As the Cultural Commission demanded that the arts should be centre-stage in schools (page 4), remarkable gains in early reading are being reported by a Glasgow east end nursery following specialist music tuition.
The four-year-olds from Queen Mary Street nursery in Bridgeton received lessons from a Kod ly music specialist, a rhythm-based approach developed by the Hungarian composer Zolt n Kod ly.
The findings were "really exciting", Brian Boyd, professor of education at Strathclyde University, said. "The debate in Scotland has tended to be on the actual approach to teaching children to read and when you should do it.
This research, however, opens up the whole field of factors around reading mechanisms."
The research compared 32 children from Queen Mary Street nursery with a control group from a similar nursery. It found that those who had received the Kod ly tuition were 11.5 months ahead of their chronological age in literacy by the end of primary 1.
Those who had not received any music education had a mean reading age of 4.6 months less than their chronological age.
Maureen Myant, senior educational psychological in Glasgow, who conducted the study, believes that early exposure to this particular form of music tuition gave the children a better phonological awareness, which in turn gave them a better letter knowledge and reading ability.
Earlier research has suggested that the Kod ly training teaches young children to discriminate between pitch, sounds, rhymes and syllables, which helps them to distinguish the sounds that make up words when they start to read.
Ms Myant said: "If, as is likely, children who have had music instruction become better readers, then the implications are clear. Music instruction using the Kod ly method should become an integral part of the nursery curriculum. Whether this needs to be carried out by a music specialist remains to be seen. It may be that the methods used are easily passed on to staff in nursery."
Kod ly developed a teaching method for young children which, at its basic level, involves opportunities to say the words to songs in rhyme, clap the basic beat, step to the beat and clap the rhythm of the text. The concepts of high-low, loud-soft, fast-slow are also taught.
The sessions lasted 20-30 minutes a week, with nursery staff doing daily singing sessions for 10-15 minutes.
Susan Fotheringham, headteacher of the nursery, said: "When we started doing the Kod ly music, we noticed an immediate difference in the children.
They appeared to be very alert. They were making jokes and looking at how words were put together in ways which we would not have expected to happen until much later in the school session.
"We thought: 'There is something interesting going on.' They were more aware of the sound of words, which sparked us off to look in more depth at what was happening."
One girl, in a discussion about animals, reacted to the word elephant by saying: "I know elephant. It's three claps: e-le-phant." Other children also showed early development of word play with rhymes. "You tend to see these things happening from April to summer, but this was happening around November to Christmas time," she said. "They were more aware of sound and that sort of rhythmic structure."
The school also reported improvements in pupils' social development. "They were more aware of one another and they were being kinder to one another," Mrs Fotheringham said. "The sessions were quite a part of it - waiting to take turns on an instrument and looking at one another gave them time to be in a group and to be aware of other children."
Ms Myant's research was carried out between 1998 and 2000 with the children being tested at the beginning and end of the pre-school year, and again at the beginning and end of P1.
As the children from both Queen Mary Street nursery and the control nursery were scattered among a number of different primary schools, their success or otherwise in early literacy could not be attributed to the abilities of a single P1 teacher.
Ms Myant said she had not had time to follow up that initial research but would like the study to be replicated and the children in the original study to be followed up now that they are in P4.
Mrs Fotheringham has found sufficient funding to reintroduce a more limited form of the Kod ly instruction this year, lasting 30 minutes once a week over 20 weeks and involving fewer children.
She hopes to extend the programme through an "arts and minds" research project (see panel) being funded by the Scottish Executive Education Department under its FLaT (Future Learning and Teaching) programme.