Learning Partners: Teach Music, Boost Reading

What’s the connection between music and reading? By relabeling music skills, suggests MENC member Melissa Berke, music teachers can help others understand how the two naturally overlap. Syllabication to the language arts teacher is clapping the rhythm of song lyrics to the music teacher.

How reading skills compare with music skills:

Reading Skills Music Skills
Letter Recognition Note Recognition
Sound/Symbol Association Sound/Symbol Association
Syllabication Performing Rhythm Patterns
Vocabulary Vocabulary
Rhyming Rhyming Lyrics
Parts of Speech Elements of Music
Sentence Structure Phrase Structure
Punctuation Articulation
Story Writing Composition
Comprehension Aural Analysis
Silent Reading Audiation
Fluency Fluency

Some activities Berke uses:

1) For younger students, use rhyming texts and modify songs to reinforce students’ rhyming skills (“Down by the Bay” or “Fooba Wooba John”).
2) Teach an original song, and then ask students to make up their own versions.
3) With older students, use song lyrics or listening selections as prompts for creative writing.
4) Create music adaptations of children’s literature by adding singing, instruments, and movement.

Adding Instruments

  • Assign instruments or body percussion to rhyming word families.
  • Signal recurring text with instruments.
  • Substitute instrument sounds for sound words.

Adding Singing

  • Put recurring phrases to music. Cue students to sing where appropriate.
  • Set a story to a familiar melody—don’t be afraid to manipulate the words to fit.

Adding Movement

  • Ask students to create and substitute movement for “movement words.”
  • Ask students to create “human sculptures” to tell a story the class has read and perform them to music.

Developing Critical Thinking

  • Ask students to compare songs with literature. Challenge them to find similarities in content and form.
  • Ask students to create new versions of stories or songs.

Visit with classroom teachers to learn what skills they’re teaching in language arts. “Communication is the key to successful collaboration,” Berke says. She also encourages developing music centers for kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. “This puts you in their ‘territory’ and allows you to reinforce music and literacy skills simultaneously.”

“Always keep in mind that you are a music specialist,” Berke says. “The most important thing is that any activity we do should enhance students’ musical learning. It’s essential that we always have music learning and development as our primary goal. If students’ reading skills are enhanced by what we do, it’s wonderful, but music is a valuable subject in its own right and should not be subservient to other curricular areas. The science teachers aren’t required to do visual art; the math teachers aren’t charged with incorporating physical education. Each subject area is included in the curriculum for what it contributes to the whole child–and this includes music education.”

–Linda Brown, May 21, 2008 © National Association for Music Education