program, recalled Wise.
That’s particularly encouraging, both teachers said, in a time when nursery schools are under great pressure to introduce more rote learning to prepare children for kindergarten programs that expect children to achieve at what used to be a first grade level.“What we wanted other educators to see,” said Wise, “was that if you’re thoughtful and if you plan with intent and integrity, you can weave the skills that children need into their lives through a play-based environment that respects children and respects the depth of their thought, the development of their relationships and who they are as individuals.”