A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Musical Stories Infusing Your Read-Alouds with Music, Movement, and Sound

by Rebecca M. Giles & Jeannette Fresne on November 4, 2015

Public libraries have a longstanding tradition of supporting families, childcare providers, preschool teachers, and communities to help every child enter school ready to learn to read. PLA’s and the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC)’s Every Child Ready to Read1 (ECRR) initiative clearly defines the role of public libraries in supporting parents and caregivers in developing the early literacy skills of children from birth to age five. Educating parents on the importance of early literacy and showing them how to nurture pre-reading skills at home has become a primary focus of storytime at many libraries. Incorporating movement and music into picture book read-alouds provides the perfect opportunity to facilitate the development of early literacy skills through enjoyable, engaging experiences that also instill a love for books and reading.

Singing Along

Singing, along with talking, reading, writing, and playing, is one of the five daily practices suggested by ECRR for helping increase children’s reading readiness. Singing, which is more rhythmic than speaking, allows opportunities to focus on the sounds of speech. Simple songs (see sidebar on page 33) can be used to introduce activities, refocus attention, and ease transitions during storytime. As children and adults come to know the songs, they can be sung when sharing books together at home.

Listening skills are essential in singing, language development, expressive movement, and, later, reading.2 Children instinctively listen to songs and try to identify familiar melodies and rhythms, just as early readers will look for words that sound alike, have patterns, or rhyme.3 Before children learn to read, they must be able to identify the sounds within words. The ability to recognize that  words are made up of a variety of sound units is known as phonological awareness. Once children understand that sentences are made of words, they begin to learn that words are also made of smaller parts. Songs naturally divide words into syllables, which helps young children hear the word’s distinct parts. For example, the rhythm of “Over in the Meadow” clearly separates the words “o-ver” and “mead-ow” when they are sung or chanted. Picture book versions of this traditional counting song are available by Ezra Jack Keatz, Anna Vojtech, and others.

Children are fascinated by language and delight in hearing and making silly sounds, which allows them to develop phonemic awareness.4 Phonemic awareness is a single aspect of phonological awareness that refers to a child’s understanding that language is composed of small sounds (phonemes). Songs, specifically rhyming songs, have been recommended as an effective mechanism for building young children’s phonemic awareness.5 Lyrical devices commonly incorporated in songs—rhyme, repetition, alliteration, and flowing prose—help children to focus on and discern the sounds of language. Repeating the nonsense words heard in songs and stories provides an irresistible invitation for children to play with words and sounds. The tongue-twisting word sequences in books such as Catalina Magdalena Hoopensteiner Wallendienr Hogan Logan Bogan Was Her Name (2004) by Ted Arnold, The Animal Boogie (2011) by Debbie Harter, and Port Side Pirates (2011) by Oscar Seaworthy offer an irresistible invitation to be imitated. To practice auditory discrimination (recognizing specific sounds), children can be asked to repeat the sounds heard at the beginning of words or to join in singing the phrases and sentences containing two or more words with the same initial sound. This task works well when reading sing-along picture books such as Miss Mary Mack (2003) by Mary Ann Hoberman and Nadine Bernard Westcott; and Old Black Fly (1992) by Jim Aylesworth and Steven Gammell. There are enough animals making alliterative sounds in Paul Galdone’s 1985 book Cat Goes Fiddle-I-Fee (“hen goes chimmy chuck,” “pig goes griffy gruffy,” and so on) that children can enjoying producing a number of beginning sound word pairs while hearing this old English rhyme.

