|Flourish Online Magazine||Spring 2012|
Improving children's literacy, one note at a time
By Johanna Brown and Stephen Chamblee
“Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are…” For generations, countless English speaking children have memorized the alphabet to the melody of this popular nursery rhyme. The use of music as a teaching tool doesn’t end with the ABCs. In classrooms all across the country, children are learning history, language, geography and even math through the assistance of music education.
“When the kids play at the keyboards, they are learning to recognize letters, numbers and patterns,” explains music teacher Daniel Frisbie. The 2011-12 Teacher of the Year at Austell Primary School, Frisbie (music, 1996; music education, 2004; educational leadership, 2010) has been teaching music for the past six years. His students frequently “fly” and dance around the world singing songs from Mexico, the Bahamas, Japan, South Africa and France, often in their native languages. “All of the rhythmic movements we do in the classroom, whether jumping jacks, skipping and hopping or body percussion, connect to the brain and help to build the kids’ crucial thinking and motor skills,” says Frisbie.
According to a June 2009 article in Literacy Today, research has shown that music education can enhance both spatial awareness and mathematical ability. Spatially, students learn to map the invisible notes they hear into abstract patterns in their mind. The way in which music is structured – the time signatures, note values, frequencies and intervals – all relate to important mathematical concepts.
Furthermore, music education supports language development because “the brain processes language and music in a similar manner,” explains 1st-grade teacher Jennifer Dyer, in a 2011 article in Illinois Reading Council Journal. According to Dyer, the part of the brain that can distinguish between phonetically similar words, such as cat, hat and pat, is the same part that can distinguish between notes in a song. Reading, whether language or music, requires students to perceive and properly interpret subtle visual differences in order to fully understand the material.
Barbara Hammond, Kennesaw State’s music education program coordinator agrees. “Music education teaches literacy in a symbol system. Teaching children to read a symbol system, even though it’s not in the English language, works from the same part of the brain, plus it has the aesthetic element to it that is absolutely vital.”
Music teacher Fonda Riley believes that, in addition to supporting cognitive development, music education can help student mature socially and emotionally. Riley (music education, 2007), the 2011-12 Teacher of the Year at Baker Elementary, says many times her students will be quite shy to begin with, but “after they have been with me for a few years, they are trying out for solos.”
Music education has been a staple in American public schools for the past 60 years, according to a 2010 article in Music Trades. However, for years the link between music and academics remained unclear. Now there is a growing body of research that supports music education’s role in a student’s academic achievement. Good thing, according to Riley, because “I would hate to think of children growing up without music in their life.”