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Imitation and innovation: Harnessing the principles of music pedagogy for the writing classroom.


A compelling connection between music and language has been established through neuroscientific research over the last twenty years (Patel, 2003, 2014; Fritz et al., 2013) and as a result, has stirred further interest in the fields of linguistics, psychology and education (Rebuschat et al., 2012; Hansen et al., 2014). Much of this research has been focused on exploring how learning and listening to music can improve literacy outcomes, given that music creates stronger neural pathways (Patel, 2008).

This paper takes the implications of a music-literacy connection further still; that is, to explore how the underlying principles of music pedagogy, not necessarily music itself, might be harnessed by the literacy teacher to benefit writing instruction. To date, neuroscientific and educational researchers have explored the benefits of music instruction for improved outcomes in literacy, including for speech, reading, phonological and morphological awareness, and of using music directly in the literacy classroom (Dittinger et al., 2016; Habib et al., 2016). However, researchers are yet to explore the potential scope there may be for adopting and applying the underlying principles of music pedagogy in the literacy classroom. If the cognitive processes used for various aspects of music and literacy overlap (Patel et al., 2003, 2008), then exploring what insights music pedagogy may offer the literacy teacher would seem a promising line of inquiry.

This line of inquiry is explored through a conceptual framework, LIRIC (Listening, Interpreting, Reciting, Improvising, Composing), which seeks to highlight common principles of music instruction which have the capacity to be translated for the literacy (writing) classroom.

This paper also responds to concerns of writing decline and 'stagnation' in writing achievement and engagement in the middle years of schooling (Graham & Perin, 2007a, 2007b; Faulkner & Rivalland, 2014). In particular, findings that boys' writing engagement and achievement are most at risk (Carroll, 2011; Clary & Daintith, 2011). Highly experiential and immersive pedagogies such as the one music instruction may offer, could hold some merit to address these dilemmas.

What are the principles of music pedagogy?

The Orff-Shulwerk and Kodaly methods are arguably among the most influential philosophies of music education, and are still in currency today (Goodkin, 2001; Barrett, 2014).

The Orff-Shulwerk music approach leads students through four stages of learning- -imitation, exploration, improvisation and composition--and tries to capture children's 'natural behaviours of play' (Sarazin, 2016, p. 58). As the Orff approach 'is rooted in arts and subject integration' (Sarazin, 2016, p. 57), the Orff music class includes language through stories and poetry, as well as dance and drama.

Zoltan Kodaly, whose philosophy and work in the mid-20th century has had a significant influence on contemporary music approaches, and who was also a linguist, emphasised the featured use of quality music exemplars and the use of speech and singing. In fact, both the Orff-Shulwerk and Kodaly philosophies of music emphasised singing and speech.

Three core aspects are emphasised by the Orff-Shulwerk and Kodaly methods as outlined by Natalie Sarrazin (2016). They are:

--Recitation or Imitation (Orff-Shulwerk)

--Improvisation (Orff-Shulwerk)

--The featured use of quality and authentic exemplar models (Kodaly).

Hansen, Bernstorff and Stuber (2014) suggest a shared pedagogy for teachers of both disciplines, concerned with developing, 'skills, knowledge, and appreciation', among their students and that this should be done through 'carefully chosen exemplars' (Hansen et al., 2014, p. 172). They also articulate that 'critical thinking' and problem solving are important to both disciplines of music and literacy, as students in each need to consider 'how parts of a whole interact with each other', (Hansen et al., 2014, p. 125).

How might music pedagogy have relevance for the writing teacher?

Writing is a complex skill. It requires higher order authorial skills for expressing and synthesising ideas while simultaneously relying on a raft of technical skills such as spelling, grammar, typing/ handwriting and punctuation (Isaacson, 1989). This creates a challenge for the writing teacher as they must consider how to teach these skills while also keeping meaning, context and creativity within view. This is no less of a challenge for teachers of writing in the middle years of schooling. In these years, students continue to develop foundational language and writing skills, while at the same time finding the demands of content and technique are becoming increasingly sophisticated (Faulkner et al., 2011).

