Music as a tool to support phonics and language formation– Ryan Humphrey
Finding ways to continue children’s learning at home during the pandemic might be stressful and, at times, may seem like a minefield. Not only are children out of routine, missing the opportunity to build up skills of socialisation but they are also surrounded by a myriad of possibilities of other exciting and engaging activities that make engaging in structured learning activities far less inviting. Although I am not a parent myself, my work as a community musician across the North-East of England has enabled me to work in several different contexts and settings, where I have been able to see the possibilities that engaging in music-making can have for supporting learning and development for children. This article aims to explore music-making as a tool for helping children with their development of phonics and language, specifically focusing on the first three stages of phonic learning.
Numerous studies draw on how engaging in singing and movement can be a useful tool for helping children develop language and their knowledge of phonics in a way that is much more enjoyable and engaging. For instance, Anthony Brandt, Molly Gebrian and L. Robert Slevc (2012) describe that the different pitches and rhythms found in music have links to language and the way we speak thus, in the early years of development, music can be a useful tool for helping children develop their pitches and rhythms. Through engaging in singing, children are able to hear and replicate the different rhythms and pitches that can be then used to build language. Likewise, a study by the Southern California Brain and Creativity Institute (2016) supported the idea that musical experiences in childhood can accelerate brain development, particularly in the areas of language acquisition and reading skills (https://www.brighthorizons.com/family-resources/music-and-children-rhythm-meets-child-development). For those that are interested in the science, the study found that music-making opened up the auditory process in the brain resulting in a higher brain efficacy level, therefore demonstrating the critical role that music-making can play within the brain and specifically for children in the early stages of development.
As a community musician, I have often found myself working in schools and nurseries where I am tasked with trying to find ways to make my work situate itself within the broader school curriculum. One area I have found where staff always appreciate links being made is within the area of phonics, which is an area that can often seem uninspiring. In the next section of this article, I am going address some activities that I have employed, using music to address the areas of language and phonics, which may be useful to use when working with children at home or in socially distanced settings.
Activity 1- Phase 1 of phonics
Phase one of phonics explored in the early years is all about developing children's listening skills using tools such as action songs, instrument playing and body movement (https://www.theschoolrun.com/what-are-phonics-phases). One simple activity that you may find useful is a simple 'hello' song that you can use to explore body movement and also establish a sense of routine to your every day- this sense of routine has never been more important for both adults and children then what it is now! You could use any tune for a simple 'hello' song. The one which I use is this one here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2FPLLlAkYM.
Whichever song you choose to use, why not try and add some actions with it to help the children begin to develop a of pulse and rhythm, which is integral to developing language. Within the 'Hello song' I usually ask children to put one hand on top of the other and move it from one knee to the other to a steady beat while singing. This is believed to be an excellent way of getting the motor neurons within the brain connecting up, by having to concentrate on more than one action or activity at a time! If the child you are working with is perhaps too young to do this themselves, you can always assist them, and the results should still be the same. Doing something really simple like this can be great to starting to think about phonics and language
Other useful action songs to get the same sort of result could be; 'wind the bobbin up', 'wheels on the bus' or even 'Hickory-Dickory-Dock''.
Likewise, you may not have any instruments at home, but getting out the pots and pans or even making some rice and grain shakers out of old plastic bottles can be another way of exploring sounds at this stage of phonic learning. Providing the space for children to explore the sounds in an unstructured way can be just as impactful as trying to shoehorn a structure that may be unengaging.
Activity 2- Phase 2 of Phonics
Phase 2 of phonics begins to concentrate on the formation of words and assisting children in developing their sounding of words (https://www.theschoolrun.com/what-are-phonics-phases). Again, the singing of songs can be a straightforward way that children can be supported in developing their language formation. However, the exploration of the pronunciation of letters first is integralto ensure children have a secure base in which to develop. When I first started working in nursery's and schools, I have to admit I first found it difficult to find ways to explore these sounds inn the in-depth way that was still engaging. After doing lots of researching and talking to colleagues, I found an easy way to do this that can be integrated and developed but is still engaging for the children.
