Why English teachers should be using ESL songs in class and how to go about it successfully
Many teachers already know the joy of bringing ESL songs into the classroom. This article looks at why songs benefit pupils, and also HOW to use songs in a fun and productive way. Read on for insight and prepare to be motivated to use music with your ESL students!
First we'll take a look at the incredible benefits of using songs as a part of ESL teaching. Then we'll consider some of the problems teachers encounter using ESL songs, which discourage them from continuing. Finally we will learn how songs can be used successfully, so that your pupils learn faster, enjoy your classes more and really can sing along!
The Incredible Benefits of Teaching ESL with Songs
1. Songs help learn vocabulary, grammar and syntax
Learning with songs really works as children hear whole sentences and absorb grammar and syntax subconsciously. It's an easy way for them to learn and remember words and phrases.
2. They can use meaningful language in context
Children hear vocabulary and phrases in a natural and meaningful context and no longer as isolated words or sentences.
3. Songs can be catchy and re-usable
Unlike a listening comprehension a song is catchy and fun and ESL students will be happy hearing it many times over a several months, as long as you don't play it to death in a single lesson.
4. Songs enhance listening skills
Naturally listening to any English song helps listening skills as long as the language is within the grasp of the learner.
5. They improve speaking fluency with the natural rhythms of language
When using songs for ESL that are performed by native speakers children hear the natural rhythms and stresses of English and this helps their pronunciation and speaking fluency.
6. Integrating music and actions makes your lesson appeal to wider learning styles
Along with the music, melody and rhythm actions can be found to go with the song. Actions may be used with any song and not just with obvious 'action songs' like Head Shoulders Knees and Toes. This immediately pushes the boat out to reach more pupils by encompassing a variety of learning styles in class.
Kinesthetic and tactile learners will latch on to using their bodies to the music while Auditory learners are in their element listening. Visual learners see others making the actions and can look at story pictures or vocabulary flashcards relating to the song. Everybody is happy, except for the tiny minority of people who do not like music!
7. Songs are fun and motivate pupils
Only at number seven on this list but yet a gigantic benefit is the fact that using music can lift the atmosphere in class, bring in a boost of energy and zest for life that captures the children's attention and motivates them in their quest to learn English.
8. Songs can be confidence building
Using songs for ESL is a way for children to listen and practice English in a group, joining in when they can without being singled out, and gradually achieving more with each listening. A huge boost in confidence can be gained from this, which percolates through to all learning.
9. Songs are memory aids
We all know how songs can stick in our heads and this is exactly what we want for our English language learners.
10. Songs help with classroom management
More mundane but absolutely crucial to a teacher is that putting on a song immediately attracts the attention of the class. All pupils join in with the actions and/or start to sing along. The teacher now has their attention if he/she did not before!
In summary songs allow pupils to hear English in context, naturally, to listen repeatedly, to enjoy learning, to be more involved with TPR (total physical response), to be focused and motivated and remember language more easily and for longer. Songs also help with classroom management.
Problems ESL Teachers encounter using English Songs
So with all these wonderful benefits of using songs to teach ESL learners, why don't more teachers use them more often? An obvious problem is that many English songs are hopeless for ESL learners. Most English songs have too many words as they are written for native speakers so young ESL beginners have no hope of being able to sing along. Secondly many popular songs have inappropriate content for the classroom – at least in many cultures.Then you've got the problem of what to do while the music plays with the children sitting there like lemons. And, because the words are so difficult and fast, you have to play the song to death before the children can have any hope of following it. Before you get to that point they'll be emitting a groan that says, "oh not that song AGAIN – can't you see we are SICK of it!"
How to go about teaching with ESL songs successfully
Firstly it goes without saying that you need the right kind of song. If you choose music that is too fast or difficult, your pupils are likely to glaze over, become distracted and in the worst case become demoralized by their failure to follow the song.
1. You need songs that are specific for ESL
English songs for native speakers are FINE as background music while you do other activities or games, but if your aim is for your pupils to be able to sing along to the song, then you need something with simpler words and which is repetitive.
