DEVELOPING MUSIC LITERACY
THROUGH ORIGINAL SHARED BOOK EXPERIENCES
by Stuart Manins

Reprinted by permission of EARLY CHILDHOOD CONNECTIONS: Journal of Music-and Movement-Based Learning (Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer 2001). ©2001
by Foundation of Music-Based Learning (ecconnect@aol.com).

From the back of the classroom I observed a teacher-trainee reading a shared book to about 25 six-year-olds. The children sat wide-eyed and focused full attention on the book, the story, and the teacher. She read superbly. The story was accompanied by a wide range of vocal effects, which told me that she not only knew how to entertain juniors but also that she had a keen ear for pitch, rhythm, timbre, and volume. Her voice went high and low; she buzzed, whistled, and grunted; and the children were fascinated.

While there is nothing new in such a scene for any lecturer who visits students during practice teaching, it was odd that this student had just apologized to me, a lecturer in music education, for not teaching music. Her reason was "the class doesn't like it and I can't do it." Such talent, begging to be harnessed for musical ends, remained untapped! The children strained to join in when they could. Any repetition was eagerly pounced on by the whole class as they displayed a subtle sense of mimicry. Some words and sounds were mouthed in anticipation, and hesitancies in the story-flow were filled in with individual attempts to provide the next word.

It was at this moment that the following way of helping young children sing in tune and move in time was first conceived. Why weren't there stories available which invited the musical responses that are so important? Not just stories about music and musicians, but stories with an intrinsic appeal which compel children to become musically involved. And why couldn't these stories invite children to start reading and writing music symbols, as is being done with language symbols in their basic literacy programs? Such stories would provide children with enjoyable as well as progressively informative experiences and would gradually cover basic elements of simple composition such as the pentatonic scale, well-used rhythmic patterns in simple and compound time, contrasting dynamics, as well as a variety of classroom and vocal tone colours, improvisations, drones, and ostinati.

LITERACY & MUSIC LITERACY

Those of us interested in music literacy can benefit from studying research, debates, practices, and theories pertaining to language literacy. The emphasis on building instruction from children's experiences, the importance of natural language texts, and the inter-relatedness of reading and writing are all admirable aspects of language literacy that might be easily transferred to music education. Being from New Zealand, I know firsthand of our country's pioneering methods in reading education as well as our supreme reputation in language literacy. In the 1970 Educational Achievement survey, New Zealand's 9and 14year-olds placed first in reading achievement when compared with all other participating countries. Describing these times, Dr. Libby Limbrick (2000) of the Auckland College of Education writes:

We had held, for the past two decades, an enviable position in the literacy stakes of the world. Literacy educators from many parts of the world were studying our methods and classroom environments; our literacy materials had been exported to other parts of the world; and our approaches to reading and writing were being adopted in many countries. (1)

But, the heady days of the early 1990s, in which New Zealand was eulogized in Time magazine for its high literacy rate and instructional approaches, are well past. Like so many of our Western counterparts, we in New Zealand are now grappling with problems of increasing numbers of low-income students and more children from non-English-speaking home backgrounds. As a result of these changes, we have abandoned the highest ground of international literacy superiority.

Before discussing literacy any further, I must link my understanding of music literacy to the work of Zoltán Kodály and Carl Orff, from whom I have derived many basic principles and learning sequences. It is also good to remember that the term literacy as related to music is primarily metaphoric. Just as language reading and writing involve the development of knowledge and skills associated with styles, genres, technologies, and structures in the broadest sense, so do those skills apply in music reading and writing. Such music skills are subsumed within an appreciation of conventions linked with creating, performing, and critically evaluating composition and performance. (2) But for many music educators, as with many language teachers, the bread-and-butter of literacy is found in developing skills related to reading and writing the symbols commonly associated with their fields.

The transfer of expertise from that found in language literacy to that in music literacy is secure, at least, in the following small experiment conducted from 1987 to 2000. Initially designed to answer questions that had persisted in challenging me, this experiment began as a way to incorporate what our language literacy authorities were discovering and which culminated with production of a 12-book set entitled Music Stories for Juniors.(3) These stories were written with the understanding that both music and language depend on the perception, reception, and production of sound patterns. Personification of music intervals was used in these stories as a tool to help children understand such "characters" as "So-me," "La-me," "La-so-me," etc.(4) Here, tonal literacy was emphasized separately from rhythmic literacy, with the rhythmic nature of the stories initially being determined by the pacing, spacing, and rhythmic patterns of the words themselves. The practice of reading a "shared book," sometimes known as assisted or cooperative reading, provided the necessary step between reading to and reading by children. It involved reading with children.

