How to Use Music to Improve Reading

Your favorite song comes on the radio and immediately you feel your mood lighten. You hear a song come on while shopping and find yourself walking to the beat down the aisle. Music speaks to you on a different level than words or text. We are going to discuss how to harness this positive tool as a reading strategy. Using music to improve reading in your classroom or home can be the difference maker, especially among reluctant readers.

How to Use Music to Improve Reading

Promote Student Engagement

Back in 2007, my 1st grade class gathered around our CD player (back before Smartboards were affordable in mainstream classrooms). I was starting a rhyming lesson using “On Top of Spaghetti.”  This nursery rhyme evokes many giggles and laughter as students listen to the song. They dance around pretending to sneeze and turn into rolling meatballs.  All of my little ones that normally resist reading activities were completely engaged.

Using song lyrics to improve reading is done by getting your kids to fall in love with the music and truly enjoying singing the same songs over and over. After playing the song, discuss the story behind the song with your students.  Include history and political connections to layer their understanding. Depending on the age of your children or students, utilizing historical connections for writing extensions (writing activities to connect to the book).

A writing extension example would be to read On Top of Spaghetti and then write one sentence about how you would feel if you saw a tree growing meatballs. Another example, a 3rd grade student may be given a leveled book about Francis Scott Key to discuss and reflect in their journal on what the American National Anthem means to them.A high school English teacher may use the song “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel to debate the pros and cons of living on the East or West Coast.

Teachers can highlight and analyze words in the song that support current themes or unit studies. Integrating the curriculum through song is a phenomenal and engaging way to increase reading fluency and comprehension.  Be sure to use several songs intermittently so that you avoid the students memorizing the words too fast. With popular music, this may be unavoidable, but the goal is for students to be reading as opposed to reciting.

Here is a short clip of my students singing “Living Things; I’d Like to Know” in our Science unit on Living and Non-Living Things.

I suggest keeping lyrics in the student’s notebooks (with sheet protectors:)) as well as a special binder in the classroom library for referring back to all the songs that you have studied over the course of the semester or year. Organizing them this way will keep them readily available and easy to reference as you use many songs at once. If there is longer text on a page (over 30 words in the song), they will need accommodations to follow along. When you first introduce the song, they should use a bookmark or a pointer to track along with the words for better engagement.

By using platforms such as  iTunes and Amazon Music, using lyrics for reading instruction has never been easier. The resources are immeasurable no matter where you are in the world.

Increase Vocabulary Development

One of my favorite tools for integrating music into my reading block was using a website called Flocabulary. For those of us of a certain age, you may remember SchoolHouse Rock.  Flocabulary is a modern version of SchoolHouse Rock. Through lyrics put to hip hop, this website teaches engaging content and therefore increases fluency and comprehension. There are hundreds of free videos, and full access is only a $5 monthly subscription for teachers. Each song gives you lyrics, a video, lesson plan, activity sheet and challenge questions. You can differentiate instruction easily with this resource as it includes various assessment tools and handouts. For more tips and tools on how to differentiate instruction, click HERE.

English or History teachers can use lyrics to teach the French Revolution with the song, “Raise it Up . This can be followed by differentiated graphic organizers to develop critical thinking skills. For example, they can have a compare and contrast graphic organizer for the French Revolution vs. American Revolution. Teachers and parents can also teach key concepts and terms for the unit with this song. A writing extension for students could be to write their own short rhyme. This would demonstrate mastery of the material as a summative assessment (evaluate student learning at the end of the unit).

An example for younger students is teaching Fiction vs. Non Fiction. Flocabulary’s video “Believe it or Not” is a catchy and engaging song to help students remember which is which. This is followed up with fill in the blank activity as well as lyric lab.

Flocabulary has lyrics for grades K-12 in all content areas. These include grammar, study skills, literature, technology and engineering, modern world history, and many more. This is by far the most comprehensive technology tool to use with students for vocabulary instruction. For more on vocabulary development, check out the book “Vocabulary Development: Reading to Practice” by Stephen Stahl. Written for a teacher audience, this is a short and sweet read. This book can also be useful to parents who want to supplement vocabulary instruction at home. It is also a great resource for high school students interested in acquiring more effective word learning study habits.

For further resources on differentiation, click HERE.

Songs used for Mentor Texts

If you use Reader’s Workshop in your classroom, you are constantly hunting for engaging mentor texts to teach reading strategies such as theme, visualization, author’s purpose, etc. Reluctant readers or older students who may not be enthusiastic about a text may respond to a popular song. I am definitely not suggesting replacing texts completely, but incorporate songs to connect with texts for more engagement.

Common Sense Media and AZLyrics websites can help you find relevant songs that are school and age-appropriate. Using lyrics can be the same as using a fiction or non-fiction text.  By reading and interpreting song lyrics, students can develop schema (background knowledge) to subjects or themes without extensive pre-teaching. By building background and making the content comprehensible through song, you have given students an engaging way to use their reading strategies.

Just like with fiction/non-fiction text, they can explore perspectives, understand the author’s message, increase vocabulary, and reading fluency. They can learn metaphor and themes as well as scaffold their independent reading on the same topic. As Bill Harp stated, “Music and reading go together because singing is a celebration of language.”  What most students fail to connect independently is that song writers are authors and there are stories behind the songs they all know and love.

When your students and children are very young, you use environmental print for early literacy teaching. You have to explicitly point out that the billboards, magazines, cereal boxes, etc contain print and meaning.  The same principle applies when students listen to the radio or listen to music on their iPhones. They are practicing their reading skills through listening and speaking by acquiring new vocabulary, learning sentence structure, and making text to world connections to name a few.

Teachers need to connect media (music, movies, etc.) to reading for the reading lesson to be met with resounding enthusiasm. If your principal walks by your class and asks “why are your students reading during singing time”, you are doing something right!

How to Use Music to Improve Reading

Real World Connections

A popular movie “Freedom Writers” shows a teacher using TuPac lyrics for teaching poetry. She has a high school classroom full of “illiterate” students. Teaching reading strategies through music is beautifully demonstrated here.  Students realize they know TuPac lyrics, therefore they can read. Film as Literature has been used countless times such as Coach Carter, Dead Poets Society, Mona Lisa Smile, etc. Not all of the films are particularly exceptional, but effectively show how to use music and poetry in reading instruction. This is true in the most difficult of teaching environments. This type of engagement may have students more receptive to reading the Anne Frank’s Diary when a teacher connects it to the story of Rodney King.


I sincerely hope you consider using these strategies in your reading lessons, or enhancing what you already do. May your children and students dance like no one is watching on the road to literacy through music.



Teaching Kids to Read Ages 0-5


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