The key to reading

Program links music, reading lessons with positive results

Posted: Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The alphabet.

The legislative process.

The books of the Bible.

It's no secret that putting information to music helps people remember it. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that Soldotna Elementary School music teacher Erin Southwick is finding success in using music to teach early reading skills.

Nonetheless, Southwick's combination of reading and music lessons is a fairly new and innovative program at the school.

"It was born out of a need in the kindergarten classes," Southwick explained. Kindergarten through second-grade students are given DIBELS tests a few times each year to measure their reading, or prereading, skills. Prereading skills, tested in kindergarten, include recognizing letters by sight and identifying letter sounds, while older students are tested on the number of words they can read per minute. Two years ago, Soldotna Elementary School teachers recognized that kindergartners were not meeting the expectations for their prereading skills.

Southwick submitted a proposal to the school administration to double up as a music and reading intervention teacher. She is working toward her master's degree in music education and thought she would try out some practical application of several field studies on the link between music and reading for her thesis.

"There are a lot of studies, but we didn't really know of it would work," she said.

However, she said, she thought the link probably would reach students.

"When you put a tune to anything, it's not only easier, but a lot more fun," she said. "Think of the ABC song: You remember it a lot better with music."

Southwick used the popular Zoophonics program, which assigns body motions and animal identities to each letter of the alphabet (Allie Alligator, Bubba Bear, etc.), as well as some of her own ideas.

"I use songs I find in regular music (education programs)," she said. "There's a lot of rhyming in music."

She also puts stories to her lessons made especially easy by the Zoophonics program to help students remember the "rules" of reading.

For example, she reviewed with students last week, Ellie Elephant (the letter "e") is bossy and makes vowels (or "hardest workers") say their own name when at the end of a word. Writing on a handheld white board, she gave students samples by writing words like "cap" and transforming it into "cape" with bossy Ellie.

She also reviewed double letter sounds, like "ch."

"When Catina Cat and Honey Horse get together to play, they make the 'ch' sound," Southwick reminded students.

In between such spoken and written lessons, Southwick led students in simple songs to reinforce the lessons. Some, using the same tune over and over again, simply repeat the double-letter sounds. Others, such as "I'm a little teapot," help students practice rhyming words.

Southwick said there are a number of academic reasons why the music-reading program works. First, she said, music helps students learn independently.

"They go home and sing and without realizing it, they're reinforcing the concepts," Southwick explained.

They may drive their parents crazy by repeating the same tunes, she joked, but they also are re-learning their school lessons at home.

Plus, the program also reaches all different kinds of learners. Southwick explained that some kids learn well by seeing a lesson, others by hearing and yet others by doing. The songs, body motions and white-board lessons combined target all three kinds of learners, she said.

Southwick works exclusively with one kindergarten class at the school. That class has music class with her every day, and two days a week are set aside for combined music and reading lessons.

The preliminary results, she said, have been phenomenal.

Though this year's end-of-the-year DIBELS scores are not yet available, the school does have statistics from last year the program's first and the year before the program started.

During the 2002-03 school year, prior to the implementation of Southwick's program, the kindergarten class at Soldotna Elementary School started the school year recognizing an average of 10 letters (lower- and upper-case) per minute on the DIBELS test. At the end of the year, that same class recognized 19 letters per minute.

Last year, during the first year of Southwick's program, the class came into school knowing an average of nine letters per minute and left at a rate of 36 letters per minute.

"It increased significantly, exponentially," Southwick said. "It actually blew me away. I had no idea."

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