As a response to the challenge an increased proliferation of commercial programs for step-by-step writing approaches, spelling and grammar suggest that an atomised approach to teaching writing is in vogue in the upper primary years. However, these approaches tend to emphasise the secretarial elements (handwriting, spelling and punctuation), and neglect author craft and technique, a critical element of writing instruction that has been noted in the research of Graham and Perin (2007a, 2007b).

The music classroom may be uniquely placed to provide some instructional models to help writing teachers counter these challenges. Writing and music, both abstract forms that convey meaning, need to tension skill alongside artistry. The LIRIC framework provides a conceptual model of how we might bring together the explicit teaching of skills, study of author/composer craft, and provide room for oral/aural experimentation and engagement.

In a music pedagogy-informed writing classroom, the prosodic qualities of speech (including the musical, rhythmic, intonation and speech patterns) can be maximised to highlight grammar concepts through recitation or performance of written texts, for instance. The fluid connections between spoken and written texts seen in film and drama texts, song writing, poetry, drama, vlogs, blogs, online news and interviews and other multi-modal forms, might also be emphasised for their oral/ aural components and links to written text. In fact, Orff-Shulwerk and Kodaly classrooms regularly use speech, drama, dance and subject integration as key to their processes and music is used as one way among others, to respond to stories and text, for instance.

To emulate the strengths of the music classroom, the writing teacher would need to consider how oral language will be emphasised. Drama, debate and role-play are ways to capture the music of language for older students (Ewing et al., 2011, 2015). The music classroom analogy may be especially relevant in middle years classrooms as there is some evidence to suggest oral language, collaboration and experimentation become less common. However, oral language has been shown to be of continuing importance, especially for boys, ESL learners and students with language or speech difficulties (Disbosoms, 2007; Dockrell et al., 2009; Carroll, 2011).

Music and English curriculum connections

Connections between music and English are apparent in the Australian Curriculum. The language of 'play', 'improvising', 'innovating', 'experimenting' and related concepts are recurring themes in both curricula (ACARA, 2014).

To 'improvise', 'innovate' and 'experiment' are particularly emphasised in the Australian English curriculum:

Experiment with text structures and language features and their effects in creating literary texts, for example, using imagery, sentence variation, metaphor and word choice (ACELT1800)

Create literary texts that adapt or combine aspects of texts students have experienced in innovative ways (ACELT1618)

Understand, interpret and experiment with sound devices and imagery, including simile, metaphor and personification, in narratives, shape poetry, songs, anthems and odes (ACELT1611).

Consider common language and concepts in these curriculum statements:
Australian Curriculum: Music        Australian Curriculum: English
(Years 5 and 6)                     (Year 6)

Explore dynamics and expression,    Use interaction skills, varying
using aural skills to identify      conventions of spoken
and perform rhythm and pitch        interactions such as voice,
patterns (ACAMUM088)                volume, tone, pitch and pace,
                                    according to group size,
                                    formality of interaction and
                                    needs and expertise of the
                                    audience (ACELY1816)

Rehearse and perform music          Plan, rehearse and deliver
                                    presentations, selecting
including music they have           and sequencing appropriate
composed by improvising, sourcing   content and multimodal elements
and arranging ideas and making      for defined audiences and
decisions to engage an audience     purposes, making appropriate
(ACAMUM090)                         choices for modality and emphasis

Skills to compose, perform,         Understand how authors often
improvise, respond and listen       innovate on text structures and
with intent and purpose             play with language features to
                                    achieve particular aesthetic,
                                    humorous and persuasive purposes
                                    and effects (ACELA1518)

Applying a music pedagogy in the writing classroom

The music-literacy parallel was something I began to consider through exposure to the music classroom, as the core teacher for an auditioned music class at an independent boys' school. I was able to see music pedagogy in practice and began to consider the implications for teaching writing. In an extended lesson I observed the 12-bar blues being used as a feature piece of music that was used as a scaffold to guide students from listening to composition. By teaching the popular pattern of the 12bar blues first through listening and appreciation, then through echo playing (recitation) and analysis of the technical components of the piece, students quickly built up confidence and skill. Once the repertoire of skills was developed, through trial and error in the low-stakes environment, the students began to move into experimentation and improvisation. To do this, students were offered explicit tools in the form of specific alternate patterns that would make their experimentation successful.

