Thursday, April 14, 2011

Using Music to Teach Language to ELLS

On the April 11th #ELLCHAT, a Twitter discussion group for teachers of English language learners, we discussed the benefits of using music and drama in to teach English to ELLs. One of our participants asked the groups’ thoughts about bilingual songs that switch between languages.
My reaction to this question was that it would be fun to have songs that switch between languages - especially for ESL. It’s normal for bilingual children to switch from one language to the other. I was looking at the question from an affective point of view, not a linguistic one. I was thinking of the ELL who is bombarded by information in English all day long. He may be new to the country and suffering from culture shock. He may be a young preschooler or kindergarten student who feels homesick. By including bilingual songs in the curriculum, I believed that teachers are demonstrating an appreciation of other languages and establishing a welcoming environment for ELLs in our classroom.

My friend and active #ELLchat participant @Karen Nemeth. Preschool expert and author of Many Languages, One Classroom: Teaching Dual and English Language Learners convinced me that I can not ignore the linguistic ramifications. Thank you Karen for your input.
Here is Karen’s answer to me.
Language experts are always in favor of using songs and music to support language learning because of the rhythms, focus on sounds like rhymes, the repetition and the familiarity and the kinesthetic learning associated with movement and dancing - as well as the fun! Early literacy experts focus heavily on the value of music for supporting language and literacy learning for ALL young children - and we also know that plenty of music education is linked to better math skills later on also.

What I object to is the notion of having two languages in the same song. We know from research about young children's language processing that their brains will focus on the familiar language and tune out the new language when they are presented simultaneously. I recommend singing lots of songs - but singing in one language or the other. Songs sung completely in one language or the other help the children to focus on whole phrases and sentences and get used to pronouncing strings of words.

So, by all means, I would expect that every early childhood teacher that has children from other languages in her class should be singing songs in their language right from the start. Even if the class were called "ESL" I would never condone a class for preschool or kindergarten that has nothing in the child's home language. So even if the teacher knows no words in Polish, for example, she can play Polish music and learn with the kids - and all the kids can learn some of their friend's language too.

I believe it is essential that teachers of young children in diverse classrooms MUST learn at least a few words of every language in their class and they MUST have materials to support every language they have. Every teacher MUST show respect for each child's language because it is part of his or her identity - and the teacher does this by making the effort to learn those few words and songs and stories. And the teacher must actively demonstrate this respect because she is a critical role model for respecting differences and valuing each student equally regardless of majority or minority status. When the teacher brings in Polish music and learns with her student, this forms the bridge that supports the Polish child getting used to school and learning in English as well. And - sometimes the whole class should also be singing songs in English because the repetition, movement, sounds etc will help with the transition to English, while nicely supporting literacy learning in the monolingual English speakers at the same time.

Thank you Karen for this outstanding answer. From now on, I will advocate that teachers make children feel welcome in their classrooms through the use of songs in the native languages of her students.

To Karen and me, this conversation is an example of the collegiality and collaboration that grows via Twitter, Facebook and our other social media.


Corey Heller said...

I completely agree that when we are focusing solely on pedagogical best practices, then the logical choice is to keep languages completely separate in all situations (songs, stories, etc.).

However, I think we often become overly pedantic in our approaches and forget that language learning is about so much more than vocabulary, sentences, grammar, etc.

If a teacher happens to come across a great bilingual song that would be fun for the children in class (help them bond, laugh, interact) then I would encourage that teacher to use it in class without worrying that the children were not learning something specific about the English language.

Ultimately, ELL classes should be about so much more than just learning words and sentences (written or spoken). It should be about feeling comfortable in an English-speaking environment to the point of wanting to learn the language and what it means to be part of the surrounding English-speaking society. Much of this comes from a trusting bond which develops between student and teacher.

Sure, none of this will be part of the standardized testing but the students in that class will be the ones who go on to love learning the language and will excel because they feel comfortable in it.

Can we do all of this without introducing bilingual songs or books? Yes, of course. But if we are more concerned about pedagogical minutia than bonding with our students, then we have already started down a slippery slope.

The truth is, I think it would be hard to find good bilingual songs anyway! Most are in one language or the other. Let me know if you can find any, I'd be delighted to hear to them!

everythingESL said...

Thanks Corey for your thoughtful reply. I agree that feeling comfortable in the new environment is of prime importance. I think this can be done by having the teacher teach songs in the languages of the students.

Karen Nemeth said...

Thanks, Corey. I agree - a little less worrying and a lot more fun will make education better for the children AND the adults!

Skype English Lesson said...

Yes, I agree with teaching through music and songs. I'm an ALT in Japan and find this is a way for students to put the language into some kind of context as well. Songs not only allow the students to use the new words, but it's fun. In addition the melodies increase the chances for retention.

I also recommend hand movements. Some learners remember well when associated with physical movement. It's also more fun.

Great blog!

CharlesKelsey@Learn English said...

Using music as a form of learning english is a very good way as well especially for kids. I often don't need to argue about having my daughter learn new things when I know she is able to get it without me forcing her once she hears music or songs.

Anonymous said...

Corey your blog is very insightful. I too agree that we spend far too much time worrying about whether or not we are meeting the standards. I believe that we are so focused on the standards that we forget that learning is supposed to be fun and that it's okay to listen to a song that is bilingual.

Roger Jones said...

Hi, Judie! Good idea on using bilingual music. Asians are extremely loyal to their local songs. I teach Koreans and Korean pop is very popular nowadays. The songs of Psy like Gentleman and Gangnam have reached globally. This could be used as jumppoint to switch to English songs.