Back in May 2013, I posted an article called Music & Communication Development which talked about the many benefits of learning with music. I was therefore very interested to read on the BBC website about some recent research which found a link between strong rhythmical ability and better language learning & literacy skills in teenagers. Click here to go to the article. Whilst I couldn’t necessarily see a causal link in the information presented on the BBC website, there certainly seems to be a strong correlation between performance on a rhythm tapping task and reading skills. Children who were better at the rhythm task were the best readers and those who struggled were the weaker readers.
As a speech & language therapist, this doesn’t really surprise but it is nice to see some concrete evidence of a hunch. Spoken language is just a continuous stream of sounds – imagine the last time you listened to someone speaking a language you don’t know. I’ll bet you couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began. To be able to read and write our language down successfully, we need to break that continuous stream of sounds into words, syllable and individual sounds. How do we do that? Largely by using the rhythms generated by the stress and intonation patters of our first language to help us guess where the word & syllable boundaries are. It’s therefore no great surprise that enhanced rhythm awareness is helpful!
Music elicits some kind of response from most people whether that’s singing, humming, tapping or a full-on dance routine, and children are no different. Music stimulates the whole of the brain and is multi-sensory, fun and engaging. Because of this, music teaches children many, many skills without them even realising they’re learning.
Believe it or not, music and communication are closely linked and there are many skills that are common to both. There is now lots of research which supports the view that exposure to music from an early age is beneficial for communication development both in terms of spoken language and literacy skills.
That doesn’t mean you have to be a virtuoso or child prodigy to benefit! Music is a fundamental part of early communication, indeed almost all parents sing to their children from the day they are born. Most of us will be able to name at least one song our parents sang to us as a child whether it’s good old ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ or the Scottish classic ‘Ally Bally Bee’.
First, let’s think about some of the communication skills we learn through singing or being sung to as children:
- Maintaining concentration – singing is very engaging and therefore easy to pay attention to for a long time.
- Anticipating what’s coming next – music and songs lead the brain to expect or look for the next notes in the melody. Songs, especially nursery rhymes and the like, often have a predictable, repeating pattern of words and/or actions which makes it easy for a child to learn to anticipate what’s coming next as well as supporting maintenance of concentration.
- Taking turns in communication by learning to listen and then respond within the song.
- Using non verbal communication and eye contact – many children’s songs have accompanying actions which encourages the development of watching another person, copying them and co-ordinating gestures with spoken language.
- Vocabulary development through repetition of words and use of rhyme.
- Sentence development – hearing the same sentence structure over and over again is essential for learning to say new and longer sentences.
- Phonological awareness – awareness of alliteration, rhyme, syllables and rhythms are essential skills for later learning to read and write as it supports the ability to break words down into sounds, work out what those sounds are and put them together again to make new words.
- Sequencing – Like music, all language follows a sequence whether it’s the order of sounds in words, words in sentences or information in a story.
Experimenting with musical instruments and melodies is just as important as singing. Using a musical instrument adds extra sensory dimensions to the experience of music through the senses of touch, proprioception and vision. Like singing, playing music instruments and learning music supports many skills that underlie communication:
- Concentration – listening to music and sound is fun and children will often manage to maintain concentration for longer to an activity if music is involved.
- Listening – to sing the right words at the right pitch or to copy a tune or rhythm with an instrument, you need to listen carefully and discriminate between the sounds you hear.
- Self expression and creativity – music is inherently creative and making up songs and melodies is a fun way to express yourself without necessarily using spoken words.
- Memory – remembering tunes and rhythms exercises auditory memory which is essential for learning new vocabulary and language structures. When we hear new language, we need to hold what we hear in our auditory memories so that we can analyse it and commit it to long term memory.
- Pitch awareness – intonation in spoken communication is made up of variations in pitch and different ‘tunes’ have different meanings. For example, a rising ‘tune’ in a sentence usually means that it is a question. Music helps to develop awareness of pitch variations.
- Rhythm – like music, all spoken language has a rhythm to it. Within words, we have rhythms in the form of syllables and stress patterns. Sentences also have rhythm in their stress patterns. Being able to recognise and repeat rhythms is essential for natural communication. Being able to break sounds into smaller chunks using rhythm as we do with syllables, is essential for learning to read and spell. Music helps us to learn these skills.
There are many benefits of getting involved with music from an early age and I hope that this article gives you a flavour of the positive influence that music will have on your child’s development. But, first and foremost, MUSIC IS FUN! Sing with your children and have a look for music groups near you, for example Morningside School of Music run music classes specifically for pre-school children, give them a call on 0131 447 1117 to see what’s on. Enjoy!
Well, I finally bit the bullet and shelled out for a copy of the new and improved Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals 4-UK (CELF).
I used it for the first time yesterday and was generally quite impressed. It’s actually quite similar to version 3 to administer the core sub-tests. The only thing I wasn’t too sure about is that the item analysis for the Concepts and Directions section is no longer on the scoring form which I find a bit awkward. You can’t see at a glance if there’s a pattern to the errors a child makes, you have to go digging in test manual first. Having said that, the layout of the new scoring form is clearer and I think easier to record on. I did find the layout of the front pages a bit confusing first time out but that may just be lack of familiarity. I haven’t yet used any of the extension sub-tests for phonological awareness and working memory but, at a cursory glance, they look to be very useful. If you’re looking for a very comprehensive language assessment, the CELF is probably what you’re looking for. I would, however, see if anyone you know has one you can borrow before you buy it as it is very expensive!