Can Music Help Low-Income Students Read and Succeed at Higher Rates?
Early exposure to music has been recognized as an important way for very young children, including infants, to gain early literacy and pre-reading skills. Singing a lullaby, playing music together, or using nursery rhymes such as “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” or “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” to capture a child’s attention are all documented ways to boost a child’s ability to translate sound into meaning.
Researchers from Boston College and Harvard Medical School have found that children who take music lessons at a young age often become more adept at another important literacy skill: sound distinction, or recognizing different kinds of sounds. An example of this is a young child just beginning to grasp the difference between the sounds that b and d make. “A music-rich experience for children of singing, listening, and moving is really bringing a very serious benefit to children as they progress into more formal learning,” said Mary Luehrisen, executive director of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that promotes the benefits of making music.
Music and low-income students
Researchers at the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University published a report that detailed an important discovery: Music lessons can help at-risk and low-income youth maintain their ability to read at grade level. The study found that teaching children how to play an instrument touches upon many essential literacy skills, such as developing an ear for rhythm and enriching the complexity and diversity of sounds—an important path to reading—for students from more impoverished homes.
While exposing children to music instruction was not found to push their reading skills above grade level, it did help them “stay on track academically” while many of their low-income peers slipped behind. The researchers also found that more than other arts-focused classes, music can boost students’ language skills and tap into another key literacy skill—internal motivation. “Participation in an engaging music program,” they argued, may “increase a child’s overall motivation to learn.” That motivation is especially important for low-income students who may be at a higher risk of dropping out.
Learning from the Harmony Project
Evidence to support this can be found in the Los Angeles Harmony Project, a nonprofit group that provides free music lessons to students from neighborhoods plagued by violence and a lack of resources. The Harmony Project has been an integral part of the community for 15 years, and its website offers some impressive results. For example, in 2014, all 52 of the high school seniors enrolled in the Harmony Project went on to college, while an additional 2,000 students from kindergarten participated in the program’s music lessons, field trips, and concert and band opportunities. The group’s tagline provides the perfect summary: “We keep kids safe, in school, and inspired.”
Also in 2014, the authors of the previously mentioned Northwestern research study partnered with the Harmony Project to add an additional layer of science-supported research to the nonprofit's work. What the researchers found reinforced their previous conclusions regarding how music instruction helps students learn to listen better—and, thus, read better—even in typically “noisy classrooms.”
These findings led researchers to partner with Chicago Public Schools, closer to their Northwestern University home. There, according to a 2016 piece in the journal ENT and Audiology News, they found that economically disadvantaged students who received at least two years of music instruction displayed improved listening and learning skills, helping them to keep up with grade-level expectations.
According to lead researcher Nina Kraus, these findings are significant in that they may signify a student-friendly, cost-effective way for low-income learners to improve their academic skills. The impact of poverty on the brain can result in “less efficient, less consistent, and ‘noisier’ sound processing,” Kraus noted, but there is hope. As she phrased it, “Music helps erase this poverty signature.” Along the way, students may achieve not only improved outcomes in literacy, but a deeper connection to the joy of playing and making music.
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