Using Music to Support Pre-K Language Development with Emily Cadiz
July 12, 2022
Using Music to Support Pre-K Language Development with Emily Cadiz

Language development isn’t worksheets and passive listening, especially when it comes to language delays and struggling students. After a traumatic brain injury, guest Emily Cadiz learned first-hand how difficult it is to get back language skills, much less learn them in the first place.

Our pre-kindergarten children spend up to 4.5 hours a day in front of a screen, impairing their ability to use their language skills. The result is kindergarteners and primary school students who are far behind where they should be academically.

So Emily took what she learned trying to get her own language skills back and turned it into a fun, interactive curriculum that both teachers and parents can use. And to make it engaging, she used one of the most universal tools around: music.

Tune in this week to find out what happens in pre-k brains, how a former music professional developed curriculum for our most underserved (and overlooked) kiddos and teachers, and what dragons have to do with it.

About Emily Cadiz:

Emily Cadiz is founder and CEO of Finnegan the Dragon, which creates tone-based curriculum and gaming systems that support early childhood language and literacy development. Her first book, Finnegan the Singing Dragon, introduces audiences to the main character in this adventure-based learning system. Emily, and her team, use inclusive music and tone/singing as the interactive tool for classroom and online learning so that children develop the needed language skills for greater communication, literacy, and social and emotional growth. She created Finnegan the Dragon, leveraging her experiences as a professional musician and working with special needs children to develop a learning system that directly addresses passive screen time and the effects it has on language and overall brain development between the ages of 2-6. A graduate of Columbia University in the City of New York, Emily holds graduate degrees in Education, Special Education, and Inclusive Music. After 15 years of direct classroom experience, Emily shifted to the world of virtual education which makes her well-suited to understand virtual learning needs.

Jump in the Conversation:

[1:40] – Who is Finnegan the Dragon
[2:30] – Declining language and cognitive rates
[3:08] – Kinder readiness is tricky
[3:45] – Kids are spending too much time with screens
[5:20] – In-person curriculum that supports real time language development
[6:40] – Emily’s journey
[8:34] – Where Finnegan the Dragon came from
[10:15] – What happens in pre-k brains
[12:56] – Rewriting traditional songs so they work for language development
[16:09] – Get free access
[18:49] – Turbo Time
[20:56] – You never know the value of something until you lose it
[24:04] – What parents and educators need to do to support literacy
[25:40] – Emily’s Magic Wand
[27:26] – Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at Education Evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of at active, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:08
Hi EMILY, it is so good to have you as a guest on Education Evolution.

Emily Cadiz 1:13
Thank you so much for having me, Maureen.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:16
And today I’m chatting with Emily Cadiz, who is the founder of finian, the dragon and she is on a mission to reverse the declining rates of language development and early literacy skills. And she has a technique that you’re going to want to know about. Yeah, let’s hear how you make this happen. Emily?

Emily Cadiz 1:40
Thank you. Um, so yes, it Finnegan the dragon, we have a tonal based learning system for the pre K population that supports really language development and the way it naturally develops in the mouth and the body. And then also early literacy skills connecting those early foundation pieces to the to the letters so letter to sound recognition and using tone as the vehicle I say tone because I try to avoid music. If I say music, people think music education, they think Doremi Faso and that’s not really what we do. We focus on tone as the vehicle because we know that it really is just a good workout for the brain this age. And with declining language rates and declining cognitive rates, we’re going to use everything we have in our arsenal right now to help our pre K population maintain growth. So that’s that’s where we come from. We come from that space.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 2:46
That was so important. I taught kindergarten for a year. And the kids that came in behind I just thought, oh my gosh, are they ever going to be caught up and feel like they’re successful? So you’re giving them that chance to to be kindergarten ready? That’s super important.

