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English Language Teaching Global Blog

How music changed my teaching life

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Patrick Jackson in a class of kids

Havin’ a bit of fun

Patrick Jackson, author of Potato Pals, Stars, and Everybody Up, all published by Oxford University Press, shares with us the power of using songs in the classroom. This article was originally published on the Super Simple Learning blog.

Before I went to Japan and started to teach kids, I ran a late night café in Dublin. While there are some similarities between customers in a restaurant and students in a classroom, I certainly wasn’t qualified to be a teacher. I had very little training and, like many other foreigners who get a job teaching English just because it’s their mother language, I basically walked into a classroom with no idea at all about how to teach young learners. It’s an unacceptable situation that the TEFL industry has to look at. Anyway, I really didn’t know what I was doing and so I made it up as I went along. I had no connections with a wider community of teachers beyond a couple of people in my school who were in the same boat as me.

I soon found out that the only way to survive with young learners was to sing with them, and keep them moving.
The combination of music, language and movement is the most powerful tool we can use to teach young learners and, more importantly, it keeps everyone happy! After a while, I was pretty much structuring my lessons around song. I would include at least four or five songs in a forty-minute lesson. I could easily see that these refreshed everyone, kept the energy positive, gave the class a nice structure and really got the kids to remember the target language in a fun and effortless way. Songs are a great way to get the language in! This is accepted by most teachers nowadays. It always amazes me that there are some who still don’t embrace music and movement. In fact, I don’t know how they survive!

Do you have any tips for using songs in the classroom?

Give everyone something to do. Students can make simple instruments out of recycled materials and that will keep the whole class involved. You can also use props, costumes or get students to make and hold up cards illustrating the language while singing. This creates a stronger connection between the lyrics and the meaning.

Always add movements to songs and if you’re dealing with space issues make up hand movements that can be done even by students sitting at desks.

Get the rhythm going and the tune will follow easily. Clapping out the rhythm together will also create a good screen of background noise for shyer students to feel safe behind.

Divide the class into half or groups and break the song up, singing to each other. A bit of competition can even be fun and a good way to get the energy up. Singing rounds and parts will make it sound very professional!

Think about how the song ties in with your curriculum. Although singing most songs is fun, if you don’t make the connection to the curriculum, you are missing an opportunity to strengthen language acquisition by making those all-important links. With a ready-made course, that hard work has already been done for you.

Patrick Jackson presenting in China

All together now!

Look to combine your favourite storybooks with appropriate songs and vice versa. Projects and other supplementary activities will also build up those connections between the lyrics of the song and ‘real’ language.

Once the language is in, make sure you give students enough ways of getting the language out again – to really use it! I find that a combination of role-plays and personalized writing, drawing and speaking activities that all lead up to take home moments make for the best all-round approach.

How about songs in your books?

When I started authoring textbooks I was very happy to be allowed to make songs a major component. This was true of Potato Pals where every book is accompanied by a song, but to an even greater extent with Everybody Up. Everybody Up is a new primary ELT course from Oxford University Press that I was very happy to have worked on with the Super Simple Learning team. Actually, Everybody Up has more songs than any other primary course. Oxford University Press spared no expense in putting together a dream team of songwriters including Grammy winning Julie Gold (“From a Distance”) and Devon and Troy of Super Simple Learning. We really couldn’t have been luckier.

Everybody Up Global Sing-along 2013The Everybody Up Global Sing-along is an exciting project that encourages classrooms around the world to send in You Tube videos of themselves singing songs from Everybody Up. It’s something that would never have been possible before the easy access of technology and social media. Watching the videos come in from around the world has been the highlight of my career so far. It’s especially fun and educational for the kids to see themselves cooperating on the production of their videos and to be able to see other children all over the world singing the same songs as them. The competition is open until August and I would very strongly urge any of your readers that teach kids to enter. There is a huge prize for the best entry; an all expenses paid trip to Oxford to attend the English Language Teachers Summer Seminar 2014 at Oxford University, including flights and accommodation. The schools that submit the best entries can also receive a visit and concert from the songwriters and last year Devon and Julie Gold visited Taiwan.

What are your Super Simple Principles?

 I made this video about my beliefs about teaching kids:

…and these are the life principles I aspire to!

