Learning & Literacy through Music

learning literacy musicConnecting Learning & Literacy

Aside from the fun alliteration of the L’s rolling off the tongue, there is a tremendous connection between literacy and learning. And many opportunities to make community connections—more alliteration!—when literacy is the focus.

In my private practice, I travel a large rural area to see clients primarily in their homes. Six months ago, I connected with the Omro Area Community Center to see if they had space so that a new client could meet me halfway.

They were very welcoming and they have a wonderful historical building that is well suited to the work I do. In meeting with the director to brainstorm some ideas about collaboration, she suggested connecting me with the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the local school district.

It turns out that the community center has a focus on literacy with a volunteer program called Little Fox Literacy and a partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a wonderful community program that puts books in the hands of children.

Most of my current work is one-on-one, but I used to travel to 19 special education classrooms each week and did most of my work in a group setting, seeing more than 200 kids each week.

I missed leading groups and I was itching to try out some of the songs from Alphabet Stew and Chocolate Too: Songs for Developing Phonological Awareness, Literacy and Communication Skills in a community setting, and these new connections turned out to be the perfect opportunity. It turns out that the local elementary school is within walking distance of the community center.

We were able to put together a five week program titled “Learning & Literacy through Music.” The program is being provided in an intergenerational setting with a different classroom each week and as many seniors as we can get to brave the Wisconsin winter weather coming together to connect through music and our love of reading.

Learning & Literacy Program – Week One

rub a friends backOur first group was Mrs. Desch’s kindergarten class from HB Patch Elementary. Following a greeting song which included letter recognition and social interactions (including an impromptu back rub), we sequenced a series of body parts and practiced echo singing with “Song In My Heart.”

We warmed up our brain to recognize rhymes by singing about a snowflake on my “delbow” (elbow), in my “rair” (hair), and on my “welly” (belly). During another rhyming song called the “Silly Name Game,” the kids enjoyed changing my name from Kathy to Pathy, Dathy, and Wathy.  This is a fun way to teach rhyming and also introduces the more complex skill of onset-rime blending.  During this song, we were treated to an impromptu echo song from one of our Seniors called “Little Sir Echo!”

We talked about impulse control during “Blending Compound Words” when kids learned to follow the structure of the music and WAIT until the end to tell us that “jelly” + “bean” = jellybean.

We also practiced syllable deletion with a fun song that told us we had a “birdhouse out back in the shed. Someone took the house, what’s left instead? It’s just a… bird!”

Phonological Awareness

All of these skills—alliteration, rhyming, blending, and segmenting—are important building blocks for learning to read. Before learning to blend individual sounds into words, we need to learn how to do this with larger “chunks” such as syllables and words.

This is called phonological awareness, fancy terminology that means kids are aware of the sounds of speech separate from their meaning. They notice when words start with the same sound (alliteration) and they are aware when they hear words that rhyme. They also understand that sentences are made up of words, words are made up of syllables, and syllables are made of sounds or phonemes.

Many kids pick up by these skills simply by being read to and through “playing with language.” Other kids—especially our strong visual learners and those who have frequent ear infections when they are young—need to be taught these skills very intentionally. The motivating medium of music is the perfect way to accomplish this task!

Closing Connections

To end our program, we sang “The Green Grass Grows All Around” to practice sequencing and to exercise our working memory. We spent about five minutes reading with a friend and ended with every child having a chance to strum the guitar during our goodbye song. On the way out, our Seniors were treated to hugs from the little ones.

We sure can pack a lot into 45 minutes when music helps to keep us on task and focused!

The seniors in our community connected with some of our youngest citizens. And we all had fun connecting through music.

music therapy2016 Social Media Advocacy Project

January brings with it an opportunity—organized by the American Music Therapy Association and the Certification Board for Music Therapists—to advocate for music therapy through social media. Part of this year’s challenge was to comment on my role as a connector. You can read more about this project here.

Potato Chip Drum Song

drum songOne of my favorite things to do over the summer is organize a group of kids for a  “Learning Through Song” class.  Some of these kiddos I’ve had in therapy over the years and some are contacts from an early childhood music class I used to teach for Miss Roberta over at Adventures in Music.  This is our third summer getting together and it is so much fun watching the kids interact and seeing how much they’ve grown.

This year, we had fun with our potato chip drums and our potato chip drum song!  While walking around WalMart with my kids one day, I saw that Lays potato chips in a blue plastic container were only $1.  A long time ago—see my FB cover here—I had discovered that the side of the plastic package could be scraped guirolike a guiro (Latin American percussion instrument) and the top makes a great sound when tapped like a drum. 

