Music & literacy education is money well spent

“It’s about how we spend the money”. That was the catch cry of a number of politicians this week when the preliminary results from NAPLAN were released. Senator Birmingham was referring to the disappointing return on their investment in education. So Senator, what are we spending the money on?

To put it bluntly, the approach so far has been to increase training in literacy and numeracy teaching and increased time in the school day in both of these areas. For those who don’t have children at primary school in particular, a typical day looks like this – a literacy block of time, a numeracy block of time (by which time it is usually time for lunch) and then all the other learning areas are squashed into the afternoon. There is an implied, and sometimes not so implied, hierarchy of value in the areas of learning that are important.

I will admit it is a harsh way to express it and I do not mean to take away anything from the incredible job that teachers and school leaders do in balancing the plethora of what they are required to deliver and the limited amount of time in the school day. I applaud the work they do under increasingly difficult and unrealistic demands in a system that is becoming incrementally tighter.

I also don’t mean to suggest that numeracy and literacy are not vital areas of learning. In the first few years of school, up to Grade 2, the need to get reading, comprehension, a large amount of vocabulary and understanding of language structures and syntax is paramount. After Year 2 students children are no longer learning to read, they are reading to learn.

 if the “more literacy, more of the time” approach isn’t getting the results , what are they planning to try next, and what is going to inform their decision?

Here is the time  for me to come clean. I am a music educator and researcher and here is my barrow. I research in the field of neuroscience and music education and there are now two decades worth of rigorous scientific research telling us that consistent music education from birth, activities as simple as musical games, starting the day with singing from written music, learning recorder or violin or ukulele, can improve literacy levels by between one and three years. And this improvement is based on NAPLAN results here in Australia and can occur after just over a year of implementation.

The reason why? Music education supports the early development of the human auditory processing network. This is the network we use to learn spoken language, and the better we can hear and make meaning of sound, the smoother the transition to reading written text and understanding the building block of grammar. Diagnostic tools as simple as testing if a child can keep a steady beat on a drum at the age of three can be used to detect if that child is likely to have reading problems when they are five. That test costs nothing more than teaching Australian teachers that literacy learning is inextricable linked with how we make meaning of sound.

Here we have scientifically supported findings into a practice that could raise our NAPLAN literacy scores that we are failing to utilise. Music education is delivered in all Australian schools but to wildly different levels of time and quality. With such strong evidence of the connection between auditory development through music learning and literacy levels, how about we base our funding on practices that are not just “more literacy more of the time”.