Benefits of learning music for 2-4s

As well as all the other benefits of music

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Lots of studies have demonstrated a strong link between music and reading. For example, being good at music at ages 3-6 can actually be used to predict reading abilities and phonological awareness (David et al 2007) Phonological awareness a literacy skill which is now at the centre of how children are taught to read.

What is phonological awareness, and what has it got to do with music? Phonological awareness is about being able to hear the component sounds in words (being able to separate “shop” into sh-op, and finally, into sh-o-p) ,which is actually harder to do than it sounds! Being able to split words in this way is essential in learning to read and spell. It allows children to link sounds to letters they see. This gives them the building blocks they need to build up letters to make words (spelling) or break them down when they see them on the page (reading). The current reading programs in Western schools are based on this major breakthrough.

Music is essentially the first language your child learns and learning music seems to help the brain learn other languages.
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Long before they are able to understand the individual meaning in words, they are able to hear the musical ups and downs of the spoken and singing voices of those around them. And they are able to tell the difference between the sing-song sounds of their own language, in comparison with those of a foreign language. (Kuhl – many studies – also check out her  Ted Talk about the linguistic genius of babies ) This idea of music as your child’s first language is more than just a metaphor. Brain imaging studies have found that music and language are processed by the same parts of the brain, and also have a similar structure. (Miranda 2007)

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Studies have found that singing helps children, because words are  slowed down so the brain can process it better than in regular speech. (eg. Tallal et al 1996)

Parents instinctively slow down and exaggerate their speech when talking to a baby. In fact, the baby’s first job in understanding speech is to split the continuous stream of sounds into separate words. Songs do the exact same thing: they are slower and clearer for children to understand, and the important parts are repeated over and over again, and rhyme is thrown in for good measure. This has been shown not only to be valuable for allowing the brain to process speech for language development, and memory, but also for phonological awareness.

A lot of reading is to do with understanding the rhythm of words (syllables), and in being able to remember patterns of sounds to stick them together.  Studies have found that rhythm ability is linked to spelling and reading.
How does playing with rhythms help?

As well as the slowed down and exaggerated speech part of music, the ‘rhythm’ part of music also seems to play its part in understanding speech better. Scientists reckon that training the brain in rhythm helps with understanding the rhythm component of speech.   Some great studies have shown that teaching children rhythm skills e.g. being able to tap out the rhythm of a song, can improve their spelling. (Goswami et al 2002) and reading too (Overy 2003).

I have to confess a particular passion for working with music and literacy!  As part of a postgraduate teaching diploma in literacy I took in 2006, I ran a small study which found that drumming could help improve literacy and phonological skills for children with dyslexia.  Very exciting stuff! And something I’d like to work more on when I have more time.

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The most important news here is that teaching these musical skills in a way captures children’s imagination has been shown to improve reading readiness skills in a really short period of time.

There have been an exciting number of studies which have also shown that helping children develop musical skills can help their phonological abilities, so it’s not just about ‘being’ musical. Children can learn this.

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For example: In a study of four year olds taking music sessions, they found that musical training helps develop the part of the brain (auditory cortex) that can hear the difference between sounds. (Trainor, Shahin and Roberts 2003) So as well as making children more musical, it means that the children are able to differentiate between more speech sounds, which is key to the development of phonological awareness. In fact, in a study by Gromko in 2005, they found that just four months of music sessions helped children to be significantly better at splitting up speech sounds when compared with children who hadn’t been to a music group.