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English Through Music

Oxford Basics for Children.

All of us at International House, Kielce, Poland welcomed this book. We had recently won a major European Union contract to teach English to local children, and we were looking for materials that would help to make our lessons more fun, more in touch with the tastes of children – and more successful. This review is based on our experience with the activities in the book. It is divided into two parts: first, a description of the book, and second, some notes on alternative approaches to that followed in the book.

Part 1. The Book.

This book aims to give guidance to teachers with little or no musical training on how to use music with young learners aged 4 to 12. It consists of 35 activities divided into 8 sections, each section devoted to a different aspect of classroom music. The 8 sections are:
  1. Warm-ups. These are short activities that prepare children for later music making, such as stretching the arms and clapping hands. The activities are similar to standard warm-up procedures used by choral conductors at the start of choral rehearsals, before moving on to singing.
  2. Listening and Experimenting with Sounds. This section contains activities lasting 20 to 30 minutes each,.designed to teach children basic musical concepts such as high and low pitch, loud and soft volume, gentle and lively rhythm, and different types of sound (scream, rattle, clap etc). An example is a game played with low-tech ‘instruments’; such as rubber bands round a plastic carton (twang sounds), keys in a metal or wooden box (loud rattle), beans in a bottle (soft sound) etc. The children not only shake the ‘instruments’, but can also help to make them.
  3. Songs, Rhymes and Actions – with minimal language. Examples are a marching song to which the children ‘march’, and imitating the action of rowing a boat to the song ‘Row, Row, Row your Boat’ These activities can be introduced with minimal language, so are suitable for beginners.
  4. Rhythm, Games and Patterns. An example: the teacher taps the rhythm of his/her name: the children copy – and then tap the rhythm of their own names. (eg Anice Paterson – Kasia  Walesa). The children then chant and clap to the rhythms made by the names of the children in their class.
  5. Listening and Responding to Music. The children are encouraged to dance to the music they hear, and to say whether they like it or not. The teacher chooses recordings that he/she thinks will appeal. (The book does not offer suggestions)
  6. Songs, Rhymes and Actions that reinforce particular language points. Examples are counting, travel, the sounds made by animals – and everyday activities.
  7. Stories with Sound and Action. The children are invited to add their musical accompaniments to stories like Little Red Riding Hood. They might invent different sounds to stand for the heroine, the grandmother and the wolf.
  8. Composing Musical Pictures. The children are invited to make sounds to illustrate a rain forest or a space journey.
The text is accompanied by a cd demonstrating teachers using the book’s musical activities with native-speaker children. The recordings were made in the north-west of England, and we hear authentic Kendal (Lake District) accents.
In addition, there are appendices on:
  • useful language for the music classroom
  • resources (for instance, there is a reference to the British Kodaly Academy, which offers a British version of the Hungarian composer’s brilliant and influential method for teaching children to sing using folk songs from their native countries).
  • a grammar and phonology index
There is also an introduction explaining the approach used in the book, and outlining procedures to be followed when using the activities. The approach is based on various principles, including
  • The music and activities are selected in order to teach defined aspects of language, For instance: times of day and days of the week, action verbs, parts of the body, rooms and furniture, numbers, food and drink, and simple functional language such as making suggestions. (A different approach start from the music and the words of songs)
  • Music is used to reinforce the stress and intonation patterns of English
  • The music is integrated into a broad curriculum, following the principles of CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning).
  • Different aspects of music, such as simple and more complex intervals and rhythms, are taught separately and progressively, rather as though they were linguistic tenses or increasingly complex noun phrases. (This contrasts with methods such as the Kodaly system in which children learn to sing simple songs straight away)
  • On the grounds that a substantial proportion of YL English teachers are not trained in music and cannot read music, the book contains no written music. Tunes and rhythms are picked up from the cd.
Conclusion. This book provides thorough guidance for one method of using music to help teach English to children.

Part 2. Alternative Methods.

