Why we’re beating the drum for better literacy

13th November 2015 at 00:00
One teacher on the musical intervention that transformed learning at his school

It is Monday morning and my school is moving to the beat of a drum. It has done for two years now. If you come to visit us, be prepared to join in or bring some ear plugs.

You see, 61 children at my primary school learned drumming last year, and even more will do so this year. Not only is this activity fun and therapeutic, but we also think it boosts learning in quite a spectacular way.

It began with an article in Science Weekly that discussed the benefits of drumming and, in particular, how it contributed to gains in reading scores. The article made reference to neurolinguistic programming and I knew there were issues with the evidence base for that, so I decided to do some digging. Meanwhile, I sent the article to my headteacher, Denise Assid at St Andrew’s Catholic Primary in South London, hoping that her response would be slightly more enthusiastic than when I had emailed her about reading dogs earlier in the term…

As it happened, she had read similar articles, was very keen and had already considered how we could implement such a programme, who we would get to do it and which children would benefit most. The hitch was making certain that the evidence stacked up and that our joint enthusiasm didn’t lead us into the murky waters of confirmation bias.

The evidence

I read a number of online articles regarding the benefits of drumming, and of music in general. Quite a bit of the research I saw came out in favour, but much of it was fairly old and didn’t help me much in validating the initial article.

I was beginning to wonder if the scheme wasn’t viable after all. But then I remembered that Professor Susan Hallam at the UCL Institute of Education had done some meta research on music and learning gains.

I am aware that meta research has some limitations – it can reduce evidence to the average or norm and in doing so ignore some interesting outcomes at the margins. But in this case, it corroborated the articles my headteacher and I had read.

In her work on this topic – including The Power of Music (bit.ly/HallamMusic), a research synthesis published by the International Music Education Research Centre in January – Hallam concludes that group drumming can benefit “medical and sociological” areas. These, she says, include:

l Aural perception, which in turn supports the development of language and literacy skills.

l Verbal and visual memory skills.

l Spatial reasoning, which contributes to some elements of maths and constitutes part of measured intelligence.

l Executive functioning, which is implicated in intelligence and academic learning more generally.

l Self-regulation, which is implicated in all forms of learning requiring extensive practice.

l Creativity, particularly where the musical activities are themselves creative.

l Academic attainment.

It was the claims for increased development of language and literacy skills that really convinced us to go ahead and try this out.

The project

And so we embarked on our own school-based project. I won’t call it research, because our approach is not very scientific. And even if it were, it is well documented that randomised controlled trials in primary schools are notoriously difficult to derive any meaningful data from.

We are fortunate to have a talented set of teachers, including excellent peripatetic music teachers such as Tony Kofi, a world-class saxophonist who agreed to lead the drumming sessions.

He threw himself at the project with the enthusiasm of a Labrador puppy spotting a dirty puddle at 50 yards. After reading the research, he immediately set to work planning his lessons and we began timetabling.

We started small with about 20 children from deprived backgrounds who were eligible for pupil premium funding. We built up the programme slowly and last year had more than 60 children drumming. We have expanded the project to include pupils with a range of needs and talents, and now hold an after-school club for up to 30 children.

The pupils drum with Tony at least once a week. They start with simple rhythms, then move on to syncopation and combinations in pairs and larger groups. They tackle and memorise increasingly complex pieces that last up to 10 minutes. Eventually these pieces lead to opportunities for improvisation or children taking the role as leader.

The pupils perform at assemblies, for visitors and at our end-of-year parades or carnival. Each time, a roar of approval rises from the watching crowd. Can you imagine what that means to the children involved?

The impact

The outcomes have been overwhelmingly positive and we have seen very real benefits for the pupils enrolled on the programme. I would be reluctant to attribute it all to drumming, because a whole range of factors affect children’s learning and development. However, the data doesn’t lie.

Let’s look at pupils in key stage 1. All the children who did drumming in Year 1 passed the phonics test, compared with only 96 per cent of those who didn’t participate. This makes sense if we look at research suggesting that learning to discriminate differences between tonal and rhythmic patterns, and to associate these with visual symbols, improves phonemic awareness.

Moving on to Year 2, all the drummers achieved level 2b or higher in reading, compared with 91 per cent of the non-drummers. In addition, we saw very good progress from a low starting point in all areas of the curriculum.

In Year 6, 100 per cent of pupils who drummed attained level 4 in reading and writing as opposed to 94 per cent of non-drummers in reading and 92 per cent in writing. Again, we have seen excellent rates of progress during the two years of the programme.

We’re convinced of the benefits, and I’ll give the last word to Tony: “Drumming with others brings with it many benefits,” he says. “Taking part in a drumming circle attunes us to the invisible energy that exists between us while uniting us in a common purpose. Drumming can be relaxing as well as energising. It quiets mental chatter and can create a peaceful meditative state.”

How many children get that opportunity in everyday life?

Chris Andrew teaches at St Andrew’s Catholic Primary School in Streatham, South London

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