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«Using Songs Effectively to Teach English to Young Learners 1 Neil T. Millington Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan Abstract Songs play an ...»

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Teaching Practice

Using Songs Effectively

to Teach English to Young Learners 1

Neil T. Millington

Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan


Songs play an important role in the development of young children learning a

second language. A testament to this is the frequency with which songs are

used in English Language Teaching classrooms all over the world. This paper

begins by looking at why songs can be considered valuable pedagogical tools.

In particular, it will discuss how songs can help learners improve their listening skills and pronunciation, and how they can be useful in the teaching of vocabulary and sentence structures. The author will also discuss how songs can reflect culture and increase students’ overall enjoyment of learning a second language. The author will then attempt to show, through practical examples, how songs can be used as language tasks. Finally, the paper aims to explore how classic songs for children can be adapted to suit a particular theme or part of the curriculum a teacher might wish to teach.

Most children enjoy singing songs, and they can often be a welcome change from the routine of learning a foreign language. For the teacher, using songs in the classroom can also be a nice break from following a set curriculum. Songs can be taught to any number of students and even those teachers with the most limited resources can use them effectively. Songs can play an important role in the development of language in young children learning a second language. Yet songs may be used relatively ineffectively and the potential for language learning is not maximized.

This paper starts by analyzing why songs should be considered as useful pedagogical tools.

The author then proposes using songs as language learning tasks to maximize the benefits of using songs and attempts to show how this might be done using practical examples. Finally, the paper explores how classic children’s songs could be modified to help teachers use them more frequentlyto teach a wider variety of topics.

Songs as Pedagogical Tools One advantage of using songs in the young learner classroom is their flexibility. Songs can be used for a number of purposes and there are many reasons why songs can be considered a valuable pedagogical tool. Songs can help young learners improve their listening skills and pronunciation, therefore potentially helping them to improve their speaking skills (Murphey, 1992). Songs can also be useful tools in the learning of vocabulary, sentence structures, and sentence patterns, not to mention their reflectivity of mother tongue culture (Murphey, 1992).

Perhaps the greatest benefit to using songs in the classroom is that they can be fun. Pleasure for its own sake is an important part of learning a language, something which is often Language Education in Asia, 2011, 2(1), 134-141. http://dx.doi.org/10.5746/LEiA/11/V2/I1/A11/Millington

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overlooked by teachers, and songs can add interest to the classroom routine and potentially improve student motivation.

Listening. Purcell (1992) states that students can become bored by repeatedly listening to a narration or dialog as they attempt to understand the meaning of new words or phrases in context. In contrast, listening to a song over and over again can seem less monotonous because of the rhythm and melody. Some songs, such as Hello, contain common expressions and can be used as good listening activities. For example, the teacher could sing the first three lines of the song below, and students could respond with the following three lines.

Hello, Hello, Hello, how are you?

I’m fine, I’m fine, I hope that you are, too.

Songs can also help to improve listening skills because they provide students with practice listening to different forms of intonation and rhythm. English has a stress-timed rhythm, for which songs can help to establish a feeling. Murphey believes that music has the power to engrave itself into our brains, stating that “songs work on our short- and long-term memory” and are therefore adequate tools for using in the language classroom (1992, p. 3).

Speaking. Children are often keen to learn how to make new sounds and this can take a great deal of practice. Some teachers use minimal-pair drills, yet these types of activities are rarely interesting for young learners. Songs, on the other hand, can allow young learners to practice a new sound without producing the same level of boredom. Songs also have a natural rhythm with a recurring beat that is similar to the stress patterns of spoken English. These patterns make some songs useful for practicing rhythm and stress. The song Girls and Boys Come Out and Play could be used effectively to teach English rhythm and stress, for example (Richards, 1969, p. 162).

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Moriya (1988) emphasizes the value of using songs for pronunciation practice with Asian learners of English due to the phonemic differences between Asian languages and English. For example, there are several problematic areas for Japanese students learning English. Ohata (2004) shows the differences in vowels, consonants and syllable types that cause difficulties for Japanese learners of English. Practicing the different sounds by singing songs can be more interesting and enjoyable than other activities such as minimal-pair drills.

Vocabulary. Songs can provide the opportunity for vocabulary practice. They are usually based around a theme or topic that can provide the context for vocabulary learning. The song

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Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, for example, could be used to review body parts, or the song I Can Sing a Rainbow might be useful for reviewing color names. Most children’s songs are characterized by monosyllabic words, many of which are frequently repeated. This repetition offers greater exposure to these words and can help to improve vocabulary acquisition.

Some of the vocabulary and language used in traditional and popular English songs, however, can cause difficulties for language learners due to their use of low frequency and archaic words. The song and the lyrics need to be selected carefully to complement the target vocabulary. A difficulty for teachers is finding and selecting songs that are suitable both in terms of vocabulary and topic or theme.

Sentence structures and sentence patterns. Many children's songs have a simple sentence structure or sentence pattern that can become set in the mind of the learner. Songs could be used to reinforce questions taught in the classroom. The songs Where is Thumbkin?, Hello, What's Your Name?, and Who is Wearing Red? might be useful for practicing WH-question forms, for example. Websites such as The Teacher’s Guide (http://www.theteachersguide.

com/) or NIEHS Kids’ Pages (http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/) provide hundreds of children’s songs with lyrics for teachers to use.

