Boost your child’s literacy skills with music

Remember all the times you sang the “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” to your baby while walking your fingers together up the waterspout? Maybe you took her hands and guided her in a game of “Patty-Cake” while singing the rhyming verses.

Perhaps you sang out of instinct, because your parents sang to you. Or maybe you were desperate to engage your crying child in something fun to distract him and dry his tears. You probably didn’t realize that your simple song, along with the movement, was also setting the stage for him to learn how to read years down the road.

Research and educators say that using music with children can give them a boost when it comes to reading. And having the ability to read well can help kids succeed in school. What can you do to help your kids get a literacy boost from music? Here are a few simple suggestions that are easy to incorporate into your daily routine.

Sing in the car

Pop in a CD and crank up the volume as you drive to the grocery store or run errands. Children don’t care if you sing off key or out of tune. They do love to see their parents having fun, acting silly, and playing along with them. Children learn from repetition, so you may want to have a few tried and true standby CDs along every time you are in the car. To increase the variety, and possibly save your sanity, look for new tunes to try in the children’s section of your local library.

Move when you sing

It’s not just about getting the wiggles out. Musician, author, and child development specialist Jim Gill says moving to music also helps kids “regulate themselves from being active and excited to a calmer and more focused state to be successful at a task.” He cites moving to the “Carnival of the Animals,” St. Saens’ classical music piece, as an example. When children and parents play along, he says, “They will find themselves moving slow like turtles, galloping like horses, stomping like mules,” and more.

Extend the music to other activities

Words to songs can have more meaning when you tie them in to other activities, like drawing or painting. It also helps children hone their creativity. Songs that mix things up can be especially good at sparking the imagination. Just think about what your kids can do with crayons and paper when they listen to the Raffi song “Down By the Bay” with it’s silly words, “Did you ever see a goose, kissing a moose?” and “Did you ever see a whale with a polka-dot tale?”

Talk about the lyrics

Songs often use words we don’t hear in everyday life, which means children can expand their vocabulary. Take that waterspout in the “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” for instance. You can point out a downspout on your home and say that reminds you of the song, then sing it. Gill says music can also help “accentuate rhyming patterns, helping children to begin listening and predicting those.” He recites a verse from his song “My Ups and Downs” as an example of a song that brings it all together: “As I ascend/ my arms extend/ and I intend/ to stretch my body straight/ as I elevate.”

“Many children aren’t exposed to that type of vocabulary in their everyday actions with parents and caregivers,” says Gill, “but music play provides an opportunity for children to hear those words and to bring meaning to them through the play.”

Once you start adding music into regular interactions with your child, you’re likely to find even more opportunities to sing and dance and play musical games that help your children see learning as fun, rather than work. Now there’s a spoonful of sugar that can help the medicine go down.

Cindy Hudson writes about reading, family literacy, and books for kids and their parents at She lives with her husband and two daughters.