Making Musical Links with Literacy

This is a cross-post from  Liz Buchanan‘s blog Antelope Dance Music & Literacy originally published on 8/8/17

Liz Buchanan

I once taught at a preschool where the director told me: “Just have fun singing with the kids,” implying that they’d pick up the literacy learning elsewhere in their day. I understand what she meant, but she missed the point. Childhood music and early literacy are so intertwined that it’s hard to make music with young children without touching upon key literacy skills.

Consider the topic of rhythm. Rhythm is a part of language, just as it’s part of music. Many music teachers incorporate syllable segmentation into their lessons by having students clap their names or tap words on a drum. Musical rhythm becomes interchangeable with language rhythm. Just as they segment musical phrases, children hear and understand multi-syllable words in chunks that can be sounded out and broken into smaller elements.

Or consider another activity we often do with young children: saying a familiar rhyme and letting the child fill in a rhyming end word. For example: Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man. Bake me a cake as fast as you ___ (the child fills in can). Songs and nursery rhymes are a natural vehicle for children to hear, express and initiate rhyming words, thus distinguishing vowel sounds and building phonological awareness.

On any given day, my music lesson includes songs that perfectly complement the other literacy activities during the child’s day at school. Here are some of those elements:

A finger play song such as “Tommy Thumb is Up” incorporates sequencing and characters, building children’s insight into the elements of stories. I use a glove puppet and give each character distinct personality traits, including the contrary “Ruby Ring.”

Finger plays also build manual dexterity as children work toward handwriting skills. Here’s a link to a recording of this song, although you should note that I usually sing about all the fingers in this song: Tommy Thumb, Penny Pointer, Toby Tall, Ruby Ring and Pinky Finger.

My version of “The Muffin Man” engages children with starting letter sounds in verses about “Muffin Man,” the “Lemonade Lady,” the “Cookie Cat” and the “Donut Dog,” to name a few. I add visuals by using a sign with key words and a picture for each verse.

“Icky Sticky and Ooey Gooey” gives students a chance to hear and guess rhymes by connecting a word to a rhyming body part (sand-hand, tree-knee, hoe-toe, track-back).   I use spoon puppets to engage children visually and create a sense of fun.

Movement activities, always part of my music lessons, have many literacy links. When children imitate caterpillars and butterflies on my song “If I Were a Butterfly,” they build their understanding of a sequenced nonfiction narrative.

If they act out my musical version of “The Tortoise and the Hare” to learn about tempo, they’re getting a taste of the fable genre and building understanding that all stories have a beginning, middle and end. They might develop a similar understanding by acting out my “Three Little Pigs” song, described in another post on this blog.

I love language, stories and poems, so to me, the literacy element has special appeal in music lesson planning. Musical concepts on their own, even for young children, can be somewhat abstract. Literacy content grounds the music lesson in the familiar world. At a workshop with Andy Davis of New England Dancing Masters, he talked about telling stories to introduce new songs to young children. He understands the connection that children naturally make with a good storyteller or a book, which often can lead into a song.

The reverse is also true. A song can get children’s attention on a literacy topic. A teacher can begin a lesson on rhyming words having the children join in singing a rhyming song. My songs on word families, sound segmentation and syllable clapping are a natural lead-in to spoken lessons on those topics, especially once the kids know the songs and can sing along and even help compose their own verses. You can find most of the literacy songs I’ve mentioned on my download album, Songs for Rhyming and Reading.

My first love in teaching is music, but I firmly believe in all the connections that music can make to everything else in a child’s world. The connection with emergent reading is a total natural!

Don’t Forget the Music! 6 Back to School Tips for Teachers!

BACKtoSCHOOLcanstockphoto39451008Teachers have a tall order preparing for the new year. They often spend weeks setting up their classroom so that when the kiddos arrive, they will have an inviting organized space for learning. My teacher friends have been posting pictures of their classrooms on FaceBook to show how ready they are. I love seeing the creative bulletin boards and desk combinations, but I just want to say one thing. . . “Don’t forget the music!”

Here are some tips for teachers planning for music in their back-to-school classroom. These tips are great for establishing routines that will not only engage learners, but also diffuse some of those negative behaviors we see when kids are anxious.

1. Morning and End of Day Routine Songs —
When kids enter the classroom at the start of each day, there is a bustle of activity which can often be extremely chaotic. Kids push into the classroom with their backpacks, lunch boxes, sweaters and jackets — all needing to get settled before the child can sit at their seat ready to learn (not to mention attendance, lunch orders, homework collection, notes from home, announcements, the pledge,  etc. etc). Many teachers assign classroom responsibilities and chores as well that need to be completed.


Morning routine songs and end of the day songs can help define these chaotic times. Playing an up-beat hello song as the children come in the door can set a tone for a positive, productive day. Once the children understand their tasks, challenge the children to finish their jobs and be in their seats by the end of the song. Same for the end of the day routine. Kids will sing along and happily get ready to go in a timely fashion.

