Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.4, 495-502
Published Online August 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 495
Using Nursery Rhymes to Foster Phonological and Musical
Processing Skills in Kindergarteners
Jonathan Bolduc1,2, Pascal Lefebvre3
1Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada
2Faculty of Music, Université Laval, Quebec City, Canada
3School of Rehabilitation Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada
Received May 9th, 2012; revised June 10th, 2012; accepted June 27th, 2012
The aim of this study was to assess the efficiency of four learning conditions to develop phonological and
musical processing skills through a set of 10 nursery rhymes. According to the analysis of the teachers’
practices, eight kindergarten classes (n = 100 kindergarteners) were paired and assigned to one of the fol-
lowing conditions: 1) music; 2) language; 3) combined [music and language]; and 4) passive listening
(control classes). Participants in conditions 1, 2, and 3 were met for 40 minutes per week over a ten-week
period. In condition 1, the nursery rhymes were supplemented by musical activities and in condition 2 by
language activities. Condition 3 was a combination of activities from conditions 1 and 2. In condition 4,
children listened to a recording of the same nursery rhymes for 15 minutes daily during free exploration
periods. No intervention was proposed for this control condition. All participants were evaluated using the
same phonological and musical processing measures prior to and after the implementation of the program.
Results indicated that children in conditions 1, 2 and 3 significantly improved their phonological aware-
ness and their invented spelling skills at post-test. However, only the two conditions in which the music
component was integrated enhanced significantly their results at the verbal memory task. Children in
conditions 1, 3 and 4 enhanced tonal and rhythm perception skills. This study demonstrated that supple-
menting nursery rhymes with language activities is an efficient manner to develop emergent literacy skills,
but the addition of musical activities could also boost phonological processing skills.
Keywords: Kindergarten; Nursery Rhymes; Phonological Awareness; Invented Spelling; Memory; Tonal
Perception; Rhythm Perception; Emergent Literacy; Music Education
Research has shown that nursery rhymes, songs and listening
activities can help preschoolers take the first steps towards
becoming competent readers (Cunningham, 1991 in Danielson,
2000; Goswami, 2001; Raz & Bryant, 1990). It has been sug-
gested that phonological and musical processing skills are re-
lated (Rubinson, 2009). Few researchers have compared the
effects of music and language interventions offered to four and
five-year-old children. Some studies have indicated that musi-
cal conditions enhance phonemic awareness (Gromko, 2005),
vocabulary (Galacia, Gomez, & Flores, 2006; Register, 2001;
Standley & Hughes, 1997), word recognition (Bolduc, 2009;
Fetzer, 1994) and invented spelling abilities (Bolduc, 2009). In
an effort to fill in the gaps of previous findings, this study ex-
amines which learning conditions 1) music; 2) language; 3)
combined [music and language] and 4) passive listening) seem
to develop phonological and musical processing skills most
efficiently. For this purpose, a program based on nursery
rhymes was used among French-speaking kindergarteners. The
findings offer information relevant to pedagogical decisions
and support complementary literacy initiatives in schools.
Phonological Processing Skills
The term phonological processing skills refers to the mental
operations that rely on the abstract representation of sound units
of language (Lonigan, 2006; Troia, 2004). According to a meta-
analysis conducted by the National Early Reading Panel (2008),
three of these skills, when measured in preschoolers, show a
unique variance in the prediction of reading success in primary
grades: phonological access to lexical store, phonological me-
mory, and phonological awareness. Phonological access to
lexical store enables efficient retrieval of phonologically coded
information from long-term memory (Wagner & Torgesen,
1987). It is often measured by rapid-naming tasks in which
children are asked to name an array of familiar pictures as
quickly as possible. Phonological memory is a component of
the working memory dedicated to the phonologically-based
coding of verbal information (Baddeley, 1986). To measure it,
children are usually asked to repeat verbal material such as
letters, numbers or non-words. Phonological awareness refers
to the sensitivity to sound units of oral language such as sylla-
bles, rhyme and phonemes, and the ability to manipulate them
mentally (Gillon, 2004). It can be measured through numerous
tasks such as rhyme detection, syllable deletion, phonemic
segmentation, etc. More precisely, a deeper phonological aware-
ness at the phoneme level (phonemic awareness) is most pre-
dictive of reading success (Ehri et al., 2001). However, shal-
lower levels such as rhyme awareness would also seem to con-
tribute to learning of reading (Kirtley, Bryant, MacLean &
Bradley, 1989).
