Reading to the Beat: Music Enhances Early Literacy

Librarians, teachers and caregivers know that kids love music. Babies are soothed by lullabies, while active toddlers will happily entertain themselves with a “kitchen drum set” of pots and pans. Whether making up songs to accompany their play or spontaneously dancing as they move from place to place, children have an intrinsic rhythm and musicality to their lives. Recent research in education, cognitive psychology and neuroscience has re-affirmed that music is not only an innate human behavior, but also essential for building early literacy skills.

Kelli Paquette and Sue Rieg (2008), from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, note, “Providing children with structured and open-ended musical activities, creating an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, and sharing the joy of creativity … are all foundational for the growth and development of the early childhood learner.”

Paula Telesco (2010) of the University of Massachusetts agrees: “All the research supports the notion that early music training can be a critical component in the development of verbal, reading, comprehension, mathematical, and spatial-temporal reasoning skills in children, thus providing solid evidence for fully integrating music as a core component of early childhood education.”

4 Ways Music Enhances Early Literacy Skills

  • Teaches a variety of language skills. Songs can encourage early literacy skills by exposing children to the patterns of language, including basic spelling patterns, rhymes, sentence patterns and parts of speech; extending background knowledge and vocabulary; and developing a sense of story and sequence (Fisher et al. 2001; Paquette & Rieg 2008; Wiggins 2007).
  • Creates positive attitude toward learning. Children develop and learn best when they are in a positive environment in which they feel supported and secure (Paquette & Rieg 2008; Telesco 2010). Moreover, as Stanford University Professor of Education Elliot Eisner (2002) stated, “Children, like the rest of us, seldom voluntarily pursue activities for which they receive little or no satisfaction.” Through sharing music, educators and caregivers can create social bonds with children and foster an environment in which early literacy learning is fun and engaging (Blatt-Gross 2011).
  • Improves attention and memory. Participating in musical activities, whether by dancing, playing instruments or singing, requires children to listen attentively and hold patterns in their memory, skills that are key precursors to developing successful reading skills (Paquette & Rieg 2008; Wiggins 2007).
  • Develops critical and complex forms of thinking, including abstract thinking, by involving multiple parts of the brain. Although claims that playing particular types of music for children can boost their intelligence (the so-called Mozart effect) have largely been overstated, research does show that early exposure to music and musical production can improve children’s spatial-temporal reasoning. In addition, participating in the creation and appreciation of the arts, including music, can develop such higher level cognitive abilities as using imagination, tolerating ambiguity, inscribing ideas through representation and forming and differentiating concepts (Eisner 2002).

Early Literacy Strategies

Music can be incorporated into storytimes and interactions with children in many ways — with no particular musical skill required on the part of the educator or caregiver. Singing simple rhyming songs, playing different types of music, dancing to recorded music and providing opportunities for even the youngest children to make their own music with instruments or everyday objects (e.g., pots, pans and spoons) can foster a fun, nurturing environment for early literacy learning.



Lisa Bintrim

Lisa Bintrim

Lisa Bintrim, Ph.D., is the former editor of LibrarySparks magazine, UpstartBooks and The Very Ready Reading Program. In this role, she focused on identifying and sharing innovative, engaging programs and resources for school and public libraries.