Four Tips for Teaching English Through Music

One effective method of teaching language to your ELs is through music and songs. It is remarkable how quickly children pick up words and sentences and remember them for a long time when music is integrated into a lesson.

Here are four tips for teaching language through music to Pre-K–5 ELs.

Provide comprehensible input through music.  This can be accomplished when teachers preteach the key vocabulary in a song and provide visual support of this vocabulary when the song is sung.  This can be done through realia, drawings, pictures, and photographs. It’s not productive for ELs to learn words to a song if they have no idea what the words mean. Content-area material can also be taught through music as long as comprehensible input is provided. An example of this is a K–2 lesson on my website  entitled Ribbit! Ribbit! A Thematic Unit on Frogs.

Choose songs that have simple lyrics and provide lots of repetition. ELs need to hear the lyrics over and over again. When ELs feel comfortable with the lyrics, their affective filter will be lowered. In fact, music increases ELs’ confidence with oral production and makes them more eager to participate. Constant repetition of songs will also help ELs learn language chunks and increase their fluency and pronunciation in English. One resource that  I have used to teach ELs through music is Singing Machine. My students loved singing the words to songs into the microphone and hearing themselves sing when it was played back.

Include songs that lend themselves to movement. Movement adds a huge dimension to learning through music. Many of the popular children’s songs are on YouTube, and using them to introduce a song to your students is helpful. You want to be sure that the songs are not sung too fast. Try songs such has the Hokey-Pokey and Old MacDonald Had a FarmIf You’re Happy and You Know It, and Wheels on the Bus.  These are all excellent examples of the use of movement with music.

Teach songs in the languages of your students. The music you teach does not have to be in English.  Music connects children across cultures. Karen Nemeth, a national expert on early childhood dual language learners has this to say:

Early literacy experts focus heavily on the value of music for supporting language and literacy for ALL young children. I object, however, to mixing two languages in the same song. We know from research about young children’s language processing that their brains will focus on the familiar language and tune out the new language when they are presented simultaneously. I support singing in one language or the other so that children can focus on whole phrases and sentences and get used to pronouncing strings of words.

Have your ELs or their parents demonstrate a song from their home language to your students. This will help students appreciate the culture of the other children in their class. It also adds a sense of community to the classroom. Be prepared to search for songs that are not sung too fast. Many songs in English for young children have been translated to other languages. Here is the Wheels on the Bus in Five Languages.  Colorín Colorado has an excellent list of children’s songs in Spanish.

Do you have favorite songs in the first languages of your students that you use in your classroom? Please share them with us.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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3 Responses to Four Tips for Teaching English Through Music

  1. Josh says:

    Hi Judie,

    Thank you for your simple and easy to follow tips about teaching children with music. Personally I think that music is not only a great way to learn new vocabulary and sentence structures, but also a great way to build up a learner’s confidence and inject an element of fun into a class.

    Young learners (and older ones) often enjoy getting involved in an activity – and music affords us a tool to achieve this.

    For older learners I find that analyzing songs (and singing them if they want) that are level and age appropriate often results in heightened levels of student engagement. This is probably due to the novelty of doing something that is not perceived as requiring ‘hard study’ and the very nature of the input (songs, especially ones chosen by the students themselves), which is often considered more interesting than textbooks.

    If you have the time please check out my lecture on listen (and this includes music and song) for second language development and you will notice that I also mention the use of songs for EFL/ESL learning. (http://www.joshesl.com/the-importance-of-listening-for-second-language-learning.html)

    Have a great day,
    Josh

  2. Jamie O says:

    Wow loved this! I personally am not a huge fan of the traditional methods of teaching students in a classroom with textbooks, I mean we do learn through more than one sense… 🙂

  3. Jennifer Wiebe says:

    Hello! What a great idea! I am licensed in both TESOL and music, and before I taught TESOL I taught elementary music. The repetition and rhyme of many classic children’s songs is a WONDERFUL way to teach elementary age ELLs. When I taught music, one of the resources I used was from the National Education Network and Shirley Handy. CJ was the name of the singer. Even though the music wasn’t geared specifically toward ELLs, all my students were able to sing along and move around to the music. I also used music from Denise Gagne; she would sometimes incorporate songs or parts of songs in other languages.

    Thanks so much for this post!