The contributing role of phonological processing skills in
emergent literacy cannot be explained without the involvement
of letter knowledge. Also identified as one of the best predic-
tors of reading success (National Early Reading Panel, 2008),
letter knowledge refers to the child’s ability to identify and
name the letters from the alphabet of their language. A recipro-
cal relationship has been established between phonological
processing and letter knowledge development in preschoolers
(Burgess & Lonigan, 1998). In fact, learning letters facilitates
the development of phonemic awareness, and higher-level
phonological processing skills promote the improvement of
letter knowledge. Progressively, the child also becomes aware
of the unique relationship between spoken language units and
letters: the alphabetic principle (Adams, 1990). The mastery of
the alphabetic principle implies learning the bidirectional cor-
respondence between sounds and letters. Early decoding and
spelling in primary grades (the beginning of formal instruction)
finally brings together phonological processing skills, alphabet
knowledge, and the mastery of the alphabetic principle (Ehri &
Roberts, 2006). The decoding of words requires the sounding
out of letters (the alphabetic principle), and the holding of the
evoked sounds in working memory (phonological memory) in
order to blend them (phonemic awareness) to form a word that
can be spoken (phonological access to lexicon). Early spelling
requires evoking a word (phonological access to lexicon), seg-
menting it into individual sounds (phonemic awareness), and
converting these into letters (alphabetic principle) in the correct
sequence (phonological memory).
Even though most of the research concerning phonological
processing skills focused on English, these skills have also been
shown to be critical in other alphabetic languages such as
French (e.g., Demont & Gombert, 1986; Ecalle & Magnan,
2007). However, phonological awareness development differs
from language to language because it is influenced by the pho-
netic properties of the language the child is learning (Gombert,
1992). Thus, English developmental data on phonological
awareness cannot be directly transferred to French. Duncan,
Colé, Seymour & Magnan (2006) have shown that phonologi-
cal awareness development in English-speaking and French-
speaking children from four to six years of age followed dis-
tinct developmental trajectories. Syllable awareness was more
accessible prior to formal literacy instruction for French-
speaking preschoolers than for their English-speaking counter-
parts; phoneme and rhyme awareness tended to emerge with
formal reading and writing instruction in primary school in
French kindergarteners. Other studies have confirmed the prec-
edence of syllable awareness in French (Bruck, Genesee &
Caravolas, 1997; Courcy, Béland & Pitchford, 2000; Ecalle &
Magnan, 2002, 2007; Lefebvre, Girard, Desrosiers, Trudeau, &
Sutton, 2008). It would seem, in French, rhyme units are not as
noticeable as in English for preschoolers (Goswami, 1999).
This developmental difference has to be taken into account
when planning phonological awareness activities for French
Musical Processing Skills
As with phonological processing skills, musical processing
skills involve mental operations that help identify, compare,
distinguish and reproduce pitch, duration, intensity and timbre
of a variety of sound stimuli (Sloboda, 2005). Research has
shown that these four parameters have a significant impact on
musical development during early childhood (Trehub, 2004,
2006). Pitch refers to sound frequency. In preschool, emphasis
should be laid on identification of very contrasting sounds
(high-pitched versus low-pitched) because children have diffi-
culty recognising minute nuances. Judgement is greatly influ-
enced by listening context (Sloboda, 2005; Zimmerman, 1971).
