Early Literacy and Music

Table of Content

Overview of the Topic

Many ideas have been presented in regards to a potential connection between early literacy and music. Our English version of the alphabet is usually first taught, learned, and retained through song. The television show Sesame Street, which was created using developmental psychology, cultural diversity and early childhood education as its base understood the power of music and emergent reading for its young audience. Oral language is very important to this development, and music can be a pleasurable, creative way for children to experience rich language. Teachers have long embraced the concept of incorporating music into emergent reading instruction, as a way to bridge between the tentative and confident readers. With this innate feeling that music does indeed support emergent readers, is there research that supports this theory? The answer is an emphatic yes, and this research paper will effectively support this connection.

Relevant Research

When a person listens to music, the brain responds, which involves many different regions, not just the auditory cortex. Many other areas that impact thinking are included in the process. An individual’s visual, emotional, and tactile experiences all intertwine where the brain will process music (Milligan & Hansen, 2012). When a person perceives an incoming sound, the air pressure waves are altered by both the external and middle ear. This converts into a fluid wave within the inner ear. The stapes, which is a tiny bone in the cochlea, creates varying levels of pressure on the inner fluid. As the basilar membrane of the cochlea vibrates, inner hair cells (known as the sensory receptors) generate an electric signal. This signal proceeds to the auditory nerve, which then processes directly to the brain. In the auditory cortex, which is located in the temporal lobe, the reception of vibrations from the auditory system then travels to the thalamus, which will then process pitch and contour. The brain’s left hemisphere will respond to musical rhythm more than the right, and the right hemisphere of the brain is where specific perceptions of pitch, melody, timbre, and harmony are found (Sousa, 2004). The left hemisphere of the brain has specific areas that are language-related, while the right hemisphere has key areas that are specific for the perception of music. When people listen to music, the visual cortex is also activated.

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Although hearing ability is a skill that most people are born with, learning to read is not necessarily an innate skill. The brain is able to complete this complex process through neuronal recycling, which is the coordination of visual imagery in the occipital brain region that recognizes an object. The next step is to recognize separate letters and words. After this, the auditory process of associating a separate sound to each letter, and then to put all of this together and have meaning is required. The connection between this neuron recycling is found among the occipital lobe, Broca’s area in the right frontal lobe (language processing), and Wernicke’s area in the left temporal lobe (language comprehension) and all the areas must work together in order to be effective (Frey & Fisher, 2012).

Impact on Learning

As early readers are learning, the bridge between identifying symbols (letters and numbers) and sounds (phonemic awareness) is of the deepest importance. From a neuroscience-based perspective, the sound system is very important when learning to read (Sousa, 2004). Phonemic awareness in emergent readers is considered to be one of the strongest pre-indicators of future reading and success. This push towards understanding the aural skills development and phonological awareness (sensitivity to sound) of young children is being connected to the ability of children being able to understand both music and sounds (Milligan & Hansen, 2012).

The power to engage students through music can increase vocabulary, and aid in strengthening reading readiness in the classroom. Educational researchers have promoted music as a tool to assist students in vocabulary acquisition, to deepen reading comprehension, and to help engage children in learning (Wiggins, 2007). Children use music to remember stories. The use of music, especially in a classroom, can stimulate a child’s emotions, in order to enhance memory (Sousa, 2004). This method of using music to support early readers to increase verbal memory helps to scaffold reading words with comprehension skills. This verbal memory and association is essential for early literacy, as reading progresses to sentences and semantic analyses (Stone, 1999)

Neuroscientists are now examining how an individual will hear music, and assign a different series of tones a higher level of perception ( Weinberger, 2004). It is becoming more apparent to researchers that many different regions of a human brain will respond to music, in a perceptual and emotional aspect, and the brain will assign more importance to a group of sounds. In the auditory cortex, experiences received by the listener can then be linked to their emotions, individual thoughts, and personal experiences (Sousa, 2012). As brain research improves, and investigates further, it is becoming a tool to help determine how information is both stored and retrieved. The connection of neural-based reading, phonemic awareness, music, and brain functions is more apparent than ever. Teachers have the ability to use music to make their classroom environment more meaningful, connected, and richer in text and content.

Fisher, McDonald & Strickland (2001) found the following:

When emergent readers hear, sing, discuss, play with, and write songs, they are building important background knowledge that will draw upon later reading and writing experiences. With each new song, students learn concepts and word meanings that they will encounter in print.” (p.15)

Most early reading teachers have long believed in the power of music when teaching in the classroom. As research hones in on the ways that emergent readers can become fluent, it has become more apparent than ever that music can make this process even easier. Although there has been many studies that focus on the increased reading level of children that play music (Paquette & Rieg, 2008) there is also research that provides a strong relationship with emergent reading and music.

