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Q&A: Everything is better with music

Music in the ELT classroom

Children singing their favourite songs whilst learning English

Vanessa Reilly is a teacher, OUP author and teacher trainer. In this post, she answers some of the questions from her recent ‘Everything is better with music’ webinar.

As I promised in the webinar, although the session was for teaching pre-primary and primary children, I will address some of your questions about teaching teenagers and adults.

 

 

 

How can I use songs like ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ with adults?

If I were to teach beginner adult classes again, I would tap into all the things I know help children to learn, and TPR would be one of them.  I think I would be upfront with them and say, ‘this is a song I use with children which will help you to learn parts of the body with little or no effort on your part. I need you to count to ten and then do the song with me, but let’s pretend we are six-years-olds.  Let’s have some fun!’ Willingness to participate may depend on a whole range of factors, but I think my Spanish students would find it a fun and useful way to disconnect from their busy lives for a couple of minutes. You could even ask them to go home and teach it to their children or grandchildren.

How does TPR work in a large class of teenagers?

With any activity, it depends on the timing.  If a group of teenagers are lethargic and tired, a TPR activity is the perfect remedy to wake them up and get them moving.  I would be more inclined to give them the words and ask them to come up with the actions. You could tell them to prepare as if they are the teacher, teaching the song to younger siblings or cousins. That way they get the benefit of the language, without the activity seeming too babyish.

What about teens or adults? What music activities work for them?

As some of you commented, teens can often react badly to music a classmate has chosen or indeed, music you think is great!  With teens, I often like to go for music that has been made popular by a film or an advert, rather than jump straight to a pop song that you know some of the class won’t like.  Either that or I go for music that is so old, they cannot really object!

Older children, teenagers and young adults work well with music by the Beatles, ABBA and songs like ‘Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong.  The second webinar was on 21 September, World Peace Day; the song ‘Wonderful World’ was perfect for such a day, as was ‘With my own two hands’ by Jack Johnson.

Both these songs are proven big hits with my pre-teens and teens, and work just as well with young adults.  If used well, the lyrics should spark a discussion about how we can ‘change the world’.

I don’t make teens and young adults sing along to a song – this has to be something that they want to do.  Students will often sing along or hum to a well-chosen song, but it’s more important that they have the words in their head.

These three musical activities tend to work well with teenagers and young adults:

  1. Music critic – I choose snippets of songs based around the topic we are working on. The students look at the lyrics and listen to the music. They then discuss and write comments on each piece. Then we feedback to the class.
  2. There’s a letter for you – This is an activity I got many years ago from a CUP book called ‘The Standby Book – activities for the language classroom’, edited by Seth Lindstromberg.

I send the students the words of a song like ‘Wonderful World’ in a letter, starting with ‘Dear class…’ and end by signing off with the name of the artist; in this case, Louis Armstrong.  I handwrite the words and put the letter in an envelope addressed to the school. I photocopy or display a copy of the letter on the board. In class, we read the ‘letter’ and the students discuss what the sender means in the letter (lyrics). The students also talk about the sender of the letter, have they got a problem? What’s happened? Do they think the sender of the letter is a happy/positive person?

This activity works best with songs the students do not know, so they can form an opinion in the discussion. Once the students are finished with their interpretations, I would then play the song.  It is often a big surprise for the students to find out it isn’t really a letter.  Obviously, you can only do this once with a class, or they’ll already know your secret!  Here are some songs that work particularly well in a letter:

  • Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong (Letter: Dear Class… Love from Louis)
  • Love me do by the Beatles (Dear Linda… Love from Paul)
  • Perfect by Fairground Attraction (Dear + boy’s name…From + girl’s name) 
  1. Story songs for teens.

Did you know that some songs have been made into books? These are great tools to use in class. You can tell your students the story, and then play them the song as a surprise!

The three Bob Dylan songs ‘Blowing in the wind’, ‘Man gave names to all the animals’ and ‘Forever young’ have all been made into books.  I have used all three with students and they are very surprised to hear the song at the end. When doing this, you may find a more recent recording of the song will better appeal to your teenagers. I used the Jason Mraz version of ‘Man gave names to all the animals’.

How do you calm children after an energetic song?

The key is choosing when to play a song.  If the music stirs the group, use it when they need stirring. However, if the children are energetic when they get to class, I would use music to calm them down before doing anything more energetic.

Should we have background music while we’re teaching English in our classrooms?

I often use background music.  If the children are doing desk-based work, I will often play the song from the course book related to the language they are working with, it helps to reinforce the language.

Try playing music that is 432 Hz in the background. 432Hz music is used in places like spas to calm us down. Here’s some YouTube inspiration.

It is believed that music tuned to 432Hz will fill you with a sense of peace and well-being, regardless of the style of song you listen to. I know many teachers that use music tuned to 432Hz to calm down children and adults in their classes.  Mozart and Verdi composed music tuned to 432Hz, and so did artists like Bob Marley, The Police, Prince, and Jimi Hendrix.  Check out which style best suits your students.

Thank you to everyone for attending, and for your questions. I hope to see you all in another webinar soon!


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Webinar: Having fun with festivals

A celebration of Holi Festival of Colors

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Vanessa Reilly, teacher, teacher trainer and OUP author, introduces her upcoming webinar on 27th and 28th May entitled: Having fun with festivals – cultivating interest in the target culture in your young learner classroom.

Just how important is the target culture to you when teaching English as a foreign language to young learners? Looking at a language from the point of view of speakers of that language and how they live makes the target language more real, not just a collection of words and sentences to be learnt.