The built-in repetition and rhyme found in many songs and sing-along picture books also increases understanding and retention. Identification of rhyming words can be fostered by pausing to have children supply the missing rhyme in a line of text. Oh, A-Hunting We Will Go (1974) by John Langstaff begins with a short, phrase repeated twice (“Oh, a-hunting we will go”) followed by a third phrase which contains two words that rhyme (“We’ll catch a ___ and put him in a ____”). Waiting briefly before reading the last word prompts children to provide the remaining word. For instance, “We’ll catch a fox and put him in _______” elicits such responses as “a box” or “socks.” This same technique can be used with books such as Down by the Bay (1987) by Raffi, Animal Fair (2010) by Ponder Goembel, and My Aunt Came Back (2008) by John M. Feierabend. After reading, rhyming can be emphasized further by playing simple games in which children tell a word from the song that rhymes with a word supplied by the adult.

Vocabulary development is a main area of focus for a child learning to read,6 and the large role of language in learning makes knowledge of words essential for school success.7 Songs contribute to language development by providing the correct pronunciation of unfamiliar words that children may later encounter in books8 and by increasing children’s exposure to “rich words.”9 A child’s listening vocabulary largely contributes to his listening comprehension and is necessary for understanding directions, essential to social interaction, enhances expressive vocabulary, and is related to acquiring later literacy skills.10 Traditional and folk songs are filled with words from a particular culture or time period. In Jonathan Emmett’s lively version of the American folk song “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain,” a cowgirl wearing “frilly” pink pajamas uses words such as “slurp” and “dumplins.” While not typically heard in children’s daily lives, the meanings of these words can be inferred through the supportive context. Sing-along picture books further enhance vocabulary development by providing concrete representations of unknown words in the accompanying illustrations. The lively predictable beat and repetition of sing-along picture books also contributes to children’s memory of words and basic concepts,11 such as numbers or colors. For example, Today is Monday (1992) by Eric Carle provides an entertaining introduction to various foods while introducing the days of the week.

One way to direct children’s attention to particular words is through an auditory word search. This activity requires children to listen for a recurring word or phrase and demonstrate their recognition of the designated word or phrase by vocalizing an assigned sound or performing specified movements each time the word or phrase is heard. Creative versions of familiar tunes encourage children to listen and respond through actions and by singing along. Picture book adaptations of the well-loved favorite “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” can prompt children to engage in a wide variety of movement making. For example, in Old MacDonald Had a Woodshop (2002) by Lisa Shulman children can join Mrs. MacDonald as she saws, drills, hammers, chisels, files, screws, and paints her way to creating a model of the animal character’s barnyard home.

Moving Around

Rather than trying to squelch children’s natural propensity to be active, movement can make storytime more meaningful. Since young children often spontaneously respond to music through movement or dance, the opportunity for an active physical response to a song or sing-along book may be highly engaging for many children.12 For example, the jazzy rhythms, silly rhymes, and infectious moves found in How Do You Wokka-Wokka? (2009) by Elizabeth Bluemle naturally entice young listeners to join neighborhood children as they “wokka-wokka,” “croakie-yocka,” and “pinky-hoppa-hoppa.” Similarly, it’s hard to resist moving along with a playful pup whose many nonsense moves are described in Stretch (2009) and Wiggle (2005), both by the author-illustrator team of Doreen Cornin and Scott Menchin. For more spontaneous, move-around fun, try Wiggle Waggle (1999) by Jonathan London; Hop, Jump (1996) by Ellen Stoll Walsh; or Who Hops? (2001) by Katie Davis. Children will also enjoy imitating the animal antics modeled by characters in From Head to Toe (2007) by Eric Carle; If You’re Hoppy (2011) by April Pulley Sayre; and Can You Make a Scary Face? (2009) or Is Everyone Ready for Fun? (2011), both by Jan Thomas.

Movement, like singing and reading, is a form of communication13 that should be valued. Children can stretch (You are a Lion and Other Fun Yoga Poses [2012] by Tae-Eun Yoo or Babar’s Yoga for Elephants [2002] by Laurent de Brunhoff), frolic (Jamberry [1983] by Bruce Degen or Tumble Bumble [1996] by Felicia Bond), exercise (Toddlerobics [1996] by Zita Newcome or Hop, Hop, Jump! [2012] by Lauren Thompson), parade/stomp (We All Go Traveling By [2003] by Sheena Roberts) and dance (Jammy Dance [2012] by Rebecca Janni, Dancing in My Bones [2001] by Sylvia Anderson, and Jazz Baby [2002] by Carole Boston Weatherford) in response to intentionally chosen read-alouds.