By the end of Kindergarten, most children are able to distin-
guish and reproduce melodies containing three to five sounds
(Trehub, 2006). Duration represents the temporal value of mu-
sic (rhythm). According to studies carried out with preschool
children, children show a marked preference for quicker tempi
(Colwell & Richardson, 2002). As with pitch, moderate tempi
are difficult to identify for young children. Depending on lis-
tening conditions, these will be classified as slow or fast (Tem-
merman, 2000). Intensity describes musical nuances, or sound
volume. In this area as well, children oscillate between ex-
tremes (loud/soft), and have difficulty identifying moderate
intensities (Flohr, 2003). Timbre, often called sound quality,
refers to the distinctive tone quality differentiating one instru-
ment from another. Children usually have no difficulty recog-
nizing and distinguishing instrument sounds from age four on
(Campbell & Scott-Kassner, 2002). Auditory discrimination
tasks, in which children are asked to compare sound sequences
(pitch, duration, intensity, and timbre) and determine if they are
similar or different, remain the most used measures of musical
skills (Bentley, 1966; Gordon, 1979, 1984).
Research suggests that music may stimulate cognitive abili-
ties, such as auditory perception, in early childhood. Correla-
tional studies have shown that children between the ages of four
and eight who score higher in pitch and duration processing
tests also obtain higher scores in some phonological awareness
tasks, such as syllable detection, syllable segmentation, phone-
mic segmentation and rhyme detection (Anvari, Trainor, Wood-
side, & Levy, 2002; Bolduc & Montésinos-Gelet, 2005; Lamb
& Gregory, 1993; Peynircioglu, Durgunoglu, & Oney-Kuse-
foglu, 2002; Rubinson, 2009). Quasi-experimental studies have
suggested that music training may promote the development of
memory for sound and metacognitive knowledge, three com-
ponents also involved in the development of language (Bolduc,
2009; Franklin, Moore, Yip, & Jonides, 2008; Trainor, Shahin
& Roberts, 2003). Musical training focuses children’s attention
on elements that are different, but potentially important in the
emergence and development of linguistic skills.
Research has shown that children are particularly attentive to
the sounds around them during early childhood (Temmerman,
2000). According to Gordon (1999, 2003) this period is the
optimal time to nurture and develop musical knowledge be-
cause innate musical potential seems to stabilize before the first
year of primary school. Studies have also shown that the learn-
ing environment has a direct impact on the development of
musical abilities. Depending on their home environment and
the education they receive, children achieve varying levels of
perceptive and productive abilities (Colwell & Richardson,
2002). Between the ages of three and six, certain children
achieve a basic level of ability, characterized by global listening
without analysis, while others develop finer listening and
analysis skills and manage to distinguish musical parameters
more precisely (Corrigall & Trainor, 2010). Time allocated to
music in a school setting should thus be considered. Indeed
some associations, such as Music Educators National Confer-
ence [MENC] (1995), specify that at least 20 minutes per day
should be dedicated to music in Kindergarten. Ideally, many
short activities are carried out throughout the day.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Nursery Rhymes, Phonological and Musical
Processing Skills
The impact of nursery rhymes on phonological processing
skills has been explored in a few studies. Fernandez-Fein and
Baker (1997) showed that English-speaking preschoolers ex-
posed to nursery rhymes in their environment tend to perform
better on rhyme and syllable tasks. Similarly, Pullen and Justice
(2003) provided examples of explicit instructions relating to
rhyme and syllable awareness added to nursery rhymes. Ac-
cording to these researchers, adding an explicit element to an
engaging, meaningful and enjoyable activity such as reciting
nursery rhymes would better aid the phonological development
of preschoolers who are more at risk of developing reading and
writing difficulties in elementary school. Other research has
supported this hypothesis (Flett & Conderman, 2002; Justice &
Kaderavek, 2004; Williams & Rask, 2003). Moreover, Bryant,
Bradley, Maclean and Crossland (1989) and MacLean, Bryant
and Bradley (1987) have established that English-speaking
children’s knowledge of nursery rhymes at the age of three can
predict rhyme awareness at the age of four. In turn, this could
predict phonemic awareness, as well as reading and spelling
performance at the age of five. Other studies carried out with
foreign-language learners have highlighted the effectiveness of
nursery rhymes in emergent literacy development (Qing-Feng,
2007). Despite this fact, we don’t know much about French-
speaking children (Gauthier & Lejeune, 2008). This population
needs to be investigated further. As we mentioned earlier, pho-
nological awareness development differs from language to
language and English developmental data cannot be directly
transferred to French (Gombert, 1992).