There are many other approaches to the use of music to teach language to children. In essence, they all start from the music and the words of songs – and they all appeal primarily to the child’s imagination. Here are some of these alternative methods:
  1. Nursery Rhymes. These traditional songs are great fun to sing, they have strong tunes and rhythms which children love, and they often contain imaginative and exciting words. Some of the words will be mysterious to the children at first, but that does not matter: the words will gestate in the children’s heads and contribute richly in time to their eventual mastery of the language. There are many excellent examples. Here are a few: Curly Locks, Fee Fie Fo Fum – I smell the blood of an Englishman – Be he alive or be he dead – I’ll have his bones to make my bread, Georgie Porgie, Pudding and Pie, Kissed the Girls and Made them Cry – When the Boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away, Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, Hickory Dickory Dock, Jack and Jill went up the Hill, Yankee Doodle, Little Muss Muffet, Little Jack Horner, Little Bo Peep, Oh dear what can the matter be? Old Mother Hubbard, Mary had a Little Lamb, Sing a Song of Sixpence, Old King Cole…There are many excellent collections of Nursery Rhymes, with printed music for those who can play the piano or guitar. For instance, The Chester Book of Nursery Rhymes.
  2. Action Songs. Some of the most famous and enjoyable songs of this kind are not mentioned in the book, for instance: This is the Way we Wash our Face / Brush our Hair / Clean our Teeth etc, Here we Go Round t4e Mulberry Bush (a reference to the Black Death), Oranges and Lemons (here comes a candle to light you to bed, and her comes a chopper to chop off your head – children enjoy such grisly notions),
  3. Rounds. London’s Burning, Three Blind Mice. These songs are not only very memorable and enjoyable to sing, but they also provide a superb introduction to ensemble singing.
  4. Popular songs of our own time. A colleague who plays the guitar recently had great success with elementary children singing How much is that Doggy in the Window, the one with the Waggerly Tail? I will never forget my own two-year-old belting out We all live in a Yellow Sumbarine (sic). Up-to-the minute pop songs can be used, if the tune is clear and the words suitable. Children can sing such songs from a very early age: they do not need elaborate preliminary training.:
  5. Camp Fire Songs. She was coming round the Mountain, Ten Green Bottles, Old Macdonald had a Farm – old favorites all, and guaranteed to make a lesson fun.
  6. Folk Songs. Cockles and Mussels, The Skye Boat Song, Bobby Shaftoe, Dance to your Daddy, Humpty Dumpty, Who Killed Cock Robin? Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross, Sweet Polly Oliver, The Campbells are Coming. These traditional songs have wonderful tunes and memorable words: they chime in with the child’s imaginative world.. They are ideal for children.
  7. Stories with a Musical Background, available on cd. The classic example is Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. It has fabulous music and a great story with a child hero. As they listen, the children can act out Peter, his grandfather, the bird, the duck, the cat and the wolf – and the hunters with their guns. Other examples are a lovely version of Sleeping Beauty told to the background of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, and:Poulenc’s Babar the Elephant  This way of using musical stories differs from that suggested in the book, in that the music is provided by great composers, and the children listen to and respond to this, instead of composing their own. There is room for both approaches.
  8. Music used to stimulate the children’s own story telling and dancing. The book offers no suggestions on the choice of music. Here are some, all successful with my own children and/or with YL learners. Tchaikovsly’s Nutcracker Suite contains short and highly atmospheric pieces such as Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Arab Dance and so on. Children love this music and readily dance to it, inventing their own stories too. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade is similarly full of vivid and atmospheric music, which stimulates children’s imaginations. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Ballet Suite is another splendid example (a special favourite with my own younger daughter, whose name is Juliet). The Overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro sets feet tapping: no other music sets the scene to follow with quite this tingling vitality. I loved Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary and Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto when a boy. Boys today will respond to this bright music, too…
  9. Music for Special Activities. If teachers want their children to march, let them march to a real, vigorous march with suitably martial words. The lively folk-song Widdicombe Fair (Uncle Tom Cobley and All) is also the regimental march of the Devonshire Regiment: The British Grenadiers is the official march of the Grenadier Guards. If teachers want their children to act rowing a boat, let them do so to The Skye Boat Song or What shall we do with the Drunken Sailor? Let the children hear real, vivid music, not academic pastiche . .  .
The approach implied by the use of these songs and this music is complementary to that offered by ‘English Through Music’. The approach described in Part 2 of this review starts from the music and the words of songs. It starts from the premise that the primary role of music in the YL classroom is to harness the child’s imagination to the task of mastering language. Once the child’s imagination is stimulated, all else follows. The approach of ‘English through Music’ starts form the classroom.
There is plenty of room for both approaches.
Mark Lowe
Mark has been with IH since the mid-1990s as a teacher and Director of Studies. He has worked in Poland, Estonia, China, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Bosnia. He is now with IH Kielce in Poland. In his youth, he studied music at Clifton College and at King’s College Cambridge, where he also conducted choirs. After leaving University he played the oboe with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for a time, and then worked as a repetiteur with opera singers in Italy before joining the British Council. Today he enjoys playing the piano in chamber music and as an accompanist for singers in his spare time. He has two children and enjoys teaching children.

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