Note: This article is Lesson 2 of our 8-part e-course, “Teaching Young Learners with Songs.” If you found it helpful, sign up to receive the rest of the course by creating a free account for the Super Simple Learning Resource Center.
In the Classroom
Music is a great tool to use in the classroom for young learners developing language skills. But what is the best way to introduce new songs to children? In this article, we’ll give you a few ideas and suggestions.
Play Songs as Background Music First
When you hear a song on the radio for the first time, you don’t start singing along with it right away. You hear it a few times, and before you know it, even if you haven’t been actively listening, you soon find yourself singing along. Nobody “teaches” you the song.
When we’re helping students learn a new song, we can’t focus only on the words. Kids also need to learn the tune, the tempo, the rhythm, and sometimes even gestures and dance. Even if they know the words, they can’t really sing the song until they know the tune. If you play the song as background music as students enter the classroom or while they are doing a quiet activity, they will start learning the tune without even thinking about it. Then, when you start teaching the song in class, you will be able to focus more on the words.
For example, if you plan to introduce a song in class, play the song (on “repeat”) in the background as the students are doing a sorting activity, making a craft, or coloring. Often, the children will start humming or singing the song on their own after hearing it once or twice, especially if the song is at their level.
In the following lesson, play the song quietly (again on “repeat”) in the background as students enter the class and during the warm-up activities and greetings. By the time you “teach” the song, the students will already be familiar with it and may even know some of the words (even if they don’t yet know what they mean).
Input Comes Before Output
Listening comes before speaking, or in this case, singing. Don’t expect your students to sing the songs right away. The first time or two that you play a new song, ask the students to listen and to do the gestures with you. You can also do simple activities such as passing a ball around or playing rhythm instruments in time with the music. As they do this, they’ll be learning the song. After one or two times, without any prompting from you, you’ll likely find them singing along!
Some Songs Don’t Need Much Pre-Teaching...
When using active songs or songs with lots of repetition, you don’t need to do much “pre-teaching.” For example, to introduce an action-verb song like “Walking Walking,” or “We All Fall Down,” start by making a circle with the students. Play the song and do the actions together. Don’t worry if the students don’t know the words right away. They’ll have fun doing the actions, and will learn the meaning by following you. Next time, use the song again, and encourage the kids to sing along. Now they know the words and actions!
Active songs like this can be used again and again. Each time you use the song, kids learn a little more. You don’t need introduce the words with flashcards or other teaching tools because the students learn the language by doing the actions.
...But Some Songs Do
Some songs are active but include a lot of new language. In this case, you may want to “pre-teach” some of the words. For example, if you are going to sing “The Pinocchio,” you can introduce the parts of the body before you sing the song. Just say, “Everybody show me your right arm,” hold up your right arm, and ask the students to follow your example. Ask them to say, “Right arm.” Next say “Everybody show me your left arm.” Continue through all of the parts of the body in the song and then “quiz” the students: “Right arm!” (Students hold up their right arms.) “Right leg!” (Students hold up their right legs.)
After reviewing the body parts, play the music and do the gestures. It’s easy to follow, and there is lots of repetition, so even if the students can’t follow at first, they will definitely be able to by the end of the song (and will be asking you to sing it again in the next class!).
Some songs require a more in-depth introduction. You can pre-teach words by using drawings, flashcards, or even realia (real objects that you bring into the classroom). But pre-teaching the vocabulary doesn’t mean doing repetitive drills. Try using different methods to introduce the vocabulary to create interest. Use a Mystery Box, or hide the cards around the room and discover them together. Play a guessing game, like charades, to introduce the new words. Draw pictures of new vocabulary on the whiteboard.
You can also use picture books to introduce the story and language in some songs. For example, you can find many picture books for classic rhymes or stories like “Five Little Monkeys,” The Wheels On The Bus,” or “Ten In The Bed.” Read the book aloud first, so that students understand the story. As you read the storybook, sing some of the words to introduce the tune.
Once the students have learned some of the new vocabulary, it’s easy to introduce gestures for the key words or phrases in the lyrics. You can make up your own gestures together, or see the song pages on our website for some suggestions.
Repetition is Good
Remember that very young learners (4 years and younger) enjoy hearing the same songs over and over. You can use their favorites in many lessons. If you are using a song a lot, it’s OK if they don’t sing right away. Let them become comfortable with it and sing when they are ready—they will! As children grow older, they won’t want to repeat songs as much. Students will still have favorites, but you won’t be repeating songs like you do with the younger learners. In this case, you’ll need to focus on the song in one or two lessons, and then go back to it every once in a while.
Some parents might be hesitant to sing at home. They may be worried that they don’t know the words or don’t have a good singing voice. But singing at home with your child is a great way to share time together. Kids don’t mind if you are a bit off-key, and singing with them sets a good example. It says that you are not afraid of a challenge—and they shouldn’t be either!
If you don’t know a song or the words to it, try searching YouTube. There are usually several versions to choose from, and many of them have closed captioning, so you can see the words (click on the CC button on the bottom right of the screen to see if captions are available). Now, get ready to sing together. You can even make up your own actions or dance.