Published January 31, 2013
New research from the Graduate School of Education shows a link between preschool music activities and the development of reading and writing skills in children.
Funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and published in the Bulletin for the Council of Research in Music Education, the two-year study examined the impact of "musically trained" early childhood teachers on the music and emergent reading and writing achievements of preschool children.
In the study, 165 preschoolers participated in music activities taught by 11 teachers who had received intensive training in musicianship skill and teaching strategies for guiding young children's music development.
The results showed that music instruction significantly increased children's oral vocabulary and grammatic understanding after controlling for students’ age and prior knowledge, and was especially effective for children who began with lower literacy skills.
“First, we found that the musicianship of the early childhood teachers improved as did their ability to guide music activities in ways that enhanced student music development,” says study co-author Maria Runfola, associate professor of learning and instruction. “In addition, the researchers found statistically significant links with two tests of early literacy development: oral vocabulary and grammatical understanding.”
The study results were mixed for music achievement, however. Students’ median scores were similar for the experimental and control groups on use of singing voice. Students' tonal-pattern achievement in the experimental group was significantly higher but no significant differences were found in children's rhythm-pattern achievement, the study found.
The researchers say the results provide the first link between music and literacy when music instruction is provided by “generalists”—regular classroom teachers in pre-kindergarten and day care centers.
Other researchers have shown pre-kindergarten students can make gains in emergent literacy and other developmental domains when they are taught by music specialists who have received formal training in music education.
“Music is one way that children can learn rhythm and rhyme of text, be exposed to new vocabulary and learn to discriminate a variety of sounds,” says Runfola.
National educational organizations such as the National Reading Association recommend “playful experiences” as ways to make these pre-kindergarten children more ready to read, Runfola points out. This new study clearly shows the association between music and traits that can make it easier for preschoolers to learn language skills, she says.
The study grew from Runfola and co-lead researcher Elisabeth Etopio’s beliefs in the importance of early childhood music development and that early childhood specialists could be taught to guide music learning in ways that also increased their students’ development in literacy. Etopio is visiting assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education.
The study points out that school districts increasingly are focused on test scores in math and literacy, often at the expense of appropriate music experiences for students.
“More and more, music educators are being asked to address other domains of student learning in addition to music-making and listening,” the report states.
Runfola is concerned that music programs in New York State are being cut due to Race to the Top requirements and the focus on “common core standards.”
“Administrators need to better understand the importance of the arts to children’s development,” Runfola says. “We hope this research will help music educators and childhood educators support their requests for music time for the youngest of our students. Children need daily appropriate music activity to stimulate their neural activity to develop tonal and rhythm audiation that, in turn, appears to help their emergent literacy skill.”
Parents should take note of these results and encourage their preschoolers to listen to a variety of music from recordings and especially in live venues, according to Runfola. Moreover, parents should interact with children musically in the same way they interact with them using spoken language. At a minimum, they should chant nursery rhymes and dance with them to music on radio, TV and recordings.