Nursery rhymes may similarly enhance musical processing
skills. Some studies have demonstrated that nursery rhymes
improve understanding of musical structures, and help children
distinguish and recognize binary (march) and ternary (lullaby,
waltz) measures (Hargreaves, 1986; Radocy & Boyle, 2003).
Duration seems to be the most important musical parameter
involved in nursery rhymes (Bryant and al., 1989; Gauthier &
Lejeune, 2008; Williams & Rask, 2003). It has been argued that
rhythm is also closely related to linguistic structure and could
improve word segmentation (Rubinson, 2009; Douglas & Wil-
lats, 1994; Moritz, 2007). However, other musical parameters
could also be involved. As a learning game, nursery rhymes
provide opportunities to initiate children to pitch, intensity and
timbre. Educators have suggested that nursery rhymes are a
good way to introduce low/high and soft/loud concepts, and
intonation in early childhood settings (Campbell & Scott- Kas-
sner, 2002; McDonald & Simons, 1989). The scientific litera-
ture, however, does not provide further insight. More research
is needed to determine the impact of nursery rhymes on musical
processing skills.
The Current Study
Based on a nursery rhyme program, the current study has set
out to examine which learning conditions 1) music; 2) language;
3) combined [music and language] and 4) passive listening)
seem to develop phonological and musical processing skills
most efficiently among French-speaking kindergarteners. Based
on the literature, if auditory processing and memory for sound
undergird task performance in music and phonological aware-
ness, then the combined condition (3) will build auditory proc-
essing ability and extends memory for sound, which, in turn,
will cause significant gains in phonological awareness.
This study involved eight kindergarten classes of four to six
year-olds in a single public elementary school. Each class was
comprised of 13 to 20 children of varied ethnic backgrounds.
All kindergarteners participated in the activities, but data was
collected only with those for whom parental authorizations
were obtained (n = 51 girls and 49 boys). According to socio-
economic data for on the school population, 34% of children
come from low-income families. Less than 4% are monitored
for behavioral, integration or learning difficulties.
Three experimental conditions and one control condition
were formed. To ensure the greatest possible homogeneity,
classes were paired following analysis of the teachers’ emer-
gent literacy practices (metalinguistic awareness, concepts
about print, pre-reading, pre-writing), and musical practices
(listening activities, signing, composing) (Bolduc, 2009; Mon-
tésinos-Gelet, Besse, Armand & Morra, 3003). Logistics, as
well as the school administrators’ need to keep classes intact,
prevented random assignment. Table 1 shows assignment of
kindergarteners to the four learning conditions of this study:
music (experimental classes, condition 1); language (experi-
mental classes, condition 2); combined [music and language]
(experimental classes, condition 3); and passive listening (con-
trol classes, condition 4).
Each experimental class participated in a total of 10 sessions:
40 minutes once per week over a ten-week period (January to
April 2011). The condition 1 program was offered by an early
childhood music specialist, and the condition 2 program, by a
speech language pathologist. Both specialists led the condition
3 program. Generalist teachers attended each session to assist
the specialists. No specialist was involved in condition 4.
In every session, each experimental class learned a new nurs-
ery rhyme (from a set of 10 nursery rhymes). Musical structures
alternated from binary (march style) to ternary (lullaby style).