Not all movement experiences need to contain boisterous antics. Books like Peaceful Piggy Meditation (2004) by Kerry Lee Maclean absorb children in a relaxing read. Engaging children in a variety of steady beat activities (repeating the same motion over and over) while singing or reading aloud provides a comforting, calming effect.14 Swaying from side to side, rocking back and forth, shifting weight from one foot to the other, or patsching (patting knees or thighs with large arm motion) are a few of the many ways children can keep a steady beat by listening to literature. Re-creating an unchanging continuous pulse, like a heartbeat, provides a purposeful and soothing element resulting from children’s abilities to listen, concentrate, and control their actions. Lullabies and nursery rhymes, like those in the Kate Toms Series (Baa Baa Black Sheep; Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; and I’m a Little Teapot), work particularly well.

Physical movement can be added to strengthening children’s understanding of words and concepts.15 Children’s literature has a collective abundance of complex language and rare words.16 The expressive vocabulary found in humorous stories like Cock-a-Doodle-Doo! Barnyard Hullabaloo (1999) by Giles Andreae begs children to “cackle,” “squawk,” “wriggle,” “wag,” and “snuffle” along with an assortment of animals while ingraining each word’s meaning as it is enacted. Creating facial expressions for the emotions described in The Way I Feel (2000) by Janan Cain or Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods that Make My Day (1998) by Jamie Lee Curtis will cement/reinforce children’s understanding of such feelings as joy, boredom, cranky, and disappointed.

Motions should be age-appropriate and allow children to succeed. Marching and clapping, which require spatial coordination and fine motor skills, are often too difficult for preschoolers but can work with older children when used minimally.17 Because young children are developing fine motor skills, hand movements should be uncomplicated, thus, causing the need to carefully scrutinize expectations for finger play. While the tune and content of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” are appropriate for preschoolers, the fine motor skills required to work the traditional finger motions are not.

Involving Adults

Unlike classroom teachers, who have an audience of youngsters, storytime at the library is a family affair. While programs for children are designed to be age-appropriate for specified groups, adults are an expected and necessary addition. As regular attenders, adults should be fully included in the planned activities. Direct comments can be made to adults during storytime as a means of sharing information and techniques for boosting early literacy skills at home.18 For instance, when reading Five Little Monkeys with Nothing to Do (1996) by Eileen Christelow, the book can be identified for adults as a predictable book. Providing a further explanation of a predictable text makes adults aware of their value to children’s literacy development. Simply saying, “Predictable texts use repetitive phrases, patterned language or familiar sequences to help young children anticipate what comes next. This increases their involvement in the reading experience and promotes their understanding of the story.” This statement incorporates an element of parent education that increases the legitimacy of storytime for many.

Storytime has been defined as “an interactive experience between those attending the storytime session on any given day” by veteran librarian Nell
Colburn.19 Using this definition, the best storytimes are the ones where both adults and children are fully engaged. In addition to the positive educational outcomes, active adult participation has enormous management benefits. When parents and caregivers are clapping, singing, and dancing along with their children, they are less likely to be talking, texting, snacking, or otherwise being a distraction. While the goal is to involve everyone, no one should be forced to participate. Remember, some children might be “actively involved” by watching, listening, and sensing.20 With encouragement shy children and hesitant adults will join in when they are comfortable and ready to do so.

While redundancy should be avoided, repetition is a necessary part of the learning process. A new song or book should be repeated two or three times when it is first introduced. During the first singing or reading, rhythm/beat, tune, and actions are modeled. A second time through allows the opportunity for practice, which may be somewhat tentative. By the third time, most children will be fully participating.