At a dollar a piece, I decided to get one for each child in my music class.  The perfect song popped into my head and a new rhythm instrument activity was born.  The kids had a blast!

I’m braving the video camera to share this intervention with you.  Now, I’m pretty sure that I “borrowed” this melody from somewhere, but I wasn’t able to track it down.  The lyrics are mine, but if you recognize the melody and know the source, please let me know!

If the video is not showing below, you can view it here.

Let me know if you decide to use this instrument idea with your clients or students.  I’d love to hear your adaptations.


Songwriting Challenge



In April and May, I participated in a five week songwriting challenge organized by Rachel Rambach over at www.listenlearnmusic.com.  While I write songs almost weekly for my clinical work, it was fun to participate in a community of songwriters.  Songwriting is definitely something that gets easier with practice and with a little mentoring from experienced songwriters.My friend, Nicole Martens, has been a tremendous influence in this area.  In fact, after her help with improving some of my compositions, we created a five hour continuing education class on the topic of songwriting.  The big takeaways from that learning experience:  accurate word emphasis (being sure the accented syllable of a word falls on a strong beat in the music), symmetrical phrase structure, and appropriate vocal range for young voices.  Attention to these details results in songs that are much more effective for helping kids learn.


Greeting Song

The first task was to write a greeting song.  Music therapists often use a greeting song at the start of each session to create familiarity and structure.  I wrote a short greeting song for an adult client of mine.  He has become very skilled at singing “Hi Kathy” in response a greeting song I wrote several years ago.  The goal of this song is for him to greet me first.  Eventually, I will be able to cue him by singing just the melody of the opening which accompanies the lyrics of “It’s time to say…”



Piggyback Song

Task number two was to write a piggyback song, which essentially means putting new words to a familiar melody.  During this weekly challenge, I came down with a spring cold and completely lost my voice.  I have been hoarse many times in my life, but this was an absolute ZERO voice for 4 days and it was kinda scary.  It wasn’t really due to the cold, but lack of self care and overusing a compromised voice box.

So, I ended up notating this one in Print Music and posting the printed music.  It’s to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”  Lyrics are included below.  If you’re interested in the notated version, you can get the one page pdf here.

I’ve been working on this song, for what seems like too long.
Rhyming and playing with the timing, but you can’t go wrong
When you use music, to help kids learn.
I love to use music, to help kids learn.
I love music therapy, I love music therapy
Except for when I lose my voice, then it’s kinda scary!
I need to get better with self care, listen to my body and don’t push so hard.
Then I won’t lose my voice, I will make a better choice.
Please come back real soon, I feel like such a goon.
Please come back so I can work.  Being able to sing is such a perk!


Instrument Song

The next challenge was to choose an instrument and at least one goal that could be targeted with the instrument.  I chose the agogo bells.

Song for Agogo BellsThis specific song could be used to work on following directions, identifying small and large, or for turn taking.  In group sessions with young children, I often include an instrument song that requires passing an instrument around the circle structured with a brief, fun song that keeps the other kids moving and grooving while they are waiting their turn.



Song for a Client-Specific Goal

The fourth task was to write a song for a client-specific goal or objective, keeping in mind the client’s preferred style of music.  I used a math song for this one with a goal of changing an improper fraction into a mixed number.  You can read more about that here.  This particular client is very motivated by songs that end with a variation of “Shave and a haircut…two bits!”



A Song for Me

This was definitely the most challenging song of all.  I don’t think I’ve ever written a song just for me.  I’ve put a few Bible passages to a memorable melody, but coming up with lyrics is not my strength.

While cooking supper one night, I asked my ten year old daughter—who is becoming quite a gifted writer—to write me a poem with four verses, four lines each.  Meanwhile, I kept cooking and started coming up with some opening lines of “I love to read, I love to read, I love to read, but what I need.”  That’s as far as I got, but was going to go on about needing more time to get through all of my book piles.  Ten minutes later, Anna comes downstairs with four complete verses!  On the SAME TOPIC!

That got my creative juices flowing and “Reading, Reading Everywhere” was born.  The lyrics are about 50% mine and 50% my daughter’s.  I’m really quite pleased with the result.

Reading is something that’s good for your brain.
You can read in your bed, you can read on a plane.
You read a lot in school, it’s really kinda cool.
But if it’s a library book, don’t read in the pool.

Are you short on cash?  Do you want to buy a book?
You can go to the library and just take a look.
Or, you can get your own library card.
Talk to the librarian, it won’t be hard.

Then you can check out a book.
Maybe a book that will help you learn to cook.
Or, it could be, a book about ancient Rome.
Either way, you get to bring it home!

