English Language Learners in Music Class

Here are some strategies for working with students with few or no English-language skills:

  • Create a low-risk environment that is safe and nurturing for all students. Classroom environment is critical. Children note every bit of the teacher’s verbal and nonverbal behavior.
  • Be patient.Students understand what is being said before they can speak the new language; the first step to learning English is listening. It may take some students months to respond through speech or an entire school year to be able to sing a song in class.
  • Talk less.Give short, concise directions and use lots of visual cues (e.g., to indicate “stand up” and “sit down”).
  • Allow more wait time so English language learners can join discussions. Students need time to translate English to their primary language, formulate an answer, and translate it to English.
  • Incorporate visual aids. Use richly illustrated children’s literature, especially illustrated folk or patriotic songs or nursery rhymes. Have students tap the beat while you read, or create your own s–m–lmelody.
  • Use gestures and facial expressions, and act out ideas.
  • Repeat songs. Have students sing the same song week after week. This allows them to internalize and take ownership of it. Change the words by season (e.g., “Five Little Bunnies that I Once Knew” could become “Five Little Snowmen that I Once Knew,” and so on).
  • Illustrate song phrases,especially for long songs. Students can draw a story board to help them remember the song at home.
  • Use fingerplays.They help focus students and make them more willing to sing. Try creating your own.
  • Use cooperative learning activities with older students. Try matching English-language learners with students who speak both English and the student’s native language. This also helps students who are progressing in English—they can improve their translation skills and gain leadership and cooperative skills.
  • Rephrase vocabulary terms in multiple ways. Review important concepts and key vocabulary throughout the lesson, not merely at the end.
  • Recognize students’ native languages and cultures.Use folk songs (good for beat practice), singing games, and children’s literature from many cultures.
  • Create word walls and living walls.They help all students to recall vocabulary and incorporate it in their speaking and writing. For units, begin with blank walls and add student-created visual expressions as the unit progresses.
  • Remove jargon and slang from your speech.

These techniques may increase attentitiveness and accelerate learning for all your students.

Adapted from “Structured English Immersion (SEI) in the Music Classroom: Music Instruction for Crossing Borders,” by Shelly Cooper and Samantha Grimm-Anderson, General Music Today, Winter 2007, and from “My Name is Maria: Supporting English Language Learners in the Kindergarten General Music Classroom,” by Martina Miranda, General Music Today, January 2011.

—Linda C. Brown, February 15, 2012, © National Association for Music Education (nafme.org)