Accelerate learning through music, rhythm and mime
All children enjoy singing and dancing. So when catchy melodies and rhythms come together in songs that are fun and easy to learn, teachers have a powerful tool.
Provided they possess certain properties, language-learning action songs offer a motivating and highly effective way of presenting new words, structures and language chunks and represent an excellent form of scaffolding for follow-up work.
As songs involve the coordination of intoned language with expressive gestures and TPR techniques, several intelligences come “on-line” at the same time – resulting in what I call a “PMA” (Permanent Memory Acquisition) experience.
Music and language
These two exquisitely human forms of communication in sound, one functional and one aesthetic, share much on a basic neurological level in other words on how the human brain mind processes sounds.
The concept of “meaning in sound” and the connections between music and language have been discussed for centuries by such notable figures as Rousseau, Darwin and Wittgenstein.
More recently, educationalists such as Lozanov, Rinvolucri, and Dakin have underlined the value of music and songs.
They enhance the learning process in terms of unconscious internalization, intelligible pronunciation and deep-rooted memorization.
A neglected dimension
As successful writers of pop songs would never consider writing language-learning action songs, this “meaning-in-sound” dimension in ELT continues to be under-exploited.
Many ELT materials writers and publishers still relegate language songs to the final page of a unit or online module.
Songs are often treated as light relief at the end of a lesson. Also, despite some exceptions, the majority of ELT Publishers are not particularly discerning about the quality of the tunes they include in their YL English courses.
This is a mistake.
Teaching kids English through songs – and specifically songs that involve kinesthetics in the form of expressive movements and dance is the most rewarding methodology you can use.
However, to be effective tools, songs really must be presented and taught in a specific way.
First let’s understand the crucial importance of good tunes for children living in the 21st century.
Blunted Musical sensibility
In this digital world, young people are increasingly subjected to a mindless stream of music of dubious quality (app jingles, game beeps, ringtones, cartoon soundtracks, supermarket muzak, unintelligible pop songs, etc.).
All this noise can have the effect of blunting or diminishing musical sensibility: anything goes provided the streamed mp3 is mixed and mastered professionally.
So to work properly as teaching tool, the song needs to please every member of your class: language-learning action songs need to stand up – and stand out – as highly valid and attractive musical and kinesthetic creations in themselves. Banal or recycled melodies and arrangements may risk alienating some learners and bore teachers.
Sadly, ELT courses, channels and websites are cluttered with ugly, forgettable songs and videos that no one wants to listen to once the lesson is over…
Videos and subtitles
As a musician and teacher trainer working with primary school teachers of English for the Ministry of Education in Italy, I soon realized how few truly valid “presentative” action songs there are for Young Learners teachers.
Of course YouTube, British Council and the major educational publishers provide free language songs you can stream directly into the classroom.
However many of these “musical modules” (the song is often accompanied by a gap-fill or word game), are accompanied by cartoons and subtitled words, two elements which I believe, are unhelpful.
We need to get children away from the screen, up on their feet so that their energy can flow as with joy and commitment they learn the new action song.
These musical vehicles of presentation should always be taught and learnt standing up!
Just sitting your class down before a screen and streaming YouTube language-song videos and then expecting children to learn, is a mistake.
We need to adopt a natural physiological chronology of language learning as espoused by, among others, Professor James Asher (the psycholinguist who devised TPR).
First understanding, then speaking (or rather singing).
Then, and only when your class has learnt the song through expressive movement and actions, should you show them the written text allowing you (if the skills level of your class are up to it) to move on to the two artificial skills of reading and writing.
Action songs are really useful for very young learners at pre-school and 1st and 2nd year primary coming to English before they learn to read and write.
Let us remember that English is highly irregular and illogical in its spelling. Trying to start young learners off with texts and silly phonic alphabet games is guaranteed to give them a headache!
As an example, here are some guidelines to teaching one of my songs, The Monster March, which presents 14 parts of the body.
Know the song yourself!
Make sure you are totally familiar with the song and its teaching actions before taking it into class.
Get them thinking about the theme.
This is a suggestopedia brainstorming technique first used by Dr. Georgi Lozanov.
Tell your kids they are going to learn a new song about fearsome, zombie-like monsters from outer space who march around the countryside making funny gestures at children and animals.
Divide the class up into groups of two or four and ask the groups to see which can come up (each group produces a written list) with the greatest number of words relative to the theme of the song.
Here the target vocabulary family is parts of the body. Brainstorming can be done either in L1 or English, depending on level.
Present the action song.
Stream the mp3 with the voice version of the song. Sing along and perform some of the teaching actions.
Resist the temptation to show your class the teaching actions video on YouTube.
Teach the song line by line, action by action.
You will be amazed by how fast your children learn and memorize the words and gestures.
Resist the temptation to distribute the lyrics sheet at this stage.
Reading the words will only interfere with and slow down the learning process.
When you feel they are ready, invite everyone to stand up, clear the room and practice the song.
Now project or distribute photocopies of the lyrics sheet, put on the mp3 and get everyone to follow the words of the song with their finger.
Activating the language
Next lesson do a worksheet or game associated with the song.
These contain activities to help you reactivate and focus on specific aspects of the language (verbs, prepositions and nouns).
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