Strategies for Teaching Young Children

This page is designed for music teachers who work with early elementary students who are typically learning to read. Using these strategies, you can support both musical literacy and linguistic literacy.

Goals for early literacy

1. Understanding the letter-sound relationship and other decoding skills. Children need to know that there are connections between the letters they see and sounds those letters make. Children who have little exposure to print prior to school (they come from families that don't read) will not have this information. What would be the obvious musical connection here?
2. Knowing that what is on the page should make sense (meaning making). When a child reads, she or he should be monitoring the text for meaning. If something doesn't make sense, that is often a sign that it has been misread and it needs to be re-read. This is a lot like being able to anticipate what a piece of music will sound like just by reading the notes silently.
3. Children need to be able to hear, take note of, and talk about the initial sound of the words they use. (This is called the onset of a word). This is why so many teachers make word walls with the letters of the alphabet and examples of words and children's names that begin with each letter.
4. Children need to be able to hear rhyme and to produce rhymes. Songs obviously are a great place to work on rhyme for pre-school and K-2 children.
5. Eventually, children need to be able to hear what is called the "onset and rime" of one syllable words. Onset is the first sound, as in B in bat or TH in there. They also need to separate the onset from the last part of the word, which is "rime." This helps them to learn new words from old ones they already know. For example, if they can do onset and rime, they can go from knowing "bed" to being able to figure out "red."
6. Understanding that words are the meaning-making units of language. A lot of times we slur our words together, such as "I'm gonna go," which is actually "I am going to go." That is one challenge. Children don't just naturally understand that words are separate items. This will also be a challenge for any children who are learning English as a second language.
7. Understanding that words are made from letters. Teachers of beginning readers make a big deal about sounds in words and children need to understand why.

Supporting Literacy in the Early Grades General Music Classroom

When you are working with young children, find out what how they are used to studying words in their regular classroom. Many teachers would be delighted to explain what they are doing and why they are doing it.

If the words to a song are on chart paper or the chalk board, be sure you point to each word as you say it or as you sing it. You might also take a moment to point out words that begin with the same letter or the words that rhyme. If children notice something about the words, then try to go with them on what they notice. For example, they might notice that a word on the page begins with the same letter as someone's name. That is something to be encouraged.

If you are reading the words of a book or song to them and there is a rhyme or a repeated part, get the kids to figure out the next word based on the pattern or the rhyme.

If you are using songs on chart paper or the chalkboard more than once, you can have students take turns pointing at the words as the students sing or say them together. By having several people take turns pointing at the words, the children will have several opportunities for singing the song (which is called "practice"!!). Some teachers have fun pointers for kids to use, such as those witch's fingers you can get at Halloween.

Take some time to discuss the meaning of what you are reading. Help the students to understand what is happening in the song.

If the song is a ballad (story telling song), read the first part and ask students to guess what is going to happen. The point is not for them to necessarily guess correctly, but for them to get involved in the story.

Consider having a word wall of your music vocabulary words. Ask kids to find certain words. A flashlight makes a great pointer to words on the wall: darken the room and ask a child to find a certain word. You can give hints such as the initial letter or what it rhymes with. Be sure to give several people a turn at this.

If you choose to incorporate these strategies with children, you will be creating a foundation for great relationships with other teachers, since you are supporting their goals. They may be more willing to support your goals. Also, if you are deliberately doing these things, then you can let administrators and other folks know that you are teaching literacy. This is a foundation for job security.


(for students of all ages)

Round robin reading (everyone takes a turn reading a paragraph) can be difficult and embarassing for kids who struggle. Try not to use this method. An alternative would be to have a choral reading—everyone reads together. This is an example of kids serving as a scaffold for each other—the children who are less good readers learn when they participate in this activity.

Language Experience Approach

The language experience approach (LEA) is a strategy for use with young children. Not only will LEA be explained, but you will learn how to produce a written text with children.

The roots of this approach lie in the work of Sylvia Ashton-Warner who taught Maori children in New Zealand. She noticed that the children didn’t connect with the standard reading books of the era that featured European children and lifestyles that were different from those of the Maori children.

Ashton-Warner began asking children what words they wanted to read. She encouraged children to construct their own stories, using the dialect of English that was familiar. Children were more successful in learning to read stories that reflected how they were used to hearing language.

