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Musical youth

Part 2 of Sue Palmer's foundation stage series doesn't miss a beat

Last November the foundation department of Roskear School in Camborne, Cornwall, began basing its practice on the seven strands of the Foundations of Literacy project: listening; talk; music; storytime; concepts of print; phonics; and preparation for handwriting. Practitioners in the nursery class found musical activities particularly useful, and new CD resources make these easy to provide, even when staff have little or no musical training. The reception classes use similar techniques and timings, adjusted to fit a full day and slightly older children (with more specific attention, for instance, to phonics and letter formation); they intend to carry this approach through into Year 1 after the summer break.

8.55am Children begin arriving, and register by putting name cards in a basket while parents chat to nursery nurse Julie Phillips, who is standing by the door to deal with enquiries. Outdoor clothes are hung up and picture books swapped before parents depart and children go into the setting.

Nursery teacher Mandy Lawrence is stationed well back from the door, where she can give her attention to the 26 children as they come in, greeting each by name with a welcoming comment or enquiry. Children choose quiet activities such as books or games, or chat to Mandy or friends about their news and the items they have brought in for the day.

9.05am Mandy signals welcome time in the carpeted area, which is large enough for the group to form a circle or do limited dance and movement activities. Many children have poor listening, language and concentration skills, and starting with musical activities helps settle them. With accompaniment on CD, the children sing two familiar action songs and have a go at a new one. Then they sit down for a quick listening game and finish with a couple of steady-beat activities: clapping a rhythm, then a simple dance. Julie sits or stands with less able members of the group and helps them join in. After only a few weeks, Mandy has noticed huge improvements in all the children's co-ordination and attention span.

Steady beat and rhythm

Research from America suggests that a young child's ability to keep a steady beat is a key indicator of later academic success. In the earliest stages, this skill may aid the development of speech, as a sense of rhythm underlies our ability to pick up patterns in spoken phrases and sentences.

In terms of literacy, a key stage of phonological awareness is the ability to discriminate syllables - the "beats" within a word - and appreciation of rhythm also leads children to recognise rhyming patterns, critical for learning phonics.

To read and write fluently, children must also be sensitive to the rhythms and patterns of written language, which is more complex and organised than the language of spontaneous speech. Musical activities develop sensitivity to the tunes and cadences of written phrases, sentences and paragraphs - what Robert Louis Stevenson called the chime of fine words, and the stately march of the period. It is possible that, at a later stage of education, understanding of punctuation and the ability to read with expression have their roots in early steady-beat and rhythm-based activities.

9.20am Focused activities and choice: there are two adult-directed activities (one based on language, the other on number), to which children are invited for about 10 minutes and may then stay as long as they wish. As places at the activity tables come free, Mandy and Julie find children who want to take a turn. Other choices include sand, water, painting, cut-and-stick, mark making, role-play, puppets, construction toys, music-making, small worlds, and so on. When not at the tables, Mandy and Julie talk with children at play.

10.20am Julie sings the "tidy up" song to signal a change-over, and children join in as they put toys and equipment away. A number rap then summons everyone to the all-together area for another quick singsong. The current favourite CD is Music Express from Aamp;C Black, because the songs have a limited musical range and it is easy to join in. Mandy then supervises a circle time sentence-completion activity: "My name is... and my favourite toy is...", while Julie and two small helpers set up the room for snack time.

Songs, rhymes and chants

Song is an obvious way to develop important listening skills, such as sound discrimination and aural attention span, as well as social skills of collaboration, such as turn-taking and learning to sing in time with others. Singing also helps refine young children's articulation and develops their control of vocal expression, introducing a range of pitch, volume and subtlety. Songs, rhymes and chants are a fun way to introduce and reinforce new vocabulary and concepts. The longstanding success of alphabet songs and number rhymes illustrates how rhythm and melody aid memorisation; action songs also draw on the kinaesthetic learning channel.

Musical accompaniment on CD ensures the maintenance of rhythm and melody while practitioners concentrate on the children, but songs do not have to be complicated or accompanied. Music and literacy specialist Linda Caroe suggests using simple familiar tunes to make up your own songs, like her "tidy up" song to the tune of The Farmer's in the Den: We're tidying the room, we're tidying the room, Ee-i-addio, we're tidying the room.

This can be adapted to fit specific activities: We're clearing up the toys... We're putting out the chairs... We're tidying the paints...

Linda's rap for summoning children to circle or storytime is simply: 1, 2, 3, 4, Come and sit down on the floor 5, 6, 7, 8 Hurry up and don't be late...

1, 2, 3, 4 Are you sitting on the floor?

5, 6, 7, 8, Are you sitting really straight?

= 10.40amChildren share fruit and milk at tables in friendship groups.

Mandy and Julie sit and join in talk, then help children put on outdoor clothes.

10.45am Outdoor play

11.05am Back to the carpeted area for storytime: today it consists of two favourite picture books and a short storytelling session.

11.17am The final activity of the day is a short series of movement and mime activities, using Penpals Foundation 1 materials, with instructions and musical accompaniment on CD. This prepares children, through large-scale movements, for the concepts and physical control they will need for handwriting. Today's activities are growing, shrinking, curling and stretching, then marching like soldiers. They enjoy the marching hugely, much to the approval of the staff, who have discovered it is particularly good for developing co-ordination and steady-beat skills.

Music and movement

There are many ways in which moving to music helps prepare children for literacy. Reading and writing are highly complex tasks, involving the integration of mental activity in both hemispheres of the brain.

For instance, in order to read with understanding, a child must be able to combine: lphonic decoding (small, sequential, analytic processing tasks - functions of the left brain); and loverall comprehension of the text (holistic understanding - right brain function).

Any physical actions involving controlled and integrated movement of both sides of the body help children develop the connections required for this sort of balanced mental activity.

Steady-beat activities, marching games, action songs and dances fulfil these requirements, as well as developing children's motor control and hand-eye co-ordination in preparation for physical handwriting skills.

11.22am Time for the "goodbye" song and collecting belongings, as parents congregate at the door.

11.25am Home time, with music playing in the background. Then Mandy and Julie prepare the setting for another nursery session in the afternoon.

Next week: Storytime


National Literacy Trust Foundation of Literacy conference, June 10 in York Tel: 020 7828 2435

* Helping Young Children With A Steady Beat by Ros Bayley and Lynn Broadbent. Lawrence Educational Publications, pound;12.50Tel: 01922 643833

* Carousel songs CD, and workshops. Linda Caroe Tel: 01323 734418

* Music Express Foundation Stage music resources. Aamp;C Black pound;29.99 Tel: 01489 212666

* Penpals Foundation 1 teaching book and CD. Cambridge University Press pound;26+VAT Tel: 01223 325915

* Write Dance video, book and CD by Ragnhild Voors. Lucky Duck Publishing pound;48+VAT Tel: 0117 973 2881

* Foundations of Literacy by Sue Palmer and Ros Bayley will be published by Network Press in June.

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