In recent weeks, Frontiers in Psychology published a meta-analysis by Gordon, Fehd and McCandliss (2015) which asked, ‘Does music training enhance literacy skills?’
The authors described a ‘rapidly accumulating body of evidence’ and listed studies that reported significant associations between musical training and language skills, such as Magne et al. (2006) and others which described enhanced brain responses via musical training to unexpected timing and duration of syllables (Chobert et al., 2011) and pronunciation (Milanov et al., 2009). They also reported significant correlations between musical aptitude (in the absence of musical training) and reading performance (Strait et al., 2011).
Gordon and colleagues also referred to a study in which ability in musical rhythm explained the variance in production of grammar in six year olds and complex sentence structures in a follow up (Gordon et al., 2015) and cited earlier studies of musical rhythm, in which an ability to synchronise with a beat predicted phonological awareness and rapid naming tasks (Woodruff Carr et al., 2014), second grade reading skills (Dellatolas et al., 2009) and better reading performance in adolescence (Tierney and Kraus, 2013).
Historically, scholars have made use of a wide range of literacy-related outcome measures and this proved something of a challenge for Gordon and her co-workers. Assessments of reading ability and phonological awareness have been designed to measure reading comprehension, reading rate, reading accuracy, reading fluency and a variety of phonological awareness related skills. Some measures control for working memory, while others do not. Assessments also vary in their formats. Some simply require an individual child to read a list of single words aloud, while others can be administered to groups of children, requiring them to read passages of connected text in silence. To some extent, direct comparisons of effect size can be made, but unless these are described in terms of their educational context, teachers cannot make informed decisions about the usefulness of rhythm-based approaches for different reading-related skills.
The use of random assignment in an educational setting putatively isolates the impact of an intervention under experimental rather than quasi-experimental conditions; yet no such experimental conditions exist in a school. Indeed the authors’ meta-analysis indicated that the amount of reading-related support given to children was rarely held constant over time. Moreover, the random assignment of individuals to any ‘treatment’ is known to induce positive or negative placebo effects, which can be sufficiently powerful to influence outcomes. In the context of a school, influential factors contributing to such effects typically include (i) compatibility of the individuals within the ‘treatment’ group, (ii) location of the ‘treatment’ in a room associated with a particular function in the school and (iii) timing of the ‘treatment’ to routinely coincide with particular social or academic activities.
All of the studies included by the authors in the meta-analysis have been peer reviewed. Relatively few studies had used the RCT paradigm, but all of the studies compared musical training against controls, and included before and after comparison measures and indicated that reading instruction had been held constant across groups. Out of 4855 publications obtained in searches between November 2013 and March 2014, only 13 studies fulfilled these requirements and were included in the meta-analysis.
Three of these studies were considered by the authors to be particularly highly powered because they controlled for IQ and SES; they obtained very large effect sizes. A study of the effect of musical training on word reading obtained an effect size of 1.07 (Moreno et al., 2009). Moritz et al., (2013) reported the effect of musical training on phonological skills (PAT rhyming discrimination), whereas Dege and Schwarzer (2011) showed the impact of musical training on phonological awareness (DEBELS). Both teams found large effect sizes of 1.20 and 0.78 respectively.
To inform future directions for studies of this type, Gordon and colleagues proposed that the following questions should be addressed. For further information about rhythm-based approaches to reading, click here.
1. “What are the effects of different components of interventions (rhythm, pitch; instruments vs. singing; phonological activities in musical context, etc.) on training efficacy?”
2. “What degree of music-driven gains in phonological awareness is needed to impact reading fluency?”
3. “What are the mechanisms underlying improvement: such as attention, motivation, (e.g., OPERA hypothesis; Patel, 2011), speech prosody sensitivity, and/or working memory?”
4. “How are changes in brain function and structure associated with music-training-driven improvements?”
5. “How do individual differences predict response to training? Is there a subset of children that stands to benefit the most from music training?”
(Gordon et al., 2015, p.11)
Chobert, J., Marie, C., Francois, C., Schön, D., and Besson, M. (2011). Enhanced passive and active processing of syllables in musician children. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 23, 3874–3887. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00088
Dellatolas, G., Watier, L., Le Normand, M. T., Lubart, T., and Chevrie-Muller, C. (2009). Rhythm reproduction in kindergarten, reading performance at second grade, and developmental dyslexia theories. Arch. Clin. Neuropsychol.
24, 555–563. doi: 10.1093/arclin/acp044
Gordon RL, Fehd HM and McCandliss BD (2015) Does Music Training Enhance Literacy Skills? A Meta-Analysis. Front. Psychol. 6:1777.
Gordon, R. L., Shivers, C. M., Wieland, E. A., Kotz, S. A., Yoder, P. J.,
and Devin McAuley, J. (2015). Musical rhythm discrimination explains individual differences in grammar skills in children. Dev. Sci. 18, 635–644. doi: 10.1111/desc.12230
Magne, C., Schön, D., and Besson, M. (2006). Musician children detect pitch violations in both music and language better than nonmusician children: behavioral and electrophysiological approaches. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 18, 199–211. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.2.199
Milovanov, R., Huotilainen, M., Esquef, P. A., Alku, P., Välimä ̈ki, V., and Tervaniemi, M. (2009). The role of musical aptitude and language skills in preattentive duration processing in school-aged children. Neurosci. Lett. 460, 161–165. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2009.05.063
Patel, A. D. (2011). Why would musical training benefit the neural encoding of speech? The OPERA hypothesis Front. Psychol. 2:142 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00142
Strait, D. L., Hornickel, J., and Kraus, N. (2011). Subcortical processing of speech regularities underlies reading and music aptitude in children. Behav. Brain Funct. 7:44. doi: 10.1186/1744-9081-7-44
Tierney, A. T., and Kraus, N. (2013b). The ability to tap to a beat relates to cognitive, linguistic, and perceptual skills. Brain Lang. 124, 225–231. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2012.12.014
Woodruff Carr, K., White-Schwoch, T., Tierney, A. T., Strait, D. L., and Kraus, N. (2014). Beat synchronization predicts neural speech encoding and reading readiness in preschoolers. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 111, 14559–14564. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1406219111
At this time of year it’s good to feel that much has been accomplished. Programmes have been completed, training delivered, progress measured, reports read, certificates received and so on. However, educating children and young people is about so much more than ticking lists of to dos.