The length of a phrase in a typical children’s song is short and often uses simple conversational language. Murphey (1992) states that the pauses after each phrase are typically longer in comparison to the phrase itself, which can allow learners to process the language and shadow in real time. Again though, the teacher needs to take care when selecting a song because some songs have irregular sentence structures that are not typically used in English conversation.

Culture. According to Jolly (1975), using songs can also give learners the opportunity to acquire a better understanding of the culture of the target language. Songs reflect culture; Shen states, “language and music are interwoven in songs to communicate cultural reality in a very unique way” (2009, p. 88). Although this is probably more applicable to songs for older learners, young learners can be given the opportunity to learn about seasonal or historical events in the target language through songs.

Enjoyment. Probably the most obvious advantage to using songs in the young learner classroom is that they are enjoyable. Most children enjoy singing and usually respond well to using songs in the classroom, but there are more significant benefits to using songs other than just being fun. First, songs can bring variety to the everyday classroom routine. This variety stimulates interest and attention, which can help maintain classroom motivation, thereby helping learners to reach higher levels of achievement. Secondly, songs, in particular choral singing, can help to create a relaxed and informal atmosphere that makes the classroom a nonthreatening environment. By reducing anxiety, songs can help increase student interest and motivate them to learn the target language. Students often think of songs as entertainment rather than study and therefore find learning English through songs fun and enjoyable.

Limitations. Although there are many reasons why songs can be considered a valuable teaching tool, there are some issues to consider. As mentioned above, the teacher needs to take care in selecting a suitable song for his or her class. The language, vocabulary, and sentence structure of some songs can be quite different from that used in spoken English (Richards, 1969, p. 163). For example, the children’s song or nursery rhyme, Jack Be Nimble,

is not likely to help the learner in the use of the be verb:

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In addition, there are other difficulties placed on the teacher. To maintain variety in the classroom, the teacher needs a good repertoire of songs. Although young learners are happy to sing the same song on several occasions, interest in the same song can soon fade if the song is used too often. Some non-native English-speaking teachers may also worry about teaching the stress and timing of songs correctly, and are therefore probably more likely to only use certain songs that they feel comfortable with. Finally, Murphey (1992) points out that no matter how enjoyable or memorable, singing songs in itself will not teach anyone to use the language, and will not give students the ability to communicate in another language. The words in songs unfortunately do not transfer into use.

Songs as Tasks One way to maximize the advantages and minimize some of the limitations mentioned above might be to develop songs into language learning tasks. Although this alone will not help teachers develop a greater repertoire of songs, it can help turn a song into a useful tool for language learning and teaching (Cameron, 2001, p. 31).

Defining a Task Cameron defines an activity for young learners as “any kind of event that children participate in” (2001, p. 31), but adds, not all classroom activities can be classified as tasks. For an activity to be considered a task, it must have more carefully planned and structured events with learner participation as the fulcrum (Cameron, 1997, p. 346). Cameron provides “a list of defining features of task for use in teaching foreign languages to children” (2001, p. 31).

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Figure 1. Classroom tasks for children learning a foreign language from Cameron, 2001, p.


These defining features benefit the teacher because they provide a reference point when planning a lesson or analyzing a lesson plan; for researchers, it “provides a unit around which to develop an understanding of language learning and teaching processes” (Cameron, 1997, p.

346). In addition to these five features, Cameron (2001) reports that tasks for young learners should have three stages: preparation, core activity and follow up.

Developing a Song into a Task The Wheels on the Bus, a popular children’s song often sung by children in the U.K., U.S., and Canada, is used here to illustrate how a song could be developed into a language learning task.

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Figure 2. The lyrics to the first stanza of The Wheels on the Bus There are several reasons why this particular song might be suitable for language learning purposes.

The lyrics of the song are made up of 11 monosyllabic words, many of which are repeated several times. The phrases are short with relatively long pauses between each one and are comprised of simple vocabulary. The song also has a repetitive rhythm with a recurring beat that is similar to the stress patterns of spoken English.

The Three Stages of a Song as a Task Cameron (1997, p. 347) states that classroom tasks for young learners have three stages that “once identified, can be analyzed, adapted, and expanded” and notes that “it has been common practice for many years to plan reading activities in three stages: pre-reading, reading and post-reading” (2001, p. 32). Cameron adds that this has been adapted for mainstream task-based learning by Skehan (1996, cited in Cameron, 2001) and adopts it herself with the

following labels (Cameron, 2001):

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Figure 3. Three Stages in “Task” for Young Learners from Cameron (2001, p.

32) Cameron argues that the core activity is central to the language learning task and without the core, the task would collapse. The preparation activities should help to prepare the students to complete the core activity successfully. This might include pre-teaching of language items or activating topic vocabulary. The follow-up stage then should build on the completion of the core activity (2001, p. 32).

Preparation stage. Given the goal of the task is singing the song in the core activity stage, it is useful to activate the vocabulary and to form basic sentence structures in the preparation stage.

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