Students were actively encouraged to listen and provide feedback, as they then trialled their own patterns. From this point, students began to move naturally into composition, borrowing from the patterns and repertoire they had developed during the recitation and improvisation stage.

Throughout the lesson there were phases of listening, explicit instruction, trial, experimentation, feedback and discussion. Technical skills were taught alongside creative application and play. Confidence was developed through building mastery of short phrases and patterns. From there, students moved quickly into composition.

I began to wonder how I could harness this same approach for scaffolding students for composition in writing in a similarly seamless way, where composition was also borne out of imitation and improvisation.

By contrast, popular approaches for the teaching of writing in the middle years as evidenced by the many commercial programs presently in vogue, seem instead to separate skills in a highly-atomised manner (such as spelling, grammar, handwriting, word processing, etc.), with poor examples of text provided in the staple writing text books. In these programs, imitation and improvisation of quality texts is poorly represented.

At that time, I also wondered whether these aspects of writing instruction were reasons why the same boys who seemed to effortlessly engage and compose music, found writing a much more laboured and difficult task, with similarly low confidence in writing. So, using the 12-bar blues lesson as an instructional model, I selected Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1967) as our literary version of the 12-bar blues, and set about applying a music pedagogy- informed approach for the end result of lifting writing engagement and improvement.

Early on, drama seemed an appropriate way to make music happen in the literacy- writing classroom. The musical or prosodic qualities of speech were heightened through drama and performance, so that the rhythms, pitch, tempo and patterns of language were made more evident. It was a way to highlight word choice, phrasing and repetitions, to notice the effect they had, by being able to play with expression and tone. In this way, usually difficult aspects such as grammar came to life in more meaningful ways.

After echo reading, and dramatic interpretations, students began to recite the text in written form. In doing this, there was an unexpected sense of success, that they had made a start, where they would normally feel stuck. Modelled techniques for innovation on text were shown foregrounding authorial processes and thinking. Students saw how they might replace or omit words and phrases, and we trialled these aloud in group reading. The students were then supported to attempt their own inventions, working in pairs, again encouraged to trial out loud the variations on text that they had invented. The story provided a creative and structural/syntactical template to see ways the master writer achieved his purpose. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, the process seemed to encourage and empower students to feel like authors, able to play and invent new phrases and sentences. At this level, students were building a repertoire of writer's craft.

Students turned quickly from recitation and improvisation to composition, using the text as a scaffold (Hillocks, 1986; Graham & Perin, 2007a). The activity allowed differentiation as some writers drew more heavily on the original text while for others, the text was a playful springboard for more independent writing.

The LIRIC framework

The LIRIC framework is a conceptual framework that can be used to explore the parallels, intersections, tensions and departure points between music and literacy pedagogies, especially their emphasis on using quality model exemplars (Kodaly) and recitation (imitation) and improvisation as core experiences that lead students to composition. Both music and English also emphasise using authentic exemplars.

Quality model texts (relevant, celebrated, authentic) are essential to this model. Our role as teachers is to guide a process whereby students learn to read like writers, as musicians might be taught to listen and play like composers (Latham & Faulkner, 2018).

The language of music pedagogy and of LIRIC will not be new to the literacy teacher as listening and composing are terms that are already in common usage in literacy classrooms. Experimenting or innovating with texts is also a concept used throughout the curriculum.

However, when we specifically consider what improvisation and experimentation look like in practice in the music classroom, the potential for writing instruction becomes more vivid.

Bridging the gap between reading and writing: Imitation and improvisation

'Art begins in imitation and ends in innovation,' Professor Mason Cooley (cited in Anderson, 2011, p. 25).

Our brains seem to be wired for patterns and symbolic thinking (Barnard, 2012; Corbalis, 2014) and so it might be argued that we 'invent' rather than 'create' (Steiner, 2001). The brain's preference for pattern is apparent in all abstract modes of communication including language, music, writing and drawing. The creative process relies on patterns, even in the playful or subversive act of breaking or reinventing patterns. Playing with and breaking expected patterns is at the heart of novelty.

