Linking with Literacy

Practical tips on how singing can boost children's literacy and language skills and an exclusive interview with Children's Laureate Julia Donaldson

Linking with Literacy

Two experts, Julia Partington and Rebecca Gross, share their practical tips on how singing can boost children's literacy and language skills.

Singing is vital to the promotion of early oral and literacy skills
- from building links between the words children hear and the words they read in print, to helping them understand sentence structure, broadening their vocabulary and enhancing communication skills.

As Julia Partington, Early Years Music Specialist at the Sage Gateshead, puts it,"Singing as often as possible with young children aids their language development,social confidence and their sense of rhythm and pulse. It also assists their recall of vocabulary and topics within song - in my experience children will learn, repeat and remember more language in song and rhythmical rhyme than in any other form."

For Rebecca Gross, a Sing Up Accessible Learning Trainer and SEN music expert, the use of song in literacy development is "a core tool that should be integrated into any successful curriculum", particularly when teaching children of different abilities.

Here, Rebecca and Julia give us their insights into incorporating singing into everyday literacy learning, with a particular focus on songs, musical activities, and games linked to story telling.


Encouraging recall of story and language and building communication skills

Julia often uses storybooks as part of her work with small children, adapting the narrative to fit a well-known song. She begins by reading the story with the children, exploring the images and discussing what's happening, and what could happen next.

Once they've finished the story they go over the sequence of events and the characters and make up their own version of the tale using the children's ideas and language. Julia then asks the children to suggest a familiar tune, for example Sing a song of sixpence, and together they put their new version of the story to music. So, in the case of 'The Enormous Turnip', the first verse might go something like this:

Once upon a time there was an old man
Once upon a time there was an old man
He planted turnip seeds and he watched the turnip grow
Until it was the most enormous turnip in the world!

Julia says: "I would always use the children's suggestions verbatim, even if they didn't scan perfectly. Rhyming lyrics are not important in this activity. The purpose is to encourage the children's recall of the story and language and to build their confidence in speaking out and making suggestions. That's why I never reject a song lyric suggestion a child makes."

For long stories with multiple verses, Julia uses puppet characters from a song bag (see below) or asks the children to act out the story as they sing the song, to keep them all actively engaged.


'Mystery' story telling resources for capturing their imagination

Julia's song bag is packed with little, everyday items that provide instant inspiration for musical activities around storytelling. Yours could contain almost anything to make a song about, such as nursery rhyme finger puppets, toy cars or animals, or even the fruit and veg you are going to cut up later for snack time.

Julia says: "I keep all of my resources in bags as it adds great mystery, which captures the children's imagination and engages them instantly. Whatever you pull out, there are a host of spontaneous activities you can use to inspire songs and improvise stories: Can the children name the object? Its colour? Its size? Does it make a sound? Can the children suggest a familiar tune you can use to change the words and then sing about the item?"

Julia also looks for opportunities to repeat particular words or phonics that the children are learning, linked to particular props - for example 'g, f, went the little green frog ...' or 'b, b, went the little brown bear'.



Supporting SEN children with musical cues.

The repetition of words and phrases will support those children who have impaired language development as well as other learners, says Rebecca. "It is important to remember that just because a child is not joining in with your singing vocally, it doesn't mean that they're not benefitting from it. Our received language and our expressive language develop at different rates, and some children are just not ready to sing at the same time as others!"

Songs and music can even be woven into the structure of the school day, week, month and even year, suggests Rebecca. "Singing good morning, singing the register, singing instructions and to support behaviour management at transition times - these are all things that once begun quickly become routine and start to make an impact on listening and singing skills."

The singing voice is also easier to listen to than the spoken voice, especially for SEN children and those identified with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), she adds. "It's also much more effective and much healthier for you than shouting! Taking the singing voice from the margins of your lesson and right into the heart of it can feel a little more challenging, but once you have tried it the results will hopefully justify its use."


Reaching out to the 'hard-to-reach' pupils.

The use of music to reinforce and support literacy development in KS2 - especially upper KS2 - can often require some imaginative thinking. For Rebecca, the"failsafe" way of approaching using music with literacy in groups where there is a reluctance to sing is through rap, and if you have the pupils who are up for it - a bit of beat-boxing.

She says: "Introducing technology such as iPads to your sessions can really increase your credibility and success with some hard-to-reach youngsters, and establishing a steady beat with an app like GarageBand will create a rhythmic framework that your class will be able to pin their rap on.

"Start with simple sentences - and then let their imaginations run wild - often children who are reluctant to participate in other music activities love these kind of activities. You can look at rhyme scheme, alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia - all within a safe and familiar context that will be fun and accessible for all participants."

Julia Partington's choices from the Song Bank to support singing the story:

  • Nanuma
    "I always use this with just one line of lyrics and then repeat them four times as the tune has four phrases. Great for repetition and so simple you might even try singing some new words as a round..."
  • Shoo fly! Don't bother me!
    Another great choice for repetition and recall, for example: "What does the bad wolf do?" (x3) "Show me and we'll do it too. He huffs, he puffs, he huffs and puffs like this." (x2)
  • She'll be coming round the mountain
    An easy, familiar tune that can be adapted for stories or everyday activities that you and your children can create new words for, such as: "Now it's time to washour hands and have our snack."

Want more?

In School, KS1, KS2, KS3, KS4, Accessible/SEN, Engaging, Inclusive, Creative, Effective Communicators, Committed to Learning, Supporting the Curriculum, Songwriting/Composition, Accessible singing and SEN, English, Primary Languages

Comments about Linking with Literacy

Ms Allen Report this comment

Posted 22nd Oct 2012 09:50

This is marvellous stuff and greatly under-rated. This goes right up to children struggling with learning in Kst 2 and to second language English Speakers. Thanks.

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