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.


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