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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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This could be done using a number of methods, depending on the resources available to the teacher or the size of class. One way of activating vocabulary might be to use a picture of a bus to elicit vocabulary and form basic sentence patterns. For example, the teacher pointing to the bus driver could ask, “Who is he?” Students reply, “A bus driver.” The teacher then asks, “What does the bus driver do?” Students reply, “The bus driver drives the bus.” The teacher might then point to the wheels and ask, “What are they?” Students reply, “They are wheels.” The teacher then could ask, “What do the wheels do?” The students are encouraged to reply, “The wheels go round.” Of course this is only one option; the teacher may not have access to images to match the song and might want to ask the students to draw a picture. The pictures could be used to elicit vocabulary and practice the sentence structures used in the song.

Regardless of how the teacher chooses to activate vocabulary and form sentence structures, the

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aim is that, at the end of the preparation stage, the students are ready to sing the song in the core stage.

Core stage. To involve the students and maximize interest, it would be advantageous to sing the song several times in the core, each time varying the pace or volume and having the students perform actions and sing along chorally. For example, the teacher could begin by asking the students to sing the word wheels at first, and have the students make a circle shape with their hands. Then the teacher could have the students turn around 360 degrees when singing round and round.

Follow-up stage. The follow-up stage should attempt to build on the successful completion of the core stage. In other words, the students have sung the song and now should be encouraged to use the vocabulary or sentence structures from the song. Again, this depends on the circumstances of the teacher. The follow-up stage could be used to develop written production, either through writing sentences or gap-fill activities, or oral production where the vocabulary learned is used in a situational role-play.

Maximizing the Potential of Songs Using songs as language learning tasks can help to maximize the potential of songs as teaching and language learning tools. As stated above, there are benefits to using songs in the classroom; however, more often than not, songs are used relatively ineffectively, often as activities between learning. It was stated above that no matter how enjoyable or memorable singing songs can be, singing songs in itself will not teach learners to use the language and will not give them the ability to communicate in another language. However, developing a song from an activity into a task with preparation, core, and follow-up stages might be one way to help transfer the words in a song into use and maximize the potential of songs as teaching and learning tools.

Creating Original Songs There are thousands of children’s songs; selecting, learning, and using a suitable song for a particular class or purpose can be a real challenge for language teachers. Some teachers do not have a huge repertoire of songs and therefore tend to sing the same set of songs or avoid using songs completely. It can also be challenging to select a song to fit in with the curriculum or language point to be taught. As mentioned above, care needs to be taken when selecting a song because the vocabulary and sentence structure of some children’s songs can be quite different from that used in spoken English.

With a little initiative and imagination, a children’s song can easily be adapted. By slightly altering the vocabulary, grammar, or sentence structure whilst maintaining the original rhythm, a traditional song can be adapted to suit a particular theme or part of the curriculum. Below is an example that illustrates how this may be done. The song, The Wheels on the Bus (see Figure 2), requires only minor adaptations to make it more suitable for teaching a different topic; in this example, it becomes a song about sea creatures.

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Figure 4. The modified lyrics from the song The Wheels on the Bus (adaptations bolded) By adapting the song in this way, the teacher has the advantage of being able to select a particular language feature and incorporate it into the song.

This feature could be an item of vocabulary, syntax, phonology, or a simple conversational expression. This allows the teacher to incorporate more songs into a curriculum and save time searching for and learning new songs.


The first purpose in presenting this paper is to state a case for developing songs from activities into language learning tasks. The second purpose is to highlight how, with a little initiative, teachers can adapt children’s songs to better suit their teaching goals. Songs can be used as a valuable teaching and learning tool. Using songs can help learners improve their listening skills and pronunciation; they can also be useful for teaching vocabulary and sentence structures. Probably the greatest benefit to using songs in the classroom is that they are enjoyable. Unfortunately, despite these advantages, simply singing songs will not teach learners how to communicate in another language. Using songs as tasks might be one way of helping transfer words from songs into use, and maximize the potential of songs as teaching and learning tools. Adapting existing children’s songs is one method that teachers can use to increase their repertoire of songs, thus giving them more opportunity to use songs in their teaching contexts.

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Many thanks to Ro Nagji for his informative ideas on creating original songs for children and to Brad Smith for his help editing this paper.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Neil T. Millington, Center for Language Education (CLE), Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, 1-1 Jumonjibaru, Beppu-Shi, Oita, Japan 874-8577. E-mail: millingt@apu.ac.jp


Cameron, L. (1997). The task as a unit for teacher development. ELT Journal, 51(4), 345-351.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/elt/51.4.345   Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching languages to young learners. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Jolly, Y. S. (1975). The use of songs in teaching foreign languages. The Modern Language Journal, 59(1/2), 11-14. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/325440 Moriya, Y. (1988). English speech rhythm and its teaching to non-native speakers. Paper presented at the annual convention of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Chicago.

Murphey, T. (1992). Music and song. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

NIEHS Kids’ Pages. (2010). Retrieved from http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/ Ohata, K. (2004). Phonological differences between Japanese and English: Several potentially problematic areas of pronunciation for Japanese ESL/EFL learners. Asian EFL Journal, 6(4). Retrieved from http://www.asian-efl-journal.com/december_04_KO.php Purcell, J. M. (1992). Using songs to enrich the secondary class. Hispania, 75(1), 192-196.

http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/344779 Richards, J. (1969). Songs in language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 3(2), 161-174.

Shen, C. (2009). Using English songs: An enjoyable and effective approach to ELT. English Language Teaching, 2(1), 88-94. Retrieved from www.ccsenet.org/journal.html The Teacher’s Guide. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.theteachersguide.com/

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