The shared book experience has grown to be a popular method used by early childhood specialists to facilitate language literacy. Here, typically, a teacher reads a story to a group of children sitting in close proximity. A "big book" with large text and illustrations that closely follow the story line is placed where it can be clearly seen by both teacher and children. If the teacher is skilled in storytelling, the children will listen wide-eyed and open-eared, with full attention focused on the pictures and words seen on the pages as well as on the sounds and language heard in the story. The children often join in during subsequent readings (particularly with repeated sounds) and mimic the tone colors, pace, pitch, volume, and rhythmic patterns they hear. A teacher can use these responses toward musical ends by focusing on the basic pitch interval of the descending minor third (e.g., in the soh-me of the main character's name) and on the basic rhythmic element of the steady beat (e.g., in the dripping of the leaking tap or the pounding of the heart beat).

THE SHARED BOOK EXPERIENCE

Most teachers understand and exploit the connections between speaking and reading/writing (and indeed see reading and writing as emerging from a primary talking facility), but many fail to extend the association to singing on the one hand and reading and writing music on the other. It has been my observation that children who sing in tune and move in time have a better ear for reading and writing language, as was demonstrated by English music educator Audrey Wisbey (5) in her book entitled Learn to Sing to Learn to Read. Moreover, children who love to write stories have an excellent context for basic music literacy of the kind that "hears what is seen and sees what is heard." (6)

Because of the group dynamics and generous use of visual illustrations, a shared book experience is particularly helpful in teaching English as a second language. In addition to providing a non-threatening situation for those who might otherwise feel insecure with a new language, the added factors of illustrative sound and simple musical chants and tunes serve to increase the attraction. Such experiences provide the non-verbal elements so appropriate to early childhood language acquisition, for which prior language facility provides no advantage. Furthermore, the importance of being part of an aesthetic whole, rather than being associated with an educational part, matters to children. For instance, children appear much more willing to write s-m or s-l-m songs or chants that are embedded in the text of an original story, than to write them separately. Once the barriers between music and language are removed, the inclusion of drama, movement, art, and dance naturally follow.

MUSIC AND LANGUAGE

The "language of music" has become a contentious term among some musicians of late. The 1996 International Society of Music Education Conference held in Amsterdam unleashed a torrent of criticism from members when "The Universal Language" was chosen as the conference theme. Music is not an international language but is an internationally recognized form of expression and a common human experience. It is not as if there were Chinese, French, English, and Spanish languages, and then Music which serves as a less verbal Esperanto. There are, of course, many genres of music expression, with those relating to separate cultures often being referred to as world "musics." If the "language of music" has its problems, then "the languages of music" become even more problematic. One of the disadvantages of considering music as language is the danger of attributing characteristics to it that are usually associated with spoken language. In such a case, music's main purpose would be viewed as communication between people meaning that the nearer the intended meaning was to the understood meaning, then the clearer and better was the communication. Music is not like this. As the most abstract of the arts, its meaning is determined by what the listener brings to it from a particular cultural background and individual life of feeling. Such meaning comes from an individual 's perception and reaction to the music's melodies, tone colors, rhythms, harmonies, etc. Thus, the arts and music in particular are essentially expressive systems, with communication taking on a subsumed function. Moreover, music is often generated for its own sake and for the sake of its maker(s) and not to inform others about ideas that can be verbally specific. No doubt music is a form of communication among people and may even be considered as an aid in communicating with oneself, but what music communicates is usually qualitatively different from that which language conveys.

RELATED ARTS EXPERIENCE

In 2000 a new arts curriculum was introduced in New Zealand that has generated much discussion and debate about the linking of music to its sister arts of drama, visual arts, and dance. Even though association of these areas has met with wide approval, attempts to define these areas with similar terms has met with some resistance.

What is needed are ways to combine the arts in responses that produce an artistic whole without sacrificing the integrity of the contributing components. Elements of language, visual arts, dance, and music can each be enhanced by being brought together. Relating the arts provides excellent motivation and opportunity for creative performance but is generally unsatisfactory as a means of teaching separate curricular areas.

Good related-arts projects depend on good music, language, dance, drama, and visual arts programs and cannot be seen as substitutes for individual program areas. Combining elements from different disciplines into a new artistic whole will always create opportunities for exciting and sensitive expression, but a pooling of ignorance and a lack of skill under the guise of creative arts freedom will inevitably lead to frustration and inartistic results.

As teachers, we need to move on from the level of singing "Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore," taking a trip to the beach, collecting shells, making them into a collage back in the classroom, writing a story about the whole adventure, and then thinking that by this we are teaching "The Arts." We are not. We might be providing motivation for language and art work, and we might be offering a performance opportunity for a song to be sung but the real music teaching will need to go on somewhere else as well. Such teaching will be based on developing a musicianship that focuses on the skills and sensitivities upon which music-making depends.

The prospect of creating musical shared books is one example of how music can be related to other arts areas. Shared book experiences that involve music can result in the children's being engaged in. . .

