Learning and Development

Boosting Early Literacy With Musical Movement

  • Boosting Early Literacy With Musical Movement

Our ability to coordinate and time our actions may affect our ability to learn to read and write, explains Maria Kay…

Research indicates that the ability to coordinate and time our movements may impact upon children’s ability to learn to read and write. The function of the cerebellum (the area of the brain at the back of our heads) is to receive information from the sensory systems – such as the auditory system, in the case of music, for example – and then regulate motor movements such as balance and coordination. Movement involves timing skills, which are also important in the processing of language sounds. The cerebellum is also involved in the ‘automaticity’ of motor, cognitive and language skills. Therefore, promoting automatic skills in movement may also help to improve automatic skills in other domains, such as language and reading, where automaticity is also important to fluency.

It is therefore possible that a decline in children running around outside (gaining spatial awareness and physical strength), dancing, skipping (timing) and undertaking playground songs and rhymes (embedding language sounds) could contribute to a decline in literacy standards. Both England and Scotland report declining standards.

1. Rhythm & Timing

Encouraging children to move in time to music helps them develop a sense of rhythm. Performing action rhymes and singing activities involving marching, dancing or skipping to a beat helps them learn where to divide language into units of sound, especially if the divisions are emphasised.

Goswami (2013) explained how the ability to keep a beat (which involves motor skills) is important to our ability to process the timing of language sounds. Being able to tap out syllables, for example, along to the lyrics of the song ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, helps to reinforce the segmentation of words. The ability to identify the component sounds in words is vital to reading and writing. Children need to be able to identify syllables, rhymes and phonemes – what we term ‘phonological awareness’. Research has shown that children with dyslexia often have difficulties with the processing of speech sounds, accounting for an inability to detect all parts of a word – for example, the word ‘cat’ may be perceived as ‘ct’.

2. Pattern & Order

Language patterns, such as those found in rhymes, help children learn about the sounds and the order in which they’re spoken. This ultimately helps them to recognise and write text. Although written English language isn’t fully phonetic, it is based upon sound-symbol correspondence, and the ability to match sound patterns contributes to the ability to match written letter patterns to spoken words. Only 4% of English words are truly irregular. Children need to learn the order of sounds in words. For example, the English language would never have the sound ‘z’ followed by a ‘t’ sound. Repeated songs and rhymes help to embed language sounds by increasing familiarity with language and emphasising the sound segments within words.

The way in which words are put together to make sense (grammar) is also promoted through repetition. Movement to songs and rhymes helps further consolidate the learning of the patterns and order of language sounds.

3. Memory

Kinaesthetic learning (learning by doing) is a preferred learning method for some and helps to embed memory. Music is motoric – it incites us to move; children love to dance, stamp, march, skip, hop, run, tiptoe, slide, crawl, lumber and scurry to musical sounds. When tasks become automatic, we use what’s referred to as ‘muscle memory’ – when we can almost undertake a physical task without thinking about what we’re doing. Young children need to learn to move and balance and perform fine and gross motor skills, such as using a knife and fork or riding a bicycle, without thinking. 

Musical activities also help to forge memories. We remember songs easier than rhymes, and rhymes easier than non-rhyming prose. Moving to music therefore has a double impact upon language learning. When visual props are added to auditory and motion stimuli, a very effective learning environment is created. Musical activities also encourage repetition of motor and language skills without them becoming laborious.

It has also been suggested (by Ping and Goldin-Meadow, 2010) that gesture helps to free up memory, enabling us to search for ‘that’ word which seems illusive. We often gesticulate when trying to think of a particular word, highlighting another link between movement and language. Action rhymes, in particular, help children to remember words, as does music. Music and movement together thereby increase the chances of language being retained and recalled.

4. Attention & Prosody

Encouraging children to listen carefully to variations and changes in sounds, within music, helps them to subsequently be able to attend to differences and changes in language sounds.  Putkinen et al. (2013) found that children’s attendance at Finnish music playschools improved their ability to discriminate sounds and pay attention.

Listening to musical sounds, singing, playing musical games, reciting rhymes and chanting increase awareness of the suprasegmental (the phonological property of more than one sound segment) features of language, those of prosody – intonation (volume, duration and pitch) rhythm and stress. These features are common to both music and language. Awareness of prosodic aspects of language helps comprehension, such as detecting sarcasm or reproach through the tone of voice we are hearing. Cardillo (2008) found that children’s sensitivity to suprasegmental rhythm and intonation patterns in speech was a strong predictor of phonological awareness – a nearly undisputed predictor of reading. 

A person’s physical presentation in the form of gestures, body language and facial expression supports the spoken word and also contributes to the listener’s comprehension of what is being said. Musical activities can be used to promote understanding of emotional expression and the reading of the emotions of others.

To sum up the above, music encourages movement, movement and music stimulate the brain; this assists the learning process. Timing is an important aspect of learning to read – an awareness of sound segments requires the ability to anticipate breaks in language sounds. Musical activities support rhythmic awareness and ability to keep a beat. When melody and lyrics are in harmony (syllables and notes matched) the music reinforces the elements of language which children need to be aware of. Adding movement to songs further reinforces the rhythms in language and helps to support physical and mental wellbeing. Increasing research evidence from brain imaging is providing information showing how movement, music and literacy share commonalities. It therefore behoves educators of young children to use such multisensory methods to build early literacy foundations.

Maria is the author of Sound Before Symbol: Developing Literacy through Music and Alphabet Book + More: A Sounds and Symbols ‘literacy through music’ book. To find out more, visit bryantandkaypublishing.co.uk

Maria’s Sounds and Symbols Literacy through Music Resource Pack (£489) is available now. It is a comprehensive, research-based and informative resource, full of engaging activities and is perfect for building foundational literacy skills in the early years (0–8 years). Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) to order your pack.


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