Emily Cadiz 3:05
Yeah, we forget that kindergarten readiness. It’s It’s tricky, right? You know, previously, it’s always been through either parents that stay home or childcare providers that have a lot of hands on interaction with children. But in the last, I would say two to three decades, the nature of that care has changed because screens have become such a huge part of our lives. screens go everywhere with children. They’re not just in the living room or family room, they are in the cars, they are in their beds, they are in their strollers, they are everywhere. And right now, the average child under the age of six spends about four and a half hours in front of a screen a day, which over there II ever the year of a lie, you know, just a year of their life. It’s about four and a half months of awake time. And what I know and what we’re seeing with that are some huge developmental delays across the board. Now with children language delays have hit kind of a crisis level in the United States where we only had about 50% of five year olds, meeting the language benchmarks in 2021. It was large enough that the CDC had to lower the language benchmarks for the first time in 30 years and 2022. We have almost 35% of our kindergarteners projected to need strategic and intensive literacy interventions coming in to the 2022 school year. So what we have is kind of a pandemic on top of a pandemic. And much of it really can be tied back to what we call passive screentime and passive screentime is simply that Leanback moment where a child is staring at the screen or maybe A slight lean forward where they’re touching the screen with their finger. But what we know they’re not doing is interacting with their environment and growing their functional language skills. What we do at Finnegan the dragon is we create a an in person curriculum that is based on inclusive music that supports language development in real time. So in your car, in a classroom and home, using music to really hit all the academic markers. But we specifically address this screen, we specifically address the passive screen time by creating 3d animation games that require children to sing at the screen, they have to interact with their mouth, and they have to control that avatar with with verbal interaction, which we know at some level is really a non passive way of interacting with the screen.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 5:57
That is wonderful, we’re not going to become a screenless society and screens are a babysitter. And sometimes parents are super busy and pulled a lot of directions. So for you to meet people where they are have inclusive things that can be done in the car or 3d ways that screens can become not that passive. Four and a half hours of looking at something every day. That’s amazing. I want to step back. And why you you I know you were a music professional before education. Why you why this? Usually there’s a Genesis story of why you would start your own business, which is crazy hard.

Emily Cadiz 6:38
Yeah, this one wasn’t a great story. But I did. I had an a really massive head injury about seven years ago, and the line of work. And it impacted my language skills to the point it took about three and a half, four years to really get them back. And I used music tone, specifically not even music, but tone to really make significant gains. So everything I’ve put into this company, everything that I’ve put into the music or the curriculum, I’ve had to test it on myself, during a pandemic, you really don’t have this beautiful efficacy study, you have to just say, Okay, well did this work on yourself. And that’s what I had to do. So everything that was done in that process was done through a local University, Portland State University. And they, while they were very transparent with me and said, well, we can’t really help you study this, you know, you’re kind of on your own. I said, No problem. I’m fascinated with it. So I’m going. So I did and I got a completed a master’s degree in it, because it was just, it was just such a fascinating field for me to see how tone really helps develop or recover language in a way that no other therapies can touch.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 8:00
Oh, boy, how awful.

Emily Cadiz 8:03
It was, it was really and it just happened to be that we, we were put in because it was supposed to be in person, we there was what there was nothing about this was supposed to be on a screen. So it just happened to be that we were thrown into a global pandemic and the screen became the vehicle which it was a perfect fit based on the effects that screens are having on language.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 8:27
Yes, absolutely. Tell us why. Finnegan. Why a dragon. What’s the story?

Emily Cadiz 8:35
Well, during the pandemic, everything was so society was kind of having its moment online and, and in person and all these things. And to avoid any conflict of like, is this a gender oriented type of animal I wanted to pick a fictitious animal that could speak to all of the genders and then I couldn’t just stick with one of course, I had to make a cast of eight and they do have gender associations and colors. But I really wanted to make sure that that it didn’t get stuck in the cats are for girls and dogs or for boys category, I wanted to try to keep up gender neutral to the best that we could. However, language, language delays or language disabilities often are more prevalent with males and young males in general. So we did color the dragon blue and has kind of a boy’s name, but it could be a girl’s name, too. But we wanted to make sure that we did give it tip of the hat to the fact that there are so many more boys with language delays than there are girls. And we don’t know really why. You know, I don’t know why I’m sure there is information out there one way but to you know, just to address that and say okay, well, we’re trying to draw in all of the learners but we know that it may if we widen the path of access a little bit. We we want to make sure that boys feel really comfortable interacting with this game.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 10:07
Nice. Yeah. Can you explain a little bit about the tone and being auditory the neuroscience? Really simple terms. So what’s going on in the brains of our four year olds when they’re interacting with Finnegan?