2. How to do it...
Songs can be used as background music to other activities and this is a good strategy when teaching two year olds.
However from three and up more structured teaching methods can be used successfully. Here is an example of how it can be done, although one always wants to vary one's approach and activities with each song:
3. Start by teaching the key vocabulary in the song using games and flashcards.
This may take a whole lesson with very young learners (such as three year olds). Once that is done introduce the key grammar so the children may use the new vocabulary in the context of a sentence or phrase.
4. The children can hear the song a couple of times as background music while playing listening games where they learn and practice vocabulary.
This helps them start to become familiar with the melody and rhythms even though they may not understand the words at this point. Previews like this help when it comes to listening to the song attentively for the first time.
5. Use language games with the song
When you come to play the song expecting the children's focused attention on the words use a game. This might be to run and jump on a flashcard of a noun when they hear that noun, or to point at it if you have a classroom situation. Or you might stick four or five flashcards of nouns from the song on the board and ask the children to listen and clap whenever they hear one of those words.
6. Keep it fresh
After listening to the song two or three times using a different listening game each time set it aside until the next lesson. This keeps it fresh. At the next lesson review the vocabulary from the previous lesson, perhaps learn some new words and re-visit the song. This time you might work on some actions to put to the song.
7. Make up actions
One idea is to make a special action for particular nouns. For example if the song has the word apple in it then pretending to bite into an apple, or making a circle with your hands could be an action for that word. There may be verbs or adjectives in the song that can be acted out. Actions can portray meaning and also may be purely for the sake of moving to the music. In any case with a teeny bit of imagination anyone can make up actions for any song! Remember that your pupils are a well of inspiration and would be honored to give you ideas.
There are a host of options and if you would like ideas do check out my various publications on ESL games and activities – and particularly for young learners - on my TeachingEnglishGames Dot com web site (live link at the bottom of the article). At any rate never expect the children to just sit there passively. It's preferable to engage them with a specific task while they listen as this keeps them focused and eager.
8. Practise saying the lines in rhythm
In the next lesson out comes the song again for a short portion of the lesson. This time you might have a session saying the words in the rhythm of the music, then repeat this and add in the actions you put together in the last lesson. Finish playing the song once with children doing the actions and attempting to join in where we can.
9. Break down the difficulty
If you like singing you might want to practice the tune with the children line by line. If a line is long break down the difficulty and sing the first half only (with any actions), and let the children sing that back to you two or three times. Then add on the second half. Wherever you see the children struggling, SIMPLIFY – break down the difficulty into manageable chunks and sing SLOWER than the actual song if necessary at first.
10. Re-visit the song to perfect it and review
Gradually the song will come together in a fun, non-threatening way, and in a way that keeps the music fresh. Once a song has been well-learned and preferably performed to parents or other classes, put it to rest. Generally people like to move on to new things and it can become stale to be looking at the same words over and over. It's better to leave something that is quite good and move on than to flog it to death seeking perfection. Children will be happy to review the song if you have kept it fresh for them. This is why I prefer teach a play or song over a series of lessons rather than doing it in a block. Of course with faster learners you will be able to do a song in a single lesson, but with a "normal" group of preschool year old beginners this would be a feat indeed!
With primary students, once the song has been learned through listening and speaking, the lyrics can be used to work on reading, spelling and writing skills.
11. Ideal songs for preschool ESL and early primary
To help preschool ESL teachers I have created a curriculum for preschool learners based on games, stories and related songs. Teachers work through the twenty illustrated stories, sing and act out songs, which cover the same topics, and even have the same characters in them. The songs are especially created for young ESL learners aged 3 to 6, although they also appeal even to older children. The language is simple, repetitive and children learn it by heart quickly, much to the surprise and delight of many teachers and parents. Everything is included with this resource from vocabulary flashcards, story illustrations, masks to make and wear for acting, games to teach the language and of course the music itself.
To listen to these fun songs especially written for ESL please visit: