Parents, Teachers

Using music to develop literacy!

I have often observed that people like to do what they are good at; this means that they do it more, and become even better at it. Reading is a complex activity, particularly in English, because of its ‘deep’ orthography (i.e. the sounds of the language do not have 1:1 relationships with the letters used to represent them).

Visual memory and phonological processing both play a role in decoding, but then there is a need for more holistic processing – and understanding of the world – to make sense of the words. For many learners (not only, but especially neurodiverse learners and those reading in an additional language) it can be helpful to separate out the different required skills and practise them in isolation, using multisensory activities, before recombining them in real-life tasks.

As part of a multisensory approach, the use of musical activities has been shown to have a number of positive benefits. Slater et al. (2014) reported better concentration and memory among bilingual children following a programme rich in music. Developing phonological awareness, for example by relating word stress to rhythm, led to enhanced phonological processing and ultimately better spelling in a study conducted by Overy (2003).

In our classrooms, we can do this by isolating the rhythm from the words and helping students to tune in to their rhythmic patterns (first recognizing and then reproducing them), before adding words to them. When they are ready to apply their skills to the real-life task of reading in English, they have more free capacity for holistic processing, rather than getting stuck at the decoding stage.

In terms of remembering new words, both how they look and how they sound, repetition is crucial, and one way of incorporating a lot of repetition into a class without it becoming tedious is to use musical activities, songs, chants and raps. For example, to practice new vocabulary, a version of ‘Pass the Parcel’ can be used, where the parcel is a word to be learnt, which is passed (by repetition) around a circle from one learner to the next. When the music stops, the person holding the word has to ‘unpack’ it in some way (e.g. say what it means, say it in another language, say another word that is connected, etc). (For more information about developing memory strategies or phonological awareness, see Smith, 2017, or Evens & Smith, 2019. See also for more information on working with neurodiverse language learners.)

Many learners find music a less threatening prospect than conventional language drills. When we wrap language and literacy development tasks in musical activities, more learners enjoy practising, want to do it more often, and get better at it. You can find out more about engaging children with reading by watching the recorded version of my Lexplore Analytics Webinar – Encouraging EAL and Reluctant Readers.

Webinar Recording

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