Emily Cadiz 10:23
Well, when you sing in general, you are creating this bio neurofeedback, right, it’s, you’re creating tone that has to be interpreted by your brain impulses. When you have tones that are simple melodic lines that are really regular with really simple harmonic structures underneath your brain is receiving regular pulses. Kind of like a heartbeat. When you have dissonant sounds, or even spoken sounds that are hard to follow. The brain isn’t creating those regular pulses, it’s oftentimes a disjointed or chaotic pulse. And that allows the brain when you have those harmonic, or those I should say regular or traditional harmonic features, as well as easy melodic lines, the brain is able to map sounds and functional communication in a really kind of a systematic way. And it’s able to compress it into into parts of our brain where we can pull language out with automaticity. So music has a way of doing that, because of the way it’s written in Western culture with four, four time or three, four time, it’s these anticipatory places where you can put a word and typically those words rhyme. And it’s, it’s also just set up so that a child can repeat it again and again and again. And again, we often I mean, how did you learn the ABCs? You know, we sang them, because seeing them again, and again, and again, or when you sing to your child at night, you typically sing kind of the same song because it sets a routine. Or if you have a morning song or anything like that with your baby that’s already set up to create these structures to our life, because we repeat melodic lines, good music always repeats itself anyways, but we tend to grasp onto those melodic lines and repeat them, which gives the brain an opportunity to pull that language out and use expressive language more regularly, in a real formulated way until they’re able to make their own natural utterances and all of that good stuff. But yeah, that’s why it worked for the speech back I pulled them in for all the the really like, you know, intricate stuff. Okay, your turn.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 12:52
How did you select the songs that create this learning curriculum?

Emily Cadiz 12:57
Well, we didn’t want to create all new songs, there are a lot of traditional nursery rhymes that we had to rewrite a little bit depending on the words depending on the relative nature of the words. So for instance, row, row, row your boat, ours don’t come until much later in a child’s development of speech. So FYI, to everyone out there worried about their child’s Rs, please leave them alone, let them develop into them, do not touch them, you can make a bigger problem than you really already have. So but the word merrily seemed really kind of strange when we looked at the song. And it doesn’t make any functional communication sense when you’re you don’t use that in your day to day language. So we took it out. And we said really fast and rolling slow, so we use traditional nursery rhymes. But we rewrite the words often so that we have either a concrete motion or we have some concrete terms that the child can repeat. If we’re writing our own songs for the curriculum, we’re focusing on those language developmental patterns. So peas, B’s, B’s, and M’s all those bilabial sounds, we really hammer on those to start with, because it helps kids with that entry point to language. So if they are struggling a little bit with more complicated sounds, at least they can hit maybe something or some part of the word. And then we get into more complicated versions of things as the curriculum adjusts to the age of the child. But with the with the screen time, that teacher can then go in whatever the curriculum is doing for that month, they can highlight the words that they are really touching on so those songs then are brought up in the game. So there’s a chance for them to practice it in the classroom or maybe with their parents, but they’re also practicing those same sounds online.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 14:47
Got it? And would this be if, if in my pre K class if I wanted to use this, how would that be what I have African on a screen or would it be like the singing in the car we could do something This is a class.

Emily Cadiz 15:01
Oh no, you the curriculum is traditional in person curriculum. So you’re going to be teaching the songs like you would any other curriculum, you know you’re going to be, it’s, except it’s no pencil, pencil to paper, it’s just they’re laid out, here’s the song we give you the mp3 is, you have to introduce it because they they don’t, you know, they actually can’t read yet. So you have to sing it. But it is a lot of like calling response, you sing it, they sing it, you sing it, they sing it, you introduce it, the curriculum takes it through the week, where you add in maybe a few other songs, we pull in poetry, we pull in multi sensory classroom activities that strengthen the letter, whatever the sound is that you’re going for the concept. So it gives you a lot of ideas that you can pull in at through the day. And then you can couple that modularly with your own curriculum that you’re using. So if you are using a very specific pre K literacy program, you can pull the things out that are going to support your own curriculum.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 16:03
Wow, when is this going to be available for parents and educators,

Emily Cadiz 16:09
we are launching this fall, we are launching our beta this fall, we’re using this fall to get all of the really good feedback that we need to make the corrections so that by the time 2023 rolls around, it’s a viable insertable classroom curriculum. But this, this is the year of testing by the winter, the full game will be out the curriculum will be available, but we’re kind of just giving it away for free for a long time. Oh, because we know first of all, it’s really needed. And second of all, we need the information from the from the users, the classroom users, specifically Headstart teachers, who are already grappling with limited resources, and they really need something that’s going to be keeping their turnover rate down by providing them as much as they can possibly use, you know, it’s Headstart, Headstart has its hands full keeping keeping their teachers in tact. And that’s, that’s one of the biggest challenges is they? They really are the most important teacher that we have in in all of public society, but they’re treated like daycare providers. And that’s, that’s not okay.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 17:24
That is so crazy. Other cultures acknowledge and pay more for the these teachers of four or five, six year olds, because it is so foundational. And yeah, saying Babysitting is like crazy,

