Music curriculum aims to nurture preschoolers' language skills

Children in daycare setting.

UB research shows that music instruction significantly increases children's oral vocabulary and understanding of grammar, and is especially effective for children who began with lower literacy skills.

Release Date: July 29, 2014 This content is archived.

“We can raise overall achievement in the United States if we get into preschool and take advantage of the magic and power of music. ”
Maria Runfola, PhD, associate professor of music education
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The transforming “magic” of music continues to occupy the spotlight at the Graduate School of Education, thanks to the ongoing research and commitment of two faculty members making careers of finding new ways to nurture better preschool readers.

Researchers Maria Runfola and Elisabeth Etopio follow their previous success in showing how music can help preschoolers learn language with an actual curriculum they will bring to 350 children from the ages of 1 to 5. The work is funded with a grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

These children are enrolled in the Community Action Organization’s Head Start program in the city of Buffalo. But Runfola and Etopio’s mission is to test a program that will benefit all children.

“Our message is a broad, universal one,” says Runfola, associate professor of music education in the Department of Learning and Instruction. “We can raise overall achievement in the United States if we get into preschool and take advantage of the magic and power of music.”

Preschool children are not getting music instruction that could make a real difference in improving overall development, particularly their reading readiness, according to the researchers. This is especially true of children labeled“at-risk.”

“This could be a program that evens the developmental playing field for all preschool children who engage in music activities during the day,” says Runfola. “But children, typically, are without the benefits of their teachers being coached and mentored by music specialists.

“This project has the potential for setting a national model on how music can benefit overall development of children in preschool and the important role of appropriate staff development for classroom teachers to guide music activities in preschool,” she says. “Also, it helps us shape the development of our music education majors who have chosen to focus their study on music in early childhood.”

Their work comes at a time when many school programs are cutting music from the curriculum because of the focus on Common Core and more technical subjects. Losing the opportunity for exposure to music at such a formative age is bad enough, the two researchers say. But the deck is stacked against preschool children even more because Runfola and Etopio’s research has shown how music can make young children more ready to benefit from classroom instruction and become better readers.

Runfola and Etopio conducted a study of 165 preschoolers who participated in music activities taught by 11 teachers with 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 understanding of grammar, and was especially effective for children who began with lower literacy skills.

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, rather than teachers trained in music. These classroom teachers have experienced intensive professional development in guiding music activities of young children.

This time the two researchers turn their attention toward the 350 Head Start students living in the city of Buffalo. Their grant also funds mentoring and coaching for 50 classroom teachers interested in integrating formative “music experiences” into their curriculum.

Children and teachers will experience the “magic of music in weekly music/movement sessions guided by “music teaching artists.” The curriculum features interactive, constructed learning experiences that promote a sense of community and foster positive social-emotional development.

“In this rich environment,” the grant states,“children also learn strategies for self-regulation and focus.”

The content includes songs and chants that enhance rhythm and rhyme; opportunities for aural discrimination — listening skills — that strengthen neural pathways for language learning; tonal-pattern and rhythm-pattern dialogue for improvised musical conversations; movement emphasizing flow, weight, space and time; playing and exploring simple instruments; and use of props, such as scarves and bean bags, to nurture rhythmic and expressive awareness.”

“The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo’s competitive grant program is exactly that —very competitive,” says Donald Elick, assistant vice president for corporate and foundation relations at UB, whose work supports faculty in preparing their foundation proposal submissions. “The fact that the foundation funded Dr. Runfola’s proposal in full speaks to its quality, exceptional conceptualization and the qualifications of the principal investigators.”

The opportunity to design a national model is especially exciting to Runfola and Etopio. One of its strongest qualities, they say, is the program’s ability to cultivate good learning habits in many subjects. Its appeal is universal.

“This project not only guides children’s music learning,” Runfola says, “but also the professional development of their teachers so that future classes of children will benefit from something so powerful and universal — music— something that students can learn to appreciate and cultivate their whole lives.”

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