Teaching with music & drama

Reading In Motion uses the arts to reach struggling students


Liz DeCarlo

Principal Voyia Davis has seen a lot of programs come and go, but she thinks Reading In Motion, implemented last year at Parker Community Academy in Chicago is a keeper.

"It’s made a great difference because the program not only services the student, but it also helps the teacher," Davis says. The new curriculum was introduced in six of the school’s kindergarten classrooms last year.

Reading In Motion (www.readingin motion.org) is for kindergartners though third-graders who are having trouble with reading. It uses drama and music and emphasizes teaching to small groups, allowing each child multiple chances to answer questions and get feedback.

To test the pilot program used in three Chicago Public Schools in the 2004-2005 school year, 3D Group of Berkeley, Calif. conducted a study comparing the three schools using Reading In Motion with three comparable schools that did not use the program.

The results? Seventy-five percent of the students at the Reading In Motion schools read at grade level by the year’s end, compared with only 17 percent at the schools not using the program.

Those numbers surprised 3D President Dale Rose. "You rarely get these kinds of results this early into a program," he says. "The results are quite exceptional—you can’t look at them and not be impressed."

Making learning fun

Why does this program work? Part of the reason Reading In Motion might be it’s just plain fun. Kindergartners at Parker aren’t just sitting at desks filling out workbook sheets—they’re moving and singing along with letter sounds.

"I’m excited because this is a program that will follow them through third grade with rhythm and music. The kids love that," Davis says.

The success and the statistics is exciting, because the children at Parker, could easily be part of another statistic--83 percent of kindergartners at similar Chicago Public Schools who had not learned to read by the time they finished kindergarten.

"Now the kids have taken ownership. They say, ‘I can read.’ You can see a difference," Davis says.

"This is a different way of teaching. It’s fun and engaging," says Karl Androes, founder and executive director of Reading In Motion. "You can only hammer things into their head so much before they stop listening."

The Reading In Motion program uses a music-based approach for kindergarten and first-grade students. By the middle of first grade, when children are moving from deciphering words to using them in sentences, there’s a shift from a music-based to a drama-based curriculum.

"At that point, reading is about connecting the text and reading out loud. Drama is the perfect vehicle for that," Androes says.

Through all four years, students are divided into groups of three children with comparable skills. Each group gets about 20 minutes with the teacher each week. Reading In Motion staff helped the Parker teachers design a classroom that will engage the other children while the teacher focuses on one group.

"When you have a classroom of kids at various levels, small groups let you take kids at the same point and teach them exactly what they need to know," Androes says.

"That small group allows schools to individualize instruction regardless of the kids’ levels."

Some studies have shown that because children in small groups get more chances to speak up, ask questions and get answers, they’ll ultimately learn the material faster.

In a large group, a child might get one or two chances per hour to say something; in small groups that rate increases to about 30 responses in a 20-minute session.

A different way to teach

Teaching to a small group while keeping other children engaged isn’t easy. So Reading In Motion staff taught classes last year at the pilot schools, training the regular teachers to take over the program this year.

"This is a way different approach and some teachers freak out about it," Androes admits. "But we’re seeing in the nine schools we’re at [in the 2005-2006 school year], that with the proper support, even the most reluctant teachers come around."

And although the program is music-based, teachers don’t need a music background to use it. Recordings of all the songs are included in the curriculum packages. Teachers can have students sing along with the song, opt for a fill-in-the-blank version or just use the rhythm track.

The Parker kindergarten teachers attended training programs this summer and will continue meeting with Reading In Motion instructors through the year to refine their teaching. And the program continues now with the first-grade students and teachers, who are also working closely with Reading In Motion staff.

"An instructor from Reading In Motion comes to work with the grade-level teachers and they model what should be done and that’s an important part of professional development," Davis says. "They get to see everyday how to teach to small groups. This helps teachers understand in a hands-on way how to do this."

The program could be used at any school, not just high-risk schools, with good results, Androes says.

And the cost—$270 per student for the four-years—is far less than schools would spend helping struggling students, he says.

"We’ve learned that if you get children to where they need to be by the end of first grade, they’re set for life and the converse is also true—so let’s fix them by the end of first grade," Androes says. "There is a kind of popular myth that kids coming into schools at risk, there’s nothing we can do for them. But with 75 percent of these kids, we did do something about it."


Liz DeCarlo is a writer who lives in Darien with her husband and three children.

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