  1. writing and reading their own musical stories,
  2. creating and performing their own dramatizations ,
  3. envisioning and illustrating their own stories, as well as
  4. composing and singing their own songs.

Here music becomes a natural expression of the children's own imaginative play and creativity.

CHILDREN'S WORK

As early childhood educators, we have all had experiences in which children have taught and led us. Such was my case in writing the above mentioned 12-book set. While the original aim centered on helping children sing in tune and move in time, new goals needed to be considered since this aim was so quickly achieved in the initial books.

One unexpected outcome of using shared book experiences in musical ways was the children's response of writing their own musical stories. I was taken completely by surprise the first time a child showed me a musical story she had written. This 6-year-old had spent an entire day making up the story, stapling together a little book, writing in the words with s-m chants on two-lined staves, and illustrating the pages. This is her story:

SO-ME'S DAY OFF SCHOOL by Rosalind

So-me had been very good tidying up.

The next page had a picture depicting this.
He tidied up all the paper off the floor .
So his teacher Mrs. Clapham said he could take the day off school.

This was written across the top of the central two pages. Underneath was a dinosaur drawn from margin to margin.

The story continued:

 

On the final page were drawn two horizontal bones with So written on the first bone and me on the other.

 

Rosalind read aloud her story to me without a mistake, correctly singing the "bink bonk" and "So-me" bits nicely in tune. Her parents told me that they had provided no help.

Other children, seeing and hearing what she had done, soon followed with their own stories. Predictably, the stories used characters found in the shared books and employed different melodic shapes learned from the models presented. Soon after hearing Book-4, So-me... Oh and Romeo, 5-year-old Stephanie wrote the following story, which incorporated the inverted minor third, me-soh.

SO-ME AND THE WITCH by Stephanie

So-me went up the witch's stairs.

 

went his shoes on the witch's stairs.
When he was at the top, the witch nearly threw him out the window.

Suddenly the world changed into a wonderful world.
Everyone broke their guns and turned them into recorders and started to play them.

When Stephanie showed her book to the class, she sang the "tap taps" on me-soh, the "boinks" on soh-me-doh (well ahead of me here!), and the tune for recorders and the song for God on soh-me. She had used three sheets of A4 paper, folded in half, stapled down the spine, and delightfully illustrated with colored pictures. What a start to a life of combining storytelling, writing, reading, singing, playing, drawing, and entertaining an audience!

Once lah had been introduced in Book-5, So-me at the Pole, a 6-year old boy named Jon wrote the following:

 

 The class helped me extend this song into a circle activity in which a bird went "tweet," a snake went "sss," a donkey went "hee-haw," and a snail went " . . . " (nothing!). We walked to the accompaniment of rhythm sticks sounding the beat; we all said "Uh-oh" when the animal was confronted and then all joined in on the animal sounds ( or silence ).

James, a 6-year-old, produced a book like the others, but it was the song at the end of his story that particularly grabbed my attention.

SO-ME AT THE ZOO
by James

 

James wrote his words on a two-lined stave, with soh and me on the lines and lah in the space above the upper line. The two notable features of this composition are his use of lah and the rhythmic flow of the text, which is sung in 6/8 time.

Notice that James uses lah on "went to," thus establishing in the shortest possible time the full extent of his new melodic repertoire. He then places the name "La-me" in the correct stave places. Only someone accurately thinking these relative pitches would do this. The placement of lah on "all" gives appropriate emphasis to the meaning of the text, and the use of lah on the last word "doze" provides the feeling of dreamy relaxation associated with the sleepy bear. This is a song that I never tire of singing with his story. I find it brilliant.

I wonder how much adult help James might have been given, but since he cheerfully and accurately sang it to the rest of the class when reading his story, I suppose that it really doesn't matter. I have also wondered how, previous to this experience, I would have gone about the teaching goal of trying to help a 6-year-old compose a song in compound duple time. I probably would have considered it too hard to attempt, thinking that any explanation would have been more confusing than helpful - if not to this child then at least to others in the class. So what had I done differently? The main difference had been in not teaching the rhythmic symbols for crotchets ( quarter notes) and paired quavers (eighth notes). We had, of course, used them as Ta and Ta-te (ti-ti), we had spoken and sung them, but we had not seen them written down. By leaving all rhythmic elements of composition to the rhythmic pattern of the words only, we had left open the possibility of quite sophisticated rhythmic composition without the need of its being written down in rhythmic notation. This explains why the written symbols for Ta and Ta-te are left until Books 9 and 10 in this series.

WAITING FOR INSPIRATION

One Saturday at the Children's Music Centre in Auckland, the mother of one of my 6-year-olds students asked my advice about a situation which had been bothering her. Her daughter showed no interest in writing a story of her own. What should she do?

