Music and literacy work in concert

3rd August 2012 at 01:00
Learning the former can boost the latter, a study with primary school pupils finds. Adi Bloom reports

Teaching pupils music can result in significant improvements to their reading and writing, new research reveals.

Recently, interest has grown in the ways in which the human brain processes music. Several studies have suggested that musicians possess a superior ability to encode linguistic sounds. Academics from the University of London's Institute of Education therefore decided to see whether music lessons would help to improve children's literacy.

They introduced the New London Orchestra's Literacy Through Music programme to 207 Year 2 pupils from east London schools. After two terms, the children's oral and reading skills were tested, as were their attitudes to music and singing. This was complemented by a control group of 61 pupils, who did not participate in the Literacy Through Music programme but underwent the same tests at the end of the two-term period.

The programme involved a range of music-based activities. During one lesson the teacher clapped a simple rhythm to the class (slow, slow, quick, quick, slow), matched with the phrase "don't clap this one back".

The teacher then clapped a series of increasingly complicated rhythms, which the pupils were required to remember and repeat back. Then, when presented with the "slow, slow, quick, quick, slow" pattern, they were expected to respond with "don't clap this one back".

During the course of the lesson, pupils' ability to remember longer and more intricate phrases improved. Pupils were then invited to create rhythms for the rest of the class to repeat.

In a second activity, the teacher sang a Jamaican song, explaining the patois lyrics to pupils. Children learned the song through call and response, and offered their own potential interpretations of the lyrics. The teacher then added actions to create a simple dance.

"Pupils were engaged for a high proportion of the session ... imitating the practitioners, listening and vocalising," the researchers say. "The pacing of the session was fast, full of energy and began and ended in sound."

A more obviously literacy-based lesson began with a teacher reading out a reinterpretation of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, in which Red was cruel and vindictive, and the wolf was painfully misunderstood. Pupils suggested words to describe both characters. These words were then used as the basis for a creative-writing exercise later in the week.

"Although very little reading or writing by the pupils took place within the intervention session, the sessions provided the stimulus ... to support reading and writing tasks during the curriculum time that followed," the researchers say.

The programme required teamwork from teachers, teaching assistants and musicians. The literacy goals of the programme were also made explicit. "This integrated approach was important in fostering the children's progress," the researchers say.

Increase in reading age

Indeed, the result was an unequivocal improvement in participants' levels of literacy. Pupils' reading ages increased significantly during the two-term period, from a minimum of 4.8 months to a maximum of 13.2 months.

Across the classes, reading ages increased by an average of 8.4 months. By contrast, the average reading age improvement in the two control classes was 1.8 months. There was, however, no evidence that the programme had any effect on pupils' oral skills.

The singing ability of Literacy Through Music participants also improved significantly, and more markedly than that of the control pupils. This resulted in a greater sense of social inclusion.

The programme, the academics suggest, therefore enabled "inner-city children to achieve significantly more in literacy and music" than their peers outside the programme.

But, they add, the link between music and literacy should not be assumed to be automatic. Instead, it depends on the nature of the particular musical activities, as well as the pedagogical skills of the teachers involved.

"Our impression continues to be that sustained teamwork was a key component in the positive outcomes, as this allowed the expert craft knowledge of each constituency to contribute to ... musical as well as literacy benefits," they conclude.


Welch, G. Saunders, J. Hobsbaum, A. and Himonides, E. Literacy Through Music: a research evaluation of the New London Orchestra's Literacy Through Music programme (2012). International Music Education Research Centre.


International Music Education Research Centre.

Institute of Education, University of London.


Successful sessions were likely to include the following elements:

- A confident teacher.

- Pupils engaged for a high percentage of the lesson time.

- Opportunities for pupils' voices to be heard, either through song or speech.

- A musical beginning and ending to the session.

- Recognition of high-quality performance and responses that often provide the impetus for an activity.

- A pace suitable to the material of the particular lesson, such as a fast-paced session involving repetition, or a more intermittent pace to allow for exploring new ideas.

- Learning placed within the wider context of pupils' lives.

- Links to learning opportunities beyond the lesson itself.

Less successful sessions tended to include the following:

- Global or blanket praise without focused feedback, which would allow pupils to improve.

- Poor pacing, with sessions lacking momentum or failing to challenge the most able pupils.

- Learning taking place within a vacuum, unrelated to the broader context of pupils' lives.

- Limited space for pupils' voices to be heard and acknowledged.

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