Beating the drum for literacy

Written by: Nicola Hankey | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Can we use music to help boost recovery and wider literacy lessons in the primary school? Nicola Hankey discusses the approaches used in her school and the benefits of building music into school literacy recovery strategies

It has been said that the earliest humans sang before they ever spoke. The evolution of music is often viewed as intricately linked to the way we learn today – from the nursery rhymes we pass on through the generations to the lyrical aide memoirs we might create to help children remember their times tables or the wives of Henry VIII.

In the wake of a report published by Juniper Education (2022) which revealed how significantly literacy has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, is there a place for incorporating more music into the classroom to help close learning gaps?

The great literacy bounce-back

Music can be a fun and relaxing way for schools to shape interventions that help children get back on track with learning as part of a broader, structured reading recovery programme.

When the curriculum is peppered with music and movement activities, schools can support children’s development, academically as well as physically, mentally and emotionally. It is also a wonderful opportunity to explore a wealth of cultures and traditions.

Rhymes and songs build the language pupils need to progress and help to develop the key speech and communication skills to get the most from school too. But music can also provide the essential building blocks for a life-long love of literacy in a way that will stay with a child.

The joy of reading

Reading difficulties such as those associated with decoding words, understanding vocabulary or making sense of a text can hold back a child’s progress and cause anxiety.

But when singing is part of a lesson plan, it can ease pressure the child may feel to gain and retain knowledge and what’s left is the pure joy of the music, with the learning going on in the background.

Singing can be a great way to help children learn new vocabulary and cut long phrases into bite-sized pieces making them easier to remember. It is like the song about going to the supermarket where an item is added incrementally to the shopping list to help build up working memory. It is still fun, even if you don’t remember everything that’s gone before.

Teachers could choose a song for the whole class to sing and write or project it onto a whiteboard. Then a different note could be allocated to each word depending on which letter or phonetic sound it starts with, for example, and the children then sing the notes together. This will help pupils connect the spoken and written forms of the word and join them up as they go on to eventually sing the whole song.

Comprehension activities can be developed using a song as a core piece too. This can give reluctant readers the confidence to develop inferential as well as literal comprehension skills.

Games and activities

Imagine turning a maths problem into a poem or song which includes some of the children’s favourite dance steps. This can be a much more effective way to embed the learning into a child’s brain than asking them to complete the task using pen and paper.

The use of rhymes and songs can increase children’s familiarity with syllable structure and word stress too. This can be particularly effective for supporting children with special needs who may respond more readily to active learning techniques.

The children could be asked to think about how a rhythm makes them feel based on the number of beats, the volume and also the speed. This will help them hear how tempo and tone can reflect emotions when they are reading a piece of written text, adding further to the joy of a good book.

Positive impact

Literacy has to be front and centre when it comes to finding new and interesting ways to help children recover missed learning. Music is a natural fit for this, but schools need to be able to accurately measure the impact of the interventions being put in place and make adjustments or provide additional support where appropriate.

At our school – Ludworth Primary – reading is assessed using software that tracks a child’s eye movements as they read and gathers information such as how long the eyes rest on a word, and how they move through the text.

Using an online tool means we can benchmark a child’s reading ability in just a few minutes without the pressure of a big paper test. The results help teachers to identify which aspects of literacy pupils are having difficulty with and spot the early signs of conditions such as dyslexia, which can then be explored and supported.


It is amazing to think that early humans made music with flutes fashioned from mammoth tusks almost 50,000 years ago. Today, schools are increasingly recognising the benefits of embedding music into the curriculum to provide a range of creative opportunities to enhance the curriculum and provide a vibrant and stimulating environment for children to learn.

  • Nicola Hankey is a teacher and SENCO at Ludworth Primary School in Stockport, Greater Manchester. The school’s music lead is Charlotte Baines.

Further information & resources

Juniper Education: National dataset report: The impact of the Covid- 19 pandemic on primary school children’s learning, March 2022:

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