Young Learners Column - Five ways to use songs in the YL Classroom

by Kylie Malinowska

This issue’s five in a flash is all about songs. And why not? Using songs and chants as a pedagogical tool to teach children language is a natural and logical choice. Singing is a natural and popular medium for both parent and child and by the time children come to us in the second language learning classroom, they are often already equipped with a catalogue of songs, chants, and rhymes. Children live in musical worlds. In fact, according to research, babies as early as in the womb pay more attention to singing than speaking and it’s suggested that from very early ages there is little distinction between singing and speech.

It’s not just a child’s language experience that becomes enriched by song. Of course songs and chants provide a great opportunity to practice language, play around and experiment safely with pronunciation, present language in a different context, create an acquisition rich environment etc., but it’s not just the linguistic value that is beneficial to the child. Use of songs, music, chants, rhythm and chanting in the VYL classroom addresses the whole child. The breath, voice and neck muscles all benefit from the use of song and chants in the classroom. Accompanying actions help with mind body coordination. The list goes on.

Of course this isn’t new news. Our ancestors have been singing lullabies and using song to communicate complicated ideas and hand down genealogies since the dawn of mankind. Plato reportedly said that ‘Music finds its way to the soul’ and felt that singing and music were interconnected with language and held magical powers. Here are 5 simple ways to use song to bring the magic of learning and language to your young learners.

1. Jazz Chants with VYL

You know what’s even better than singing a song? Creating one! Carolyn Grahams 2,3,1 jazz chant is perfect for VYL with limited language because they are simple, repetitive, and can be easily set up using flashcards or pictures on the board.

Choose a topic e.g. food

  1. Elicit some food words from the class (use ones they know and like using or want to use). As many as you can.
  2. Either put up the corresponding flashcards or draw the pictures on the board.
  3. Drill each word clapping the syllables.
  4. Elicit from the learners how many syllables for each word and put the pictures into 3 groups. 1, 2, 3 syllables.
  5. Choose 1 word from each column e.g. pear, apple, banana. And demonstrate the 2,3,1 chant.

2,3,1   (apple, banana, pear)

2,3,1  (apple, banana, pear)

2,3,2,3(apple, banana, apple, banana)

2,3,1 (apple, banana, pear)

I personally prefer to include Jazz Hands at the end to make it complete.

7. Learners then choose their own words and write their own ‘song’

2. Bringing the coursebook to the learner

Let’s be honest, how many times have you not used a song in your class because you didn’t like the one in the book? We can’t expect our learners to want to sing if we aren’t enthusiastic ourselves about a song and it’s pointless doing it to begin with if the cognitive demands of learning the difficult melody and boring lyrics outweigh the learning outcomes. But why waste a perfectly good piece of language right there in the coursebook?

My solution: Students sing the song using their own ‘style’. Anyone who has seen me present my ‘Using Songs in the YL Classroom’ session at a conference will know I love the Boom Chicka Boom song. It’s a catchy song with meaningless lyrics which are sung repeatedly in different styles. I love this song because it helps students experiment with the sounds of English and become more comfortable ‘sounding’ English. SO, getting back to boring songs, I do one of two things, either I get the kids to sing the song in their own chosen style ‘Robot style, Crying style, Rap style, Zombie style’ or to imitate someone who speaks English e.g. singing it like the teacher, like a celebrity or like their Uncle Rob, even their Mum. Anyone they know of who can speak English. If they want to tackle an Irish, South African or Boston accent, great! Want to take the mickey out of my Australian accent? I invite it.

One of the highlights of my teaching career was watching a 9 yr old bring the most boring coursebook song in the world to life by singing it ‘Michael Jackson style’ while the rest of the class joined in with the chorus ‘Zombie style’.

3. Time’s up!

Whilst songs are undoubtedly great for pronunciation and language work, why stop there? I like to use songs as a ‘timer’. Especially with my younger learners.

Colour and drawing dictations are great…. If the students stop at the same time. There is a fab ‘Colours Song’ in OUP’s Cookie and Friends sung to the tune of Ten Green Bottles that I love to use for such occasions. I give the instruction e.g. “Draw three big, red, strawberries. Go!” Sing the colours song. Then say “5,4,3,2,1, STOP! Pens down. Hands on head”. Then repeat. What happens? Slower drawers know when it’s almost time to stop drawing. Faster finishers sing along when they are done drawing. Strong students sing along while they are drawing. I can get on with the next instruction. Everyone wins.

Singing a song works similarly well when playing a game. My pre-schoolers love listening out for a word then running and finding small flashcards picturing the word and at the end of the game counting up the points to see which team has the most pictures. The problem is, as well as needing a timer, we need something for the rest of the team to do. Answer? A song! I try to keep the song relevant e.g. if they are hunting for food pictures I might sing “I am hungry, I am hungry, I want ……. I want …….. yummy yummy yummy, yummy yummy yummy, I like …….. I like ………..” to the tune of Frere Jacques followed by, of course, “5,4,3,2,1 STOP!”.

4. Shy singers

Singing isn’t for everyone, and even for those who enjoy it, it can be nerve wracking to sing a song you don’t know well… in a foreign language…. in front of all your friends….with your teacher watching. For these situations I like to use puppets. English speaking puppets of course. And if I don’t have any puppets on hand, then we can draw one with coloured markers on our finger tips. For some students, it can be just as embarrassing to ‘sound’ English, as it is to make mistakes. Distancing with the aid of a puppet can be really helpful.

5. Teen tunes

I wouldn’t dream of asking my teens to sing unless it was summer camp, but it doesn’t mean I don’t utilise age appropriate songs in class. Teens can tire of the same old word grab and gap fill type activities with songs and creating these aren’t the best use of a teacher’s time when songs are no longer cool mere moments after they are released. Rather than try impress my teens with my cool musical taste I prefer to do something a bit meatier E.g. a discourse analysis of a song of their choice. Better still, different songs for different groups or individuals which are then discussed. Never underestimate how interested they can actually be in language and how it works. As a follow up, this can also be an opportunity to discuss things like prosody, rhyme and the sounds of English.

Author’s Bio: Kylie Malinowska started with IH many moons ago at IH Newcastle, and is now a Teacher, YL ADOS, Pre-School Coordinator & IH CYLT tutor at IH Prague. She also works part-time at the YL Advisor for IHWO, as well as one of their IH CYLT online tutors & IH CYLT (TiT) Mentor. She is currently working towards an MA TESOL (Applied Linguistics) and tries to find time to post on her TEYL blog when she can.