Music can be the food of literacy, study shows, so read on

04 July 2012

A structured programme combining music and literacy leads to striking improvements for young children in both, new research from the Institute of Education, University of London, suggests.

Year 1 of the New London Orchestra's three-year Literacy through Music programme (2011-2013) aimed to improve six to seven-year-old children's reading abilities by engaging them in a special programme of music activities. These were combined with sessions involving games, poetry and story-telling. The 20-week programme, which took place in seven Year 2 classes in three schools in the east London borough of Newham during 2011, was also designed to give children direct experience of music-making and to foster teachers' skills and confidence in using music in the classroom.

An independent evaluation of the scheme by a team from the IOE led by Professor Graham Welch was launched at the Institute on Wednesday, July 4 at 6pm.

Academics tested children at the beginning and end of the New London Orchestra's programme. Results show that the 207 participants' reading age went up by 8.4 months on average, while the reading of the 61 children in the control group improved by only 1.8 months. The improvement in reading age extended to as much as 13.2 months. Children in the programme improved their reading age by at least their 5-month change in chronological age. Furthermore, the research showed that programme participants' singing ability also improved significantly.

"In these schools, it is clear that a specially designed music programme can make a difference," said Professor Graham Welch, who led the research. "Many of the children in the NLO programme caught up with the national average in reading over the five-month duration of the project. Programmes like this could motivate and excite children and teachers about music and reading all over the country."

Although nationally boys continue to lag behind girls in reading, the IOE's research showed that both sexes benefited equally from the New London Orchestra's Literacy through Music programme.

Literacy through Music was developed around four main activities: games, poems, stories and songs. Practitioners from the New London Orchestra used the teachers' lesson plans as a focus for weekly sessions where they encouraged children to chant, clap, copy and compose rhythms, and improvise refrains that used rhymes, alliteration or unusual vocabulary. Teachers and teaching assistants were encouraged to plan activities arising from these sessions in between visits from the NLO.

The researchers concluded that the programme's integrated approach was important in fostering pupils' progress. A key design feature was the teamwork by the teachers, teaching assistants and NLO practitioners, who had explicit, shared literacy goals linked with music activities.
Literacy through Music continued during 2011-12 with a Borough-wide training programme for primary school teachers in over 30 primary schools, and the project continues in the forthcoming academic year 2012-13.

Literacy through Music is made possible through a donation from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation.

Professor Welch said: "Research is beginning to accumulate that engaging with music influences a variety of other brain functions. This new study suggests that appropriately designed music activities can foster children's reading, whilst supporting positive social identity and musical skill development."

Christine Whatford, a trustee of the New London Orchestra and a former director of education of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, said: "These results are very pleasing. It is central to the New London Orchestra's work in Newham, that where possible, the orchestra offers education and outreach projects in the local community. It is rewarding to know that Literacy through Music is having a real and measurable impact."

A Research Evaluation of the New London Orchestra "Literacy through Music" Programme, by Graham Welch, Jo Saunders, Angela Hobsbaum and Evangelos Himonides was carried out by iMerc, the International Music Education Research Centre, based at the IOE. Download the report and the summary here

Editors' notes

For more information please contact the IOE press office:
Diane Hofkins, press officer, 020 7911 5423,
James Russell, press assistant, 020 7911 5556,

Details of launch: Room 642, Floor 6, Core B, Institute of Education, University of London, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, 4 July 2012 6.00pm – 7.00pm. For further details and to confirm attendance, please contact: Dr Jo Saunders

The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute's research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be "world leading". The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its "high quality" initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students "to want to be outstanding teachers". The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 15 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.

The New London Orchestra celebrates its 25th birthday in 2013. It is the orchestra-in-residence at Stratford Circus arts centre in Newham. Forthcoming concerts by the orchestra take place at St Peter's Church, Eaton Square, Sadler's Wells Theatre, the Southbank Centre and at Stratford Circus. The NLO has made over 20 recordings, mostly for the Hyperion label. Its Young Persons Concert Series is currently in its seventh season at the Foundling Museum in London WC1, and provides recital opportunities for young soloists. The orchestra's Artistic Director, the composer and conductor Ronald Corp was awarded an OBE for services to music in the Queen's 2012 New Year Honours.