Taking the tune of 'London Bridge is falling down', I decided on an animal that begins with a letter- for example, let’s say 'Ants' and choose a place where they may live. In this case let’s say 'Apples'. I then created a song that would allow children to really concentrate on the formation of the sounds while also being more engaging then just repeating them back:
‘Ants on the Apple
Ants on the Apple
Eat the lot.'
To begin using this exercise, I may ask the children to copy me saying the word ‘A’ a few times nice and slowly trying to make it as clear as possible. Following this, I would then usually suggest that we try it in a song, which would lead me to singing the song a few times. Naturally, children will want to join in, particularly when it comes to that middle 'A-A-A' section. It is a straightforward idea, but it does work with helping to develop the sounding of these words, and you can use it with so many other sounds and words by just adapting it. For instance, Bees on the Buds, or Fox on the Fence'. If you wanted to make the activity go on longer, or you are perhaps working with children who have struggled in the past, you could always ask them to provide some ideas for the song and take their lead.
Activity 3- Phase 3 of Phonics
By phase 3 of phonics children should begin exploring the more difficult phonemes, bringing together more than one letter to make sounds such as; che, ee or ow (https://www.theschoolrun.com/what-are-phonics-phases). There are 25 different phonemes for children to explore. One activity I have found really useful is finding everyday people or objects that can be associated with those phonemes and using songs to facilitate children saying these words. For instance, taking the tune of the wheels on the bus but instead swapping it for a train and the sound of the trains whistle;
‘The train on the tracks goes
The train on the tracks goes
By using songs that the children already are familiar with, their engagement is likely to be much quicker and make the whole exploration process a lot easier. A song like the wheels on the bus can work really well as it can be adapted to fit so many contexts, for instance, the goats on the grass go 'ee’ ‘ee’ ‘ee’. If you can take the child’s lead and providing them with the opportunity to make suggestions can be a great way of fostering a stronger engagement.
Additionally, an essential part of phonics learning is assisting the children in being able to write words and sounds. One way you could bring the activities together is through an interactive card game where you ask the children to design cards with pictures of the objects or animals making the sounds. Once you have a variety of them drawn, you could then put them in the middle, choose a song and pick a card one at a time adapting the words into the song. This has proved enjoyable and useful in settings where I have used the activity.
It is critical to find new ways to support children in their learning, particularly when all sense of structure and routine has almost disappeared. Phonics and language acquisition is a crucial area where you can easily support children's learning at home by finding new and creative ways of bringing learning to life. This article addressed the idea of music-making as a way of fostering an engaging activity that can be used to help children develop their knowledge of phonics, particularly across the first three stages. However, there is no doubt, an abundance of other useful and engaging activities that you could use to support this specific area of development.
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Brandt, A & Gebrian, M & Slevc, L.R (2012). Music and Early Language Acquisition. Front Psychology.
https://www.brighthorizons.com/family-resources/music-and-children-rhythm-meets-child-development (Accessed 27th April 2020)
Hello song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2FPLLlAkYM
Phonics Support website: https://www.theschoolrun.com/what-are-phonics-phases
Ryan Humphrey is an Early Years music practitioner, a piano player and teacher, saxophonist and Ukulele player. Ryan graduated from the BA (Hons) Community Music degree at Sage Gateshead, delivered in partnership with the University of Sunderland and is about to embark upon a Masters by Research in Community Music at York St John University, exploring the impact and importance that music making can have for a child facing challenging circumstances. Ryan is currently employed as a Project Musician at Sage Gateshead, where he delivers music classes for children aged 0-5 years of age, as well as having an area of specialism delivering music sessions to foster children and their carers.
Community Music although new in the academic field has been round for numerous years. It was particularly popular in the 1980s. The idea of Community Music is that musicians and organisations create accessible music making opportunities for people to come and play, learn and experience music. Ryan chose to study Community Music as he wanted to make a difference within communities where people may not get to experience music and inspire young people to learn more about music. When he was younger, Ryan spent a lot of time in music projects and choirs, so wanted to reciprocate the enjoyment that he had of experiencing music for other young people.