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2. Transition Songs —
As you plan out your daily schedule think about ways to transition your students from one activity to another. We have countless transition songs tailored just for this purpose — everything from going to art class, lining up, starting a math unit, or going to the bathroom.

Some children struggle with transitioning from one activity to another. They either cannot leave the last activity (hyper-focus) or they cannot attend to a new activity (lack of focus). Music can really be a boost for these children and help them close out one activity and move to another. It’s a lot more engaging than simply announcing, “Class, time for math now.” Choosing songs that have academic content for these transitions also can have the added benefit of introducing or reinforcing subject matter.

If a teacher uses transition songs consistently, children will tune in to the routine of the day and are better able to switch their focus. Lastly, putting movement to these transition songs (marching, fist pumps, crossing the midline, etc) has the added benefit of providing a Brain Break for the learners and helps reduce learning fatigue.
3. Set up a Listening Station —
boy_w_headphones_iStock_000005494750XSmallMost primary classrooms have a reading nook or book table. Why not have a listening station as well! This can be used as a part of a rotation of centers or it can be a place where kids can go to when their seat work is done.


Teachers can go old-school and set up a boom box with headphones, but technology has made this much easier. Using a tablet, computer or even cell phone, the teacher can create a listening station playlist. This can be powerful when using content driven music. Align the playlist for different units or themes in the classroom to reinforce topics covered in class. One tip is to plan for songs that match the current literature study, or your current social studies, science or math unit. As the year goes on, you can tailor this station to the differentiated needs of your students.
4. Substitute Teacher Playlist —
The day will come in the not too distant future where you will need a sub for your classroom. Whether you have the sniffles or you’re headed to a great PD session, planning for your sub can be a chore. As a teacher, you are not always sure who will be in your classroom and how skilled they might be. You certainly don’t want the day to be a loss for the kids.


Creating a playlist just for subs can serve as a great tool for the substitute. The kids will be engaged and it might help reduce some of the classic shenanigans that go on when the teacher is away! Again, using content based songs, you can reinforce topics you are learning in class. In your sub instructions, simply tell the teacher when to play each song. You might even want to designate a student to teach the substitute teacher the movements!
5. Mindfulness & Growth Mindset Songs —

GIRLFLOWERcanstockphoto10919689There has been a lot of research on mindfulness in the education of late. Mindfulness allows for children to be in tune with their body and their feelings and how one can, in turn, become empathetic and mindful of others. Planning for a few minutes of centering each day with songs that sooth, encourage or teach self awareness can create an environment for social-emotional learning.

Likewise, Growth Mindset has been the push in many classrooms. Growth Mindset is based on the belief that children can always grow and learn – that learning is not limited or fixed. When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger and therefore they are motivated to take on challenges. Songs that encourage positivity and character can help teachers create an environment of persistence so that kids see effort as the path toward mastery.


Weaving these social-emotional and character education songs throughout your lessons, can have long lasting effects on the children in your classroom.
6. Plan for Upcoming Holidays —
Once the year starts, it is amazing how quickly it goes. Before you know it, it will be Halloween, then Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, then the winter holidays! Sometimes these holidays can catch up on you by surprise.
It isn’t too early to gather some music for these seasons. You can switch up your routine or transition music with holiday songs or create a playlist for a party. (We have some great streaming apps that do just the trick!). Looking for a good song for a school performance? We have several for holidays or by topic that come with instrumental tracks or sheet music for performing.

How Music and Singing Helps Brain Development In Children

Today’s post is by guest blogger & music teacher, Gary Stevens. 

How Music and Singing Helps Brain Development In Children
Music has been an easy target for the recent cuts to school budgets. Since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, the quality and quantity of music education all over the country has plummeted. The bureaucrats who make these decisions seem to have a very outdated view of education, focusing on math and science and other “proper” subjects, and do not seem to realize the huge advantages that music education has for children.
The numbers today are shocking. Recent research has shown that in New York, 85% of students have not received adequate musical education by the time they reach high school, and in California fully 50% of school music programs have been closed since 2009.

My aim today is simple – if you are not aware of the benefits that learning music can have for your kid, I’ll explain these. Then, I’ll give you some ideas about how you can take the initiative, and incorporate musical education into your kids’ schooling.

The Evidence

Even a quick glance at recent research about music education proves beyond doubt that learning music has huge advantages. A huge study in Germany, one of the biggest pieces of research in this area ever conducted, proves that musical training improves both cognitive and non-cognitive skills by more than twice as much as sports, theater or dance.

For many progressive educators, of course, this is not a surprise. Many well respected educative analysts have been saying for years that learning music leads to better attendance, improved academic performance, and ultimately happier children.

Improved Academic Performance

It’s become something of a cliché to point out the deep links between mathematics and music. You probably know a guy or gal who plays an instrument, and is also great at math, but this is also backed up by scientific research.

The reasons for this connection have long been argued about, but the current scientific thinking seems to be that both music and math stimulate and develop a particular type of brain activity – spatial-temporal reasoning. The rhythm and discipline involved in playing and learning music appears to be a great way of developing the kind of deep-thinking skills that are so useful in technical disciplines, and so valued in industry.

