The class is a little out of hand and the teacher decides that a good way to get their students back on track is by playing a bit of music. The teacher plays the song, barely audible over the din of the students, and starts choreographing on the spot. Some of the students start to copy the teacher’s actions, some continue playing with their friends, and the song finishes. This is not how to teach a song to young learners.
Conversely, a teacher sees that a song is part of the lesson for the day. As it includes a lot of the target language, they decide to play it many times. They play it ten times as a matter of fact. There is no reward, but the teacher gets very angry if the students aren’t focused on the song. The whole class sits the entire time looking extremely bored—some even look longingly at the door and have one hand on their backpack as if planning an escape. This also, is not a good way to teach a song to young learners.
Both of the above examples are things that I’ve seen inexperienced teachers try when confronted with teaching a song in a TEFL classroom. You don’t have to be very musical to successfully teach songs to young learners. All you really need to do is to follow these five steps.
If you already know how to teach songs to young learners, but are struggling with what songs to use, you can get access to my top YL TEFL songs by clicking on the button below.
Step 1: Get the Attention of the Class
In past posts, I’ve discussed attention grabbers at length. Before you try to start teaching a song, you need to make sure that your class is in the proper headspace. The first few minutes of teaching a song are going to require the students to calmly listen, so it’s a good idea to get rid of their excess energy before beginning this endeavor.
To do this, you can either make sure that you’ve planned an active game before the song or simply do a quick thirty-second TPR challenge. The latter is when you as the teacher simply tell your students what to do or elect students to come up with the next action. Some example commands: run, swim, dance, stretch, turn around, fly, jump, ride a bicycle, etc.
Another good method of getting the class’s attention for a song is to bring in some props or photos. If I was to teach “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, I might bring in a stuffed animal lamb or show a picture. I’ve even dressed in costume a few times, which had a great effect on the students and got them involved before I even began teaching the song. A little bit of theatrics goes a long way.
Step 2: Listen to and Read the Song
This may seem obvious, but a common mistake when using songs in a TEFL classroom is not actually teaching the song. The fear, I believe, is that either the teacher will waste too much class time teaching the song or that the students will get restless. The students won’t be restless as long as they aren’t coming from a calm activity and they aren’t expected to sit still for too long. As for wasting class time, songs are some of the best ways to get students speaking naturally and remembering more than single word utterances. Especially if the song is related to the lesson of the day, it is definitely NOT a waste of time.
Before you get the students to sing, play the song once. If the students’ level is high enough, have them read along with the lyrics. If not, try to use flashcards or other visuals to help give the song some sort of context. After they’ve heard the song once and are familiar with the melody, it’s time for the next step.
Step 3: Teach the Song in Chunks While Adding Actions
If possible, I try to have the lyrics projected onto the board, or I will write the lyrics on the board before class. This is useful, even if the students’ reading level is low, so that students know where they are in the song.
Now is the time to get the students out of their seats. You are going to teach the song in chunks and add actions to it. This way, rather than just listening and repeating, they will be using TPR (total physical response) to learn the song.
Chunking means teaching a section of the song (e.g. one verse or just the chorus) at a time. Teach the section line by line adding actions as you go. Then, when you get to the end of the section, repeat it with the actions to make sure the student’s know and remember it.
Adding actions can be done in a few different ways. Either the teacher can have all of the actions pre-determined or it can be a collaborative process with the students. Personally, I prefer to come up with the actions with my students. So if the lyrics are about the sun coming up, I will sing the line with the students and inquisitively look around the room. I might give an example and when one of the students either copies or comes up with a different idea, I will praise them and have the whole class copy it. After a few actions, they will understand this and be actively coming up with dance moves for the song.
Step 4: Put it All Together
At this point, the students should know all of the components of the song, but will still likely have a hard time remembering the whole song. Depending on the class, I sometimes will put a few chunks together before doing the whole song. The easiest way to do this is to play the first half and then the second half.
Once they are ready, it’s time to play the whole song, with actions. As long as the song is the appropriate level, they understand it (for the most part) and the actions are fun, the students should be pretty excited. Make sure to build up suspense by asking, “Are you ready for the whole song?!” Get them to cheer before singing it.
Step 5: Reward the Students
The whole process of teaching a new song (depending on length) should take ten to fifteen minutes. Songs are a valuable tool in any TEFL teacher’s arsenal and will help your students retain the vocabulary and learn the correct pronunciation. Also, it’s important to remember that individuals learn differently. Singing songs will not be every student’s favorite activity, but it will be for some. It’s important to vary learning techniques to reach all of the students in a class.
Your students have just done a lot of work. They’ve had to focus and memorize a lot of lines. They’ve had to be creative and come up with actions. They’ve had to work together to sing the song correctly. Make sure that your students know that they did a great job by rewarding them.
One method of rewarding them is giving the students a sticker, stamp or sweet. It doesn’t have to be that complicated though. One of the most effective rewards a teacher can give is simply praise. Tell them that they did a great job and have them cheer and clap for themselves. Make sure that they know you are proud of them.
Hopefully, by breaking down teaching songs in a YL classroom, I’ve taken away some of the fear that teachers feel when confronting this part of a lesson. Please comment below if you have any other tricks or techniques for teaching songs in your TEFL classroom. Also, if you are eager to incorporate songs into your classroom, you can get a link to ten great songs for kids by clicking on the button below.