Joy was a bright, intelligent, and capable little girl who was a delight to teach. Even though I could understand the mother's quandary, I could not share her concern. Instead I advised the mother to show no worry at all; moreover, I told her to suggest to her child that she was working too hard and that it might be a good idea for her to take life a little easier than she normally did and to cut down on some of her after-school follow-up activities such as music. I had never given this advice before, and I rather surprised myself by saying it. But somehow I felt it appropriate for this situation. I encouraged the mother, a medical practitioner who was obviously very capable and caring, to keep modelling musical behaviours at home but to bring no pressure on her daughter to produce an illustrated story. I think that the mother was as surprised by my answer as I was. I asked her to watch carefully and to let me know what, if anything, happened.

The next week I could tell from the look on the mother's face that the situation had resolved itself. Joy had written the following story entitled, So-Me and His Puppy.

 

Note Joy's use of soh, me, and lah on a two-line stave with crotchet and paired quarters. There had been a public holiday on one of the days that week, and Joy had decided without any prompting to spend the time writing this story. I wonder if she would have done this if her mother and I had insisted on her producing something? The last "whine" on s-l-m is so beautifully tragic that it could only have been produced from a combination of intense intrinsic interest and freedom.

CREATIVITY

So much has been written about children's creativity that I hesitate to add further opinion. But given that our original music-skill aims were soon met, we chose to focus on the children 's natural creative expression. The skills base initially developed served as an important prerequisite to the children 's creative responses, which would come in multimedia form. It should also be noted that engendering the children's creativity became a process goal rather than a skill goal, with process and skill goals going hand-in-hand.

The best conditions for creative expression are seldom found in a classroom. Children need to be relaxed, able to focus on their activity without interruption, and near a source of assistance should they become stuck. Such ideal conditions are more likely to be found at home than at school. While the more formal, institutional conditions available in the classroom may be suitable for sparking the imagination, providing models, and developing necessary skills for meeting suitable creative challenges, it is the more informal setting of the home that offers the solitude and freedom necessary for story writing and composition. Parental support at home for what the teacher has initiated in the classroom is of vital importance, and therefore we must encourage parents to attend classes with their children whenever possible. While this is essential up to the age of 3 or 4, it is beneficial in the later stages of early childhood as well.

By following and trusting the children, we discovered that shared book experiences provided the musical skill base needed both for music literacy and music creativity. We also discovered that our modelling of musical shared books produced responses that involved storytelling, story writing, illustrating, creating characters, dramatizing as well as composing and singing. Such related arts experiences served the children 's need for a holistic aesthetic experience, while also offering them specific musical skills required for completion of the project.

Here lies a paradox: It is impossible to predict when moments of creativity and inspiration will come. The more we mechanically plan for and try to force them to occur, the more our prepared structure becomes a barrier to their appearance. As teachers we must simply set the conditions and then wait for the magic to come. It will come and when it does, the creation will be self -generated.

ENDNOTES:

  1. Limbrick, Lib by (2000). New Zealand's Response to the Literacy Issues of the 1990s. Reading Forum Magazine, Vol. 2.
  2. Ministry of Education (2000). The Arts in the New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media Ltd.
  3. Manins, Stuart (1987-2000). Music Stories for Juniors. Auckland, New Zealand: S. M. Books. [For further information on these 12 books and accompanying tapes, refer to the website: http://www.infoxchange.net.au/orff/sales-folder/so-me.htm or the author at: Manins@xtra.co.nz ]
  4. Consistent with Curwen's English methods, doh, ray, me, [fah], soh, lah, [te] are used here when referring to scale degrees and intervals. Sometimes to assist the personification of intervals in the story and to fit with Orff, Kodály, and North American usage, doh, soh, and lah are shortened to do, so, and la. The further abbreviated and less contentious use of d-r-m-s-l is found when the concept of having solfa names for scale positions is firmly established.
  5. Wisbey, Audrey (1981). Learn to Sing to Learn to Read. London: BBC.
  6. Richards, Mary Helen (1964). Threshold to Music: The First Three Years. New York: Harper & Row.


Stuart Manins is a New Zealander with a growing international involvement in music education. In his early teaching days as a music specialist in secondary schools, he was known as a choral conductor of youth choirs. Trained as a singer with a master's degree in music from the University of Auckland, he became Head of Music at North Shore Teachers College and later at Auckland College of Education. During these years, he was involved in writing National Advanced Studies in Teaching Music, followed by the 1989 NZ Department of Education Music Syllabus. As a performer, he toured extensively with the Early Music group, The Kynges Company. Manins has had a long association with the International Society for Music Education, presenting papers and workshops in the areas of Teacher Education, Community Music, and Early Childhood Music. He retired from fulltime lecturing in 1989 but continues to write, lecture, and consult. The public knows him best through a series of Music Stories for Juniors written to help young children develop musicianship through singing in tune and moving in time as they begin reading and writing music.