Each nursery rhyme contained known monosyllabic and poly-
syllabic words of varying syllabic structure (vowel-consonant;
consonant-vowel; consonant-consonant-vowel; consonant-vowel-
consonant), words starting with the same initial phoneme,
rhymes, as well as two pseudo words: the name of an invented
character and an invented verb.
Table 1.
Distribution of children in conditions.
Learning Conditions N Girls Boys X
C1 (Music) 2213 9 59 3
C2 (Language) 2613 13 57 2
C3 (Music and Language)2814 14 59 3
C4 (Passive Listening) 2411 13 59 4
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 497
The first 10 minutes of each session were the same for all the
experimental classes. The nursery rhyme was recited to the
pupils, known and invented words were identified, and the text
was learned using illustrations. The following 30 minutes var-
ied according to condition. In condition 1 (music), nursery
rhyme was supplemented by varying pitch, setting it to known
melodies, inventing melodies, playing rhythm games, varying
sound intensity, and accompanying it with different melodic
and non melodic instruments. In condition 2 (language), the
nursery rhyme was matched with simple and complex phono-
logical tasks linked with syllable, rhyme, and phonemic aware-
ness. Condition 3 (combined [music and language]) involved a
combination of complemented activities from conditions 1 and
2; musical activities and phonological tasks took 15 minutes
each. Finally, no targeted session was offered for condition 4
(passive listening). Participants assigned to this condition lis-
tened to a recording of each nursery rhyme for 15 minutes dur-
ing free exploration periods daily (one new nursery rhyme per
week). No further activities were offered.
Prior to and following implementation of the experimental
and control conditions, all the children were evaluated using the
Phonological awareness measure [PAM] (Armand & Montés-
inos-Gelet, 2001), the Invented spelling measure [ISM] (Morin
& Montésinos-Gelet, 2003), one verbal memory task taken
from the Nouvelles épreuves dévaluation du langage [N-EEL;
New Tests for Language Evaluation] (Chevrié-Muller & Plaza,
2001), and the Primary measures of music audition [PMMA]
(Gordon, 1979). All measures were administered individually,
except the PMMA, which was performed in a group setting.
One task (triangle) taken from the Kaufman assessement bat-
tery for children [K-ABC] (Kaufman & Kaufman, 1993) was
used to measure the cognitive equivalence of the participants
amongst the groups at pretest.
The PAM by Armand and Montésinos-Gelet (2001) was de-
veloped for preschoolers. Children were presented with: 1) a
non-sequential syllable identification task; 2) a non-initial se-
quential syllable identification task; 3) a rhyme identification
task; 4) an initial phoneme identification task; 5) an initial pho-
neme categorization task; and 6) an initial phoneme suppression
task. A computer was used to administer each task.
The ISM (Morin & Montésinos-Gelet, 2003) was completed
by all participants since phonological awareness involves gra-
phical components as well as auditory discrimination. Children
were asked to write three words in French (chapeau [hat], ce-
rise [cherry], avion [plane]), chosen for their structural charac-
teristics, without using a model (transcribing, copying). They
had to guess the spelling of the words based on their prior
The verbal task from the N-EEL (Chevrié-Muller & Plaza,
2001) was used to evaluate participants’ short-term sequential
memory (digit span). Children had to repeat, in order, a series of
three to five numbers given by the examiner.
Musical aptitudes were evaluated with Gordon’s measure
(1979). The PMMA consisted of one tonal and one rhythmic
measure. In both of them, participants had to compare two re-
corded sound sequences and decide whether they were identical
or not. On the answer sheet, a picture represented each item
heard. If both sequences were alike, pupils circled the pair of
identical faces, but if they were different, they circled the pair of
contrasting faces.
The triangle task taken from the K-ABC (Kaufman & Kauf-
man, 1993) was used to assess cognitive abilities. Children had
up to two minutes to reproduce abstract models by arranging
several identical triangles (blue on one side, yellow on the other)
in specific patterns.
