Tim Rasinski is a renowned professor of literacy education whose research on reading fluency and word study has made him a literacy hero to many. Below, he shares his thoughts on using song and music to teach reading. 

“Some days there won’t be a song in your heart.  Sing anyway.” — Emory Austin

A few months back, my two-year-old grandson, Alex, was invited to a kid’s party. Alex is generally shy and somewhat reserved. However, once the song “Baby Shark” was played, Alex went right up to the small stage at the front of the room and, on his own, began to dance and sing for the rest of the children and adults. (I must admit, Alex has some dance moves that he needs to teach his grandpa). What a delight to see this toddler be so inspired by the music, to (without any prompting) perform in front of a large group of kids and adults, most of whom he did not know.   

What this episode demonstrates to me is the power of music and song to add joy to the human experience and to show the potential for using music and song as vehicles for teaching – especially reading. Music and song can add so much to any classroom.

  • Music and Song are Fun – School should be an enjoyable experience for children. Most children (and adults) can find great joy in music and song. My daughter, who is getting married later this year, insists that the “Chicken Dance” and “YMCA” be part of the playlist for the reception. Sixty years later, I can still remember taking delight in singing “Oh Susanna” and “Polly Wolly Doodle All Day” in my own elementary school classroom. How about you?
  • Music and Song Create Community – One of our roles as teachers is to help children learn that they live in a community larger than themselves – their families, places of worship, classrooms, schools, etc. Music and song help bring us together as communities. The patriotic songs that we hear on national holidays, as well as our school anthems, help to develop that sense of common purpose that helps to define a community.
  • Music and Song Reflect Culture and History – So much of one’s culture and history is embedded in the songs we sing. Think of “Yankee Doodle” from the American Revolution, or the “Battle Cry of Freedom” from the Civil War, or “Over There” from the First World War. But beyond wars, songs can reflect, and even amplify our culture and history. When teaching about the Civil Rights era, how can we not expose our students to “We Shall Overcome” or the many other songs of that time? Similarly, the Great Depression was a time for songs to uplift the American spirit – think “Happy Days are Here Again” (and of course the darker side of such times as reflected in “Buddy Can You Spare a Dime”).
  • Music and Song can Lead to Reading – Song lyrics are a form of written text available for reading instruction that often gets forgotten.  The very nature of songs and song lyrics make them especially well-suited for reading. Songs have rhythm and melody (a form or prosody for you fluency folks) that make them memorable. How often have you seen the bobbing heads and swaying bodies of children as they sing a favorite song?  Why as children, on the night before an important test, did we put the information we wanted to retain into the melody and rhythm of a familiar song or poem? The words in songs can be the gateway to building sight vocabulary. Sight words are, at their essence, memorized words – by sight and sound. By introducing words to students in the context of memorable songs (make sure the words are visible to the students), we provide them with a joyful first encounter to words that will eventually be recognized by sight.
  • Song Lyrics for Children Rhyme Rhyming words are, for the most part, made of what we in reading call rimes (or word families or phonograms). Teaching rhymes/rimes can be a very powerful way to help children gain proficiency in phonics. Learning “me” and “knee” from “Oh Susanna” will help children cement the  “-e/ee” rime in their minds and lead to other words such as “be,” “he,” “we,” “bee,” “see,” “tee.” “Row Row Row Your Boat” contains the words “stream” and “dream.” The “-eam” word family can lead children to learn to decode “beam,” “cream,” “seam,” “steam,” “scream,” “team.”

Teachers who do find ways to make songs a more integral part of their curriculum are usually pleased with the results. For example, first grade teacher Becky Awasaki has her students learn and rehearse several songs each week. They then celebrate what they have learned each week with an end-of-the-week sing-a-long with invited family and friends. She shared with me after a year of bringing songs back into her classroom, “I have never seen so much progress in reading. All my first graders are reading at or above grade level – and they love to sing!” Her students were singing and taking great delight in songs for sure, but because the written lyrics were always in front of her children, they were reading as well.

Songs and song lyrics offer so many ways to make literacy instruction (and schooling in general) so much more joyful, varied, and effective. Moreover, with the advent of the internet, access to song melodies and lyrics for children have never been easier. So let’s certainly keep a poem in our pockets, but also let’s keep a song in our hearts – and in our classrooms!

Some Great Websites for Children’s Songs

Also, visit my website where I have posted some songbooks we use in our own reading clinic program (Camp Read-A-Lot).    


Tim Rasinski is a professor of literacy education at Kent State University. His research on reading has been cited by the National Reading Panel and has been published in journals such as Reading Research QuarterlyThe Reading Teacher, Reading Psychology, and the Journal of Educational ResearchRead more about Rasinski here, or connect with him on Twitter @timrasinski1

For more from Tim Rasinski, continue to follow us for his exclusive VocabularySpellingCity blog series and be sure to watch a video recording of his webinar “Automaticity (Fluency) in Word Learning Improves Comprehension”

Rasinski’s research on word fluency is cited in the report, “Applying Best Practices For Effective Vocabulary Instruction,” written by VocabularySpellingCity in partnership with McREL International.

Sing a Song to Reading

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