Emily Cadiz 17:37
we cannot continue, first of all to call these people, child care providers, they are the most important branch of our education system. And we have an obligation to our k one, two, and three teachers to help these Headstart teachers out and give them all the resources we can give them so that because like you’re right, what are you gonna do with the kid that’s constantly behind in reading, and we know that that third grade benchmark for reading is so important. But those functional communication skills by the time they get to six, a lot of that stuff is hardwired in we have to be doing those those interventions much much earlier. We have to be giving those teachers due credit. We have to be referring to them as teachers and not care providers. You know, even though you look at a three year old and they are pretty darn tiny. You get up I think they’re not possibly, you know, in school yet, but oh, gosh, they are.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:42
Mm hmm. This is exciting. I’m gonna pivot and just ask a few personal questions from time to time just so our audience to know you a little bit.

Emily Cadiz 18:52
That’s okay. That’s great.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:54
Yay. What’s the last book you read?

Emily Cadiz 18:58
Ah, well, I actually went through this last night, but it was I had the book kind of read to me by by a little one. And she read Where the Wild Things Are.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:12
Where he said back Yeah. Love it. Yes. Yeah,

Emily Cadiz 19:19
it was pretty awesome. And, and, and her sister read a small prayer book. And it was really adorable. It was the cutest thing ever. So

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:30
how about two inspirational folks you’d like to meet

Emily Cadiz 19:36
two inspirational folks. Gosh, oh, man. Is this where we say pause and the editor comes in.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:45

Emily Cadiz 19:47
I’m gonna get somebody hold on here.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:49
This is can be historical. It can be Harry Potter. It doesn’t even have to be.

Emily Cadiz 19:56
You know. I’d love to sit down with him. Hello melee, I’d like to sit down with the voice of Elmo, I would like to see how they crafted the most adorable character what their thought process process seeds were doing this. You know, oftentimes we don’t give credit to the voice or behind the animations. But now that or the puppet in this case, now that I’m working in animations it’s pretty mind blowing how heavy you lean on those people to bring things to life. And, you know, the trade that you know, the the trade answer Jesus, I would sit down with Jesus. Absolutely, correctly. So Elmo and Jesus, it’ll be good conversation and probably lots of laughing,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:52
which is a good thing, right? Yes. What is one passion you bring to early childhood literacy,

Emily Cadiz 21:02
language development, you know, you never really know the value of something until you lose it. And I’m passionate about language development. I’m also passionate about the disabled population. Again, never in my wildest dreams, would I have imagined that I would serve a population for years and then join that population. And the shift in perspective that you have when you get to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is most it’s just mind blowing. Right? You can’t describe it most of the time, because oftentimes, the intent that I had as a teacher for years was that I was doing something to make their life better or make it easier, or why wouldn’t say appreciate this awesome thing that we had created. And then you realize, just this, this fundamental salt in the wound moment when you’re going through your own therapies, and you just, there was a moment where I saw this little kindergartener coming into school, and he had more therapists and friends. And I thought, there is something very wrong with this whole situation, where we have got to do a better job of creating products, where the therapies are embedded underneath that are great for every student, but that widen the paths of access for students with disabilities because it is this double edged sword of yes, you need these therapies. But no, you don’t want your your access to life always being a medical intervention. And that was that that became a big, big passion of mine. It’s just inclusivity, which is what my master’s is didn’t really it’s inclusive music, we take all the therapies, speech, occupational, physical, when necessary. Music therapy, and we take our stuff, and we put it through the middle and we embed as much as we can underneath.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:09
Nice, yes. What is your favorite thing or a fun fact about children’s books?