All learners need to be introduced to the target culture, no matter how young or early on in their language learning experience, in order to provide them with the optimum conditions for success.

My webinar will provide an overview of the following:

Target culture in the very young learner and young learner classroom

Very early on in my teaching career, I remember reading Claire Kramsch’s book Context and Culture in Language Teaching, and this statement stuck in my mind:

If… language is seen as social practice, culture becomes the very core of language teaching. Cultural awareness must then be viewed as enabling language proficiency… Culture in language teaching is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading and writing.”

So I started to explore:

→ What are the implications for primary age children?

If, as Kramsch proposes, cultural awareness needs to be an integral part of language learning, then I believe that as teachers of English we need to explore the many aspects of English-speaking culture appropriate for all learners, however young the children we teach.

→ What can we do as primary teachers?

We need to look at culture through a child’s eyes and consider what will motivate a Primary child to want to know more about the target culture. Having worked with children for nearly 25 years, I have found even young children are really interested when I talk about what children in English-speaking countries do that is the same or different to their world. I find activities based on festivals very motivational and the children quickly become engaged in the colourful, fun activities; so festivals are usually where I begin to introduce culture into the Pre-school and Primary classroom.

In my upcoming webinar we will look at bringing cultural awareness to young learners through festivals that are important to the everyday lives of children in English-speaking countries. In this very practical session we will investigate stories, songs, games and other mysterious things to enjoy with our Primary children.


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Top 10 Strategies for a Stress-free Classroom

Teacher smiling at young pupilVanessa Reilly is a teacher, teacher trainer, and author. In this article, she shares her advice on how to make the Primary and Pre-Primary classroom a stress-free environment.

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” (William James)

I am often asked for advice about ways of making our English classes efficient and motivational, yet fun. As teaching is such a complex skill, with so many factors to consider, it’s very difficult to narrow it down to just a few ideas but I have tried to limit myself to ten.

1. Establish a routine and rules from the first class

With pre-school or lower-primary children, setting up a classroom routine is as important as any other element of your class. Once routines are carefully established, children know what we expect of them. A well-chosen routine can save valuable class time, help with discipline, and allow you to spend more time on meaningful instruction.

It’s important to establish a clear routine from Day 1. Simple routines like a Hello and a Goodbye song to mark the start and end of English time, and different ways of controlling transitions between activities like using songs or chants to signal a change from story time to table-time are important in pre-school and early primary classes. Younger children love it when their lives are predictable. The best way to capitalise on this is to build a routine into your classes, making life easier for you too.

The reason why children at this stage love routines is because they do not have a developed concept of time and they measure their time in school by the activities they do at set times in the school day.

With older children you might have a lesson negotiating classroom rules where they volunteer behaviours which they think will help to make the classroom a happier place and to help them get the most out of lessons. You will often be impressed and surprised with some of their ideas; like treating each other with respect, always doing their best work and handing homework in on time! You can then make a list of their rules and even get everyone, including you, to sign it. Make photocopies of the list for everyone to stick inside their books and you can enlarge it to display somewhere in the classroom.

2. Use variety

Although chocolate is delicious and many of us could happily eat it every day, we would soon become bored with a diet of chocolate. Why? Because it would no longer be a novelty. We would actually start to feel sick of it! The same can true of any classroom activity. A favourite activity can be fun and educational, but if we do it in the same way every day and only do that type of activity, it can become boring. We know that different children learn in different ways and that different activities cater for their needs in English. Stories provide children with input, as do songs, rhymes and chants. Play, drama and well-chosen games help them internalize language and use it to communicate. However, there are many other activities children enjoy that help them learn language and we should exploit them to full advantage. For example, Alan Maley says of using art and craft in the English classroom:

While making things, children also make meaning. As they explore shapes, colours, textures, constructions, they are extending their experience and understanding of the world – and doing it through the medium of the foreign language.” (In the foreword of Wright, A, 2001)

3. Have fun

Creating fun in the classroom does not mean that the children have to be on the go constantly or that you, the teacher, have to be the all singing all dancing entertainer. Fun can be created in many ways – singing, stories, quizzes, chants, games, acting out, TPR activities… The list is endless. Believe it or not, one of my students’ favourite games is the List Game, where they choose 6 topics, which I write on the board and number from one to six, each number corresponding to the sides of a dice. The children get into teams. One team throws the dice and all the teams have 3 minutes to write a list of words from that topic. They have as much fun with this game as with a running dictation or TPR game.

4. There needs to be language pay-off

Whilst it’s important to make learning fun for young learners, in the limited amount of time we have for English, we need to make sure that there is what Rixon calls language pay-off in every activity. When preparing a game or any other activity, it is important to be clear about the language and learning objectives. We can sometimes get carried away when we see our students having fun, however we must be sure that there is enough language learning going on to justify the activity.

Monitoring is most important during communicative group activities as many will revert to L1. Children find an award very motivational, e.g. a gold star for the table using the most English, or you could give the table not using enough English an Untrophy.

5. Music and movement

The dictionary defines music as an “art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions through elements of rhythm, melody, harmony and colour.”  (http://dictionary.reference.com/)

Music has unique qualities and a well-chosen song or piece of music can provide language learning benefits from Pre-Primary all the way up to the end of Primary, providing the children with useful language input that can be fun at the same time. If the children leave your classroom singing an English song in their head they will carry it with them all day and at home too, something Tim Murphey referred to as S-S-I-T-H-P – Song Stuck in the Head Phenomenon.

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