Teaching Preschool ESL: Songs
Songs and music are such an important part of an ESL preschool curriculum. Not only are they fun, but they are also very powerful tools to help young students learn English in a fun and entertaining way. Learning a second language at the preschool level needs to be experienced through engaging activities - words and actions need to go in tandem. Songs allow the children to move along and learn in a pleasant, fun way, in accordance with the TPR technique. They also serve as a tool to lower students’ affective filter - according to the famous linguist Stephen Krashen’s theory (1983), students can develop a blockage/filter toward their study because of a negative emotional attitude. When that filter is low, thanks to triggering students’ interest, teaching provides maximum results. Songs have that power.
Why should I bother to use songs? Are they even educational?
Songs have an incredibly high pedagogical value in a preschool classroom and language teaching. In my personal experience, as I had the privilege to serve as a preschool teacher for years, distracted and bored children became instantly alert and motivated to sit/focus as soon as I approached the stereo. They anticipated fun and movement, and I had my own expectations for enhancing their learning and retention. While the students are singing, vocabulary and grammar learning happens subconsciously.
According to a very comprehensive, 360 pages long, E-material support package provided by Iowa State University, Sing Out Loud: Using music in the Classroom, there are multiple reasons for using songs in a language classroom.
Pedagogical Reasons for Using Songs in a Language Classroom:
- To provide authentic listening comprehension practice
- To cultivate interest in listening activities
- To introduce intonation and stress patterns
- To develop sound and word discrimination skills
- To increase active participation in listening activities
What benefits does using songs provide? Sing Out Loud: Using music in the Classroom, lists the following:
- Students learn and practice good prediction strategies
- Students encounter vocabulary and language in an authentic context
- Students practice speaking, reading, and writing in integrated ways
- Songs enhance cultural understanding
Research Findings: Songs and Language Acquisition
Research studies conducted with ESL students have shown the benefits of music and songs for vocabulary acquisition. A study conducted on five-year-old preschool students in Spain (Coyle & Gomez Garcia, 2014) has demonstrated that songs have a positive impact on the receptive, lexical knowledge of young learners. Another study of 8-to-11-year-old Taiwanese children (Chou, 2014) has also shown increased lexical knowledge. One more study by Davis and Fan (2016) has indicated gains in productive vocabulary by Chinese-speaking kindergarteners.
Clearly, using songs in a language classroom, particularly in a preschool classroom, offers many benefits. Songs can and should be matched with themes to increase motivation. When incorporated with pictures, they increase interest and comprehension. Children get the opportunity to practice producing spoken English, and they improve their pronunciation and intonation.
Song Examples Suitable for Beginner/Early Intermediate Students
- The Alphabet Song
- I am a Little Teapot
- Itsy Bitsy Spider
- Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
- Mary Had a Little Lamb
- Wheels On the Bus
- The Happy Song
- Head Shoulders Knees and Toes
- Are You Sleeping?
- Hokey Pokey
How to Select Songs to Enhance Language Learning?
“Children love singing songs. They love saying chants in rhythm. They enjoy repeating phrases that rhyme. They enjoy moving to that rhythm, clapping their hands, tapping their feet, and dancing to the beat. Music and movement naturally connect to children’s hearts, minds, and bodies.” (Shin, 2017. English Teaching Forum)
Using songs similar to the ones mentioned above, short and repetitive, with simple melodies, repetitions, and rhymes, children will find them easy to remember and enjoy the corresponding movements and gestures. ESL Teachers need to be discriminating as they select which songs to use. They can follow this simple checklist, featured in the 2017 English Speaking Forum:
Song Selection Checklist: Is this Song...?
- Connected to the language and content of the lesson?
- Compatible with the learners’ level of language proficiency?
- Attractive in melody and rhythm?
- Musically simple?
- Repetitive in text, rhythm, and melody?
- Easily adaptable to actions?
- Motivating and interesting to children?
When teachers select a suitable song based on those factors, they need to review the vocabulary that students already know, as well as pre-teach new vocabulary. After listening to the song (audio and especially video capture students’ interest), it needs to be taught line by line for students to memorize the song. Then the class can sing and move along, as well as do all the activities based on the song.
For example, when the teacher selects a song like “Wheels on the Bus,” he/she can draw the picture of the bus and elicit/teach the target vocabulary- bus, wheels, wipers, steering wheel, doors, babies, driver. The teacher would also teach the students to repeat/do the corresponding actions: swishing action, open and shut, etc. Afterward, students could play a game of “I say, You Do,” where the teacher would demonstrate the actions for students to imitate and repeat. Afterward, the students would sing along to “Wheels on the Bus” and read the book version of the song. The teacher would elicit the key vocabulary and involve students by asking lots of questions. Students can do engaging post-reading activities like arranging pictures in the order of the story, drawing the bus, or do a “Take the Bus” roleplay. The teacher would be the bus driver, and students would line up at the bus stop and get on the bus. He/she would give directions to the students to do various actions, such as beeping the horn, etc. The lesson could be ‘wrapped up with the Bus Draw worksheet homework. This lesson based on the Wheels on the Bus song is described in detail on the ESLKidStuff website.
To conclude, although language learning can be intimidating for young learners, music can be a great motivator. Songs serve as an excellent source of authentic material, offering preschool students an opportunity to practice their vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar skills. Songs increase student attentiveness and therefore assist language learning. ESL teachers should use songs in their preschool curriculum to enhance their students’ learning and create a passion for the English language.
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