Using songs with young learners

Summary: Why and how to use songs with young children

Why and how to use songs with young children

Back when I first starting teaching small children English, 12 years or so ago, I was lucky or unlucky enough to be in a school where songs were a vital part of the syllabus of every teacher and were introduced to us teachers on day one of the training course. I say “luckily” because those songs helped me entertain and control an age group that I had little enough experience of interacting with even back in the UK. It could also possibly be “unluckily” because now I have got used to having music to help me there is no way I could even think of coping with a class of 7 year olds and under without my faithful tape of traditional and EFL songs. And yet, as I have changed schools and countries I have come across a surprising number of teachers doing just that. Some of them were coping remarkably well, but I have yet to meet a teacher who was not instantly converted when they saw what a song in class could do- and even more so when shown how many things could be done with it. So here are some reasons why you might want to try using songs in the EFL young learner class and some tips how to do so:

  • They are memorable, and so make students remember the language (in fact,nstudents who quit English while they are still young might find that the onlynthing they can remember when they go on holiday to the States as an adult is thensong Head Shoulders Knees and Toes- possibly useful for that strip search in JFKnairport??).
  • They can be great fun. And the biggest factor that makes them fun for thenkids is how much the teacher likes them, so you have a perfect motivation fornusing your own favourites.
  • They cover the same topics as they kids are covering in the Englishnlessons and other classes: animals (Old Macdonald), body parts (Teddy Bear TeddynBear) etc.
  • They are the best way of marking different stages of the lesson, e.g. starting the class every week with the same song, ending the class with another, and using songs or chants to mark other transitions like books out and books away
  • Students can listen to the songs at home and revise the language
  • They provide an easy way of changing the pace, e.g. settling downnrestless students with a lullaby-like calming song (Incy Wincy Spider etc.) ornwearing them out with a manic, lively song (YMCA etc.)
  • They provide an achievable challenge for all levels of learner in mixednability classes, by letting some students just show their understanding by doingnthe actions while others can sing along or even improvise their own words
  • They can be used at whatever stage you are at with the language- e.g.npresentation, practice or revision before a test. You can even use an actionnsong for a week or two before the formal presentation, and so make thenpresentation when it comes much easier.
  • They sound great to mothers and school managers listening outside yournclassroom door
  • They can be performed during end of year shows or parties
  • They allow for lots of repetition of the language without kids gettingnbored (as long as you add variations), vital for learning in small children.nVariations to keep it interesting include doing the song louder and quieter,nslower and faster etc.

Now that I’ve persuaded you to give to use songs, use songs again or use songs even more, the next question is how songs should be used. In fact, for those teachers who aren’t using songs now the reason could be because they didn’t work for them the first time they tried because they weren’t doing it right. If you follow the instructions below you (and your kids) will soon be converted!

Here are some general principles for making a song ‘work’. First of all, what does ‘work’ mean? What are we aiming for when we use a song in class? Here are some of the things we might want to achieve by using a song:

  1. Students have fun and are therefore motivated for the rest of the lesson and future lessons
  2. Students learn quicker than with other methods
  3. Students remember longer than with other methods
  4. Students lose some of their inhibitions about speaking out, using rhythm and intonation when speaking, moving around and using gestures etc.
  5. Using the song reinforces other things you are working on in the classroom such as discipline, teaching kids to work together, rewarding good behaviour, fostering learner independence etc.

To make sure we achieve those things we will need to make sure that:

  1. The meaning of the song’s words can be made clear in a quick and easy way
  2. Whether the students understand the meaning of the song or not is easy to gauge
  3. The meanings and the song are easy to remember
  4. The song is suitable for the students in terms of age, speed, content, embarrassment factor
  5. The language in the song is similar to language they will be able to use in other parts of the class and/ or outside the class

Most of the points above are to do with meaning and memory. Apart from choosing a catchy song that students can easily sing and will get stuck in their heads until next time you sing it in class, making the meanings easy to explain and express whilst avoiding translation as much as possible must mean the use of actions or pictures. Of these, doing actions as the song plays demands the least resources and the least preparation by the teacher.

Even though planning a class that includes miming doesn’t involve and photocopying, drawing or cutting up, thinking of actions for the words in a song that students will enjoy, act without embarrassment, understand the meaning of and remember does take some time and thought. Here are some factors to take into account:

  1. Are the gestures you want to use the same in English speaking countries as in the country of countries the kids come from? If not, will you want to use the one they know to reinforce the meaning and avoid misunderstanding or teach them the British or American gestures as a kind of cultural training? Also, might it be a bad or rude gesture in any nationality the students are likely to have contact with (e.g. thumbs down means “go to hell” in Japan)
  2. Is the first gesture you think of (e.g. rolling arms around each other for “roll over” in “There was one in the bed” song) something that might be better used with another meaning in a later song or in classroom instructions (e.g. the rolling arms gesture could be the best gesture for “repeat”)?
  3. Can the students still use the same gestures if you speed the song up for a bit of variety?
  4. Do the gestures build up to a climax, e.g. leaving the most amusing or energetic gesture for the last verse of the song?
  5. Are the gestures fun?
  6. Will some of the kids, e.g. the older ones, be embarrassed by doing any of the gestures, e.g. looking camp if they have to mime being a woman?


TEFLtastic with Alex Case


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