One way to really enhance language development in the classroom or at home is through the use of music and gestures together. There are a number of studies that indicate that both music and gestures on their own greatly assist learning (see “Songs as an aid for language acquisition“, “Gesturing makes learning last“, and “Music and movement; instrumental in language development” for a starter). From our time in the classroom, we know that songs and gestures together absolutely assist learning. Songs allow students to feel the language, and gestures and movement help them make sense of it. Kids learn more quickly and retain the knowledge longer when they sing and move together.
Here are a few tips on using gestures and movement together with songs to foster language development.
1. Use songs that start with music and movement in mind, and just follow along!
Many traditional children’s songs are not created with movement in mind. Of course, kids can benefit from dancing and moving to any song, but when using songs to help kids become more confident and competent with the language, it makes a world of difference to select songs that have the appropriate pacing, language complexity, and gesturability. You’ll often find that even some songs that are great for 6 year-olds will be discouraging for 4 year-olds because they are too fast to keep up with, or feature language that the younger learner doesn’t connect with.
When searching for songs, look for terms like “music and movement” or “interactive music”. We’re fortunate to live in a time where you can almost always listen to samples of some or all of the songs on CDs. Have a listen to some of the songs and imagine how you would move with them. If you have a hard time imagining what kind of gestures you would do the songs, your kids will very likely struggle with the songs, too. Listen for songs that, even after just one listen, allow you to easily imagine what kind of actions you would do to accompany it. With many great music and movement songs, all you need to do is put them on and follow along…no “teaching” necessary. Some of our favorite artists you might want to check out are Sue Schnitzer, Laurie Berkner, and Dr. Jean.
With our own Super Simple Songs, we always try to imagine the gestures we’ll use as we write each line of each song, so that when you play a song, you can imagine pretty quickly how you can interact with it.
2. Let the children create the gestures
Using gestures helps students internalize the language. When children have a chance to create movement and gestures themselves, it makes that connection to the language even stronger. If the students are not yet familiar with a lot of the words in the song, try introducing the vocabulary with pictures, objects, or flashcards.
When using flashcards, introduce the card, say the word together, and then have the children create a gesture for that word. You might need to help, but do it together. Remember that if you are creating gestures for a song, you’ll need to make sure they are not too big or complicated because there may not be time to do them while you are singing. Keep the gestures simple and concise.
Next, review the flashcards by showing the card, naming it, and asking the kids to do the gesture. Then follow up by showing the cards and having the students name it and do the gesture. Last, do the gesture and have the students name it!
You’re all ready to sing!
3. Use online resources
Can’t think of a gesture to use with the song? Hop online. There are a lot of great resources available to help you. Start with YouTube. There just may be some classroom videos that are perfect for your situation. Just search for the song you are using.
Another great place to look for help is a sign language site. Even if you don’t use the actual signs, they will often help you think of gestures that will work with your song. We really like the site Signing Savvy.
4. Gesture select words
One of the great benefits of using songs with gestures is that it helps learners understand where the words are in a sentence. We’ve all had the experience of singing a song but later realizing we had gotten the words all wrong because the words all ran together and we misheard them. When we sing with gestures, even if we only do a gesture for one word or phrase in a sentence, understanding that one word helps us piece together the rest of the sentence.
Remember that you don’t need to try to make gestures for everything. When doing gestures with songs with very young learners, too many gestures will confuse and frustrate the students. When using songs with older learners, there will usually be too much language in the song to gesture everything. Identify key words and create gestures for those. Keep it simple!
Here are gesture suggestions for “Goodbye, Snowman” from Super Simple Songs. You can easily use these same gestures for “Hello, Reindeer” or the sing along version. Of course, feel free to make up your own!
“Hello, Reindeer” and “Goodbye, Snowman” Gesture Guide
Rest your right elbow on top of your left hand. Make a “C” shape with your right hand.
Indicate “happy” by smiling and pointing to your cheeks.
With your hands open wide, put your thumbs on your forehead to indicate antlers.
Pat your big, round tummy!
Put your hands on your hips with your elbows our wide, making one circle. Bend your knees outward, making another circle with your legs.
Now watch the video and sing along!!
“Goodbye, Snowman” Lyrics
(Wave goodbye. Snowman gesture.)
(Wave goodbye. Reindeer gesture.)
(Wave goodbye. Santa gesture.)
(Happy holidays gesture)
We wish you a Merry Christmas. (Indicate we by moving your index finger in front of you from one shoulder to the other, making a semi-circle.)
We wish you a Merry Christmas. (Christmas gesture.)
We wish you a Merry Christmas.
Let’s sing it again. (Pretend to hold a microphone.)
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