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5 Ways Music Can Help Your English Learners

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Research from a few years ago painted music as the panacea for all second language instruction. The ensuing buzz created several products and systems based on that assumption. Though the hype has died down, using music as one educational tool among many is still just as effective as it ever was, when used properly. I recently spoke with my mom about her career as an educator and how music has helped the English learners she’s worked with. She’s taught first through sixth graders for the last 30 years, in the classroom and as a music teacher, and it’s always fun to hear her enthusiasm as she talks about how her students respond to the songs and instruments she uses in her classes. Based on my conversation with my mom, as well as insights from other educators, here are five ways music can help your English learners:

5 Ways Music Can Help Your English Learners

Research from a few years ago painted music as the panacea for all second language instruction.

The ensuing buzz created several products and systems based on that assumption. Though the hype has died down, using music as one educational tool among many is still just as effective as it ever was, when used properly.

I recently spoke with my mom, a career elementary school teacher, about her career as an educator and how music helped the English learners she worked with.

She taught first through sixth graders for the last 30 years, in the classroom and as a music teacher. She relayed her enthusiasm as she talks about how her students respond to the songs and instruments she uses in her classes.

Read More: 5 Ways music helps struggling readers

Here are five ways music can help your English learners:

  1. Music lowers the affective filter.
    My mom’s most immediate observation was one of inclusion. She mentioned how students who are bored, shy, or feel out of place because they can’t communicate (or for any other reason), open up when music is used as a teaching tool. Put a drum or a didgeridoo in their hands or teach them a silly rhyme, and there are no shy kids.
     
  2. Music can stimulate vocabulary acquisition and retention.
    She also mentioned how music helps her students quickly pick up the vocabulary used in songs and that they almost always remember the lyrics the following week. This has been true for her English learners, as well as her English-speaking students who are learning songs in another language.
    Music promotes language chunking and helps students master additional words and phrases that they can then use in other contexts.
     
  3. Music can link students’ cultural references.
    Music has been called the universal language, and is often one of the first things we associate with a particular culture. Because it can convey so much more than what the lyrics alone tell us, music can create bonds between students from different cultural backgrounds.
    For an English learner who feels isolated, making a cross-cultural connection with music can greatly improve their comfort level at school.
     
  4. Music provides opportunities for joint productive activity.
    Music can provide the perfect situation for students to work with each other, and their teacher, to create something. In last week’s webinar, Mia Allen talked about how joint productive activity can aid in developing fluency. By giving students the chance to collaborate in an engaging setting, music helps students gain greater mastery of their second language.
     
  5. Music and language are learned in very similar ways.
    A recent study showed that students who could identify a misplaced note in a song were more apt to identify misplaced elements of language. As a student learns even the most basic musical concepts of rhythm and beat, his or her brain is practicing the very similar skills of language interpretation.

    Well known composer and music educator Zoltan Kodály said that, as with music, “One should learn with his or her ears before learning with his or her eyes. In learning one’s own language … skills are developed by ear before the reading and writing of language is introduced.”

While incorporating music into your English language instruction can require additional preparation, especially if your school doesn’t have a music program, a little effort can go a long way.

The chants in Imagine Language & Literacy are fun and exciting activities that leverage the teaching power of music for your students, and these songs can be used offline in the class as well!

Read More: Using Music to Teach English as a Second Language

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