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.