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  • Writer's pictureCarla Tanguay, MA, MT-BC

Music and Literacy

Learning to read is an important milestone in child development, yet for some young learners reading is a struggle. Children may have difficulty with vocabulary, comprehension, word-recognition, or grammar. What you may not realize is that even before learning to read and write, children need to understand sounds, words, stories, and symbols. These concepts become the building blocks for literacy.

We all know that reading to our children is important. Children who are read to have a bigger vocabulary, higher rates of literacy, and do better in school. Less well known are the benefits of making music with your child, and the connection between music and literacy.

Let’s explore the relationship between music, language, and literacy, and discover ways that music and music therapy can help improve reading skills.

Phonological Awareness

Awareness of sound is critical in the development of literacy. Phonological Awareness refers to someone’s ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of spoken language. Knowing “cat” and “hat” rhyme, feeling four syllables in the word “watermelon,” and hearing that “music” and “mother” both start with the same “m” sound are all related to phonological and phonemic awareness. Child reading specialist Marilyn Adams goes as far as to suggest that, “children’s level of phonemic awareness on entering school may be the single most powerful determinant of the success he or she will experience in learning to read.”

Using Music

Music is a fun and natural way for children to practice and explore sounds. Music is an auditory language that uses sound and symbols to communicate, and research shows that musical training improves speech perception and changes how our brain processes spoken words.

Music therapists use music and play to help kids develop and improve their phonological awareness.

Most of us are first exposed to rhyming through music.

Baa Baa Black Sheep have you any wool

Yes sir, yes sir three bags full

Twinkle twinkle little star

How I wonder what you are

Rhyming is an important way to practice and demonstrate phonological awareness. Setting rhymes to music reinforces the basic phonological concepts being taught. Music uses phrasing, melodic and rhythmic principles to emphasize rhyming words. Music also provides the opportunity to hear rhymes over and over again, without tiring of them as we might with regular spoken language.

Music also helps us to hear and manipulate other letter sounds. When we sing, we place each syllable on a distinct musical note. This helps breaks down sounds into their “phonemes”, naturally separating the onset from the rime.

Not all music is sung! Music exposes us to all sorts of sounds, and children who are aware of distinct sound categories can better associate these with written letters and become better readers. Strong correlations have been found between a child’s music perception skills and reading ability. Can you tell the difference between the sound of a violin and a piano? Pick out the bass line in your favorite song? Repeat back three distinct tones in the right order? Music therapists deliberately use fun musical games to help clients improve their ability to hear and produce different sounds.

At Home

It is easy to find rhyming songs to sing with your children. Most songs, particularly children’s music, already contain rhymes. Some of my favorites include I’m a Little Teapot, Michael Finnegan, and Hush Little Baby.

Singing is also a great way to improvise rhymes and help your child master rhyme creation. A fun song for this is Down By The Bay.

Down by the bay,

where the watermelon grow

Back to my home

I dare not go

And if I do

My mother will say…

Have you ever seen a _________ (insert an animal here)

Wearing a ______ (insert rhyming word here)

Down by the bay!

You can also practice phonemic awareness at home. The key is making these experiences natural, fun, and part of daily life. Riding in the car? Taking a bath? Waiting in line? These are all great times to play with words and sounds.

Here is a great list of activities you can do at home.

Is your child struggling with reading skills or auditory processing? Contact us today for a music therapy consult and learn about how we bring music therapy sessions right to your door.

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