23 March 2012

Getting in rhythm helps children grasp fractions

Research has showed that students in a music-based programme scored significantly higher on math tests than their peers who received regular instruction. .


Tapping out a beat may help children learn difficult fraction concepts, according to new findings due to be published in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics. An innovative curriculum uses rhythm to teach fractions at a California school where students in a music-based programme scored significantly higher on math tests than their peers who received regular instruction.

"Academic Music" is a hands-on curriculum that uses music notation, clapping, drumming and chanting to introduce third-grade students to fractions. The programme, co-designed by San Francisco State University researchers, addresses one of the most difficult – and important – topics in the elementary mathematics curriculum.

"If students don't understand fractions early on, they often struggle with algebra and mathematical reasoning later in their schooling," said Susan Courey, assistant professor of special education at San Francisco State University. "We have designed a method that uses gestures and symbols to help children understand parts of a whole and learn the academic language of maths."

Add music and multiply ways of learning

The programme has shown tangible results at Hoover Elementary School in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Courey's study included 67 students. Half the group participated in a six-week Academic Music curriculum and the rest received the school's regular maths instruction.

Students in the music-based programme scored 50% higher on a fraction test, taken at the end of the study, compared to students in the regular maths class.

Significant gains were made by students who struggle with academics. The researchers compared the test scores of lower-performing students in both groups and found that those who were taught the experimental music curriculum scored 40% higher on the final fractions test compared to their lower performing peers in the regular maths class.

"Students who started out with less fraction knowledge achieved final test scores similar to their higher-achieving peers," Courey said. "Lower-performing students might find it hard to grasp the idea of fractions from a diagram or textbook, but when you add music and multiple ways of learning, fractions become second nature to them."

Children learn maths in a different way

Courey devised Academic Music with music teacher Endre Balogh. They borrowed aspects from the Kodaly method, a Hungarian approach to music education that includes movement, songs and nicknames for musical notes, such as "ta-ah" for a half note.

The curriculum helps children connect the value of musical notes, such as half notes and eighth notes, to their equivalent fraction size. By clapping and drumming rhythms and chanting each note's Kodaly names, students learn the time value of musical notes. Students learn to add and subtract fractions by completing work sheets, in which they draw musical notes on sheet music, ensuring the notes add up to four beats in each bar or measure.

The programme has also proven itself at Allen Elementary School – not included in the study – that has been using the Academic Music program since 2007.

"Academic Music brings music into the classroom and gets children to learn maths in a different way that's symbolic and not dependent on language," said Kit Cosgriff, principal at Allen Elementary School, who introduced the programme to help the schools' diverse student body learn maths in ways that are not language-based. The school serves many students from low-income families, and 60% of students don't speak English as their first language.

Excitement in learning fractions

"In every lesson I've observed, the children have been excited and enthusiastic about learning fractions," Cosgriff said. "It's a picture of what you would like every class to look like."

Cosgriff believes the school's recent jump in standardised test scores reflects the impact of Academic Music. Since implementing the programme for all third-grade math classes, the percentage of third-graders who scored proficient or above on the California Standards Test for maths increased from 63% in 2006 to 70% in 2007 and 75% in 2008.

 On the California Achievement Test (CAT/6) for mathematics, the percentage of third graders who scored at or above the national average increased from 51% in 2006 to 72% in 2007 and 75% in 2008.

Keep music in a classroom

Academic Music is a 12-lesson program that is designed to be taught by regular classroom teachers without the help of a music teacher. Courey's next step is to publish curriculum materials for teachers.

"We're suggesting that teachers put music in their arsenal of tools for teaching math." Courey said.

"It's fun, it doesn't cost a lot, and it keeps music in the classroom."

"Academic Music: Music Instruction to Engage Third Grade Students in Learning Basic Fraction Concepts" has been accepted for press in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics and will be published online.

(Eurek Alert, March 2012) 

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