Month: July 2015

More than just a pretty tune: musical intelligence and ESL


Buddy you’re a boy, make a big noise

Playin’ in the street gonna be a big man some day!

You got mud on yo’ face, big disgrace,

Kickin’ your can all over the place, singin’

We will, we will rock you!  Rock you!

There may be a few people out there who do not know this song, but I suspect that many people will recognize the stomp-stomp-clap pattern when the audience sings along with the band, Queen.

Inside each and every one of us is a musically intelligent being.  Some discover their inner musician whilst under the shower, others whilst listening to their favorite singer.  My husband, for instance, cannot hold a tune to save his life, but has a song reference for everything he does and sees.  I can throw any random word at him, and he has a song to match.  When I don’t believe him, he looks it up on Youtube, and proves it actually exists, along with a cover song or two.  That’s a game he wins every time.

The question for us, of course, is how to apply this knowledge to teaching ESL?  No doubt enough teachers out there already know a load of children’s songs, singing them daily to help teach new vocabulary and reinforce already learned concepts.  But what about the rhythms of the language?  I decided to play around with my ESL preschoolers and came up with a fun idea.

I started with flashcards.  For instance, if teaching words the children might need during their summer holiday, I would teach words like sand, bucket, shovel, boat, fish, and sun.  I would take three flashcards, then hold them up, one at a time.  The children would say the words as they saw them.  It never took long before the children found the pattern: sun, boat, fish, sun, boat, fish, sun, boat, fish….

The children would then get the assignment to make their own patterns.  Preparation for this activity was simple enough.  First, I looked up pictures using Google image seeker and saved them to my computer.  (tip: use “image settings” on Google to get line drawings.  These are easier to use.)  Second, I pasted a number of each picture onto a sheet of paper, in random order.  It’s important that the children be able to cut around the pictures, so I left a bit of space in between.

Line drawings of the words we've been learning during the lessons.

Line drawings of the words we’ve been learning during the lessons, collected from Google images (settings: line drawings).

Third, I made a number of long, thin strips of paper, one for each child.  These were usually around 50 cm (about 20 in) in length, but longer was also fine.

The children then got to work.  Each child decided what words he wanted to use, and then cut out a number of these words.  As a minimum, the preschoolers had to use two different words, and the kindergarteners at least three.  After that, he lined up his pictures to make a pattern.  For some, this was a more difficult task than for others.   Only after the child created a pattern did he get a strip of paper.  He then stuck the pictures onto the strip of paper, and then read his pattern out loud.  Voila!  A chant!

A few samples of simple patterns children might make.

A few samples of simple patterns children might make.

It was always fun to see what kinds of patterns the children made up.  I found that they also enjoyed “reading” their patterns out loud to their classmates, and these patterns made excellent material to keep in the children’s language portfolios.


Multiple Intelligences and ESL lesson planning

9_MIOnce upon a time, long, long ago, I was given an article to read by my art teacher.  It had been written by a man named Howard Gardner.  It was a difficult read, including all sorts of concepts I’d never heard of before: logical-mathematical intelligence, visual-spatial intelligence, and other such concepts.  After a few reads, I had an idea of what Mr. Gardner meant, and was ready to present the article to the rest of the class.  Back then, only seven intelligences had been identified.  Nowadays, there are nine.  I won’t go into detail about this theory here, but will encourage interested readers to look it up on wikipedia (

Gardner’s theory interested me greatly, so you can only imagine how pleased I was years later when I found out that the Dalton school I worked at also wished to apply this theory in its own teaching practice.  So off I went, figuring out how to include multiply intelligent activities in my own ESL lessons.


A portion of my blank lesson planner

I plan my lessons a theme at a time.  That way, the lessons build up in a logical fashion to a certain objective.  I start by picking objectives from my semi-annual planning.  Then I grab the objectives provided by the textbook I’m using, if that’s what I’m using.  After that, it’s time to dream.  The sky’s the limit.  What kinds of fun games can we do, while learning to speak, read, write and understand English?  This is where the multiple intelligences come in.  What can we do to stimulate children’s learning while activating their various intelligences?

Of course, it’s easy enough to fill in the Musical intelligence.  Songs, songs, and more songs… but also, rhythm!  English is a language full of rhythm, and it would be a shame not to put that to proper use every chance we get.  Clapping the words, stomping them out, until the children literally feel the words coming through their mouths.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is also pretty easily filled in.  Charades, TPR exercises, and role plays are basic means of activating this intelligence.  I also employ sign language every so often, and children remember the words combined with the motions, placing their new vocabulary inside their bodies.

What could we do with our logical-mathematical intelligences?  Putting story cards in order, sorting words per theme, and “odd one out” topped my list most times.  We also made a flowchart describing animals and played a quiet game with hoops in the form of a Venn Diagram whenever I needed a lesson that started with some quiet.

The naturalist intelligence was a bit more difficult for me.  I often made do by connecting the theme-related words to weather, climate or culture.  It wasn’t perfect, but I comforted myself with the idea that as long as we activated most of the intelligences, we were helping every child learn via his or her various intelligences.

Interpersonal intelligence was often filled in with role plays, while intra-personal intelligence led to journal pages, family portraits, and presentations about ourselves.

We often drew pictures in our project notebooks, activating the children’s visual-spatial intelligence, or used posters, played memory games, drew mind maps, and used flashcards to activate their visual memories.

The linguistic intelligence was easiest of all, it seemed, as foreign language instruction was really all about language.  Even here, though, I made certain to put in special language-based activities: telling jokes and simple puns, making crossword puzzles for the older children, reading stories and poems to the younger ones.

I never worked with the existentialist intelligence, having only learned of its existence after I stopped working with young children.  A pity, perhaps, but also a space to be developed by other ESL teachers around the world, I hope.

As time went by, I ended up developing, finding, and implementing a wide array of tools to get children learning English in ways that worked best for them.  Over a decade later, I look at a cupboard full of good stuff, in the hope I can share it once again.