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Music Education Improves Literacy of Second-Graders

• March 17, 2009 • 7:04 PM

As arts and music programs get squeezed out of America’s cash-strapped schools, evidence continues to accumulate of the wide-reaching positive effects of such training.

According to a just-published study in the journal Psychology of Music, the reading skills of young children who received structured training in music were clearly superior to those of their peers who did not have the benefit of such instruction. The finding is particularly striking because both groups of kids took part in comprehensive literary training, in which lengthy periods of their school day were dedicated to reading and writing.

The study, conducted by psychologists Joseph M. Piro and Camilo Ortiz of New York’s Long Island University, directly compared second-graders from two New York City public schools. The schools were located in nearby neighborhoods with similar demographics. The only real difference between them is one included music instruction for students — as a part of the regular curriculum — beginning in kindergarten, meaning the second-graders were in their third year of such study.

The second-graders in each school were tested for two specific literacy skills at the beginning and end of the school year: general vocabulary and “verbal sequencing,” in which the kids are asked to interpret short sentences and demonstrate they understand their meaning.

The students from the music-rich school were trained using material from the Music and the Brain project. Working in a specially equipped music laboratory (including child-sized music stands), they learned basic music notation, fingering technique and sight-reading, among other skills. As they progressed in the program, the material they were asked to master became increasingly complex.

When the kids were re-tested at the end of the school year, those at the school without music education performed slightly better on the literacy test, while those in the music-rich school scored “significantly higher,” according to the researchers. The difference was particularly striking on the vocabulary test, in which an examiner points to a picture of some simple object and asks the child to identify it. The students who studied music made significant gains on this test, “while scores in the control group remained mostly static,” they report.

While this would seem to be a strong argument in favor of music education, the researchers did include one cautionary note: Although the students in the music-rich school had already been exposed to two years of such training, their literacy scores at the beginning of the second grade were comparable to those in the control school. Does that mean the bump up they received from music education faded away during the summer?

Possibly, but the psychologists note there are several alternative explanations, including the idea that the benefits of music education are cumulative, and the evidence “there are significant spurts of brain growth” around ages 6 and 7, when these students were being tested. Perhaps second grade is the developmental stage where music training can show particularly strong benefits.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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