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Music Education Can Help Children Improve Reading Skills

Susan Notes:

Here's information for those
who don't consider studying music a good in and
of itself.

by Joseph M. Piro and Camilo Ortiz

Children exposed to a multi-year programme of
music tuition involving training in
increasingly complex rhythmic, tonal, and
practical skills display superior cognitive
performance in reading skills compared with
their non-musically trained peers, according to
a study published in the journal Psychology
of Music.

According to authors Joseph M Piro and Camilo
Ortiz from Long Island University, USA, data
from this study will help to clarify the role
of music study on cognition and shed light on
the question of the potential of music to
enhance school performance in language and

Studying children the two US elementary
schools, one of which routinely trained
children in music and one that did not, Piro
and Ortiz aimed to investigate the hypothesis
that children who have received keyboard
instruction as part of a music curriculum
increasing in difficulty over successive years
would demonstrate significantly better
performance on measures of vocabulary and
verbal sequencing than students who did not
receive keyboard instruction.

Several studies have reported positive
associations between music education and
increased abilities in non-musical (eg,
linguistic, mathematical, and spatial) domains
in children. The authors say there are
similarities in the way that individuals
interpret music and language and âbecause
neural response to music is a widely
distributed system within the brainâ¦. 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.â

The aim of this study was to look at two
specific reading subskills â" vocabulary and
verbal sequencing â" which, according to the
authors, are âare cornerstone components in the
continuum of literacy development and a window
into the subsequent successful acquisition of
proficient reading and language skills such as
decoding and reading comprehension.â

Using a quasi-experimental design, the
investigators selected second-grade children
from two school sites located in the same
geographic vicinity and with similar
demographic characteristics, to ensure the two
groups of children were as similar as possible
apart from their music experience.

Children in the intervention school (n=46)
studied piano formally for a period of three
consecutive years as part of a comprehensive
instructional intervention program. Children
attending the control school (n=57) received no
formal musical training on any musical
instrument and had never taken music lessons as
part of their general school curriculum or in
private study. Both schools followed
comprehensive balanced literacy programmes that
integrate skills of reading, writing, speaking
and listening.

All participants were individually tested to
assess their reading skills at the start and
close of a standard 10-month school year using
the Structure of Intellect (SOI) measure.

Results analysed at the end of the year showed
that the music-learning group had significantly
better vocabulary and verbal sequencing scores
than did the non-music-learning control group.
This finding, conclude the authors, provides
evidence to support the increasingly common
practice of âeducators incorporating a variety
of approaches, including music, in their
teaching practice in continuing efforts to
improve reading achievement in childrenâ.

However, further interpretation of the results
revealed some complexity within the overall
outcomes. An interesting observation was that
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.

So, ask the authors, âIf the children receiving
piano instruction already had two years of
music involvement, why did they not
significantly outscore the musically naïve
students on both measures at the outset?â
Addressing previous findings showing that music
instruction has been demonstrated to exert
cortical changes in certain cognitive areas
such as spatial-temporal performance fairly
quickly, 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 recess may have reversed any
earlier temporary cortical reorganization
experienced by students in the music group, a
finding reported in other related research.
Another explanation could 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 the tuition. During the course
of their third year of music 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 and, coupled with 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.

âAll of this adds a compelling layer of meaning
to the experimental outcomes, perhaps
signalling that decisions on âwhenâ to teach
are at least as important as âwhatâ to teach
when probing differential neural pathways and
investigating their associative cognitive
substrates,â note the authors.

âStudy of how music may also assist cognitive
development will help education practitioners
go beyond the sometimes hazy and ill-defined
âmusic makes you smarterâ claims and provide
careful and credible instructional approaches
that use the rich and complex conceptual
structure of music and its transfer to other
cognitive areas,â they conclude.

Journal reference:

The effect of piano lessons on the vocabulary
and verbal sequencing skills of primary grade
students. Journal Psychology of Music, 16th
March 2009
Adapted from materials provided by SAGE
Publications/Psychology of Music, via

— Joseph M. Piro and Camilo Ortiz
Science Daily


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