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Using Musical Notation to Teach Word Syllables

by Anne Ursu | 02 Apr 2016
Resource Description: This lesson plan coincides with a project I am working on about discourse analysis. For this assignment, we were asked to search through textbooks and analyze the text within a chosen chapter of these books. The textbooks could be ESL-related, or they could be any other type of textbook. If another type of textbook is used, it must be treated as if I am teaching it to a classroom of ESL students as well. The textbook I chose to analyze was World regional geography: People, places, and globalization (2012) by Royal Berglee, with specific focus on Chapter 10: East Asia. To perform my discourse analysis, I utilized James Paul Gee’s How to do discourse analysis: A tool kit (2011). I used two tools listed in this book’s ‘tool kit’, but the one this lesson plan is based on is the ‘Cohesion Tool’. While reading through this high school geography textbook, I came across some vocabulary words that would be difficult for some students to use, if this book were to be taught to an ESL class. So, with my musical background, I decided to teach the pronunciation of these words by using musical rhythmic notations.
Audience: Adult, Elementary, Secondary
Audience Language Proficiency: Advanced, Intermediate
Duration: 30 minutes
Language Skill: Listening, Speaking, Vocabulary
Content Area: Students and teachers should draw on the subject area of music for this exercise. The main purpose though is for students to enhance their pronunciation skills and vocabulary knowledge.
Materials and Technology:
  1. World regional geography: People, places, and globalization (2012) textbooks
  2. Knowledge about musical notation. This website is a helpful tool to help beginners learn how to clap rhythms
  3. Musical notation computer software (Programs include Finale, Note Flight, etc.)
  4. Either printed out sheets of music with the rhythms annotated or notecards with the rhythms drawn out on them
  5. Chalk board/Dry erase board
  1. The ESL students will learn more advanced vocabulary words.
  2. The students will be able to clap word syllables.
  3. The students will learn a fun skill to learn vocabulary words using musical notation.
  4. Everyone will have fun! (Hopefully!)
Outcome(s): By the end of this lesson, the goal is for the students to be able to pronounce the difficult words in the textbook. They will be able to clap the syllables/rhythms of the words. New vocabulary will be obtained and understood.

1.    Before class begins, it is the teacher’s responsibility to use some kind of musical notating software to create the rhythms. If a teacher is unfamiliar with musical notations, here is a website that can help explain the basics of rhythms:

This website is a game, and if a teacher would like, they can use this at the beginning of the class to help the students familiarize themselves with musical rhythms. Once a teacher understands this concept, they can use a software such as Finale or Note Flight to write out rhythms. The teacher can print these rhythms out, or they can just draw the rhythms on notecards.

2.    The teacher will begin class by asking the students to pull out their World regional geography (2012) textbooks. Once the students do so, the teacher will then discuss with the students that this upcoming reading assignment will be Chapter 10: East Asia. The teacher must make it clear that some of the vocabulary words in this chapter are new, and today they will learn these new words in a unique way – they will learn the words by using musical rhythms.

3.    The teacher will then pass out the musical rhythm sheets to each student (if they chose this route).

4.    The teacher will then just have the students clap single beats (quarter notes) with them. This should be relatively easy for everyone to follow.

5.    While clapping these single beats, the teacher will then speak, “DOO-DOO, DOO-DOO”, while they are clapping to demonstrate to the students that each “DOO” fits with each clap. The teacher will have the students repeat after them. Repeat this task as needed.

6.    Now, the teacher will either tell the students to look at their rhythm sheets at the first bar only, or the teacher will hold up a notecard with this bar (depending on which route the teacher takes). The teacher will then repeat the “DOO-DOO, DOO-DOO” clapping/speaking exercise. Repeat as needed.

7.    The first word that the teacher will demonstrate is ‘sector.’ The teacher will then change, the “DOO” words to “SEC-TOR, SEC-TOR”. Students will repeat after the teacher.

8.    The teacher will thusly continue this same exercise. Different rhythms will be required for the next few words. The second word is ‘arable.’ The corresponding rhythmic phrase is “DOO-DAY DOO, DOO-DAY DOO”; “ARA-BLE, “ARA-BLE”.

9.    The third word is ‘repression.’ The corresponding rhythmic phrase is “DOO DOO-DAY, DOO-DAY”; “RE-PRE-SSION, RE-PRE-SSION.”

10.  The final word is ‘degradation.’ The corresponding rhythmic phrase is “DOO-DAY DOO-DAY, DOO-DAY DOO-DAY;” “DE-GRE-DA-TION, “DE-GRE-DA-TION.”

11.  After the exercise, the teacher can then write these four words on the board: Sector, Arable, Repression, and Degradation. The teacher can pronounce the words, and have the students repeat after them just to get more practice. For homework, the students must find the definitions of these four words.

Assessment: No grading is necessary for this. It is just a fun exercise to incorporate music into teaching English. 

The teacher can repeat this exercise in the future if they wish. They can also use the game provided on this website to help the students practice their musical rhythm skills:


Berglee, R. (2012). East Asia. World regional geography: People, places, and globalization (459-499). Washington, D.C.: Flat World Knowledge.

Gee, J.P. (2011). How to do discourse analysis: A tool kit (2nd ed.).  New York, NY:   Routledge.

Useful Links:

(Note: Finale must be purchased for use. Note Flight can be used on the Basic package for free.)

Uploaded Files:
TESOL Interest Section: Elementary Education, English as a Foreign Language, Speech, Pronunciation, and Listening, Teacher Education