Instructional Strategies for supporting EL and Special Population students

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    Hi NAfME members!

    I’m currently in my first year of teaching and as part of clearing my credential I am participating in a credential induction program (BTSA). As part of my next BTSA project I need to plan a unit of instruction and choose an area of focus for improving my teaching practice. I teach in a district that has a high percentage of EL and Special Population (Special Ed, GATE, etc) students, so I have decided to investigate instructional strategies that I can use to support EL and Special Population students in my K-6 general music classes.

    If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions or can point me in the direction of where I can find some great strategies it would be much appreciated!


    Matt Guy
    Westminster, CA


    I teach in an inner-city where we have lots of ELLs. In Music class my strategies to help them include lots of visuals.

    For Grades K and higher, I have song lyrics on poster paper on an easel next to the carpet. I point to the words as I teach the song, then I have a competent kid point to the words as the class practices the song. (It’s a great way to have them sing the song ad nauseum and not get tired of it!) …. For older kids – Grade 3 and higher – ideally I would put the lyrics on an overhead projector and have the kids follow along with one kid at my computer pointing to the words. …. Well, my room is a converted storage room so needless to say I don’t have a projector!! My strategies are to put ELLs next to higher-ability students, hand out printouts of song lyrics and walk around while teaching phrases and make sure that the ELLs are following. I also ask a nearby student to help given students find the spot in the song or otherwise help the ELL student.

    Another strategy is to use pictures and motions to teach songs. These are great anyway to keep kids’ attention and engagement, but for ELLs they are a link between their language and English. There’s no language involved in pictures, which makes them universal communication tools! I have pictures related to the song on the easel with the lyrics – or I tape them to construction paper and laminate them – then let kids hold them up while they’re learning the song.

    Re: motions – use songs with motions, or create motions to go with songs you’re teaching. To check comprehension, after a couple times through the song with motions, ask the class how the motions relate to the song (this is probably grade 1-3); what do they have to do with the song. This will help kids realize (though it should be obvious) the relation and purpose in using motions.

    Good luck!!


    I am also in my first year of teaching, and I teach in an inner-city school with almost 50% ELLs, so I had to become SEI Endorsed (Sheltered English Immersion), which I did by taking the course on teaching ELLs offered by my school. The most useful things I learned from the course are:

    1) Always consider the background knowledge of your students. If you use examples of things they may not have experienced because they’re coming from a different culture, they will not even have the words in their native language, let alone in English. This means you’ll have to find ways to relate the new concepts to things they do understand. While I know some may cringe, I often end up connecting it to sports or other physical activities, because there are lots of ways to connect practicing and performing musically to athletics and the students mainly have sports they can connect to.

    2) Explicitly teach vocabulary. This means you need to scan your songs ahead of time for words that will be unfamiliar to them, then prioritize which ones you need to either a) just show a picture so they’ll get it; b) give a brief definition using simpler words that are familiar; or c) explicitly teach using a variation on the ‘7-Steps Strategy,’ which involves getting the students to echo the word, hear it’s official definition and a kid-friendly one, hear it in context, and practice using it. This one is less useful for garden-variety vocabulary in songs, as it’s a little overkill, but could be useful if you have a vocabulary word that you will be frequently using in the future in a variety of contexts. Remember – idioms and other expressions are an easy way to trip up an English Language Learner!

    If you’re interested in more resources, check out the PETALLS resources at UMASS Lowell – they have a whole collection of strategies and lesson plans, even if they aren’t music-related.


    Hi, Matt,

    Thank you for taking the time to post to the General Music forum to reach out for some help. There are a number of sources (people and books written by these people) that can be useful for you. Personally, I think that one expert within our own field of music education, Ryan Hourigan, is a safe bet as far as where to start with this. He has a number of articles out regarding special needs students and how to best include them in your classroom. One of his books, “Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A label-free approach” is a good starter read.

    All the best,

    Erin Zaffini

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