Newswise — In a groundbreaking study, a Canadian university researcher has discovered a way to use children's songs to teach Kindergarten children to read.

The idea to incorporate song into the pre-reading environment arose from earlier research in which Dr. Patrick Walton of Thompson Rivers University (TRU), located in Kamloops, British Columbia, used rhyming words and small-group games as learning aids. He noticed that when he added "jingle-like" singing, children learned more quickly and remembered new words much longer.

The results were astounding. 73% of the 45 kindergarten children in the study were reading by the end of the four-week study period, with only two 20-minute teaching sessions a week.

"There is almost no research relating singing to memory in young children, and none examining the effects of using children's songs to teach pre-reading and reading skills," he explained. "Educators know, however, that sound presented in a rhythmic way, like poetry, is an aid to memory. Our research represents an original and potentially fruitful line of inquiry."

"Our findings are consistent with recent brain research indicating that there are separate but similar brain mechanisms implicated for language and music, and considerable areas that are common to both. The addition of music to the presentation of text may provide children with an alternate neural pathway to receive and process information."

The process was simple. The songs used were created especially for the study by Walton along with local musicians Cathi Marshall and Mike Turner, and teacher-musicians Lance Jang, Dale Kallhoud, and Heather Bounds.

"We piloted the songs and if the Kindergarteners didn't like the song, there was an immediate withdrawal of attention," Walton noted. "The teaching songs need to have lyrics with rhyming words, one syllable long, and have a bouncy, pronounced rhythm." The kindergarten teachers involved in the study, along with TRU Bachelor of Elementary Education degree students, taught the children the songs in conjunction with physical activity like are movements, sign language or finger-spelling.

"Children were taught the songs first without text, and then were shown the lyrics or letters as they sang the songs. This process seemed to not only increase the speed of learning to read the text, children appeared to remember the words longer than if they were taught the words without singing."

"We were excited to find that 73% of the children could read words that were different from words they actually learned as lyrics," he said, "including an autistic child involved in the study. The strong positive effect with the autistic child was especially interesting."

Based on the initial success of the program with the autistic child, plans are now in the works to develop the program for autistic children. In partnership with Dr. Amedeo D'Angiulli of the Early Education and Development Studies, located at Thompson Rivers University, Walton will explore the potential of the program for children with autism, and develop special teaching tools to put it into practice.

The group compiled a CD of nine songs and a large-format book of the songs, which they titled the Sing to Read© program, and presented the results at the 8000-delegate American Education Research Association conference held in Montreal, Canada, last April.

"Where our presentation excelled was our applied, active, visual presentation. We used a video and music, and it went really well. It was very well received," said Walton. "We've since received an invitation to provincial music educators conference in Vancouver BC this October."

Dr. Walton's research group is just writing up the results of a follow-up project that will involve 115 Kindergarten children, including Aboriginal students, for publication in an academic journal. As well, Walton and his research associates are developing more teaching materials for the program in conjunction with local teachers, and are also looking at applying his research for use in teaching English as a second language to children in Hong Kong.

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American Education Research Association