Friday, May 20, 2011

ACTION SONGS: LEARNING WITH FUN

© Enric Calvet
Most of us learnt our first words in our native language sitting down on our parents knees and singing a song with the help of some movements or actions. Those words were learnt in a natural and funny way without anyone being conscious of it and, what's more, our parents weren't making a point of teaching the language.
In primary schools songs have been used in any teaching-learning process as an important and widely-used educational resource for many reasons. It doesn't work, of course, exactly in the same way as it does for babies, but we are benefiting from some of the strategies that we used with them: a combination of methodologies (Constructivism, Natural Approach,...) and a combination of activities and resources such as games, rhymes or songs.

What we call Action Songs (songs with movements for miming and role-playing the words and the language structures), have been used in the foreign language classroom to help in a lot of different aspects. Maybe the most important ones are:

  • to learn and enjoy English at the same time,
  • to introduce, repeat, practice and produce many items of language, such as structures, vocabulary or pronunciation in an indirect and non stressful way,
  • to lose inhibition and fears of communicating in English in front of the rest of the class,
  • to do a different TPR activity,
  • to give a natural approach to the language by using it in a real context.


There are many different ways to introduce and learn new vocabulary and structures.
Teachers use flashcards to associate words with pictures, real objects, family words,... Action songs also allow the possibility of associating words with movements, and this increases the understanding and the use of these new words in a full sentence.

Action songs are very popular among children in the school and, it is not necessary to say that they are always ready to sing a new song or to repeat an old one in a new version. As teachers we have to take advantage of this because they can be used in many contexts with different aims:

  • Practice all four skills. Songs are basically oral activities but they have a component of reading for understanding and writing in a word or structural level.
  • Reinforce the rhythm, intonation and pronunciation without being tiresome it. Is a very good way to implement word stressing, rising and falling tone, similar and different phonetic sounds, etc.
  • Extend language: songs are a wonderful real context to introduce, practice and revise language, filling it with words or structures with a lot of repetition. This is a powerful capability that helps language teaching.
  • Encourage children to take their English outside the classroom. This is the best way of checking to see if the song has been successful among children. When the English class finishes children should sing the song outside the classroom, in the playground or in their way home.
  • Begin, extend or end a topic. It is a very good resource to introduce a topic. And what's more, songs can fit perfectly into the general syllabus and help to reach the objectives.
  • As a memory aid. With action songs we are working with the three memories: visual, auditive and senso-motorial memory and this improve a lot the short and long term memory.
  • To create a relaxed environment. Nobody is afraid or inhibited singing a song (if we sing in group) and everybody talks out loud, uses and enjoys English.
  • Support other class activities.
  • Starting or ending a class as a warm up to change from one subject to another, for exciting or for settling them down in some cases.

How can we exploit songs in the English class? There are many ways to do that, and here you are some of the most well known:

  1. Inventing a new strophe. As songs use a lot of structure repetition we can continue the song with new strophes including vocabulary that children already know
  2. Follow instructions or use the song as a TPR activity. Songs as "Head and shoulders" and many others teach parts of the body and can be used as a Total
  3. Physical Response instruction activity.
  4. Changing sentences to facilitate comprehension. There are a lot of songs that teachers like but they don't use in Primary because they find the vocabulary too difficult. Why don't you try changing the sentences with words and structures that students know? Be careful to maintain stress and rhyme.
  5. Inventing actions or movements. Songs about animals, habits, skills or sports include movements showing the actions and improving comprehension.
  6. Using onomatopoeic sounds. Onomatopoeias are very useful for practicing pronunciation and difficult English sounds for foreign learners. Some songs can include onomatopoeias to express the sounds of objects or actions; working in this way makes phonetics non boring exercise.
  7. Acting-out a song. Songs such as "The wheels of the bus" allow acting-out by giving "characters" to children: some are the wheels, some are the people on the bus, one is the driver,... and they act with the proposed movements of the song.
  8. Translate and adapt an action song from L1. Probably the most difficult one, but if you can get it, success is assured. There are a lot of songs that children know from nursery school: melody and words are worked out and the translation facilitates faster learning.

Final suggestions we have to take into account when using songs:

  • Songs must be suitable for the English level of the students group.
  • In Nursery and Primary the topics of the songs must be close to children's interests: nature, habits, sports,...
  • The melody has to be "sticky", to pop into students heads very easily.
  • Don't introduce too many items of vocabulary in one go (five or six are enough)
  • The recording has to be clear and understandable.

And remember: the most important thing is that...  
You must like the song!
©Enric Calvet. Barcelona APAC ELT Convention, 1996

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