In a sense, what Ashton-Warner did was a lot like what Kodaly did in music education: he began with music that was familiar to the children in order to teach them unfamiliar concepts, including how to read and write music. She began with familiar language in order to teach literacy.

The idea is that children dictate what is written down. It is important to write it down as they have dictated, even if the grammar is not academic. When the language of what they read is similar to the language they speak (e.g., “non-standard” dialect) they have an easier time learning to read. Grammar issues can be dealt with later on, once the children have the reading part down. Following a trip to the symphony, children might suggest: “We went to the symphony. We went on a bus. We saw violins.”

As you write what they dictate, think out loud: “Let’s see…symphony starts with a ssss sound. What letter would that be?” Get the kids to help you produce the text as much as possible. Don’t get bogged down forever in this (e.g., don’t try to explain in depth the first “y” in symphony to first graders), but do try to have them help some. You’ll get a sense of what they can do by how they respond.

Remember to encourage students to use environmental print to help you. If “violin” is on your word wall or on a poster, get them to find it and spell it out to you.

Remember to S-T-R-E-T-C-H words to help children hear the sounds in them. Stretch the sound you want them to focus on in particular. You might say, “B—B—UUUUU—SSSS.”

Read the text with the children several times. You can read it, pointing to the words and you can get kids to take turns pointing at the words as the other kids read it chorally.

If possible, make the text available to the children even after class is over. For example, you could give the chart paper it is on to the classroom teacher (my guess is that teachers would be happy to have you do that). You could send home copies of it in your newsletter to parents.

This is a highly motivating procedure because children like reading what they have written themselves.

Academic and non-academic registers of language

In the not so distant past, any child who came to school speaking a “non-standard” dialect was made to feel as if his/her language was bad— “substandard.”

Non-standard dialects are not necessarily bad. They are different from academic English. They serve different purposes. Just think about the differences between the language you use when texting and the language I hope you use in a term paper. ;-) Texting language is supposed to be easy to type and slangy. Term paper language is supposed to be formal and grammatically correct. It would be inappropriate to write a text with term paper language and vice versa.

Non-standard dialects serve important purposes on the communities to which they belong. They mark those who use the dialects as members of the community.

Grammatical structures and vocabulary in these dialects are not a mark of ignorance. Often these dialects preserve important aspects of the history of the community. Appalachian English preserves Elizabethan vocabulary (the English of Shakespeare’s time). African American dialect preserves some grammatical structures of African languages.

What do we do with non-standard dialect speakers?

Remember that negative affect impedes learning (brain-based learning theory). Therefore, telling a kid that his or her language is bad or ignorant will not help that student to learn an alternative. The language we use is part of who we are. Being told our dialect is bad makes us feel as if we are bad.

What to do…

Instead, you can talk about “home” language and “school” language. You can offer students an opportunity to translate between the two versions of language. You can ask for examples of home language and show that you value the child’s culture. At the same time, you can point out that children need to learn “school” language in addition to their home language so they can have academic and career-related opportunities in their future.

An example

I taught an Appalachian song to some fourth graders. It began, “There’s a rabbit in a log and I ain’t got no dog. How will I get him? I know…” We had discussed Appalachian dialect. I asked students to translate this song into school dialect: “There’s a rabbit in a log and I don’t have any dog.” We discussed how the school version doesn’t sound very good in the context of the song. The teacher in this classroom had held similar discussions with children in the past.

Last thoughts on grammar

The goal, then, is for non-standard speakers of English to learn academic English, but also for their home dialects to be valued in the classroom as a part of valuing the cultures from which the children come.

Finally, I grew up in Kentucky but my father was from Maine. We had two strong dialects going on in my house. That was a source of a lot of fun: comparing the different ways a word could be said or discussing idioms. Having multiple dialects in a classroom can be interesting and fun for the children to explore.

Discussion Post

How might you adapt some of these reading strategies to the teaching of music reading? How might your goals when you are teaching beginning musicians be similar to the goals for beginning readers? Are there strategies you could use for beginning music readers that are similar to those for beginning readers? What might the parallels be between LEA and the things you do in a music classroom?