Testing was conducted following procedures specified in the
manual for each measure. Testing sessions lasted about two 25-
minute periods per child, and were carried out during school
hours on site. Training programs began two weeks following
the end of the pretesting. Post-test occurred two weeks after the
experimental and control conditions. Graduate students blind to
the experimental conditions and hypotheses performed all test-
Phonological Awareness Measure
Each of the six tasks includes four assessment items for 24
possible correct answers. Results of the six tasks are considered
as a whole. As a measure of internal consistency, Cronbach’s
alpha has been established at .66.1
Invented Spelling Measure
Each word is marked based on the number of extracted pho-
nemes and of combined syllables as well as exclusive use of
letters in the word. Seven points can be given for the word cha-
peau [hat], eight for the word cerise [cherry], and six for the
word avion [plane], for a maximum of 21 correct answers. Re-
sults of the three words are treated together. The reliability
coefficient of the ISM (Morin & Montésinos-Gelet, 2003) has
never been provided.
Nouvelles épreuves d’évaluation du langage
The verbal memory task includes nine evaluation items worth
one point each. The standardised mark varies from one to five
with for an average mark of three. Mark is determined using the
global result and the precise age of each child. The reliability
coefficient of the N-EEL (Chevrié-Muller & Plaza, 2001) is .76.
Primary Measures of Music Audiation
Tonal and rhythmic measures are comprised of 40 evaluation
items each. One point is given for each correct answer. Results
from each measure are treated separately. The reliability coeffi-
cient of the PMMA (Gordon, 1979) is .85 for the tonal and .86
for the rhythmic measure.
Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children: K-ABC
The triangle task is comprised of 15 evaluation items. One
point is given per correct answer. The standardised mark is de-
termined using the global result for the task and the precise age
of each child. It can vary from one to 19, for an average mark of
10. The mean reliability coefficient of the K-ABC (Kaufman &
Kaufman, 1993) is .90 for preschool children.
Date Analysis Procedure
Data analysis procedure was performed utilizing the Statis-
tics Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) 17.0 software.
Non-parametric analyses statistics were realized with consid-
1Reliability coefficients between .65 and .75 are considered good, and those
between .75 and .90 are deemed excellent.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 499
eration the limited number of participants in each condition (<
28). Moreover, the normal distribution of the data in each con-
dition could not be assured for all measures. Kruskal Wallis
Tests were used on all pre and post-test measures in order to
compare the scores in the four conditions and evaluate their
equivalence. If significant differences were noticed, a post-hoc
comparison using the Mann-Whitney U Test was performed.
Wilcoxon matched-pair Signed-rank Tests were used to check
for significant differences between pre and post-test measures.
Cohen’s measures were performed to determine the effect size
of significant changes. For adjusting the statistical results for
multiples comparisons, an alpha level of .01 was established.
Table 2 shows medians on all measures. No significant dif-
ference was noticed at pretest (phonological awareness: Χ2 (3, n
= 100) = .83, p = .843; invented spelling: Χ2 (3, n =100) = .54,
p = .910; verbal memory: Χ2 (3, n = 96) = 2.25, p = .522; tonal:
Χ2 (3, n = 99) = 1.10, p = .777; rhythm: Χ2 (3, n = 99) = 2.26, p
= .520; triangles: Χ2 (3, n = 99) = 6.51, p = .089). This result
indicates the equivalence across the four conditions before the
Important improvements were observed on the phonological
awareness measure in three conditions. Using Cohen (1988)
criteria, large effect sizes (>.50) were noted for the music, com-
bined and language conditions after the interventions. However,
the magnitude effect of the first two conditions was greater
compared to the third one (music: z = 4.12, p < .001, r = .62;
combined z = 4.65, p < .001, r = .62; language: z = 3.71, p
< .001, r = .51). No contrast was seen in the passive listening
condition (z = 2.31, p = .021). A significant difference in this
measure was found across the four conditions at post-test, Χ2 (3,
n =100) = 11.44, p = .01). Post-hoc comparisons demonstrated
that the music, combined and language conditions scores were
higher then the ones the passive listening condition.
