For Young Learners, Songs Can Mean Business

Posted June 2004: Abdulvahit Çakir designs song-based activities around play, the most important part of small children's lives. See Michael Carroll's article, 'Japanese Students Can't Think Critically. Or Can They?,' Essential Teacher, Summer 2004 (pp. 54-56).

I remember one of my English teachers saying repeatedly that knowing is something, but doing is quite something else. What he meant was that knowing words and structures is useless unless you are able to use them to do something in real life.

Play constitutes the most important part of small children's lives. Some play is accompanied by songs, and many songs are accompanied by actions. When children play and sing, they mean business. To them, success in play is success in life. If they need language or songs to win the game they are playing, they will indeed need them.

Have Song, Will Teach

Besides being enjoyable and motivating, songs are also useful in language teaching because they

  • model English sounds, rhythm, and stress and intonation patterns
  • often repeat high-frequency words and expressions
  • can reinforce structures and vocabulary
  • are much easier to imitate and remember than language that is not set to music (Çakir, 1999)

You can use songs to teach almost any aspect of the target language: counting up and down; structures such as there is/there are; prepositions of place; and language functions such as accepting or refusing, asking for information, and greeting, to mention a few.

"There's a Hole …"

A case in point is the U.S. folk song "There's a Hole" (see Gelineau, 1999):

  1. There's a hole in the bottom of the sea.
    There's a hole in the bottom of the sea.
    There's a hole, there's a hole, there's a hole in the bottom of the sea.
  2. There's a log in the hole in the bottom of the sea ...
  3. There's a branch on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea ...
  4. There's a bump on the branch on the log in the hole ...
  5. There's a frog on the bump on the branch...
  6. There's a tail on the frog on the bump...
  7. There's a speck on the tail on the frog …
  8. There's a fleck on the speck on the tail ...

The song describes several objects in a hole and on top of one another, repeating the prepositions over and over. To use this song to teach or reinforce these prepositions,

  1. Have half the children in the class represent a large hole while others act as the log, the bump, the frog, and the other words mentioned in the song. You might have the children hold pictures of these things (labeled or unlabeled).
  2. As you play the song, have the children play their roles. For example, in the verse "There's a hole in the bottom of the sea," have the children form a large ring. When they sing "There's a log in the hole," have the child playing the log put the picture of the log in the ring. As you play the next verse, have the child representing the bump place the picture of the bump on the log.
  3. Continue until all the objects are placed.

You could also create simple verses modeled on the ones in the song. For instance,

There's a chair in the room ...
There's a book on the chair in the room ...
There's a radio on the book in the chair in the room ...
There's a ruler on the radio on the book on the chair in the room ...

Give each of the children one of the objects, and ask them to sing the song and put the objects in their places as they are mentioned.

Endless Possibilities

You could practice the use of the articles a (used when the object is first mentioned) and the (used for subsequent mentions), or make up simple play for this purpose.

References

Çakir, A. (1999, November). Musical activities for young learners of EFL. The Internet TESL Journal, 6(11). Retrieved March 12, 2004, from http://iteslj.org/Lessons/Cakir-MusicalActivities.html

Gelineau, R. P. (1988). Songs in action. New York: Parker.

Abdulvahit Çakir (abdulcakir@yahoo.com) is the director of research and application at the Center for Instruction of Foreign Languages, Gazi University, in Ankara, Turkey.