That writing is the art of 'judicious imitation' was a sentiment voiced by Voltaire, (as cited by Macfarlane, 2007) and is echoed by Theodore Roethke. Inspired by similar sentiments expressed by T.S. Eliot, Roethke said, imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps the method of learning to write.... The final triumph is what the language does, not what the poet can do, or display. (Theodore Roethke, as cited by Poetry Foundation, 2018)

Imitation on a text and improvisation on old themes and texts is a core authorial technique whether done consciously or not, (Steiner, 2001), including Shakespeare (Taylor, 2002).

As a teaching method for the middle years of schooling, the idea of imitating or learning from model texts was introduced by Martin and Brogan, 1972 (as discussed by Griffith & Ruan, 2007), and was reviewed with inconclusive results by Hillocks in 1986. However, in more recent times the merits of the approach have been noted by researchers such as Graham and Perin (2007a; 2007b) and through other research traced by Smith (2012). It is also a method that has come to be championed by many teaching and writing specialists (Fletcher, 1998; Anderson, 2011).

Anderson (2011) encourages students to think about what can be done at the word, sentence and paragraph level to, 'choose one thing, and try it, play with it and see whether it works'.

Possible application for the Year 6 classroom exploring information texts

Through an integrated English-HSIE (Human Society and its Environment) study of Asia, a Lonely Planet text on China is used with a Year 6 class to learn about Asia and as inspiration for creating would-be travel writing on an Asian country of their own choice.

Model or exemplar texts like this one from the 'real world' help students learn about the nature of texts through noticing features as they find them. In this way, teachers and students learn together. Unlike the texts provided in primary school text books, which we are told are 'informative', real texts often defy categorisation.

It can be very useful for students to think of texts in an appreciative but cautious way. In a world of fake news, covert political advertising, and a huge dissemination of other new forms of online and multi-form texts, students learn to see each text as it presents itself, not as fixed. As music is more immediate and experiential, students tend to interact with music in less predetermined ways when analysing and responding to it.

The Lonely Planet text also demonstrates that non-fiction writing can be a creative and sophisticated art, and students came to see that metaphor, simile and descriptive writing are not just for fiction and poetry.

Using the text below, the LIRIC framework can be applied.

China is vast. Off-the-scale massive. A riveting jumble of wildly differing dialects and climatic and topographical extremes, it's like several different countries rolled into one. Take your pick from the tossed-salad ethnic mix of the southwest, the yak-butter-illuminated temples of Xiahe, a journey along the dusty Silk Road, spending the night at Everest Base Camp or getting into your glad rags for a night on the Shanghai tiles. You're spoilt for choice: whether you're an urban traveller, hiker, cyclist, explorer, backpacker, irrepressible museum-goer or faddish foodie, China's diversity is second to none. (Lonely Planet, 2018)

Listening and responding: Students listen to the text read by the teacher, or in a pre-recording. Pair response/appreciation: What did you notice? How does it make you feel about China? What is the mood of the text?

Interpretation, recitation and improvisation: The text is re-read, sentence by sentence. In pairs, students retell and explain what each sentence means in their own words.

Interpretation: Class discussion. What type of text is this? Where would you find it? Which words are new to you? Are there clues in the text? How would the sentence sound with a different word/words? Would it change the meaning? Why do you think the author chose that particular word/phrase? How does the word impact on the meaning? How does the word impact on the sound/syntax?

Recitation, interpretation and improvisation: The students take summarising notes from listening to the text. The students try to reconstruct the text using their notes, not aiming to be exact, but aiming to recreate the meaning, and perhaps capture some feature phrases. Then compare to the original text. Which parts/phrases/words of your text are more effective than the original? What makes you say that?

Recitation and interpretation: The students first record themselves reading the text. They use their recordings as voice-overs for mini-documentary films on China to complement the text, rather than represent the text. This requires research and interpretation of the text, further strengthening the understanding of the text.

