When you speak English, you speak with a rhythm.
WHEN you speak ENglish, you SPEAK with a RHYthm.
Did you hear it? Did you hear how the accents lined up so nicely? Those accents are part of what makes English easier to understand. Those accents also help the listener decide what words are really important: the accented words give the sentence its meaning, while the other words give the sentence its structure. It’s such a simple thing, but it makes the classroom teacher easier to understand when giving simple classroom commands such as “Open your BOOKS,” and “PICK up your PENcils.” What are the important words? Open, books, pick, and pencils.
The learner learns to use this accented structure when speaking, and will often copy this structure when giving commands such as “Open books,” or “Pick pencils”. The extra words “your” and “as” are added as the learner increases in fluency.
Besides increasing understandability in English, however, this innate rhythm can be used to increase learner fluency with longer passages of speaking. For instance, by embedding the language to be learned in a chant, learners can practice using the new words in longer passages without worrying about correctness. One woman, musician-teacher Carolyn Graham, realized that the natural rhythm found the English language could be used to help learners practice certain natural structures commonly found in daily conversation. She subsequently wrote several volumes of “Jazz Chants” which are used in ESL/EFL classrooms around the world today. Below is an example of one of her chants, called “John Brown”.
When using these chants in my own classroom, I make sure the children have a written copy of the words in front of them. This way, they can read along quietly, while I read the chant aloud. Next, they read along with me, giving the children time to process all of the information: what are they seeing, what are they saying, what are they hearing, and how does what they say match what the teacher says. Processing this information takes time, so we always start slowly. After one or two choral read-throughs, it’s time to mix up the game. I break the chant up into smaller chunks, and the class into equally many “chunks”. The children read along quietly, and when it’s their turn, they get to show off how well they can read along with the chant. For a few turns, different groups get different parts of the chant to read aloud. By the third time we read the chant, everyone knows exactly how to read it aloud and the chant sounds perfect.
Incidentally, I almost never have a child read aloud on his own because this really puts the child on the spot: every mistake he makes is heard by everyone. During choral reading, this effect is negated because the voices are heard in a group. Errors can still be heard, but since no one knows who made a particular mistake, the children are less likely to be self-conscious about reading aloud.
Carolyn Graham’s Jazz Chants are a very structured way of offering speaking practice during the English lesson. There is another, less structured way of practicing simple structures in the English language: embed the language to be learned in a simple call-and-answer mini-dialogue.
Here’s how it works: let’s assume the children are learning to talk about their daily chores. Words that might be learned are “washing the dishes”, “walking the dog”, “sweeping the floor”, or “making the bed”. I find pictures on the internet that match each of these meanings, and put them either on flashcards or on a single slide of a power point. Next, we study a simple call-and-answer mini-dialogue. For instance:
“What is he doing?” “He’s walking the dog.”
“What is he doing?” “He’s sweeping the floor.”
“What is he doing?” “He’s making the bed,” etcetera, etcetera.
During the “chant” itself, I ask my question and point to one of the pictures. The children respond with the correct answer. Because of the call-and-answer structure, the children are forced to think quickly about their answers. Again, because the entire group is participating, learner errors are only noted by the speakers themselves, and not by the entire class. The children receive instant feedback on their answers in the form of mental notes to self: Yes! I got it! or Oops, try again. Of course, I start slowly, and speed up as I note their improvement. Also, when I note that a certain word or phrase is causing difficulty, we can return to it as often as we need, until the entire class can use that particular word or phrase without hesitation.
This flexible structure can be used with many different kinds of words, with any age group. Here are a few examples of some mini-dialogues:
(color) “What color is this?” “It’s red.” “What color is this?” “It’s blue.”
(weather) “How’s the weather?” “It’s rainy.” “How’s the weather?” “It’s sunny.”
(animals and climate) “What do you see?” “A lion.” “Where does it live?” “The savanna.” “What do you see?” “A monkey.” “Where does it live?” “The jungle.”
Of course, it’s important to make sure that the words you use will fit, rhythmically, into the mini-dialogue. This can be a bit tricky at first, but with a bit of practice, you can build these flexible call-and-answer games into any one of your own lessons. Who knows, maybe some of your own learners can create chants of their own to share with the class!
I’m curious to hear if anyone else uses chants in their own lessons. If you do, please feel free to share your experiences!
Note: one site that has many free downloadable power points, flashcards, and handouts is www.mes-english.com. I often use the materials from this site to support my own lessons. It’s worth checking out!