Using Music in the ESL Classroom

When students make a major breakthrough in learning, it is music to a teacher's ears. There is nothing more rewarding for a teacher, than seeing their students smile and laugh while they learn. The same can be said for students. Students who are taught in a fun and creative way, love coming to class. Using music in the classroom is a great way for teachers to achieve success with L2 learners. Oliver Wendall Holmes suggests taking a musical bath once a week, saying that music is "to the soul what water is to the body."

Music is the universal language of mankind.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Benefits of using Music

Have you ever heard of anyone who doesn't like music? Some people may not like art, dancing, reading, or movies, but almost everyone likes one kind of music or another. Most people like many different kinds of music. Studies have shown that music...

  • improves concentration
  • improves memory
  • brings a sense of community to a group
  • motivates learning
  • relaxes people who are overwhelmed or stressed
  • makes learning fun
  • helps people absorb material
Music stabilizes mental, physical and emotional rhythms to attain a state of deep concentration and focus in which large amounts of content information can be processed and learned.Chris Brewer, Music and Learning

Techniques for Using Music with L2 Learners

There are a variety of different ways to use music in the classroom. Some teachers prefer to use background music and others use music lyrics as the basis of a lesson. Music can be used to:

  • introduce a new theme or topic (Christmas/colours/feelings)
  • break the ice in a class where students don't know each other or are having difficulty communicating
  • change the mood (liven things up or calm things down)
  • teach and build vocabulary and idioms
  • review material (background music improves memory)
  • teach pronunciation and intonation
  • teach songs and rhymes about difficult grammar and spelling rules that need to be memorized ("i before e", irregular verbs, phrasal verbs)
  • teach reading comprehension
  • inspire a class discussion
  • teach listening for details and gist
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Music is the universal language of mankind.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Suggested Activities

Many teachers try using music once in the class, but forget to do it again. It might take a few times before you and your class get used to hearing music while learning. If you can commit to using music once a week, you may soon see the benefits, and realize that you want to do it more often and in a variety of ways. Here are 10 activities for you to try:

  1. Use background music such as classical, Celtic music or natural sounds to inspire creativity
  2. Teach your national anthem
  3. Teach a song that uses slang expressions ("I heard it through the Grape Vine")
  4. Teach a song that uses a new tense you have introduced
  5. Add variety to your reading comprehension lesson. Students can read lyrics and search for main idea, theme, details.
  6. Teach Christmas vocabulary through traditional carols
  7. Write or choose a classroom theme song
  8. Create (or use already prepared lessons) cloze exercises using popular song lyrics
  9. Create variations to familiar songs by making them personal for your class members or your lesson
  10. Have "lyp sync" contests. Allow students to choose their own songs. A little competition goes a long way in the classroom. Have groups explain the lyrics of their song before or after they perform.
When the music changes so, so does the dance.African proverb

Teaching Kids with Music

Using music with ESL kids has all of the same benefits mentioned above and more. Children are natural music lovers. You don't have to convince them that it will help them learn. If you feel uncomfortable singing in front of the class to teach a song, use an audio player. (Don't expect your students to sing if you don't. Remember, that they don't care about the quality of your singing voice, just like you don't care about theirs.) Here are some suggested activities to use with kids (If you are not familiar with any of the songs mentioned, simply put the titles into an online search):

  • Transition songs: Teach simple songs that indicate transitions from one activity to another, such as "clean up" songs and "hello/goodbye" songs.
  • Energy boosters: Teach simple action songs that require kids to stand up and move around. Think of traditional birthday games that use songs, such as pass the parcel (use a classroom mascot or other favourite item instead of a gift) or musical chairs.
  • Animal songs: Children love learning about animals! Teach animals and animal sounds using repetitive songs like "Old McDonald had a Farm" and "There was an Old Lady who swallowed a fly."
  • Remembering Names: Help students remember names of their classmates (this helps teachers too) with songs like "Willoughby Wallaby Woo."
  • Alphabet songs: Use lots of different alphabet songs (not just the traditional ABC) to help kids remember them in English. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault is a catchy children's book and song.
  • Colours: Teach the colours with various colour songs and rhythms, such as Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" or Kermit the Frog's "It aint easy being green."
  • Rewards: Reward hard working kids with "Music Time". Let them make requests for background music that they can listen to while they work on their written exercises.
  • Student teachers: Encourage the kids to teach each other songs from their own language. Turn this into an English lesson by having students translate the meaning.
Musical nourishment which is rich in vitamins is essential for children.Zolton Kodaly

Tips for Using Music Effectively

  • When teaching students a song, it is a good idea to introduce an instrumental version first (If an instrumental version is not available, play the song softly in the background while they are working on something or hum the melody before introducing the lyrics). If students become familiar with the sound of the music first, they will be more likely to understand the words.
  • Make a vocabulary list ahead of time. Go over the words once before you introduce the song.
  • Expose students to a certain song many days in a row. Within a few days, students will not be able to get the song out of their head!
  • Choose interactive songs whenever possible. Adding actions enhances language acquisition and memory.
  • Have soft or upbeat music playing before class to encourage a positive atmosphere. Turning the music off is a great way to signal to a large class that it is time to begin.