Literacy skills and music: how our children learn to think in words or sentences

When parents ask me how to help their not verbal children start speaking I usually suggest techniques that involve music. The same goes with literacy skills. Musical notes and a free style of representing music and the spoken word can help our children understand how language works. How language can be “translated” into sounds, and these sounds represented with signs.
This way to represent Johann Strauß Jr.’s Tritsch Tratsch Polka is a great representation of what I consider very helpful to break down the steps between oral language, sounds, and some kind of representation.

Children can find their very own way to represent music and sounds: through art. They can draw something or design lines like in this example (it is from the Psicomúsica page on facebook; 3 July 2020 – click on the image to access the video):

If you compare this “representation” with the conventional one in the video here below, you can observe the similarity in structure that we, adults, need to help our children with understanding, or better, towards which we can guide your children.

Acquiring fluency in reading requires children to transform symbolic information provided by print into mental representations based on their prior language experience. This literacy acquisition relies heavily on the process of phonological awareness

Every child likes music, likes singing. In fact, singing songs is a great help to foster language acquisition and learning – also at a later stage!
This example is not a song one can sing along as it seems wordless as actual words are not added to the Tritsch Tratsch Polka, but it has clear musical notes.
These are the conventional ones (here below) but one can choose to represent them in all kinds of ways to help children follow the music like in the way it is represented here above, that makes it easier for very young children to “follow with the finger”.

Try to do the same with songs you sing with your child and let your child guide you with shapes, zigzag lines, colors… anything that works for them to represent words or melodies, will help them distinguish words, articulate them, find the rhythm of the language they are learning!

You can transfer this kind of representation illustrated here to words in texts. I got this idea when one of my children wrote a text at age 2, in what I thought were scribbles. When I asked him to tell me what was written there, he traced the lines with his finger and read the text to me. I understood that what were scribbles to me were words to him. So I decided to try to understand how his system worked, not the other way around! My son is now almost 18 and we moved twice since and his first writing attempts unfortunately got lost during the past two moves. But parents can ask their young children to write down what they want to say or words from songs in their own way. I find it mind blowing to see how they structure words and sentences from a very early age!

If you want to take the same signs like in the first video here above, you can for example represent “car” as a dot, “mo-ther” with two dots or a line etc. This method can help older children separating words into syllables, or understand sentences:  “the blue car” can be represented for example as a triangle.

According to

Music activities provide an excellent means for increasing children’s listening skills. Four- and five-year-olds can develop listening skills that will help them sing in tune, create melodies, accompany themselves on instruments, and move to music. They can be taught to listen to the expressive elements of music, such as melody, rhythm, and dynamics. In one way or another, music at all levels is focused on listening. The purposes and outcomes of listening may vary with the age of the listener and the musical setting, but there is perhaps no other music behavior so widely valued as good listening.

A way to “translate” this exercise in sentence and syllable awareness  is by focusing on the sequence of words, and repeating them in the way this teacher from InfantEd does, or syllables:

Please let me know what you think about using music to teach language in the comments here below.

Further readings about enhancing literacy skills and music:

Culatta, R. (2012). Social development theory (L. Vygotsky). In Instructional Design. Retrieved September 1, 2012.

Gee, J.P. (1989). What is literacy?. Journal of Education, 171(1), 18-25.

Hansen, D., Bernstorf, E., & Stuber, G.M. (2004). The music and literacy connection. Reston, Virginia: MENC: The National Association for Music Education.

Kimball, K., & O’Connor, L. (2010). Engaging auditory modalities through the use of music in information literacy instruction. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 49(4), 316-319.

McEwing, H.E. (2011). Music, movement, and early literacy: A best practices primer for “Gotta move!”. Children & Libraries: The Journal Of The Association For Library Service To Children, 9(2), 29-35.

Wiggins, D.G. (2007). Pre-k music and the emergent reader: promoting literacy in a music-enhanced environment. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35(1), 55-64.

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