Schools with tight budgets often treat their art classes as expensive luxuries, cutting them in order to focus on students’core educational needs like math and literacy. Researchers from MIT and Beijing Normal University have found that these strategies may not be as cost effective as they intend to be, and that arts, or more specifically music classes, can help young students with their reading more than practicing reading directly. This isn’t because reading quarter notes somehow teaches kids their ABCs, as it’s tied more to beginner readers’ need to approach language as a spoken form of communication.
There have been a variety of cognitive skills tied to music training. Musicians generally perform better auditory processing, deciphering speech amid background noise, and even reading comprehension. However, these correlations were generally made from retroactive surveys that weren’t enough for school administrators to plan a budget around. So when officials in Beijing were trying to assess how cost-effective music lessons were for their young students, it was a unique opportunity to really test how music boosts kids’ ability to read.
Experiments with real-world readers
For six months, 74 four- and five-year-olds were enrolled in one of three programs. One group took three, 45-minute piano lessons each week, another spent that time doing extra reading lessons, while the last group was left to their own devices with no extra classes. In addition to having their reading scores tested, these kids also had their brain activity measured with electroencephalography (EEG). Kids learning to play the piano showed stronger responses to changes in sounds’ pitch than other students, a fact that helps explain what researchers found in their reading scores.
After six months, the students who studied music showed the greatest improvement in one particular part of their reading— they could differentiate between single consonant sounds better than either of the other test groups, and their reading scores benefited as a result. The kids who had extra reading classes instead of music raised their scores around the same amount, although most of their improvements were tied to differentiation between vowel sounds instead of consonants. In both cases, it’s clear that beginner readers are greatly dependent on the sounds of words in order to understand what they read, instead of simply gleaning meaning from ink on a page. By training their ear for the kinds of sounds through music or other practice, students’ reading ability improved, especially compared to the kids who had no special classes and showed no real change over six months time.
Teaching two skills at once
Assuming the costs are somewhat equivalent, researchers felt that the gains seen in music students show how cost-effective music classes can be. Rather than competing for time and money against students’ reading development, this shows that time at the piano is another way to help get kids reading at a young age. While it wasn’t covered directly in the study, the fact that the music students also finished up being able to play music seems like an attractive ‘bonus’ as well.
Source: How music lessons can improve language skills by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Medical XPress