Participants in all conditions enhanced their results on the
invented spelling measure at post-test. A large effect size was
observed in the music condition (z = 3.52, p < .001, r = .54).
Medium to large effects (>.30 .49) were noticed in the passive
listening (z = 3.17, p = .002, r = .45), combined (z = 3.00, p
= .003, r = .40), and language (z = 2.75, p = .006, r = .38)
conditions. No significant difference was established for this
measure across the four conditions following the interventions,
Χ2 (3, n = 98) = 1.32, p = .72).
In the two conditions in which the music component was in-
tegrated, results in the verbal memory task improved signifi-
cantly. Large effect sizes were observed for the music (z =
4.23, p < .001, r = .64) and the combined (z = 4.16, p < .001,
r = .56) conditions. No difference was noted for the language (z
= 1.11, p = .070) and the passive listening (z = 2.23, p = .026)
conditions after the interventions. A difference in this measure
emerged across the four conditions at post-test, Χ2 (3, n = 96) =
14.71, p = .002). Post-hoc comparisons showed a difference
between the music and the language conditions.
Similar results were obtained on the tonal measure. Im-
provements and large effect sizes were noticed in music (z =
3.49, p < .001, r = .53) and combined (z = 3.85, p < .001, r
= .53) conditions. No contrast was found for the language (z =
1.18, p = .238) and the passive listening (z = 1.25, p = .210)
conditions. No significant difference was demonstrated for this
measure across the four conditions following the interventions,
Χ2 (3, n = 99) = 5.64, p = .130).
Improvements were also noticed in the rhythm measure in
three conditions. Large effect size was established in the pas-
sive listening condition (z = 3.89, p < .001, r = .56). Medium
to large effects were observed for the music (z = 2.92, p
= .003, r = .44) and combined (z = 2.84, p = .004, r = .39)
conditions. No difference was noted for the language condition
(z = 1.39, p = .166). No significant difference was shown for
this measure across the four conditions following the interven-
tions, Χ2 (3, n = 99) = 6.86, p = .076).
The current study implemented a nursery rhymes program
among 100 French-speaking kindergarteners from eight kin-
dergarten classes of a single public elementary school. The
purpose of this project was to assess the efficiency of four
learning conditions to develop phonological and musical proc-
essing skills. It was predicted that the combined condition
would have a more significant impact than the others (i.e. the
music, language and passive listening conditions). The results
partially supported this hypothesis.
Regarding the phonological processing skills, various results
were obtained for phonological awareness, invented spelling
and verbal memory. Across the four conditions, only children
in the music and combined conditions significantly improved
their skills across all three measures. In accordance with previ-
ous research (Bolduc, 2009; Franklin, Moore, Yip, & Jonides,
2008; Trainor, Shahin, & Roberts, 2003), music training should
be an efficient approach to enhance auditory perception in early
childhood. It seems that some musical activities, such as dis-
crimination tasks, could boost phonological processing skills in
a more general manner. In the present study, children in the
language condition also improved their results considerably in
Table 2.
Medians on all measures for the four conditions.
Learning Conditions
Pre Post Pre Post Pre Po st Pre Post Pre Post Pre
C1 (Music) 22 11.5 17 7 7 4.5 7 12 15.5 10 14 9
C2 (Language) 26 11.5 15 5 8 4 4 10.5 12 11 12 10
C3 (Music and Language) 28 11 15 4 7.5 4 6 11 14 10 13 8
C4 (Passive listening) 24 12 12.5 3.5 6 4 5 13 12 10 12 10
the phonological awareness and invented spelling measures. It
is well documented that early intervention programs in which
the link between sounds and letters is explicitly stated allow
preschoolers to master the alphabetic principle (Ehri et al., 2001;
Gillon, 2004; National Early Reading Panel, 2008). Despite that,
others factors, such as family literacy practices and teaching
methods can positively influence young learners. Such external
variables could help to explain some anecdotal results. This is
the case for the children of the passive listening condition who
got good scores at the invented spelling measure without hav-
ing been involved in any music and/or language trainings.