I’m so grateful to work with fabulous teachers in the schools that I visit and I’ve experienced close-up their boundless enthusiasm, interest in trying new things and dedication to supporting their pupils in every possible way. Accelerating progress and boosting wellbeing are important educational goals of course, but equally prominent should be the development of a very profound sense of social connectedness. A ten-year old boy explained this very clearly to me recently,
“It made me feel welcome to the group because everyone was doing the same thing. Everybody knew it. I didn’t feel left out because usually I feel left out in a group.”
For me, this suggests that some children respond particularly positively to highly structured group activities. The phrase, ‘Everybody knew it’ mirrors the emotional security that develops when the certainty of knowing exactly what to do and say, is complemented by knowing how to contribute with confidence. When the barrier of uncertainty has been eliminated, learning can be experienced as a limitless, virtuous cycle.
In this particular instance, the virtuous cycle was achieved through highly structured group sessions in which the synchronised response of the group was an intrinsic element of the pedagogy. The group grew in confidence week by week, as the tasks that they accomplished together became increasingly intricate, fast-paced and complex; consequently they enjoyed a profoundly social experience of learning.
I’m reminded by Hall, Curtin & Rutherford to mention Lave’s pertinent advice – which is so relevant here and now: Learning is not something in itself, it is part of social life. (Hall et al., 2014, p.166)
Hall, K., Curtin, A. and Rutherford, V. (2014). Networks of Minds: Learning, Culture and Neuroscience, London and New York, Routledge
Lave, J. (1996). Teaching, as learning, in practice. Mind, Culture and Activity 3(3): 149-164
The most important thing that I’ve learned in the past two years is not only to expect the unexpected, but to embrace it. I’ve noticed that the sharpest twists and rockiest turns along the way have often prompted some of the most intriguing insights into the integrated processes that contribute to reading and learning. Wearing my SENCO hat, I strongly believe that the principle of early intervention (as opposed to waiting to see whether a learning difficulty will ‘resolve itself’ over time), and a proactive approach, can narrow the gaps that undeniably exist when children enter primary school.
In 2013, I adapted the Rhythm for Reading programme so that I could put in place urgently needed support for a group of Year 1 and Year 2 children, who struggled with phonics. Their school had already seen impact of the programme on key stage two children, so the leadership team were keen to extend its reach. At that time, I saw the programme as ideally placed to support older children, a body of research evidence has established the relationship between rhythmical awareness and phonological awareness in young children. The research argues that a strong awareness of rhythm is a reliable predictor of phonological awareness, which in turn is a strong predictor of reading attainment (see Hallam, 2015, for a comprehensive review).
However, since 2013 I’ve found that the most obvious barriers to learning for the key stage one children that I’ve worked with are fragmented, scattered attention, weak inhibition and a very short attention span of only a few seconds. Unsurprisingly, emotional insecurities are very common as well. As you may realise, children experiencing these particular difficulties would certainly struggle to discern, to retain or accurately produce a rhythmically aware response. It’s clear too, that when elevated or low arousal levels have been alleviated during Rhythm for Reading sessions, dramatically improved levels of attention, awareness of rhythm and phonological awareness soon follow.
In the context of the Rhythm for Reading programme for key stage one children, the most important adaptation has involved developing simple, fast-paced team-building games which focus on ears, eyes and voices. A subtle form of metacognitive training, these help the children to deepen and extend their attention. Combining the games with music and rhythm-based approaches to reading make it possible, in a few short sessions to support them in reading music fluently and inhibiting inappropriate responses, whilst enjoying working together as a team.
Hallam, S. (2015) The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Music Education Research council (iMERC)
The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people, by internationally renowned Professor Susan Hallam MBE, University College London, Institute of Education was published at the end of January 2015. The review brings together more than 600 scholarly publications, which provide compelling evidence of the positive effect of music on literacy, numeracy, personal and social skills to support the argument for the inclusion of music in the education of every child and young person.
Music, more than any other discipline consists of ways of doing things (techniques and methods) and ways of being (empathy, intention, style etc). Perhaps, the most important of these is how to listen well. Children, immersed in their family and home environment from pre-birth to school age, have learned nearly everything they know about their language and culture through listening. A high quality musical education develops listening far beyond the everyday level by enhancing and deepening communication; it also refines physical coordination skills far beyond what can be achieved through sport. The unique combination of these elements contributes immensely to pupils’ wellbeing and to learning more efficiently.
The value of a high quality musical education in primary school, consisting of the integration of listening skills with singing, physical coordination and notation reading skills cannot be overstated. As musicians we have a huge responsibility to equip primary teachers with great tools, and training of the highest quality so that they feel confident, secure and empowered in this exciting and creative role. With the tools and training in place, all primary teachers can deliver a high quality musical education, bringing the power of music into their classrooms and witnessing the profoundly vibrant effects of music education.