More than 30 years ago I had the extreme good fortune of being at a literacy teachers’ conference at which Bill Martin Jr. (author of “Brown Bear, Brown Bear”) was speaking. What a memorable occasion it was.
At the moment I can recall no other speakers, but I have never forgotten the captivatingly melodic and sonorous voice of Bill and the power of his message.
Bill inspired his audience as he spoke about coming to reading later than most, at about the age of twenty, by teaching himself to read through his love of poetry. He attributed this love to being read to daily as a child. His delight in and playfulness with language was obvious as his voice danced through his stories, poems and songs to the accompaniment of his rich lilting laughter.
He demonstrated, through audience participation, the joy of learning through song and the importance of the sounds and rhythms of language. Having fun and playing with language provides much joy for adults and children alike.
In the days of overhead projectors, long before the now familiar electronic slideshows, Bill displayed a simple song “I love the mountains” on the screen. In an instant he had the audience rollicking in their seats, singing along with the words on the screen, and following the rhythmic lead of his voice without any other accompaniment. The energy created by this spontaneous engagement of the audience was electrifying. How could anyone not wish to participate? I quickly noted the words and tried desperately to commit the tune to memory. (I have since found out that this is a traditional camping song but, since I am not a camper, it was unfamiliar to me at the time though it may have been known by other members of the audience.)
Every year since then, I have shared that song with my children.
At the beginning of year one, in their 2nd or 3rd week of school, long before many of them could read or write very much at all, I would write the words on a chart and have them singing along, sharing through me, Bill Martin’s joy of song and language.
Then, as soon as they were masters of the tune, we would engage in another of Bill’s suggested activities, “transforming sentences”. As Bill recommended, they were “taking an author’s structure and hanging their own thoughts on it.” (Sounds of Language, 1972)
We changed Bill’s choice of “loves” for our own, and wrote our own collective song, which we sang repeatedly and with great gusto. Although the original did include a rhyme, we didn’t concern ourselves with that at this stage. We just concentrated on sharing our loves in a song such as this one:
While they were having fun with language, the children were also learning a subtle and unstated lesson about how powerful a tool for communication self-expression through language, both oral and written, could be.
The children’s suggestions for things they loved were many more than the lines of one collective song would allow, so there was nothing else to do but write one of their own. Which they did. They had already seen how easy it was. They knew the rhythm. They had the basic sentence structure. All they had to do was substitute their own thoughts and make the song their own.
How wonderful it was to hear the children singing their own lyrics as they wrote them, ensuring that the words telling of their loves fitted the rhythm of the song. The children delighted in sharing their songs with each other and with anyone else who would listen. At the end of the day they took them home to share with their parents as a special gift of themselves for Valentine’s Day.
While my children did not have the benefit of Bill’s magical voice, or even a tuneful model from me, they delighted in his song. You can share a version (without Bill’s voice, or mine) by clicking here.
Why not create your own songs, and support your children to create theirs, using this song model. You’ve seen how easy and joyful it can be. A song to sing about things you love is a little “happiness pill” that can be taken daily with no known side effects.
I invite you to share your own versions here for us all to enjoy.
Bill Martin Jr. wrote in Sounds of Language (1972):
“As children gain skill in using their ears to guide their eyes in reading, they have a qualitatively different reading experience. Consider the young child who has frequently heard his teacher read “Ten Little Indians.” Once a child has these sounds clearly and solidly in his ear, he has little difficulty reading this old rhyme in its printed form. Once his ears begin telling him what his eyes are seeing, he approaches the reading with confidence and expectation. And when he comes to his teacher and exultingly declares,
I know that word, Miss Barber! That word is “little!”
she has evidence that he is relating sight and sound in reading.”
What a joy and honour it is, as an early childhood teacher (including parent) to share a child’s journey into independent and joyful reading and writing.
It was a sad day when Bill Martin Jr. passed away on August 11, 2004, but his legacy lives on in the hearts of many readers, both young and old, whose lives have been touched by his love of language, and who may have indeed stepped across the threshold into reading through one of his many wonderful books.
Click on the title to listen to Bill singing another fabulous song “I am Freedom’s Child” and his message for democracy: what another great song to start each day!
I will have more about Bill Martin Jr. and his legacy in future posts.
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