Born to Sing: How Music Enriches Children’s Language Development
By Ann Gadzikowski, former Grants Coordinator, Chicago Children’s Museum
When I was a preschool teacher, I had a child named Lizzy in one of my classes. She rarely spoke. At three years old, Lizzy usually communicated with me by tugging on my sleeve and pointing her finger at what she wanted. Yet I wasnít at all worried about Lizzy. My confidence in her was so strong because I knew there would be at least one time every day when I would be sure to hear her voice during music time. Quiet Lizzy came alive whenever she heard music. She clapped, she danced, she even sang along to class favorites such as “The Wheels on the Bus” and “This Old Man.” Her favorite song was “Where is Thumbkin?”
Eventually, Lizzy did begin to speak and soon was able to talk and communicate like other kids her age. She taught me that music is a powerful tool for giving a voice to a quiet child.
All children benefit from experiences with music. Music enhances learning, especially language development. Children’s experiences with music build vocabulary, listening skills, and language acquisition.
Music, language and the brain: Recent brain research tells us that when children sing and move to music, their developing brains are entirely engaged and stimulated. Both the left and right sides of the brain are activated when we sing. And the process of singing stimulates both new learning and memory. For example, music has been shown to help children remember their addresses and phone numbers. Even older adults can often remember the songs from their childhood days.
The more senses that are engaged, the more learning will take place. When children sing and dance the “Hokey Pokey,” they are using their voices to produce language, rhythm, and pitch. They are using their ears to listen to the voices and sounds around them. They are using their eyes to follow the movements of others. And they are using their whole bodies to develop rhythm and coordination. When it comes to active learning, “that’s what it’s all about!”
The Rhythm of language: Like music, language has a rhythm. As we talk, our speech has a beat and a tempo. Like a line of music, a spoken sentence has a cadence as it rises and falls.
It’s not surprising, then, that language learning is enhanced when children experience the rhythm of music. In studies conducted by educator Phyllis Weikert, a child’s ability to clap or tap a steady beat was directly linked to language learning. For example, clapping or tapping the rhythm of an unfamiliar word often helps children learn new vocabulary. Can you imagine teaching a child to say “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (from Mary Poppins) without singing it?
Song and dance: Today’s technology allows children to hear a wide variety of music from all over the world. But it’s important for parents to know that listening to recorded music does not offer children the same benefits as making music with real people. At Chicago Children’s Museum, the exhibit Now Youíre Talking! tells the exciting story of how children acquire language. This interactive exhibit demonstrates the important role that parents and caregivers play in a childís language development.
At home, sing with your child. It doesnít matter if you have perfect pitch or performance skills; only your enthusiasm is required. Simple, familiar songs with easy movements are best for the baby-to-preschool crowd. Top hits include “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and the “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
Sweeten the mix by adding your own words to familiar songs. You can personalize the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” by adding the name of a family member to each verse (“If youíre Jason and you know it clap your hands”).
And when it’s time to read a bedtime story, try a book you can sing. The illustrator Iza Trapini has published a series of picture books based on familiar childhood tunes, such as “I’m a Little Teapot” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Another good choice is Alan Katz’ book, Take Me Out of the Bathtub and Other Silly Dilly Songs.
Wherever there’s music, there is sure to be plenty of language learning going on. Of course, there’s more to music than just language learning. Music can evoke powerful emotions in children, such as joy, delight, and excitement. Music enriches the lives of all children; and for some, like Lizzy, it can become one of the first paths for connecting to others.
Books for Parents
Good Music, Brighter Children: Simple and Practical Ideas to Help Transform Your Child’s Life through the Power of Music, by Sharlene Habermeyer
Word and Music Games for Toddlers and Twos, by Bonnie Macmillan
Nurturing Your Child with Music, by John M. Ortiz Books for ChildrenTwinkle, Twinkle Little Star, by Iza Trapini
I’m a Little Teapot, by Iza Trapini
Row, Row, Row Your Boat, by Iza Trapini
Hush Little Baby, by Sylvia Long
Wheels on the Bus, by Paul O. Zelinsky
Take Me Out of the Bathtub and Other Silly Dilly Songs, by Alan Katz
This Land is Your Land, by Woody Guthrie and illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen
- Gabrielle Giffords: How music therapy is helping her recovery (telegraph.co.uk)
- Preschool Shapes: Teaching Star Shapes (brighthub.com)