Using Literature in Elementary Music

Let’s face it: kids like stories, kids like to be entertained, and most kids like to use their imaginations. Using children’s literature and storytelling in the music classroom is such a fantastic way to encourage improvisation, theatrics (imagine…showing off without getting in trouble!), sense of rhythm and rhyme, while having some good old-fashioned fun. Many of the books that are conducive to the music curriculum are stories with which kids are familiar, and using them in movies is like a comfy re-run or favorite, well, bedtime story! The neat twists you can add in music class is just icing on the cake.

Starting off with the very young ones (pre-school, kindergarten, early first grade), select stories with lots of rhymes, maybe an alphabet or two, or stories in which the kids can provide the sound effects. One strong favorite is Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by John Archambault. . Tie in learning rhymes with the alphabet, funky pictures, and a few sound effects, and the kids will love it! Another great one for rhymes and expression is Possum Come a’Knockin’ by Nancy Van Leer. Read it and get into the voices! I also enjoy reading books in which the kids get to provide the “acting” and dialogue depicting different emotions. Two of my favorites are Mortimer and Thomas’s Snowsuit by Robert Munsch (this man is always a winner!) and Peace at Last by Jill Murphy. The first one is about all of Mortimer’s family members coming up and shouting at him to be quiet (boy, do little kids like to shout to someone to be quiet!). The second book is about a poor papa bear who cannot sleep because of all the tiny little sounds all around him. In both of these books, there are repetitive phrases that the kids just latch onto. Another Robert Munsch winner is Love You Forever. The kids just latch onto this one, mainly because of the feelings they have for their own moms, and adults love it, too! The story behind this is so touching. According to this information from Amazon, Munsch wrote the tune to this song in honor of two little stillborn babies his wife bore. Teach the tune to your kids to sing while you’re reading. It goes like this:(solfege-wise)
so’ so’ do do ti re
so’ so’ re fa mi re do,
so’ so’ do mi so fa,
mi la’ re ti’ do.
Thanks to Ginny Simons-Dieckhaus, my Washington colleague, for the tune to this song. (She learned it in a “cheating” way: her sister is Robert Munsch’s neighbor!).

There are some great kids’ books that lend themselves handily to the use of instruments and improvising, too. For the youngest set, try some of the following:
Baby Rattlesnake by Te Ata (use rattles and kid sounds)
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams(use appropriate instruments to imitate the ghost’s sounds. Let the kids decide!)
Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slolodkina (use glocks for the up/down effect)

For intermediate-ages:
The Flute Player by Michael Lacapa (use of recorders with a simple improvised BAG melody)
Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock by Eric Kimmel (use instruments for sound effects)
Traveling to Tondo by Verna Aardena (use of instruments to imitate animals’ movements)

Great books that correlate with songs:
Mama Don’t Allow by Thatcher Hurd
Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger
Jolly Mon by Jimmy Buffett
Or, any of the great Raffi “song”books:
5 Little Ducks
Shake My Sillies Out
Down By the Bay
Baby Beluga
Wheels on the Bus

Here are some books to use for any ages if you use stations or need books around for kids to read:
The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin
The Bremen Town Musicians by the Brothers Grimm
Berlioz the Bear by Jan Brett
Happy Hedgehog Band by Martin Wadell
I Wonder Why Flutes Have Holes by Josephine Parker
Lives of the Musicians by Kathleen Krull (word of caution on this book, although I think it’s wonderful and use it quite often in class: there are some references to Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, tied in with the personal problems he had. There is nothing blatant, but you might want to use judgement based on the age of your students and the preferences of your community).


And…this is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg, the tiniest tip! Hopefully, this can get you started on this great method of teaching music. I also include books like this in my resources section. So, keep checking back! I would like to give the St. Louis Orff-Schulwerk Association and the Missouri Music Educators Association lots of credit for having workshops on this topic, which is where I got most of my ideas. Unfortunately, in my school moves, some of my handouts are missing, and I can’t give credit to the specific clinicians! If anyone from Missouri remembers any of these sessions, please let me know so I can give credit where credit’s due! Also, if anyone else has great ideas in using literature in music, please send it in!