Interpretation: Students might notice unusual features first, such as the first two very short sentences, and wonder about the author's purpose. They consider the rhythm of such texts and the way the punctuation is a cue for expressive reading becomes apparent also.

Improvisation and composition: Word clines, or vocabulary resources, developed where children build vocabulary by creating synonyms for a word and order these words in terms of their strength) (NSW Department of Education, 2016) such as taking the word 'beautiful' and exploring other ways to describe the countries they have selected for their own compositions. This also encourages discussion and evaluation. Two boys discover the word 'pulchritudinous' meaning 'heart-breakingly beautiful' but decide that the word sounds off-putting and doesn't 'sound' right. As in the music classroom, students make creative choices of the technical elements such as word choice and syntax, deciding when to omit, replace or add words and phrases.

Improvisation and composition: Students re-write the texts on China, turning the text into advertising 'billboard' texts. Through a slightly altered purpose, students play upon and improvise on the original text, but make the wording more persuasive to emulate advertising language. Improvisation and composition: Students build their knowledge of their own country (drawing on experiences of travel, watching travel movies). Students try to emulate the first three sentences of the China text to apply it to their own country. A creative constraint is introduced: create similar but suitable opening sentences, imitating the rhythm of the original text, with two very brief dramatic sentences for effect, followed by a longer descriptive sentence to create contrast. Their variations are appropriate and playful.

Russia is expansive. Off-the-chart gigantic. A large eclectic mix of cultures, religion, food and vistas, it's like several Asian and European cultures rolled into one.

Japan is slight. Serpentine and arching out. A delicate country of beauty and extravagant landscapes both modern and ancient rolled into one.

Students feel confident to borrow words and to experiment with new words through the repertoire of tools built through the imitation and improvisation stages. It should also be noted that independent composition begins early alongside investigation and play with the feature text, so that lessons and patterns can be applied.


As emphasised in the Australian English curriculum, composition of text should emerge through 'experimenting', 'imitating', 'inventing' and 'innovating', expressed in the Experimentation and Adaptation and Language Devices sub-strands (ACARA, 2014). However, these concepts may be difficult for teachers and students to conceptualise as writing is a highly abstract task, so the music classroom can vividly exemplify what is possible. As described in the 12-bar blues music lesson, experimentation can be taught alongside key skills, so that imitation and innovation work hand-in-hand. Music pedagogy offers a coherent instructional framework that can help us understand how we might help students progress from listening and recitation (imitation), to the important acts of the author and creator, through improvisation (experimentation) and composition.

These imitation and improvisation stages may in fact be essential links that could be further strengthened in the middle years, to develop students beyond the mode of appreciative audience to artists and composers.

Furthermore, in the music pedagogy-informed writing classroom, drama, role play, debate and discussion emerge as critical aspects. Oral language has great relevance in the middle years' writing classroom (Dockrell et al., 2007; Disbosoms, 2017) for its positive benefits for boys' writing (Carroll, 2011). In addition, oral language and discussion supports ESL learning as well as students with speech and language needs (Carroll, 2011; Clary & Daintith, 2011; Graham & Perin, 2007b).

Educational cultures can create environments where the necessary 'music' of the literacy classroom is nurtured. Students and young people are still developing as writers and have not internalised the rhythms of the language. Students should be able to hear language played like music, with its expression, tone, pause and other multi-modal elements used to help it achieve its intended mood, purpose and meaning.

The parallels between the music and literacy classrooms might be used to:

1. Encourage experimentation and low-stakes opportunities to develop confidence and skill

2. Develop oral language and promote active ways to experience language for the benefit of boys, ESL learning and students with language needs

3. Promote the use of quality and authentic texts as a teaching and learning scaffold for considering what is possible as composers/authors


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Katherine Halcrow is a PhD student with The University of Sydney and Primary Coordinator at Penrith Anglican College. Katherine is founder/coordinator of the Pens Against Poverty Schools Writing Competition.
LIRIC Framework

Listening      Listening to, viewing, appreciating and/or responding
               to music or text.

Interpreting   Interpreting, analysing or comprehending music or text,
               and the contexts in which they are created.

