Pass It On!

The Journal of the Children's Music Network

Music In Bloom:
Five Fun Songs for Early Literacy Learning

by Liz Buchanan

For the past two years, I've worked as a music specialist for preschoolers at Horizons for Homeless Children in Boston, a day care program for children in homeless families. I've helped develop a program to link music to early literacy learning aimed at improving the children's readiness for kindergarten.

Sponsored by Young Audiences of Massachusetts, our program offers twenty-two weekly music sessions for children aged three to five. These sessions offer thirty minutes of musical fun and learning for the kids, and model for the teachers how to use music with intention in the classroom.

Young Audiences staffer Gail Zarren envisioned this program as one that goes far beyond the weekly classes. It includes professional development for the classroom teachers in using music in their practice, with CMN members leading several sessions. The program even provided for teachers to attend CMN's regional gatherings in the Boston area. We also hold several musical events during the year to which the children's families are invited.

Why use music for early literacy learning?

Research has shown that music can help develop early literacy in various ways:

  • Children who could tap a regular rhythm achieved greater success at phonological awareness activities.1

  • Children who had regular music instruction scored better on pre-reading assessments.2

  • Children who were taught pre-reading skills using music had higher assessment scores than those in classes that didn't use music.3

Nearly all early literacy skills can be enhanced through the use of music. The songs below help teach some of the most important skills:

  • Phonological awareness Understanding that words are made up of distinct units of sound and awareness of those sounds

  • Alphabetic knowledge Learning the names and appearance of letters and the corresponding letter sounds

  • Sequence learning Placing ideas into a sequence and remembering that sequence

  • Understanding of stories Understanding the elements of stories, such as plot, characters, setting, and theme

  • Book and print knowledge Understanding of basic facts about books and text, such as the fact that words read from left to right in English

For this article, I've chosen to discuss five "traditional" songs that I've used in the classroom and how I added a literacy "spin."

"Icky Sticky and Ooey Gooey"

I first learned this song from CMN, either from Carole Stephens or Fran Friedman, I can't remember which. Both are longtime CMN members with tremendous expertise in early childhood songs. It's a fun finger play that asks children to make rhymes with body parts. The lyrics go like this:

Icky Sticky and Ooey Gooey, they went out one day
Said Icky Sticky to Ooey Gooey, "Won't you come and play?"
So Icky Sticky and Ooey Gooey, they played in the sand.
But Icky Sticky got stuck to Ooey Gooey's?hand!

Got it? Here are some other rhymes: tree-knee, hosenose, track-back. The idea is to get the children to guess the rhyming word each time the last line comes around. It's a great way to invite children to start listening for and even initiating rhymes. I created spoon puppets for the two characters. I tell the kids that when you cook with a wooden spoon, it often gets really icky sticky and ooey gooey!

I added another dimension to the song by asking the children to "stick to a friend" when we call out the body part. The kids have fun finding a friend and sticking to a knee, arm, toe, hand or back. I yell, "Un-stick!" to get everyone to come apart.

"The Muffin Man"

Do you know "The Muffin Man"? Of course you do, but many of the young children you see might not. Children these days often do not know traditional nursery songs and rhymes. You can use your music time to help pass these along to the next generation. I turned "Muffin Man" into a literacy song by adding more verses with alliteration?that is, matching initial consonant sounds. So my song now includes the following: the Lemonade Lady, Cookie Cat, Donut Dog, Pancake Pig, Goldfish Girl, and Bubble Boy. I have one classroom of two- and three-year-olds who have memorized all the characters and can't wait to sing this song.

For greater literacy emphasis, pair the song with a picture card that includes the letter, and sound each phrase out before singing. You can also change the name of the lane where the character lives to start with the same letter. So my muffin man lives on "Mango Lane," while the Donut Dog lives on "Daisy Lane"; or it could be "Daisy Drive" if you really want to get into D sounds.

"Two Little Robins"

People sing this traditional song in various ways. I turned it into a literacy song by making the creature and the names all start with the same letter. Here are my lyrics:

Two little robins, sitting in the tree,
One named Rob and one named Ree.
Fly Away Rob, fly away, Ree.
Come back Rob, come back Ree.
Tweet tweet tweet?

Two little bunnies, sitting on the hill,
One named Bob, one named Bill.
Hop away Bob, hop away, Bill.
Come back Bob, come back Bill.
Hop, hop, hop?

Two little fishies, swimming in the sea,
One named Fred and one named Fee.
Swim away Fred, swim away Fee.
Come back Fred, come back Fee.
Glub glub glub glub, splash …

Just recently, I expanded this song to include many more birds and fish, such as hummingbirds and jellyfish. I plan to post the complete version, with all my creatures, on the CMN blog. To add a visual learning dimension, I made simple "paper doll" stick puppets for each creature and put the corresponding letter on the stick, too.

"The Cat Went Fiddle-I-Fee"

Children love singing songs that add one more thing as each verse comes around. This traditional song is a fun sequence/memory song about farm animals. Keeping the animals in order and remembering them helps with memory and builds the skill of organizing ideas. Using a book, such as Melissa Sweet's Fiddle-I-Fee with its adorable illustrations, encourages children to relate the book to the song. They may look at the book themselves and sing along, which encourages them to relate text to words they already know. You can find this song in many places. I found it in Ruth Crawford Seeger's American Folk Songs for Children, an anthology I highly recommend.

"The Royal Children" ("Thorna Rosa")

I first learned this song from CMN's Amy Conley when I needed some songs with a fairy tale theme. This traditional song, called "Thorn Rosa," is a dancing game that follows the story of Sleeping Beauty. The children make a circle. A designated princess stands in the middle. Someone designated as a witch casts a spell and the princess falls asleep in the circle. The circle may go up high and low as thorns grow around the princess over the years. At the end, a prince breaks through the circle and brings the princess back to life.

In my version, I substituted "royal children" for the princess because I find too many girls are desperate for this part. The "royal children" can include several children of both genders. We also have both girls and boys as witches or wizards. Amy gave me the suggestion of adding a dragon in the middle of the song who threatens the castle with fire. I added a knight to vanquish the dragon. Finally, Amy suggested replacing the prince with magical unicorns, again making the part gender neutral and eliminating any need for a kiss at the end!

Playing this singing game is not only great fun, but provides a vehicle for discussing the elements of stories, including characters, plot, and themes.


1) Dana David, Lesly Wade-Wodley, John R. Kirby, Katharine Smithrim, "Rhythm and reading development in school-age children: a longitudinal study," Journal of Research in Reading, 30(2), May 2007, 169–83.

2 Joy Eastlund Gromko, "The effect of music instruction on phonemic awareness in beginning readers," Journal of Research in Music Education, 53(3), Fall 2005, 199–209.

3 Douglas Fisher, "Early language learning with and without music," Reading Horizons, 42(1), October 2001, 39–49.