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Learning to read for the price of a song!

Songs are memorable. We remember melodies and lyrics from long ago. Even though this power of harnessing the cadences of language as well as its pleasures underlies children’s nursery rhyme learning and the occasional literacy intervention, rarely has it been used in broad scale to make a difference in literacy learning. However, Brij Kothari in a recent Huffington Post article reports on an effort to do just that.

In Maharashtra state (population 114 million) in India, Same Language Subtitling (SLS) was used on Zee Talkies and Zee Marathi, two Marathi television channels. Given that much of the content of these channels is song-based, the viewers had the opportunity to gain reading practice whenever they saw any television content containing songs. With two years of exposure, Kothari says, “among children who could not read a Grade 5 level text at the baseline, for every grade (except Grade 4) we found that 10-14 percent more children in the SLS group became good readers than in the no-SLS group.” As the Kothari suggests, imagine the benefits of this Karaoke-method across a lifetime!

This SLS research reminds me of a remark made by Yetta Goodman, a professor I studied with. Professor Goodman remarked speculatively that she thought that the bouncing ball animations in the cinema years ago might have aided the literacy learning of newcomers to the United States.

So…two different kinds of Karaoke effects as it were. What could account for such a pattern.

The explanation lies in linguistics and psychology. From linguistics, we know that the prosodic cuing system, the system that relates to the cadence and intonation of language. From psychology, we know the relationships we have with ideas, people, things, and places as bound up in emotion and affect. Song brings these together in dynamic ways. We know, for instance, that music and speech share a “common rhythm” (Hausen et al., 2013) as it were and it is now argued that “music is essential to language acquisition” (Brandt et al., 2012). We also know that there is a strong relationship between music and memory (Ettlinger et al., 2011). Not only that, familiarity seems to have an impact, in terms of engagement, with music (Pereira et al, 2011). Layer this with the pleasure of songs themselves and it seems like an unbeatable formula…or maybe I should say a formula with a great beat to it.

So, here we have a ready-made achievement argument on the benefits of the arts, that complements supporting the arts on aesthetic grounds. For music in particular, the possibilities that exist when the arts and language arts are brought into connection in education are endless…all for the price of a song!


Brandt, A., Gebrian, M., & Slevc, L.R. (2012). Music and early language acquisition. Frontiers in Psychology, 3:327.

Ettlinger, M., Margulis, E.H., Wong, P.C. M. (2011). Implicit memory in music and language. Frontiers in Psychology. 2: 211

Hausen, M., Torppa, R., Salmela, V.R., Vainio, M., & Särkämö, T. (2013). Music and speech prosody: A common rhythm. Frontiers in Psychology. 4.

Kothari, B. (2015). Reading for a billion: A simple way to increase literacy in India. The World Post. September 3.

Pereira, C.S., Teixeira, J., Figueiredo, P., Xavier, J., Castro, S.L., & Brattico, E. (2011). Music and emotions in the brain: Familiarity matters. Frontiers in Psychology 6(11).

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