Teaching Older Learners With Songs

Songs are an effective teaching tool for older students.

Songs are still a great teaching tool for older students!

Our youngest learners will sing and dance all day long, all the while picking up vocabulary, grammar, and the rhythm of English naturally and easily. When they go home, the songs that they sang and played with in class will still be bouncing around in their heads. Songs are uniquely effective learning tools in that way.

However, as students get older, songs and chants often become less and less a part of the classroom. That’s a shame. We know that input is critical to second language learning, and few learning tools are as effective as songs at providing lots and lots of meaningful, comprehensible input.

Older children still enjoy songs (we all do!), but if we introduce songs to them the same way we introduce songs to young children, we often find them reluctant to participate.  Once our students reach 3rd grade or so, they become more self-conscious about singing or dancing, and, understandably, don’t want to be treated like toddlers.  Don’t let that discourage you from using songs in the classroom with older children. We simply need to change the ways we use songs.

Here is a five step plan for introducing a song to older learners.  As a sample, we’ll use the song “Mary Had A Kangaroo” from the Super Simple Songs – Animals CD. This updated version of the classic children’s rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb” introduces Mary’s other pets (a giraffe, rhinoceros, kangaroo, and camel), adjectives such as long, sharp, warm, and round, and attributes of each animal (fleece, neck, horn, pouch, and hump).

1. Listen and Watch
Start by introducing or reviewing the words and gestures for the animals and their attributes. You can introduce the words with flashcards or pictures drawn on the board. Next, teach the students the American Sign Language (ASL), or make up your own gestures, for each of the animals, adjectives, and/or animal attributes. (Our favorite website for learning ASL is Signing Savvy). Encourage the students to say the word as they do the sign.

Next, tell the students to just listen and watch as you play the song and do the signs. You are not asking the students to sing, so there is no pressure for them. They are just watching and listening.

Mary Had A Kangaroo Lyrics

♫ Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb.
Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.

Mary had a little lamb, and a big giraffe?
Mary had a big giraffe, big giraffe, big giraffe.
Mary had a big giraffe whose neck was very long.
Long, long, long, long.
Long, long, long, long.
Very very very long.

And a rhinoceros.
Mary had a rhinoceros, rhinoceros, rhinoceros.
Mary had a rhinoceros whose horn was very sharp.
Sharp, sharp, sharp, sharp.
Sharp, sharp, sharp, sharp.
Very very very sharp.

A kangaroo, too?
Mary had a kangaroo, kangaroo, kangaroo.
Mary had a kangaroo, whose pouch was very warm.
Warm, warm, warm, warm.
Warm, warm, warm, warm.
Very very very warm.

And a camel.
Mary had a camel, camel, camel.
Mary had a camel. Whose hump was very round.
Round, round, round, round.
Round, round, round, round.
Very very very round. ♫

2. Listen and Do
Next, with the students seated, ask them to try to do the signs with you as you listen to the song once more. Don’t ask them to stand. Don’t ask them to sing. Just let them try to do the gestures as they listen. Again, there is no pressure here, we’re just asking the students to listen and gesture. Students enjoy the challenge of trying to do the signs in time with the music, and it forces them to listen carefully.

3. Small Group Work
Put the students into groups and have them practice the signs on their own. By now, they’ve heard the song two times so the melody and lyrics should be familiar to them. Again, they do not need to sing while doing this. Simply ask the students to practice the signs to the song in their small groups. You don’t need to play any music, let them work at their own pace. You may notice some of the students starting to sing on their own as they practice.

4. Write and Listen
After listening to the song a couple of times, do the accompanying fill-in-the-blanks worksheet. Have students fold over the word key at the top and see if they can fill in the words on their own. Then listen to the song again as they check their work. No singing required!

Students can stay in their small groups and work together to create their own funny lyrics to share with the rest of the class.

5. Listen and Sing
Now it’s time to ask everyone to sign (and, if they want to, sing) together. By now, the students have heard the song at least three times and aren’t so shy anymore about doing the signs. You’ll find that most of the time, the students are happy to sing. In fact, they probably already started singing the song in Step 3 or 4. But the real benefit of introducing songs in this way is that, even if there are students who aren’t comfortable singing with the class, they will still hear and interact with this song 4-5 times. And this leads us to the bonus step!

6. Bonus Step – Listen in Your Head
Your students, even the students who are reluctant to sing in class, will now hear this song in their heads for the rest of the day!

Songs have the unique power to be heard by your students well after you listen to them in class.

Songs are powerful teaching tools for learners from 1-100 years old. We simply have to adjust how we use songs in the classroom as our students grow older. Remember to introduce the songs slowly and have a variety of listening activities so that even students that are reluctant to sing get the benefits of learning with songs.

Happy teaching!