Always keep enough Blu-Tack, batteries and printer ink in the house. Look for connections. Reuse tins and boxes. Have routines. Be passionate. Take plenty of breaks. Sleep well. Express your gratitude. Get plenty of fresh air. Don’t follow the crowd unless you think that they are going the right way. Don’t forget pencils, paper and paint. Take long walks, even in the rain. Eat and drink healthily. Check for attachments. Keep asking for what you want until you get it. Maintain your sense of wonder. Get up at dawn. Break big tasks into small steps. Buy a squirrel feeder. Take risks. Pick your battles carefully. Make lists. Grow things. Get good tools. Keep going. Ask why. Work hard. Think before you speak. Share your passions. If you can, buy a Mac. Get out of breath. Don’t worry. Keep your eyes on the road. Don’t kill spiders. Start hobbies. Get your hands dirty. Avoid small fiddly things. Beware of disputes with teenagers or spouses. Stay creative. Never give up. Set limits. Real world beats Screenworld. Work out who you are and try to be that person. Be silly. Don’t be squeamish. Keep it simple. Be brave. Join the Everybody Up Global Sing-along.

Oh and what’s my favourite Super Simple Song? It would have to be Skidamarink!

Author: Patrick Jackson

Patrick Jackson is an ELT author interested in the use of songs, stories and real world connections to motivate learners. He believes that the classroom should be an enjoyable, happy and stimulating place for students as well as teachers. Patrick spent 13 years in Japan teaching learners of all ages but is now based in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of Potato Pals, Stars and Everybody Up, all published by Oxford University Press. Patrick tweets at patjack67 and blogs at patjack67.com.

12 thoughts on “How music changed my teaching life

  1. Reblogged this on TEFLvml and commented:
    A very nice article for English teachers!!

  2. Patrick,

    As a singer/songwriter chained to corporate life I very much appreciated your perspective on the power of music as a catalyst for knowledge transfer. You might be interested to know that I co-wrote a song, called “Peace for You and Me” that was used to help elementary school children confront bullying in their school environment. It is the centerpiece of an instructional DVD called “Which Team Will You Choose?” available from the following web site: http://www.caringandcourageouskids.com. Another data point for your consideration is a recent education/concert series held in San Diego, CA entitled “Mozart and the Mind” (www.mainlymozart.org) in which academics prefaced some of the classical music performances with free public lectures on insights on the power of music from the fields of psychology, neurobiology and therapeutic medicine.

  3. Thank you for your jolly and insightful article. Bought a smile to my face. The connection between music, movement and memory is well established…just wish we adults were a little less inhibited so we were more open to learning in these fun ways.

    If we aren’t very musical as teachers, we can adapt the principles you outlined by making chants around vocab. To revise body parts, for example you could have kids stomping around and repeating US military style as they copy you chanting ‘I touch my nose and touch my head’ etc. Once a song or chant is known well, you can speed it up…kids love to see if they can keep up when the tempo shifts a gear or two.

    Interestingly, most TESOL courses are geared to teaching adults but a lot of actual teaching involves teaching children. However, it is possible to combine the teaching of both in a course such as our TESOL with young learners course: http://www.global-english.com/courses/-tesol-training-tefl-training-tefl-courses-accredited-tesol-tefl/100-hour-level-1-tesol-with-young-learners which brings in elements of your article above on how to keep kids engaged and learning.

  4. I soon found out that the only way to survive with young learners was to sing with them, and keep them moving. The combination of music, language and movement is the most powerful tool we can use to teach young learners and, more importantly, it keeps everyone happy! After a while, I was pretty much structuring my lessons around song. I would include at least four or five songs in a forty-minute lesson. I could easily see that these refreshed everyone, kept the energy positive, gave the class a nice structure and really got the kids to remember the target language in a fun and effortless way. Songs are a great way to get the language in! This is accepted by most teachers nowadays. It always amazes me that there are some who still don’t embrace music and movement. In fact, I don’t know how they survive!

  5. Now that I have viewed your Potato Pals video and seen your guidance to your fellow teachers I wanted to make you aware of another free tool that you might enjoy playing with in the classroom. It is an App from Smith Micro called “Sock Puppets” that you can use to record monologues or dialogues and easily animate colorful characters who speak those words and move around on the stage of a little puppet theatre. With this tool In your creative hands, the reach of Potato Pals is potentially global.

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  11. Most of the other songs got one tick from me, or at least a question mark. There were a few traditional ones that I already had useable versions of, and a couple of times when the simplification might actually strip out a source of extra language- although I am still undecided on that point. Otherwise, these are the best collections of songs I have come across, and much better value than textbook CDs or other song CDs from the big publishers. I’d probably buy Super Simple Songs 3 first, but if I had come across these a couple of years earlier in my very young learner teaching career any of them would have been absolute lifesavers. The booklets don’t include any instructions on how to use the songs (vital for songs like Eensey Weensey Spider), but the accompanying free Super Simple Learning website is a great resource even for those who don’t have the CDs.

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