Providing read-alouds rich with opportunities for singing and moving allow opportunities for children and adults to enjoyably encounter the richness of the library’s collection. Engaging and fun-filled storytimes instill a love of reading, develop early literacy skills, and ensure that everyone will want come back for more.


  1. Every Child Ready to Read @ your library, www.everychildreadytoread.org.
  2. Rebecca M. Giles and Jeannette Fresne, “Sing a Song and Read Along,” Advocate 32, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2013).
  3. Mary Renck Jalongo and Deborah McDonald Ribblett, “Using Song Picture Books to Support Emergent Literacy,” Childhood Education 74, no. 1 (Fall 1997).
  4. Amanda Page Smith, “Musical Activities to Promote Phonemic Awareness,” Perspectives: Journal of the Early Childhood Music & Movement Association 8, no. 3 (Summer 2013).
  5. Lita Ericson and Moria F. Juliebo, The Phonological Awareness Handbook for Kindergarten and Primary Teachers (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1997).
  6. National Research Council, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Washington, DC: National Academy Pr., 1998).
  7. Michael Coyne, Deborah Simmons and Edward Kame’enui, “Vocabulary Instruction for Young Children at Risk of Experiencing Reading Difficulties,” in Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice, eds. J. Bauman & E. Kame’enui (New York: Guilford, 2004): 41-58.
  8. Susan Neuman, “N is for Nonsensical,” Educational Leadership, 64, no. 2 (Oct. 2006).
  9. Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (New York: Guilford, 2002).
  10. Beverly Otto, Language Development in Early Childhood Education, third edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill-Prentice Hall, 2010).
  11. Rita Buchoff, “Joyful Voices: Facilitating Language Growth through the Rhythmic Response to Chants,” Young Children 49, no. 4 (1994).
  12. Amanda Niland, “Musical Stories: Strategies for Integrating Literature and Music for Young Children,” Australian Journal of Early Childhood 32, no. 4 (2007).
  13. Rae Pica, Experiences in Movement: Birth to Age Eight (Clifton Park, NY: Delmar, 2004).
  14. Rebecca M. Giles and Jeannette Fresne, “Singing with Predictable Texts to Support Early Literacy Skills,” Early Years 36, no. 1 (Winter 2015).
  15. Pica, 2004.
  16. Deborah Wooten and Bernice Cullinan, Children’s Literature in the Reading Program: An Invitation to Read (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2009).
    17. Jeannette Fresne and Rebecca M. Giles,
    “Musical Exploration with Emergent
    Readers: Story Time as Song Time, Too,”
    Children Our Concern 7, no. 1 (Feb. 2015).
    18. Nell Colburn, “Secrets of Storytime: 10
    Tips for Great Sessions from a 40-year
    Pro,” School Library Journal, Aug. 8,
    2013, accessed Sept. 24, 2015, www.slj
    19. Ibid.
    20. Lenora McWhorter, “Ask the Expert: 10 Tips for Making Story Time Come Alive,” EarlyChildhood NEWS, 2008, accessed Sept. 24, 2015, www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=517.

Storytime Songs
“Two Little Feet” (spoken rhyme)
Two little feet go tap, tap, tap.
Two little hands go clap, clap, clap.
Bend your body. Touch your toes.
Straighten up and touch your nose.
Wave your arms. Touch each knee.
Stomp your feet and count to three.
One! Two! Three!
Now, sit back down and look at me.
“Put Your Bottom on the Rug” (tune:
“If You’re Happy and You Know It”)
Put your bottom on the rug, on the rug.
Put your bottom on the rug, on the rug.
Put your bottom on the rug.
And, give yourself a hug.
Put your bottom on the rug, on the rug.
“Now It’s Time to Read a Book”
(tune: “London Bridge Is Falling
Now it’s time to read a book.
Read a book.
Read a book.
Now it’s time to read a book.
I’ll read a book to you.