Playing music seems to really improve children’s ability to think through complex problems, and so can rapidly improve their academic performance in technical subjects like math and science. In addition, the research suggests that this effect is even more pronounced for students who come from lower-income families, and so music education has an important role to play in closing the achievement gap.

Improved Memory And Speech

But it’s not only technical subjects that benefit from learning music. Playing an instrument also stimulates and develops the parts of the brain that process and work with language. This is likely because learning an instrument requires a direct connection between sound and thought, and after even a few months of practice significant improvements in working memory and speech comprehension are observed.

This is one of the best arguments for incorporating musical education into the very earliest years of schooling, because improved memory and speech means that children learn to read and write much more quickly. With better short-term memory, an improved ability to concentrate, and being used to make a connection between written signs and sound, kids make more rapid progress with this if they are also learning music.

For kids who are learning a second language, the effect is even more pronounced. There is a long and well-established connection between language learning and music. This should not really be surprising, of course, since both types of learning involve a keen ear and converting written signs into organized sound.

Making Better People

Beyond academic performance, of course, there is another compelling reason for children to learn music – a broad education makes better people. When educating any child, the aim should be not just to get them good grades in school, but also to allow them to develop into a well-rounded individual, and music helps with this.

Although this is a more difficult area to research than the improvement in grades caused by a musical education, some statistics are available. Recent research shows that lower-income students who receive a musical education are more civic-minded, more likely to vote, more likely to do volunteer work, get a degree and end up in a professional career.

The reasons for this are mysterious, but if you’ve ever learned an instrument you might have a theory about how it works. I know I do – the experience of playing in a band or orchestra is one of the best ways of teaching kids co-operation, compromise, and teamwork. This seems to translate, in later life, to adults who are better-rounded.

How To Teach Your Kids Music

Given the huge cuts in musical education in schools, and given the benefits that learning music can have for your kids, you might want to take the initiative and arrange a musical education for them. There are a few key steps here.

The first is choosing an instrument. Whilst it might be tempting to go for a classical instrument, in my experience it is best to choose an instrument that is used in the music your children actually like. If they are into classical music, great, but they are in a minority. They are more likely to want to learn guitar, and letting them choose the same instrument as their musical heroes will ultimately be more fun for them, and keep them engaged. Luckily, however, there is an instrument that has the rigour of a classical instrument, and can also be used in rock and roll – the keyboard. Getting a decent starter keyboard, and of course a keyboard amp, is a great start.

Even if you play an instrument yourself, I also think it best to arrange for a professional teacher for your kid. Trying to teach them yourself tends to lead to arguments, which can quickly sap the enthusiasm and fun that should be part of learning an instrument. There are plenty of sites that can allow you to find a teacher.

From there, let your kid explore their own path. Doing this will allow them to keep up their motivation, play for longer, and ultimately allow them to realize all the benefits of learning music.

Gary Stevens is a music teacher and avid guitar enthusiast from Ottawa, Canada. On his spare time he runs the blog Best Amps where he helps new musicians find the top amplifiers for their guitars.








Reflections from Two of a Kind!

Here are some reflections from Two of a Kind, our June Artist of the Month. 
Two of a Kind

A couple of my favorite things happen in the month of June: Father’s Day, and the beginning of library summer reading programs.  As the father of twins (our sons Ari & Jason came after our name “Two of a Kind”!), I look forward to this holiday.  At one point, I looked around in vain for songs for Father’s Day, and so I decided to write one of my own.  However, I got a bit side-tracked, and I ended up writing a song about other species of dads, called Animal Dads.  This song features facts about cotton-top tamarins, emperor penguins, seahorses, and Darwin’s frogs – all species in which the dads play a special role.

I have also written songs celebrating various aspects of my experience of being a parent, including This Old Rocking Chair (a lullaby), Family Harmony (tracing the history of singing in my family), Think of it as an Adventure (when things go wrong on family vacations), Gotta Go (trouble getting out the door), I Have 2 Stomachs (our sons’ explanation for why they could be full but still have room for dessert), Are You Listening? (selective hearing), and (All I Have To Do Is) Scream (a parody of the Everly Brothers’ song about infants).

Every June, we start a summer full of summer reading program performances at libraries, and we particularly love this year’s theme of “Build a Better World”.  We’ll be doing lots of reading/library/book songs, including Tom Chapin’s Library Song,  Seven Nights to Read, Author, and Monty Harper’s Hangin’ Out with Heroes at the Library.  We’ll also be including lots of songs about making the world a better place, such as We’re All in this Together, Sally Rogers’ What Can One Little Person Do?, Bill Harley’s It’s a Long Way, The World is Not Your Garbage Can, Ruth Pelham’s Under One Sky, and of course Peter & Ellen Allard’s Building a Better World.  We also love including our song I Dig Reading, for the intersection between the reading themes and the literal take on “building”.

june songsmother's day & father's day songsholidaysSummer SongsReading Encouragement Songs
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