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a helping hand :: Music and Literacy

a helping hand is a new feature on the RR Blog. These will be supporting tools from the experts... or articles written by experts for parents!

Today's 'a helping hand' is on Music and Literacy! Please welcome Bessie Barth!

Music and Literacy
Hi, my name is Bessie Barth.  I am a Board Certified-Music Therapist in Sacramento, California.  I have owned my own private practice specializing in children with special needs since 2000.  I presented on Music Therapy at the National Down Syndrome Congress Convention in Sacramento in 2009.  This past March, I joined Reece’s Rainbow’s Connecting the Rainbow for the World Down Syndrome Day in Bulgaria to present for a conference for parents and professionals working with children with Down Syndrome.

What is Music Therapy you ask? Music Therapy is defined by the American Music Therapy Association as “Music Therapy is the clinical and evidenced-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.  Music therapy is a well-established allied health profession similar to occupational therapy and physical therapy.  It consists of using music therapeutically to address physical, psychological, cognitive, behavioral and/or social functioning.“  Because music therapy is a powerful and non-threatening medium, unique outcomes are possible.  With children, music therapy provides a unique variety of music experiences in an intentional and developmentally appropriate manner to effect changes in a child’s behavior and facilitate development of his/her communication, social/emotional, sensori-motor, and/or cognitive skills.   Music Therapy utilizes music interventions to reach non-musical goals to assist a student in meeting his/her educational needs.  It involves relationships between a qualified therapist and child; between one child and another; between child and family; and between the music and the participants.  These relationships are structured and adapted through the elements of music to create a positive environment and set the occasion for successful growth.

The love of books and reading was instilled in me since I was very young.  So much so, my mom started teaching me to read prior to the age of three.  My family has more books than fit in the bookshelves we own and my daughters can’t wait until they can go to the library or bookstore to get new books.  I like to share the love of books and promote literacy with my Music Therapy clients as well.  Books are a great way to increase vocabulary, encourage vocalizations, sequencing skills, and attention span.

There are many books based on familiar songs.  There are also many books that lend themselves to being put to music, anything with repetitive rhythm or words.  Some of my favorite books based on familiar songs are told and illustrated by Iza Trappani, some include: How Much Is That Doggie In The Window? Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?, Itsy Bitsy Spider and Row Row Row Your Boat.  All of these have added verses that create a full story.

Some of the clients I work with have visual impairments and this greatly reduces their interest in books.  Additionally, many children have a very short attention.  One way to remedy both of these is to add texture and a melody to books.  This engages the child in a whole new level and keeps their interest and attention a lot longer.
One of my favorite authors/illustrators is Eric Carle.  His books are colorful and simple but include lots of vocabulary.  A very popular book of Eric’s is Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  This is a great way to work on animal and color identification.  This is one of the books that I have added texture and a melody to.  I started by finding textures that represent the items being portrayed in the book.  Here is what I added to my book:

            Brown Bear: brown faux fur


    Red Bird: red feathers

Yellow Duck: yellow feathers


 Blue Horse: blue yarn added to the mane


Green Frog: rubber green frog


                                                                        Purple Cat: heavy weight fishing line for whiskers and red colored sand for the tongue

                                                                               White Dog: leather lace for the collar and a rhinestone for the tag


 Black Sheep: black curly doll hair

Goldfish: large orange sequin discs


   Teacher: pipe cleaners shaped into glasses

Children: wiggly eye balls

In addition, I have added a simple melody to the book.  Here is the finished product:

Untitled from Bessie Barth on Vimeo

By providing a simple melody children can anticipate the phrasing and can complete the phrases or sing along.  I introduce the book and song and allow the child to follow along and explore the textures of each page, describing the textures after singing each page.  Once the child is familiar with the book and the song, I will pause to have the child identify the color or animal name.  If the child is not verbal or is not procuding words, I will encourage imitation of an isolated sound in the words.  As a child progresses in development more things can be worked on including:
§  Identification of the sound the animal makes
§  Isolating sounds being addressed in Speech Therapy
§  Combining two words, ie animal and color
§  Completing full phrases such as “What do you see?” or “I see a…”
§  Sequencing through the phrases on each page
§  Sequencing through the entire book
§  Producing signs of colors, animals, or phrases

For non-verbal children, I incorporate adaptive communication devices.  There are a number that are available including the Big Mack Communicator ($105 USD), Go Talk Button ($12 USD), and Personal Talker ($12 USD).  These allow you to record a word or phrase and when the switch is activated the word or phrase is played.  The child can then respond when you pause in the story.  These are available online at many locations including, EnableMart, AbleNet, and Enabling Devices to name a few.

Now think about your child’s therapy goals.  Let me share with you many areas that are addressed in this single, engaging activity.
                        Color identification
            Animal identification
            Acceptance of textures
                        Increase attention span
                        Imitation of sounds/words
                        Producing isolated sounds
                        Blending of sounds to produce words
            Completing phrases
                        Increased length of utterance
                        Reciprocal communication (question/answers)
                        Reading skills including CVC words, sight words, and color words

There are many adaptations that can be made to work on additional skills.  There are so many possibilities, think of skills you are working on and see how you can change things up.

The other books that my interns and I have textured for clients include Going On A Bear Hunt and Ten In the Bed.  This idea can be carried over to many other books and familiar songs.  If a book doesn’t have a song but is repetitive then try putting it to a familiar melody or make up your own.  Just think of your inflection when making up the melody.  For example, have the melody go up when asking a question and down when answering the question.  Also check out the many books of books based on songs.  Here is a list to get you started.
Old Mac Donald
This Old Man
Baby Beluga
Wheels On the Bus
Mister Sun
There Was An Old Lady (I change the words from perhaps she’ll die to oh me oh my)
Chicka Chicka Boom (There is a CD that has different recordings of this book.)
You can also create your own books using clip art or whatever you want.  The possibilities are endless.  If you have questions, feel free to email me at

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