Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Krashen on Music and Reading

Do Music Lessons Improve Reading? (Probably Not)
Stephen Krashen

We can soon expect a wave of enthusiasm for music lessons as a means of improving reading, thanks to a recent Harvard study (Forgeard, Winner, Norton, and Schlaug, 2008). Science Daily (Nov. 5, 2008) carried a summary of the study, with the title "Musical instrument training tied to higher verbal test scores," and this report was announced by Yahoo News.
Of course we can also expect a barrage of ads from Music Men everywhere, telling us that playing a musical instrument will help our children read better.
A close look at the Harvard study, however, dampens our enthusiasm.
A small effect
In the Harvard study, ten year olds who had at least three years of musical training were compared with similar children who had not had any musical training outside of music class in school. Those with music lessons did significantly better on a vocabulary test (the WISC III), and there was no difference on a test of phonemic awareness. (A number of other measures were given that had nothing to do withreading.)
How much better did the musicians do? The vocabulary test had a maximum score of 30. The musicians averaged 15.5 correct (52%), the non-musicians got 13.47 correct (45%). That's a seven percent difference. If the music effect is real, this means that three years of musical training can produce a seven percent advantage on a vocabulary test. I am sure that three years extra of daily reading would produce a much larger effect.
Is it real?
But it is not even clear that the music effect is real. As is usually the case in studies like this, the authors did not investigate whether the groups differed on the factor that consistently produces clear differences in vocabulary: the amount of free voluntary reading the groups did. Although the groups did not differ in social-economic class (poverty), it is quite possible that music students read at least a little more. It would have been easy to include a measure of leisure reading, but this was not done in this study, although the authors note that it is possible that parents who enroll their children in music lessons might also "insist that their children work hard in school, do their homework, and read" (p. 7). They do not, however, discuss self-selected voluntary reading.
Orsmond and Miller (1999) did, in fact, find that children whose parents provided music lessons were also more likely to be involved in other extra-curricular activities than children with similar backgrounds who did not have music lessons.
Other research
The results of several other experimental studies cast doubt on the claim that musical training increases reading ability.
Butzlaff (2000)'s meta-analysis of studies revealed that only three of six experimental studies of the impact of music lessons on reading showed a positive effect, with only two showing clear results. This suggests that the relationship between music and reading is actually caused by a third factor. Butzlaff suggests that this third factor might be reading (p. 172, 174). Orsmand and Miller reported that children with musical training had higher vocabulary test scores before their music training began, also suggesting that something other than music was responsible.
This is another example of "anything but": People are willing to entertain nearly every possible suggestion to improve reading except the one that works: Access to interesting and comprehensible reading material.
Butzlaff R (2000) Can music be used to teach reading? Journal of Aesthetic Education 34: 167–178
Forgeard M, Winner E, Norton A, Schlaug G. 2008. Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning. PLoS ONE, 2008; 3 (10):
Miller, L. and Orsmond, G. 1999. Cognitive, musical and environmental correlates of early music instruction. Psychology of Music 27: 18–37.
Musical instrument training tied to higher verbal test scores
Children who take up an instrument for three years or more outscore those who take only general music classes, not only in dexterity and listening skills, but in verbal ability and visual pattern completion, according to researchers conducting a Harvard University-based study. Students who had played an instrument longer also increased their scores proportionately, researchers found. ScienceDaily (11/5)
ScienceDaily (Nov. 5, 2008) — A Harvard-based study has found that children who study a musical instrument for at least three years outperform children with no instrumental training—not only in tests of auditory discrimination and finger dexterity (skills honed by the study of a musical instrument), but also on tests measuring verbal ability and visual pattern completion (skills not normally associated with music).
The study, published October 29 in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE, was led by Drs. Gottfried Schlaug and Ellen Winne.
A total of 41 eight- to eleven-year-olds who had studied either piano or a string instrument for a minimum of three years were compared to 18 children who had no instrumental training. Children in both groups spent 30-40 minutes per week in general music classes at school, but those in the instrumental group also received private lessons learning an instrument (averaging 45 minutes per week) and spent additional time practicing at home.
While it is no surprise that the young musicians scored significantly higher than those in the control group on two skills closely related to their music training (auditory discrimination and finger dexterity), the more surprising result was that they also scored higher in two skills that appear unrelated to music—verbal ability (as measured by a vocabulary IQ test) and visual pattern completion (as measured by the Raven's Progressive Matrices). And furthermore, the longer and more intensely the child had studied his or her instrument, the better he or she scored on these tests.
Studying an instrument thus seems to bring benefits in areas beyond those that are specifically targeted by music instruction, but that is not the end of the story. Although this research sheds light on the question of whether connections between music and other, unrelated skills do exist, more studies examining the causal relationships between instrumental music training, practice intensity, and cognitive enhancements are needed.
Journal reference:
1. Forgeard M, Winner E, Norton A, Schlaug G. Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning. PLoS ONE, 2008; 3 (10): e3566 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003566


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