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How music changed my teaching life

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.

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Music Makes It Stick

Musical notesSusan Banman Sileci, Everybody Up co-author, has a confession to make…

I have a confession to make: I forget to use music in my classroom. And then something happens that reminds me that using music to teach – not just to kids but to teenagers and adults, too – is one of the best ways to help them learn. It seems obvious, but I forget all the time. I use flashcards. I play games. I teach culture and history and I tell stories. But I forget to use music. Crazy, isn’t it?

Part of the problem is that I teach teenagers, between 12 and 16 years old. My eight students are children who live in one of the poorest areas of São Paulo, Brazil: Campo Limpo. They’re part of a special educational program that removed them from their overcrowded and undisciplined public schools and put them in a private school. I teach them once a week. Our classroom is in one of their homes, on a long table made of wooden planks set upon boxes, and the room’s one electrical outlet is on the other side of the room. The book we use, Oxford University Press’s Engage, is great. But Engage, like most books for teenagers, doesn’t come with a music program. As a result, I often forget how much these kids love music and how effective music can be.

I’m one of the authors of Everybody Up. This is a primary series which comes with an incredible music program and is entering the second year of its outstanding and award-winning Global Sing-Along. You wouldn’t think I’d need reminders to use music! But I do. Here’s a story for you.

Before the books were ready, I received a sample CD of some of the music. I had the CD in my car and was giving several of my teenage students a ride to school after our class. My students love Beyoncé and laugh at Justin Bieber (although they won’t let me change the radio station when he’s on), and one listens to Guns N’ Roses in preparation for his career as a rock star. Instead of turning on the radio, I decided to keep listening to my new CD. A song for the Starter level, Boys and Girls, came on. The music was obviously for very young children.

And my ‘too cool’ teenage students learned the words the first time, divided themselves into boys and girls and sang the song repeatedly. We drove through Campo Limpo with the windows down – past lines of laundry, small shacks and a large trash heap, through a park known for its drug dealers, over speed bumps and in front of the brick homes of one of their family members. ‘There’s my cousin,’ Camila laughed, and shouted, ‘Hi boy!’ out the window. The boy waved.

So, are we really too cool?

With these teenagers, I can use Everybody Up songs and they’re happy to learn them. They laugh. It’s kiddie music, but they always listen carefully, learn, and leave the class singing the song. I also like to use songs from the radio. We recently listened to Katy Perry’s Firework. It’s a song they know but never understood. They’re beginner students so I use a variety of techniques with songs, especially with complicated, non-ELT songs:

  • I don’t expect them to learn the entire song. That can be difficult, requires a lot of L1, and is certainly hard to remember five minutes after class is over.
  • I pick out a grammar point or a set of vocabulary. I pre-teach that language and give them the lyrics printed out with those parts missing. They listen, sometimes several times, to fill in the blanks with pre-taught material.
  • We talk about the general message of the song and listen one more time.
  • We talk about the cultural differences the song exposes. Elvis’s Blue Christmas surprised my students because something blue in Portuguese is happy. Thayza refused to believe me that ‘blue’ meant sad, but she’s beginning to accept the concept!
  • If there’s time, they can do post-listening activities like inventing dance routines, researching the singer or the song, or finding other songs with similar lyrics or messages.

I’ve made a personal goal of using a song – any song – at least once a month. I’m learning that if a song meets a need, students, no matter their age, don’t care if it’s a song for children, for Elvis fans, or for future rock musicians. There’s always something to be learned, and music makes it stick.

What about you? What’s your experience with mixing music styles in the classroom?

Visit our site for more information on Everybody Up and the Everybody Up Global Sing-along 2013.

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