How Playlists Boosted Reading in My Classes

by Debbie Poslosky

The sound of should be a movie!  I cannot imagine a world without music!  Especially not without my own personal playlists.  Before this topic was given to all of us, I did not realize how much certain songs help me navigate everything in my world!  Any emotion, any time of your life can be paired with particular songs.  Although I have always loved listening to music personally, I happened upon the incredible effect music had on children when I first began teaching. 

Early in my career, I was blessed with “that 4th grade class”.  I mean the class that struggled to become a community, were very self-centered, and were also struggling readers.  I had not developed too many tools for my toolbox at that juncture of my teaching, so I relied on talking over and over and over about how I wanted the children to think about each other and themselves differently.  On my way home one day, I heard the theme song from “Cheers” on the radio.  (Yes, that is how old I am!)  As I sang along I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be so nice for my students to feel like they belonged and that I was really happy we were all here together!  For those of you that do not know the song, here are the parts I used with my students:

“Making your way in the world today Takes everything you've got

Taking a break from all your worries

Sure would help a lot

Wouldn't you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go 

Where everyone knows your name

And they’re always glad you came

You want to be where everyone knows your name.”

Every single morning after that I played the song as the kids entered the classroom.  At first they were uncertain - not knowing whether or not to like it, make fun of it, or ignore it.  As I listened to their reactions, I took a few minutes explaining  why I was beginning this new tradition for our classroom.  Little by little, the kids began to really like hearing it as they walked into the room.  After a week, I put the printed lyrics and on their desks and asked them to read the words and highlight the ones that meant the most to them.  It was the breakthrough I had been looking for! Because it was so successful I added more songs to reflect whatever it was we were experiencing! 

Because they struggled so much, I started playing “Miracles” by Mariah Carey.  I told them so many times that I believed in them and that miracles do happen, but you have to believe they can!  It wasn’t until I started playing the song, printed the words, that true change happened.  I became intentionally aware of the learning needs I was seeing, and used more and more songs to help their brains be receptive to new ways of thinking and expressing their ideas without them feeling they had deficits!  It was amazing!  

Since reading was and still is the pinnacle of learning and of life in general, in my opinion, I really used music as a different way to create an understanding of words, phrases, and new ways to look at things.  The trajectory that took us on was then, when a child was struggling to read or write, we would go back to how that songwriter used language!  I also would challenge them to go to their favorite books, or listen carefully as I read aloud for either the same phrases or words, or similar ones in our books.  They LOVED that!  It became something fun to do with a book, when previously it was only a reminder of what they could not do.  Students started suggesting songs of their own to play because the words spoke to them!  At the end of the year I would create a “playlist” of songs from our year and copy it onto a CD and give one to every child as an end of the year gift.  

Unexpectedly, it really boosted reading for these kids.  They understood the power of words and how they can make you feel, and what has more words than books?  Even if the text was hard to physically read, they WANTED to read it to figure things out, and that internal power is what drove them to want to not only read, but be changed by what they read!  The bridge between songs and reading became very clear to me. After a while I would allow students to "audit" groups of readers who were talking about books where the text was too hard for them. The kids would do anything to be able to audit another book club. BOOKS! And the talented authors who understand the gift they have to change the trajectory of a person’s life is inspiring.  Music, to me, is such a beautiful way to help all of us understand and learn how to say things, and how to live our best lives!  It reinforces we are not alone, and there are ways to do something we might not have thought of.


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