Application to the Classroom

While the research has supported the many ways that music can support early literacy and emergent reading, how can this be applied in an actual classroom? For a while, educators thought that playing classical music would enhance spatial reasoning. This was known as the “Mozart Effect” and it was actually proven to work for a short time, but later dismissed as a theory. It has been proven that music, while played in the background, can enhance concentration while people are working creatively with their hands (Sousa, 2004) as long as it does not become distracting. We know that music can be used to promote early literacy, so exactly how would it be used effectively? The following examples are meant to be used in a preschool, pre-Kindergarten, or Kindergarten environment:

Since a child’s first experience often occurs with song and text, it is important to use songs, chants, and rhymes accompanied by visual text. The simple act of writing out the song Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on sentence strips, and organizing it into a pocket chart can be powerful. Children will start to realize that song they have been singing their entire little lives has words, letters, and meaning. This type of exercise is a strong way to introduce Concepts of Print. The teacher can model how the read the words, and then invite children to take daily turns “reading” the song with a pointer for the class. The class could then transition into the Alphabet song, which is set to the same tune, and start to teach the class how each letter has a visual symbol. Many children will be actually seeing this for the first time at school. The benefit of having the same tune is that children will feel empowered and comfortable singing out loud. This can also be a great resource for ELL students, who feel more comfortable with a “group” voice as opposed to their own individual voice. Later in the year, this same song could be used to demonstrate rhyme.

Since children have a very basic instinct for categorization and pattern (Sousa, 2004) they will listen to music and try to identify familiar rhythms and patterns, in a similar way to emergent readers trying to find the same words in a story. A song such as Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed could first be read to the children using a picture book. Children could see the words having meaning on the page, and also that the illustrations are supporting what they are saying out loud. When the class finished this book, they could sing it together. The teacher could reproduce this poem as a small book for the kids to color, or write in numbers, or words. Then the children could read the book to each other, with encourages dynamic learning (Paquette & Rieg, 2008). Afterwards, this book could be added to an in-class library, or taken home to read with family. This activity will provide an empowering learning lesson for the student.

Repetition that occurs in a song can also support early readers, along with scaffolded instruction and presentation. For example, the song Jingle Bells has a highly repetitive chorus, but the lyrics to the song are actually very difficult for young singers and students to grasp. First, the song could be played, and the students could sing along. The teacher could then read the book aloud, and really point out some of the phrases and words that are used. Illustrated vocabulary cards could be introduced, showing different nouns in the story. An illustrated video of the song could be shown as well. Once again, have kids make their own page with the actual words written, and have them practice “reading” the words while they sing the song. This type of structure could be used with many books and songs, and would also provide a framework for ELL students in the class.

After students have some classroom training, they could create song illustrations to visually symbolize the song. After introducing some adjectives for emotion, such as happy, sad, mad, tired, and great, have kids listen to a song, preferably one they have not heard, to avoid previous connections (Paquette & Rieg, 2008). Give them a page that says “This song makes me feel____” and ask them to write down the word to describe their emotion. Then have them illustrate what they “saw” in their minds when they heard the song. This activity not only enhances imagery and promotes creativity , it also shows kids how to make connections between music and text. If they are also allowed to share these ideas with other students, they would have a chance to verbalize their creative ideas to each other.

Using song lyrics as a rich source for increased vocabulary is viable for emergent readers. Evidence has suggested that children can acquire language incidentally through the act of reading or listening to music (Wiggins, 2007). A classroom rich in song is also rich in words, and a robust and entertaining environment can bring more words to the students. For example, a song such as America the Beautiful could be taught to the children, along with pictures to represent the many different parts of the Unites States that are mentioned in the song lyrics. Kids could use language that is actually very difficult, as used in the song. They could then create their own drawings or share their thoughts about beautiful things they see around themselves every day.

In conclusion, it would seem most apparent that the concepts of music, literacy, and brain functions are all closely related and intertwined. There is more and more research supporting how music and learning develop in the brain (Milligan & Hansen, 2012) and the evidence is demonstrating that neurophysiology links to music and reading success. Phonological awareness is processed for segments of sound, both text and musically based. It would seem that well-planned experiences for emergent readers with music are necessary for their rich reading development and language support.

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Early Literacy and Music. (2022, Jan 03). Retrieved from


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