In praise of song

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
The academic success that follows a cathedral chorister's education is legendary. It's true the children chosen are often bright but it is their training that is special. Not only is the voice trained, but so is the ear,the eye and the memory. Music and movement are vital skills in early learning, but our television-dominated society does little for children's attention spans.

A child's earliest language is physical, using movement, posture and gesture. A small child asked to say "hand", will usually wave a hand at the same time as saying the word. Only as children gain control over their bodies and learn to separate action from language can they concentrat e fully on higher skills.

Between the ages of four and seven, children love activities involving action, repetition, rhythm and song.

Forty years ago, few people would have considered it odd to learn the alphabet to a tune, the days of the week to rhythm and the months of the year to a rhyme. Many tedious batteries of information were stored in this way, ready for use later, rather like a reference library. This prompted a major criticism. If a child had no understanding of what was learned, what use was the information? Surely, it was reasoned, concepts should be learned before detail?

But the developing brain is particularly receptive to just this type of rote learning between the ages of four and seven-and-a-half. It involves the developing right hemisphere of the cortex, the side of the brain that learns to read by the whole-word, looksay method. The more specific skills associated with the left hemisphere start to develop from age six-and-a-half to eight.

Many of today's children find learning sequences of information after age seven difficult. Is it because they have missed the "window" of opportunity for developing these skills?

A chorister memorises sounds and reading material far in advance of the normal reading level for children of a similar age. This may include songs in Latin, French and German - not yet met in school. The process of vocalising sounds builds up a storehouse of vocabulary, which may be called upon later.

Putting words to music breaks them down into syllables, emphasises key consonants and slows down the sounds of speech. Not only is the voice trained, but also the ear, eye and memory.

Many aspects of modern living encourage short-term memory deficit. The average duration of a scene on television is about 40 seconds. Rarely do programmes follow a storyline consistently from beginning to end. Children have little practice in concentrating on a single theme for several minutes, but to read a book, they must learn to do this.

The ability to sit still and pay attention is linked to maturity of the motor system and balance mechanism. These are trained through movement, exercise and practice. Are falling literacy standards a symptom of our sedentary lifestyle?

Former generations insisted on exercise as a daily part of the curriculum.The school day started with physical exercises involving crossing the body,such as touching the left foot with the right hand - vital for writing from left to right. Practice with balance and co-ordination also improved spatial awareness (fundamental to reading and maths). Does the modern obsession with grades, finances and statistics ignore the wisdom of the past? Before children can develop higher-order thinking skills they must have control over their bodies and be able to recognise and vocalise the sounds of language. Music and movement remain vital keys to early learning.

Sally Goddard Blythe is a specialist in detecting dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder and co-ordination difficulties at the Institute for Neuro-physiological Psychology, Chester

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