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Use Movement and Music to Improve Reading Instruction

by Steve Reifman
 | Apr 30, 2013
Over the past several years I have developed a strong interest in the literature relating the findings of recent brain research and its implications for improving student learning. Though the list of effective, “brain-friendly” practices recommended by the research is long and varied, three particular types of strategies stand out to me as unusually engaging and powerful: those involving movement, music, and storytelling. I refer to this collection of strategies as the “3 Game Changers.”

p: Kieran Gillard via photopin cc
As I have worked to incorporate brain-friendly practices into my teaching, I have found that children simply react differently to activities that include elements of movement, music, and storytelling. Even when compared to other research-based, effective practices, the 3 Game Changers offer unparalleled novelty, interest, stimulation, excitement, and joy. As a result, students become emotionally involved in these activities, pay more attention, remember better, and, in short, learn better. Strategies that incorporate movement, music, and storytelling also improve class morale, build self-esteem and enthusiasm for learning, and increase feelings of student “connectedness” to the class and to one another.

My belief in the effectiveness of music, movement, and storytelling is so absolute that I dedicated myself to gathering, adapting, and creating as many strategies and activities as I could that feature these elements. I put over 100 of these ideas into ROCK YOUR STUDENTS’ WORLD, my soon-to-be-released teacher resource book.

Here are two of my favorite ideas for improving student learning in the area of reading, one that incorporates movement and another that involves music.

The first features a specific type of movement that I call “concept-embedded” movement, in which the activity itself features a type of movement that represents, matches, or embodies the meaning of the content students are expected to learn. Thus, when students move around and participate in the activity, they are actually bringing the content to life.

The second capitalizes on the finding shared by Jerry Evanski in his book, CLASSROOM ACTIVATORS, that “music can...be used to ‘entrain’ information into the brain.” By entrain, Evanski means that teachers can set academic content to music to help students learn and memorize information. The best way to do this is through the use of familiar tunes that Amy Schwed and Janice Melichar-Utter, authors of BRAIN-FRIENDLY STUDY STRATEGIES, GRADES 2-8, refer to as “piggyback songs.”

Reading Around the Room

Comprehension often suffers when children read too quickly or fail to follow punctuation signals. To address these issues, my kids and I love to use a variation of a strategy suggested in Sharon Tate’s WORKSHEETS DON’T GROW DENDRITES and Patricia Wolfe’s BRAIN MATTERS.

Students stand in a large circle with a common text in their hands. On the “Go” signal, everyone reads aloud, in unison, from a predetermined starting point. While reading, everyone slowly walks forward. At every comma, students stop walking and pause in their reading for one second before resuming their walking and reading. At every period, exclamation point, or question mark, the kids stop and pause in their reading for two seconds before resuming their walking and reading. (You may need, of course, to add other movements or features should you encounter different types of punctuation.) The fact that the whole class does this together provides both a strong physical and vocal structure and helps children who may struggle following these rules on their own.

During our Reading Workshop’s fall “Reading Aloud Well” unit, this activity is an important part of my effort to help everyone read with fluency, volume, and expression. I try to have my students read around the room for a few minutes at the end of each Reading Workshop period. Even just three minutes per day for a couple weeks makes a huge difference in student reading proficiency.

The Cause and Effect Song

Understanding cause and effect is one of the most important reading comprehension skills children are expected to learn. The two scenarios that lead off the following song should help your students remember that the cause happens before the effect and that the effect cannot happen without the cause. (If you are interested, you can find a video of children performing this song on my YouTube channel.)

“Cause and Effect” (Sung to the tune of “Camptown Races”)


My untied shoelace made me trip (cause & effect)
The rainstorm made me go inside (cause & effect)
The cause happens first
The effect happens next
The effect happens beCAUSE of the cause (cause & effect)

If you find these two activities helpful and share my belief in the potential of movement and music to improve student learning, I encourage to ask yourself the same questions that I began to ask myself a few years ago whenever I needed to teach content that my students were likely to find abstract or confusing or that would otherwise require rote memorization. Ask yourself, “Is there a way that I can use or create a type of movement to help my students learn this material? Is there a way I can use music?”

Once you begin thinking along these lines, you are bound to unleash your creativity and come up with powerful lessons that children will remember for a long time.

Steve Reifman is a National Board Certified elementary school teacher, author, and speaker in Santa Monica, CA. He has written several books for educators and parents, including CHANGING KIDS’ LIVES ONE QUOTE AT A TIME, EIGHT ESSENTIALS FOR EMPOWERED TEACHING AND LEARNING, K-8, and the soon-to-be-released ROCK YOUR STUDENTS’ WORLD, which features classroom strategies that incorporate movement, music, and storytelling. Steve is also the creator of the award-winning Chase Manning Mystery Series for kids 8-12. For Teaching Tips, articles, and other valuable resources and strategies on teaching the whole child, visit www.stevereifman.com. You can also follow Steve on Twitter (@stevereifman) and subscribe to his “Teaching Kids” YouTube channel.i>

Steve is offering Engage readers a 50% discount on his two new professional development courses on Udemy.com. You can view his available courses here and here. To take advantage of this offer, enroll by May 15th. You don’t need to complete the courses by then; you simply need to enroll.


© 2013 Steven Reifman. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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