+ Music Education Helps Children’s Reading Skills

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A study published in the journal Psychology of Music says children who were exposed to a multi-year program of music class gained in reading skills.

The classes involved training in increasingly complex rhythmic, tonal and practical skills.  The students who received the music classes displayed superior cognitive performance in reading skills, compared with their non-musically trained peers.

Authors Joseph M Piro and Camilo Ortiz assembled data that will help clarify the role of music study on cognition.  The study may help educators understand the potential of music to enhance school performance in language and literacy.

They studied students in two separate schools.  One school routinely trained children in music and one did not. 

The aim was to investigate this hyposthesis:  children who have received keyboard instruction as part of a music curriculum which increases in difficulty over successive years might demonstrate significantly better performance on measures of vocabulary and verbal sequencing, than students who did not receive keyboard instruction.

Several other studies have reported positive associations between music education and increased abilities in non-musical (e.g. linguistic, mathematical, and spatial) domains.

There are similarities in the way that individuals interpret music and language.  The reason is that “neural response to music is a widely distributed system within the brain…  It would not be unreasonable to expect that some processing networks for music and language behaviors, namely reading, located in both hemispheres of the brain, would overlap.”

The aim of this study was to look at two specific reading subskills — vocabulary and verbal sequencing. 

According to the authors, these are cornerstone components in the continuum of literacy development .  They are also a window into the subsequent successful acquisition of proficient reading and language skills such as decoding and reading comprehension.

The schools were selected for their geographic and demographic similarity. 

Children in the intervention school studied piano formally for a period of three consecutive years, as part of a comprehensive instructional intervention program. 

Children attending the control school received no formal musical training on any musical instrument; they had never taken music lessons, either as part of their general school curriculum or in private study.

They were all individually tested at the start and at the close of a standard 10-month school year.

Results showed that the music-learning group had significantly better vocabulary and verbal sequencing scores than did the non-music-learning control group. 

This finding, the authors feel, provides evidence  to support educators’  increasingly common practice of  incorporating a variety of approaches, including music, in their teaching practice.  Thes are part of their continuing efforts to improve reading achievement in children.

However, the results also revealed some complexity within the overall outcomes. 

For example, when the study began the music-learning group had already experienced two years of piano lessons, yet their reading scores were nearly identical to the control group at the start of the experiment.

The question is, say the authors, “If the children receiving piano instruction already had two years of music involvement, why did they not significantly outscore the musically naive students on both measures at the outset?”

Since previous findings showed that music instruction has been demonstrated to exert cortical changes in certain cognitive areas, Piro and Ortiz propose three factors to explain the lack of evidence of early benefit for music in the present study.

  • First, children were tested for their baseline reading skills at the beginning of the school year, after an extended holiday period.  Perhaps the absence of any music instruction during a lengthy summer reecess may have reversed any earlier temporary cortical reorganization experienced by students in the music group, as earlier studies have shown.
  • A second explanation might be that the duration of music study required to improve reading and associated skills is fairly long, so the initial two years were not sufficient.
  • A third explanation involves the specific developmental time period during which children were receiving instruction.  During the course of the third year of lessons, the music-learning group was in second grade and approaching the age of seven.  There is evidence that there are significant spurts of brain growth and gray matter distribution around this developmental period.  This, added to the increased complexity of the study matter in this year, brain changes that promote reading skills may have been more likely to accrue at this time than in the earlier two years.

Piro and Ortiz note: “All of this adds a compelling layer of meaning to the experimental outcomes, perhaps signalling that decisions on ‘when’ to teach are at least as important as ‘what’ to teach when probing differential neural pathways and investigating their associative cognitive substrates.” 

And they conclude that the study of how music may also assist cognitive development will help education practitioners go beyond the sometime hazy and ill-defined ‘music makes you smarter’ claims; it may also provide careful and credible instructional approaches that use the rich and complex conceptual structure of music and its transfer to other cognitive areas.

source: article (no byline) in Science Daily on 3/18/09.  www.sciencedaily.com   Joseph M Piro and Camilo Ortiz’s article was titled “The effect of piano lessons on the vocabulary and verbal sequencing skills of primary grade students,” in Journal Psychology of Music, 16th march 2009.

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