Article about LuLu and the TomCat's Sing-A-Books

By Ashleigh Viveiros

(Winkler Times, August 18, 2003)

Do you remember when you were very young? Even before you could read you knew the words to your favourite storybook by heart. You soon began to associate the sounds of the words with the letters on the page. Bit by bit, you were learning to read.

It's called sight vocabulary - associating the sounds of words with how they're written. And by putting a musical twist on that concept, Lori and Tom Neufeld (a.k.a. Lulu and the TomCat, family entertainers) are helping children learn how to read.

"I've always thought that it was a lot easier to learn stuff if I sang it," says Lori, a grade two/three French Immersion teacher in Morden. "Why not learn how to read that way?" Neufeld started to come up with songs that her students could easily learn and combined them with colouring songbooks. By doing various exercises with both the songs and the books, including playing a Wheel of Fortune game to fill in missing sounds or getting the kids to make up their own stories to the pictures, she soon found that her students were both more motivated to read and were learning how to faster.

Soon, Sing-A-Books were born. Children learn the song and then start to associate the words of the song with the words on the page. As they colour the accompanying pictures, they further learn the meanings of those words. "They can learn how to read but sing as they're reading," says Neufeld. "They attach the musical sound to the word." Neufeld notes that music has all the fundamental building blocks of literacy - rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. "It's a natural way to read," she says. "Music is such a natural thing for kids. They're not afraid of it." Once the children realize that they can actually read the words from the song, says Neufeld, they gain the confidence to read other things and start to see how much fun reading can be.

"They start to make up their own melodies when reading (other) books," says Neufeld, noting that music makes the entire process a little bit easier.

Neufeld, who has also taught junior high and high school students, recalls many older students who had just never been bitten by the reading bug, and so did more poorly than their bookworm counterparts. Getting children interested in reading at an earlier age, she says, results in better learning skills later on.

"Once they're hooked on reading and learning, they're way ahead of the other students," she says. "I think if you can get them hooked at (a younger grade), they'll be fantastic students."

Other teachers have begun to notice Neufeld's techniques and use them in their own classrooms. And the concept doesn't just work for children, adults have found the musical learning beneficial as well, as demonstrated when the Winkler adult education program used Sing-A-Books to help immigrants learn to read English.

This coming school year, Neufeld will also be starting a pilot program at Morden's Maple Leaf School to further develop the concept in the classroom.

Currently, the Neufelds have created three Sing-A-Books, all relating to Lulu and the TomCat songs. Kids can pop one of their CDs in the player (the duo have two with a third one due out later this year) and follow along in the companion book, or they can learn the song through the sheet music included with the books.

Creating the books is a "team effort" says Tom, with Lori coming up with the songs themselves, either using classic children's tales for inspiration or by creating her own stories, Tom doing the layout, and former high school students of Lori's, Justin Krahn and Natalie Kalashnikov, doing the illustrations.

More Sing-A-Books are being created to match songs from the albums All the Cats Were Playin' and 3,2,1 Kadoozee. The Neufelds are also creating a number of similar books in French.

Right now, Sing-A-Books are only available through the couple's Web site at www.luluandthetomcat.com. The Neufelds also hope to start selling the books with their respective albums in local stores and at their various concerts across Manitoba.