               Interpreting a text or piece of music may include
               deducing its meaning, but also noticing and analysing
               the technical elements and their relationship to the
               meaning. This process also considers the craft of the

Recitation     Recitation or imitation refers to playing or reading
               back a piece of music or text, or a part thereof.

               It might also look like echoing, imitating or copying.

               Recitation through oral or musical performance will be
               also be likely to involve interpretation (of mood etc).

Improvising    Experimentation and innovation on structures and
               patterns, usually introduced through a model piece of
               music or text.

               The environment is playful.

Composition    Creating a new text, perhaps inspired by or that may
               feature aspects of sentence structure or word choice,
               learned during the listening, recitation and

               Compositions might be borne out of, or in the midst of,

LIRIC Framework: Examples of practice

LIRIC          Examples from                Possible parallel examples
               Kodaly-Orff music            from the literacy
               philosophies                 classroom

Listening      A piece of music is          A model text is featured
                                            --A feature text is read,
               --A feature piece of         played or performed.
               music is played or
               performed.                   --Model texts are quality
                                            authentic examples
               --Quality authentic
               pieces of music              --Text selection is
                                            integrated to other
               --Integrated to other        subjects and learning.
                                            --Reading performance
               --Music learning begins      emphasises mood and
               with appreciation not        meaning through
               intellectual analysis        intonation, pause, rhythm

Interpreting   Students appreciate,         Students appreciate,
               interpret and analyse        interpret and analyse

               --Students respond to        --Students respond to
               mood, rhythm, lyrics         mood, tone, plot, rhythm
               through discussion, drama,   through discussion, role
               movement, drawing            play drama or drawing.

               --Identify context, style,   --Identify the context:
               genre, place, meaning        Style, genre and themes

               --Notice the unusual         --Identify main ideas
               pattern, rhythms or          through: Role play; think,
               phrasing, changes in mood    pair share; class
               or tempo                     discussion; create a
               --Notice structure and
               genre: the repetitions,      --Notice the unusual
               reprise/chorus/verse         elements: The
                                            unpredictable rhythms or
               --Notice the technical       phrasing, changes in mood
               individual elements: the     or tempo etc
               key, the notes, rhythm
                                            --Notice the technical:
                                            Aspects of sentence
                                            structure, word choice,
                                            mood, tone and style

Reciting       The model text is repeated   The model text is repeated
               (or played back)             (or played back)

               --Play the music (whole      --Read the text (whole
               class, in small parts,       class, shared reading,
               individual)                  pair reading)

               --Echo play of musical       --Echo reading of phrases
               phrases                      and sentences.

               --Listen to the music and    --Students use the text as
               notate                       a script for a role-play

                                            --Retell the text or story
                                            in their own words, orally
                                            or through drama and role

                                            --Dictation-style writing
                                            of the text

                                            --Note-taking from the

Improvising    The model piece of music     The model text is used as
               is used as a scaffold for    a scaffold for
               experimentation              experimentation

               --Students play a musical    --Whole class shared
               pattern, adapting parts      reading
               with alternate patterns
               played over existing         --Pair reading
                                            --Students use the text as
               --Students may be given      a script in role-play
               suggestions for patterns
               that work or students may    --Recitation writing of
               try their own patterns       the text used to change,
                                            adapt, omit words and add
               --Students appreciate and    new ones
               evaluate the effects they
               are creating as they go,     --Students use new
               through collaboration and    patterns to add to the
               discussion                   existing patterns through
                                            such practices as sentence
               --Techniques for             combining
               improvisation should be
               explicitly taught            --Through talk and reading
                                            writing, students make
                                            decisions about where to
                                            omit, adapt

                                            --Techniques for
                                            improvisation should be
                                            explicitly taught (such as
                                            sentence combining or word

Composing      Students compose             Students compose

               --Sometimes directly borne   --Sometimes directly borne
               out of improvisation         out of improvisation

               --Students may often move    --Students may often move
               back toward improvisation    back toward improvisation
               to borrow elements of        to borrow elements of
               known musical patterns       known musical patterns
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Author:Halcrow, Katherine
Publication:Literacy Learning: The Middle Years
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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