Reading is awesome, fun for you and me.
As long as you return it on time, it’s free!
Support the library ev’ry chance you get.
But, please remember, don’t get the book wet.


Sentence Segmentation to Improve Communication – Part 2 of 2

phonological awareness continuum


Visual and Rhythmic Prompt

In part one of this post, you learned how I use echo singing to work on auditory comprehension, turn taking, and keeping a steady beat.  I also briefly introduced a strategy for cuing speech using a dry erase board and dotted sentence segmentation.  Having my client point to each word or the dot under each word as he or she says each word provides a visual for becoming aware of sentence segmentation, develops the speech to print connection, and provides both a tactile and rhythmic prompt for getting the words out successfully.


Gradual Release of Responsibility

The rhythmic echoing and visual with dots under each word is a strategy that I have developed over time as it targets phonological awareness skills as well as provides pacing and a visual focus.  While taking a graduate class at UW-Oshkosh in 2014 — Reading in the Elementary School — I realized that I was following the “Gradual Release of Responsibility” when using this strategy.  It was also during this class that I became aware of how easy it is to constantly “test” rather than “teach” within the structure of a session.

Gradual Release of Responsibility is an educational model that has been adopted by several schools in my area.  As far as I can tell, it originated in a 1983 manuscript by Pearson and Gallagher, available as a pdf download through Google Scholar.  In more recent years, Fischer and Frey have published a book on the topic and several others have presented on a similar model using different terminology.


Testing or Teaching

One of points that stuck with me during the grad class is that the number one thing new educators need to overcome is their tendency to “test” rather than “teach.”  I found that I could relate to this in my one-on-one clinical work, as I was often taking data (i.e. how many times was the child successful out of five attempts) to measure progress.  Granted, I also gave a variety of prompts, but it often felt like I was hoping to see if they’d get it on their own, and if not, then I would provide the least intrusive prompt.

With more of a teaching mindset, I find myself modeling exactly what I want them to do first and then gradually fading the prompts as they become successful.  It is significantly more effective to teach the skills and provide supports with a gradual move toward independence.

In a classroom, this might look more like:

A focus lesson  —  “I do it”
Guided Instruction  —  “We do it”
Collaborative  —  “You do it together”
Independent  —  “You do it alone”

In a one-on-one setting, it may look like this:

Demonstration  —  “I Do, You Watch”
Shared Demonstration — “I Do, You Help”
Guided Practice —  “You Do, I Help”
Independent Practice —  “You Do, I Watch”

These are the phrases used in the published literature and in the published visuals you will find if you google “Gradual Release of Responsibility.”  Teachers in the classroom are being instructed to use these phrases while teaching so that kids know what is expected of them.


Gradual Release of Responsibility — Adapted

In my work with kids on the autism spectrum, I find that the heavy use of pronouns is confusing.  If I say “I do, you watch,” I can’t be certain that child isn’t thinking that “I” refers to him or herself.  For those clients that benefit from the structure of knowing what to expect, I label the process as:

Shared Practice
Independent Practice

If we are working on a math skill, my clients on the spectrum experience less anxiety and know exactly what to expect if they know that I will “model” two problems, we will do two problems together with “shared practice,” and then they will be asked to do two problems independently.  We use the term “shared practice” and talk about how practice means we are learning a new skill and it’s okay to make mistakes or ask for help if needed.graudal release of responsibility

Where is the Music?

You may be wondering where the music is?  This is supposed to be music therapy, right?  There are many components of music that can be manipulated to create a successful learning experience — melody, rhythm, accompaniment, timbre, volume, and tempo.  I find that a rhythmic prompt (without a melody or singing) is sometimes the most effective in a one-on-one teaching situation.


In Summary

The structure of turn taking and rhythmic call and response is a skill which will be extremely useful as literacy skills continue to develop.  Entraining to a steady beat results in improved connectivity for kids on the autism spectrum and provides focus and a template for a response for all kids.

Combining this turn taking skill with what has become known as the “gradual release of responsibility” is an extremely effective way to target literacy skills.

Using turn taking, rhythmic cues, and intentional teaching with a gradual release of responsibility are all strategies that will help a child learn the skill of sentence segmentation.

Learning to attend to larger “chunks” (i.e. words) will set the foundation for later being able to manipulate the smaller “chunks” of syllables and phonemes.  And that, my friends, will lead to successful readers and communicators in life!


Fischer, D., & Frey, N.  (2008).  Better Learning Through Structured Teaching:  A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

LaGasse, A. B.  (2013).  Influence of an external rhythm on oral motor control in children
and adults.  Journal of Music Therapy, 50(1), 6-24.

