Until a child turns 5 or 6, much of his or her learning happens through nursery rhymes and songs. One reason is that the human brain is effectively a sponge for music, meter and rhyme. Some studies even suggest that music was the foundation for language itself.
Why then does music all but disappear from learning once a child enters first grade, and why don’t we continue utilizing this powerful teaching tool throughout a student’s time in school?
The ABCs is a ubiquitous children’s song, but have you ever thought about the rhyme scheme? Sing it to yourself. Four letters anchor the song – G, P, V, Z – and the song works as a mnemonic device because these letters rhyme. Their rhyming gives them emphasis, and that emphasis provides the song’s meter. Without it, the ABCs would be nothing more than a string of random sounds, and would be much harder for kids to learn. These rhyming letters are guideposts that help the brain remember. (For bonus points, maybe you also noticed that S and X provide a secondary rhyme scheme near the end).
Rhythm and rhyme are everywhere in our culture, from children’s songs to commercial jingles and slogans. Most rhymes fall into the category of things you don’t even know you know: names, facts and numbers that are stored away in some special place in your brain, deep in your memory and yet accessible at the drop of a hat. Take what happened in 1492 (something about Columbus…) or the product that’s affectionately known as the “quilted quicker picker-upper.” In both cases, no matter how long it’s been since we first learned the information, it is rhyme and rhythm that enable remarkable recall.
We have been using our brains this way for thousands of years. Before human beings adopted writing, we passed information down orally from generation to generation. Early African civilizations had vast and vibrant oral traditions, and the poets and troubadours of Ancient Greece memorized massive literary works and shared them orally. Homer’s Odyssey was passed down for hundreds of years before an enterprising scribe wrote it down. It was the metric nature of the poetry that allowed our ancestral brains to do this, and – believe it or not – we can still do it today.
But teaching with music, meter and rhyme transcends memorization. Researchers have shown that music not only facilitates encoding and retention, but that it also creates long-lasting emotional connections to content. Anyone who has turned on the radio and started singing along with a song last heard 20 years ago can attest to this. Not only do you know the words to the song, but it can immediately take you back to wherever you were when you first connected with that song. When I hear 1994’s Interstate Love Song, I’m back at summer camp, awkwardly trying to work up the courage to ask a girl to dance. Imagine if we could create that sort of emotional connection with academic content. All of a sudden, cell biology could make us feel something.
At Flocabulary, we have taken this ancient and innate human ability to learn through music and combined it with a powerful force of popular culture: hip-hop. In doing so, we’re aiming to help students of all backgrounds learn key facts and become emotionally engaged, yes, but we’re also taking it one step further. It’s important for curriculum to be culturally relevant for today’s students, and no genre of music is more relevant than hip-hop. In fact, Spotify just released an analysis of listening trends for more than 20 billion songs and hip-hop reigned supreme. By using rap to teach, we’re giving educators an opportunity to embrace something students genuinely love in a classroom-appropriate and standards-aligned way.
There’s no doubt that the content of children’s songs is beneath most students by the time they enter elementary school. But the technique of teaching through music is still sound. Instead of throwing away an amazing learning technique, let’s find creative ways to weave it into the curriculum and make learning more effective, meaningful and fun.
Alex Rappaport is the co-founder and CEO of Flocabulary, a Brooklyn-based education company that creates music videos, activities and assessments to teach core skills and supplement instruction across the curriculum.
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