Concerning the musical processing skills, only the children
in the two conditions that involved music improved tonal and
rhythm perception. Various activities targeting those two skills,
such as tone identification and body percussion were carried
out in those specific conditions every week. Children in the
passive listening condition also improved rhythm perception.
This result may be explained by the fact that they listened to
nursery rhymes (with rhythm patterns and lyrics only) on daily
basis. In the language condition, children did not show im-
provement in their musical processing skills, probably because
they did not receive explicit musical training or day-to-day
exposure to the nursery rhymes. However, the improvement
observed in the children involved in the music, combined and
passive listening conditions was not sufficient to consider their
musical processing skills significantly superior of those in the
language condition after the interventions.
Although a great importance was given to internal and ex-
ternal validity in this research, it has some limitations. Firstly,
this study was limited by the small sample (N = 100 kinder-
garteners) from only one public elementary school. Future re-
search with a larger sample population may produce more ro-
bust results. Longitudinal study is also recommended to explore
associations between phonological and musical processing
skills over time and their outcomes on music education and
literacy. Secondly, the composition and dynamics of each class
may have influenced the unfolding of the interventions. Be-
cause participants were assigned randomly, it was not possible
to control for the proportion of children in each group with
behavioral, integration or learning difficulties. Finally, the two
conditions in which children showed the greatest improvements
(music and combined) were those that were led by the music
educator. In fact, an instructor effect may have biased the re-
sults. Treatment fidelity analysis was not carried out. Addition-
ally, the music and combined conditions took place away from
the school, at the university. The motivation of the children in
those conditions who came every week to the Mus-Alpha Re-
search Lab may have positively influenced the results. A John
Henry effect could also explain the improvement observed
among the participants in the passive listening condition at
Implications and Future Research
The current study supports the embedded-explicit model
(Flett & Conderman, 2002; Justice & Kaderavek, 2004; Wil-
liams & Rask, 2003) to enhance emergent literacy skills. The
integration of explicit instructions in the music, combined and
language conditions led to more powerful effects compared to
the passive listening condition. In this regard, preschool teach-
ers are encouraged to go beyond the recitation of nursery
rhymes. They could instead envision nursery rhymes as a rich
learning context. Adding language activities targeting phono-
logical awareness, vocabulary and inference skills is a more
effective manner to reach that objective. Complementing nurs-
ery rhymes, however, with musical activities seems yet more
powerful. By favouring the development of music perception
abilities we help children increase their phonological memory
and acquire metaphonological abilities without relying exclu-
sively on language activities.
Further research is needed to clarify the relationship between
language and music in early childhood. To this point, no study
has clearly established which musical processing skills are re-
lated to the phonological processing skills: more general audi-
tory processing and cognitive skills might be intertwined. Ad-
ditional research encompassing also these more general skills
could be helpful for understanding the underlying processes in
action during language and music interventions with kinder-
garteners. At some point, it would be interesting to reply this
study with pupils in different daycare facilities or kindergartens.
It would also be pertinent to look at the effects of a music and
language interventions in first and second grades of primary
school. Similarly, research with, as participants, children who
have language developmental difficulties, such as dyslexia and
dysorthographia may contribute significantly to the literature
and help to improve educational practices.
This research was supported by external grants from the So-
cial Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and
the Canadian Foundation of Innovation to Dr. Bolduc and by an
internal grant from the University of Ottawa to Drs. Bolduc and
Lefebvre. We thank all the administrators, teachers and parents
whose interest and support made this work possible. Special
thanks to the 100 preschoolers involved in this project. We are
especially grateful to all undergraduate and graduate students
for assistance in this research.
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