Pearson, P.D. and Gallagher, M.C.  (1983).  “The Instruction of Reading Comprehension,”  Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317-344.

Sentence Segmentation to Improve Communication – Part 1 of 2


phonological awareness developmental continuum



Echo Singing or Chanting

One of the skills I almost always include in both one-on-one and group music therapy sessions with young children is an echo song or rhythmic exchange.  During this type of intervention, the following areas in the Phonological Awareness Developmental Continuum are targeted simultaneously:  Listening Games, Beat Competence (ability to keep a steady beat), Auditory Discrimination, and Sound Matching.  It is also a preparatory skill that will improve focus and help with academic learning during all stages of a child’s education.

In the downloadable FREEBIE for a simple echo experience available at the bottom of this post, I use the lyrics of “I sing, you sing, my turn first.”  A variation of this is “My turn, your turn, listen to me first.”  I recently have experienced success using this variation and the skill of sentence segmentation to improve communication abilities for a little girl who just turned six.

With Emma (not her real name), we focus on echoing a sequence of 3 body parts including the verbal label and touching the body part at the start of each session.  We have been working on this for quite a while.  Originally, if I said, “knees–knees–tummy,” she would often repeat as “knees–knees–knees–tummy–tummy” or some other variation.  As she has become more accurate in her ability to echo accurately, I have seen improvement in other goal areas.


Sentence Segmentation as a Visual and Rhythmic Prompt

sentence segmentationWhen Emma takes her turn being the leader, rather than saying, “My turn, your turn, listen to me first,” she will usually say, “Myturn, listen me first.”  That’s not a typo, as I recently discovered that for Emma, “my turn” was one word.

To get Emma to produce all eight words, I wrote the words on a dry erase board with dots under each word.  In my charting after each session, I refer to this strategy as “Dotted Sentence Segmentation.”  To practice left to right directionality and the return sweep (moving from the end of the first line to the beginning of the second line), I make a point of writing the text as two lines.


Gradual Release of Responsibility

We then used a strategy of fading prompts that I recently realized meets the criteria for using the “Gradual Release of Responsibility.”  It is fun to have a functional example of what that means, as Gradual Release of Responsibility is currently in “vogue” when it comes to educational verbiage.  But when it comes down to it, what really matters is that it works!

Here are the specific steps:

Step 1)  I model the sentence slowly and clearly while pointing to each word.

Step 2)  I point to each word but wait for Emma to repeat each word before moving on the next one.

Step 3)  Emma points to each word while I read the words one at a time and wait for her to repeat each word.

Step 4)  Emma reads the sentence independently while pointing.

Step 5)  Emma says the sentence within the context of our echo game without the visual.


Rhythmic and Visual Cues to Increase Sentence Length

Of course, Emma is not truly “reading” at this point.  Although she has picked up some sight words and does attend to the clues provided by the first letter of each word, she has essentially memorized what we rehearsed.

In the process, however, she has developed a very clear understanding of sentence segmentation — essentially, the awareness that a sentence can be segmented into words.  AND the visual and rhythmic cues help significantly with her ability to clearly enunciate a complete sentence.

More about intentional teaching and the gradual release of responsibility in my next post!


Oh, and don’t forget to click here for your freebie — a pdf download of a simple Echo Experience!

Read part 2 of this post here.

What a Wonderful World — New Book for Your Collection

What a Wonderful World music based bookI’m always on the lookout for picture books that can easily be set to music or ones that illustrate well known songs.  I recently came across a new version of “What a Wonderful World” that is my current favorite of all picture books.  It is illustrated by Tim Hopgood.  You can see a sample of his fabulous artwork here.

This book stands out for extraordinary illustrations.  The pages are full of eye-catching color schemes that vary on each page.  The pictures are extremely detailed, but still easy to understand when taken as a whole or as a gestalt.  The pages are rich in color and detail but surprisingly not too busy as is often the case with picture books.  The book is 11.5 x 11.5 inches, slightly larger than your average picture book and perfect for group sessions.

Being a trumpet player, how could I not prefer Louis Armstrong’s recording of this song over all others?  I think it would be fun to present this picture book with the recording as the tempo allows for just enough time on each page and the printed words match the song lyrics precisely.

It would also be great to do some simple sign language while holding the book in your lap and drawing attention to the pictures that illustrate each sign — clouds, rainbow, baby, green, red.

That being said, my favorite way to share this book would be to simply sing it without accompaniment.  This would allow opportunities to briefly stop and work on comprehension skills by asking questions and elaborating on the details in the pictures.

What are your favorite music-based picture books?  I’m always wiling to add to my collection!