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  • Amoriza Gunnink

Early Literacy Development: The Musical Connection

Establishing a solid foundation of experiences with musical play during early childhood supports phonemic awareness, which is vital to the development of language skills. Phonemic awareness refers to the child’s ability to distinguish and manipulate different sound units of language, or phonemes, and is an early predictor of reading success (Kirtley et. al, 1989). Research shows that preschool children’s awareness of phonemes accounted for 50% of the variance in reading proficiency by the end of grade one (Adams, 2010). Thus, oral practice with differentiating sounds that represent syllables, consonants, vowels, and blends serves as an effective method for constructing phonemic awareness with young children.

Musical play is a valuable resource to support the development of phonemic awareness and can easily be integrated in both home and educational settings. Songs, chants, and rhymes provide opportunities for performance and phoneme identification, which are both vital aspects of phonemic awareness. Who can resist the enchantment of a simple, fun and nonsensical rhyme such as Higglety Pigglety Pop, where a dog eats a mop, a pig is in a hurry, and a cat in a flurry? When children experience innate delight with word play, they are motivated to participate in singing or chanting nursery rhymes.

Furthermore, when preschoolers listen to songs repeatedly, the words will assimilate into their long-term memory (Feierabend, et. al, 1998). Each new song provides an opportunity for children to expand their language abilities. Singing not only widens their vocabulary development, but also helps children improve the skills of enunciation, grammar, and syntax. Through songs, children are introduced to oral language vocabulary and diction they will encounter later in print form (Edwards et al., 2009).

The importance of using musical play to support children’s emergent literacy skills cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, many parents today believe nursery rhymes to be outdated, so the prevalence of sharing rhymes and chants with children at home has declined (Dunst, DATE; Meter & Hamby, 2011; Booktrust, 2009; Syson, 2009; Scholastic Education PLUS, 2009). Yet musical play, and particularly songs and rhymes, provide a delightful way for young children to enhance both receptive language skills as children engage in listening, as well as expressive language skills when they join in to sing or chant.

Changing a little one’s diaper? Recite a finger play. Soothing a weary toddler? Chant a nursery rhyme. Calming a lively child at bedtime? Sing a story song. Parents and children alike can enjoy the benefits of musical play through nursery rhymes and songs that support emergent literacy.

Amoriza Gunnink, M.Ed.


Adams, M., Foormans, B., Lundberg, I. & Beeler, T. (2010). Phonemic awareness in young children: A classroom curriculum. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Bryant, P.E., Bradley, L., Maclean, M. & Crossland, J. (1989). Nursery rhymes, phonological skills and reading. Journal of Child Language, 16, 171-184.

Dunst, C., Meter, D. and Hamby, D. (2011). Relationship between young children’s nursery rhyme experiences and knowledge and phonological and print-related abilities. CELL Reviews, 4 (1), 1-12.

Edwards, L. et al. (2009). Music and Movement: A Way of Life for the Young Child.Upper Saddle River: Merrill. 

Feierabend, J. M., Saunders, T. C., Holahan, J. M., & Getnick, P. E. (1998). Song recognition among preschool-age children: An investigation of words and music. Journal of Research in Music Education. 46 (3), 351-359.

Kirtley, C., Bryant, P., MacLean, M. & Bradley, L. (1989). Rhyme, rime, and the onset of reading. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 48, 224-245.  

Syson, D. (2009). Please don't kill our nursery rhymes: Studies suggest learning them builds children's confidence and can help with reading skills. Times Online.

Scholastic Education PLUS (2009). Parents think nursery rhymes 'old-fashioned.'

Booktrust (2009). The nation's favourite nursery rhyme is revealed.


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