Soldotna Elementary music teacher Erin Southwick helps kindergartners Jaden Perry and Frank Hunt do the alphabet disco during a reading program Dec. 14 while Sean Meehan, Marissa Matthews and Gregory VanVelzor wait their turn. Southwick uses music to teach reading at the school.
Photo by Will Morrow
Erin Southwick didn’t set out to implement an innovative music and reading program at Soldotna Elementary School she was just looking to keep working full-time.
But what sprang out of a need for job preservation has turned into part of the school’s highly successful reading curriculum and become the topic of a thesis Southwick is writing for her master’s degree.
“It was a typical problem facing music educators. My position was being cut (to half-time), and they wanted to find a way to keep me on and find funds to pay my salary,” Southwick said.
Soldotna Elementary Principal Carolyn Cannava found some federal funding in her budget to cover the other half of Southwick’s salary, but there was a catch: in order to be eligible for the funds, Southwick had to find a way to relate music to reading.
“I had heard about similarities between emergent readers and musical reading, and I did some research,” Southwick said. “I found an incredible connection, but there wasn’t a whole lot of material out there. It’s a fairly new concept. For the first couple of years, it was more of a discovery type of thing.”
The similarities between music and reading, Southwick discovered, have to do with being able to see a symbol and then associate a sound with that symbol.
Since beginning the program in 2002, Southwick has developed a variety of activities integrating reading with music. Using rhythmic chants and hand signs, students break down words into separate sounds, then identify the letters that represent each sound. Chanting encourages fluency as beginning readers learn to think ahead to the next sound.
Southwick has composed many of the songs she uses in class, and she also uses nursery rhymes. Later in the year, she will start writing nursery rhymes on the board.
“They’ve already learned it in music. When they go to read it, they make the connection. It encourages success and boosts morale,” Southwick said.
Kindergartners Tristan Jenkins, Johannes Stott, Paul Daily and Joseph Parker sound out letters as Southwick leads them in a musical reading exercise.
Photo by Will Morrow
Southwick’s program has been incorporated into the school’s reading curriculum, and the results have been positive as standardized testing scores have improved.
“A lot of it is positive energy in the classroom. I’m only a small part of that positive energy,” Southwick said. “The kids are making gains because they have teachers who love them and want to see them succeed.”
Southwick has turned her research on the topic into a thesis, which she hopes to defend this summer, and said it has been rewarding to know her work is making a difference.
“With the reading program, I’ve been able to connect my love of music with a very important part of childhood learning to read,” she said.
Southwick said the reading program has been so successful and so rewarding, she’s reluctant to give it up, even though she’s being paid as a full-time music teacher this year. She works with the kindergarten classes, helping them get off to a successful start.
“I have the world’s best job. I couldn’t be happier,” Southwick said. “My love is elementary general music, but I’m the kind of person, I get bored easily. Working with kids, it’s a new day every day. ... I like that kind of challenge in my teaching.”
Will Morrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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