Music and literacy
I thought I’d write about one of the newest students in the Lower Primary class at Language School. His name is Marko (a pseudonym). He’s from Eastern Europe. He is bright, funny, and has an impish mischievousness about him in music class. He is also notably articulate, which is an unusual thing to say about a new student. But Marko’s oral language is highly developed. He has already spent some time in a mainstream school before coming to Language School.
Today the Lower Primary students worked on glockenspiels. They invented little four-beat melodies choosing from three different pitches. They worked all together, playing through these tunes slowly. I noticed Marko seemed to be struggling, which surprised me, because he has been so very bright in all the classes. I went to help him. I pointed to the letter names written on the board, and said them out loud for him. I noticed that he needed to look at the board before playing the next letter. Look up, look down, locate, play. Look up, look down, locate, play. That was fine – most of the students start like this, but then they begin to process the pattern, they memorise it, and can play more fluently. Marko didn’t seem to be sure about which letter was which without comparing it to the letter-shapes on the board.
“Can you remember it?” I asked him. He shook his head, looking very stressed. I knew at that point I needed to find him something else to do, so that he wouldn’t lose his confidence or enthusiasm. However, I didn’t want to bring attention to him either – I sensed that he was feeling quite uncomfortable and inadequate. Something like that. We weren’t using the large bass xylophone at the time, so I brought it over.
“We need something extra now – just one note on the xylophone. Who would like to play it?” Lots of children waved their hand in the air immediately. Marko didn’t seem to be listening, but I watched him out of the corner of my eye. Suddenly his eyes widened and his hand shot in the air. I think he’d tuned out for a moment, and so took a bit more time to process the question.
“Hmm, Marko, could you come and play the xylophone today?”
I got him to play a series of D-crotchets, as an acompaniment to the 4-beat melodies on the glokenspiels (which were now being played in two parts). I sat beside him. Every now and then I called a note-change to him – “1, 2, 3, change to C!”… “1, 2, 3,change to D!” He didn’t miss a single one of these.
The lesson finished soon after, and Marko seemed much happier and more relaxed. Later, I had the chance to ask his teacher if Marko was have trouble reading. She frowned as she nodded, and explained that despite his oral language being so impressive for his age, his reading and recognition of letters and sounds is coming far more slowly. I described what I had observed in the music lesson, and she raised her eyebrows. “That’s interesting. Perhaps he has some kind of disability with processing the letter-shapes,” she wondered.
It’s not the first time that a literacy strength or weakness has been revealed through music (not that this is something that has been ‘revealed’ – it is just an event from today’s classes that made an impression on me). Teachers have often commented on the things they notice in the students in music lessons that they haven’t seen evidence of elsewhere. Often, students show skills (such as memory work, or recognition of patterns) that have been thought to lacking or hidden in their classroom work.
Back to Marko… I’m pleased with the solution I found today. When he was on the xylophone, and had simpler note changes to manage, he was fine. His rhythmic work is reasonably steady. Perhaps we can devise a part for him that involves only a couple of note changes, and lots of repetition, that might also build up his confidence in recognising the different alphabet letters and playing them on cue.