Emily Cadiz 23:17
They are hard to write and they are hard to publish. That’s the fact back. Again, it’s just this eye opening experience. But um, I think the fun fact is that in high school, you or college, you just dread that feedback on your writing. You dread it right? You want to be told how great you are. And then when you start writing your own stuff, you go out and pay someone to tell you how bad you are. Yeah, and the you know, and the more direct, the more specific they are about how bad you are, the more you want to work with them. So

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:58
yeah, yeah. Oh my gosh, definitely. So what are two things if parents and early childhood educators, two things that you wish they would start doing today that are very doable in terms of supporting early childhood literacy,

Emily Cadiz 24:17
co watching with their children, you know, children, if you are going to put them in front of fast pace or fast, we call them fast cut animations that lean your child back? Even if they have words at the bottom of the screen, it doesn’t really matter what’s going on? CO watching and asking questions. That’s the one thing I would that’s the first thing I would do is how do you use the screen a little bit differently? And and number two would be just this idea that we don’t correct language at this age. We make it an add on story. So asking additional questions. Well, what did you mean by that? Or you know, instead of saying No, we don’t say that or say it this way. They just need to practice their language. They don’t need to correct it features as much. And having that add on conversation also allows for some really good social and emotional growth. Because if we’re only having a dialogue of corrective feedback, which kind of has gravitated into our adult world these days? No one’s really listening. Yeah, you’re just correcting and that’s, it gets us nowhere fast.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 25:34
Yes. Yeah. Final question. If I had a magic wand and handed it to you and said, Okay, Emily, what, what would you wish for? In terms of early childhood literacy?

Emily Cadiz 25:49
I would wish that people would stop doing worksheets. Please stop doing worksheets. No, if I had a wind, it would be that we would have so much more money to spend on language development and literacy at this age, and that we could work with a broad variety of specialists across cylindrical research outside of education to really bring in the best of the best. So that we, we can stop putting the onus of just both teaching and developing on educators, we need to we need to broaden who’s coming to the table to create these awesome resources. That includes musicians and scientists, engineers, artists, all of the above to really come collaboratively into a room and create things that that are spectacular.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:50
Oh, absolutely. I love that. Emily, this is so great that you’re creating Finnegan the dragon and sharing it with teachers and parents and I want to have you back on once you’ve done the beta and when you have some outcome so that we make sure we let the world know that it’s out and about. Thank you for being our guest.

Emily Cadiz 27:13
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate this opportunity.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 27:26
It is so moving when somebody takes misfortune in their own life, and turns it into a blessing for others. I know the founders of Ben’s bells in Tucson, took the death of their child and created a whole kindness, movement and curriculum from it. Emily took her traumatic brain injury and relearning language, with her background in music, and went back to school to learn about how this all works together. And how she can help preschoolers develop the literacy skills they need to be ready for wonderful success in kindergarten. Impressive. Emily didn’t mention it. But they are now releasing their summer music and ebook. The link is in our show notes. These are free resources. She just asks that you provide feedback so she can make them even better. I know I’m going to share these resources with my best buddy who has granddaughters the right age for this material. Think about who might benefit and help them access this wonderful resource of Emily’s. We talked a lot about breaking silos down and working together. That’s a theme all across education, evolution learning happening everywhere with community, everybody involved. I appreciate that Emily also sees that as necessary, the sharing of resources and knowledge and coming together so that we can help preschool children develop their literacy skills. We also are going to need funding to help turn around this decline in early literacy skills. In terms of things we all can be doing. I appreciate that she had an easy suggestion, co watch and talk about what’s going on in the screen. Kids are going to watch and be on the screens. But what if we can be a part of that conversation? help them unpack, also help them understand and maybe add in our own family values. Great idea. Or other suggestion was to make sure that we’re not correcting kids when they misuse a word or a context. I’d like her idea of making it an add on where we ask more questions. I know I I’ve had to do this with kindergarten students with my nieces and nephews when they were young. A lot of times when they would color, they would present me with a masterpiece. And I would ask them to tell me about their picture. And that gave me a chance to understand the meaning they were embedding in their wonderful drawings. I always enjoy when we have a guest who could talk about early childhood learning or university learning. We know that we are all lifelong learners. And it was great to have Emily as a guest today, unpacking the importance of early childhood literacy. And, as always, thank you for being a part of the education evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 30:53
If you are finding yourself thinking, I need to do this in my school. Let’s talk about it. I consult and also have a book TEDx talk an online course to support starting learner driven schools and programs. My goal is to help schools and individuals find new innovative solutions to reaching every student. Let’s create an action plan together, visit to book a call and let’s get started. Education evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen, heard, valued and thriving. We need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. I’d be so grateful if you’d head over to your podcast app to give a great rating and review if you found this episode valuable. Don’t wait. Please do it right now. Before you forget. I really appreciate it. Thank you listeners. Signing off. This is Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.

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