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Young Learners: Music in Children’s Classes

By Mark Lowe

The stimulus for this article came from ‘English through Music’, a book published by OUP in its Oxford Basics for Children series. I was asked to review it by the editor of the IH Journal. The book was fine as far as it went; however, it did not go very far. There were many aspects of the subject not mentioned or barely touched on. The editor invited me to write an article about these other aspects of music for children. Here it is…

First, some preliminaries.

General Approach.

I write this article under three hats: teacher, parent and musician. All my ideas on using music with children are coloured by the joy of playing and singing songs with my own young children. I was working with the British Council in Iran at the time, and my children were trilingual: Farsi was the language of their friends, their nanny and their kindergarten – it was their first language. They spoke Italian with their mother (their second language), and English with me (very much their third language). The songs we sang and the stories I told them helped to build on the precarious toehold that English had in their young minds. This experience has helped to give me a rather different perspective on using music with children from a conventional EFL one, focusing more on stimulating children’s imaginations and less on teaching language as such. Music, I believe, is not the best way of teaching grammar or ordinary vocabulary – that is the job of the textbook. This view is reinforced by the findings of modern neurobiology: language is based in the left, analytical hemisphere of the brain, whereas music is based mainly in the right, intuitive and emotional hemisphere of the brain (at least it is in the early stages – composition and professional performance are another matter). Music, like stories, creates an atmosphere of enchantment in the child’s mind (to borrow the word used by Bruno Bettelheim in ‘The Uses of Enchantment’, his beautiful book about the imaginative world of children).

So, we teach ‘London’s Burning’ to young children not in order to present the present continuous tense, but because the song has a good tune and lively words, because it tells an exciting story about a dramatic episode in English history, and because it stimulates children’s imaginations. Years later, those phrases using the present continuous will ‘prime’ the children’s minds (to use Michael Hoey’s useful term) and help them to make sense of the English tense system.

Pianos and Guitars

The book assumes that most EFL teachers cannot play the piano or guitar, and the procedures in the book are therefore designed to be performable without an instrument. Fair enough… but in fact quite a lot of teachers can play. Of our ten full-time teachers at IH Kielce in Poland, three play the piano and two can play the guitar – so 50% are able to accompany songs – and we are not untypical. The songs included in this article can be sung without an instrument, but they benefit if the teacher can play.

Ages and Levels

Teachers will need to select from the songs and activities in this article those that work best with the different age groups and English levels of their classes. A 3-year-old is very different from a 5-year-old: a 7-year-old differs from a 9-year-old, and so on – and their levels of English vary, too. The first two sections (Nursery Rhymes and Action Songs) contain music suitable for younger and more elementary children, while the later sections contain music suitable for older and more advanced children. It should be borne in mind, however, that children can handle quite demanding new vocabulary if it is presented in songs and if it is repeated many times, as happens when we sing a song that we like


Many of the ideas in this article require special materials to teach, for example The Chester Book of Nursery Rhymes and the Oxford Book of Folk Songs, plus appropriate cds. Schools aiming to use music in their children’s classes need to build a small library of resources, just as they build a library of conventional text book, software and other resources for ordinary classes and the self-access centre.


The theory behind the approach in the book differs from the theory behind the approach in this article. The book assumes that children need to be taught basic musical concepts such as high and low, fast and slow, loud and soft etc: that teaching children to sing thirds and fifths is a bit like teaching them the present simple tense and elementary vocabulary. According to the theory that underpins this article, however, basic musical concepts are part of the patterns of nature that govern us all: patterns like the harmonic series and the biological rhythms of life. Children can sing intervals such as thirds, seconds, fifths and octaves because these intervals are derived from the harmonic series (a law of physics), just as they respond to marches and dance rhythms (which reflect the biological rhythms of life). Children can sing songs like Baa Baa Black Sheep from a very young age: they hear the tune and the words and they imitate – without having to ‘learn’ how to sing the intervals. Of course, we can hone these basic skills later, for instance by making major thirds and fifths sharper (they tend to go out of tune if not worked on), and by making rhythms more relaxed and incisive. In what follows, I go straight to the music itself, and spend no time on elementary musical concepts.

Now for ten ‘other’ ideas on music for children’s classes:

1. Nursery Rhymes – for younger children. These traditional songs are great fun to sing: children love them. They have strong, simple tunes and rhythms that children can enjoy and perform without difficulty. They generally have imaginative and highly memorable words, too. The meaning of some of these words will be mysterious to the children at first (Pop goes the Weasel; Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle – what on earth do these words really mean?), but no matter. The words will stimulate children’s imaginations, and they will gestate in the children’s minds, contributing in due course to a rich, imaginative vocabulary. Nursery Rhymes are also a passport to a new culture. They help children to empathise with the new language and the people who use the language.

Here are some examples of nursery rhymes that work well in young children’s classes: ‘Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle’ – ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ – ‘Jack and Jill went up the Hill’ – ‘Little Jack Horner’ – Little Miss Muffet’ – ‘Yankee Doodle’ – ‘Little Bo Peep’ – ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ – ‘Old King Cole’ – ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ – ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ – ‘Oh dear, What can the matter be?’ and so on.

‘Fee Fie Fo Fum, I smell the Blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.’ The ogre’s poem from ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ can be sung or chanted (with the children joining in) as we tell the story. ‘Georgie Porgy, Pudding and Pie, Kissed the Girls and made them Cry. When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgy ran away’. This song tells us something of England’s less glorious history. Some experts take it to be a reference to the Prince Regent (later King George IV). Others say it refers to George Villiers, bisexual lover of King James I. It does not really matter: the song adds to the gaiety of lessons – and it has a splendid tune.

2. Action Songs – for younger children. Children mime the actions as they sing. ‘This is the Way we Wash our Face / Brush our Teeth/ Brush our Hair / Clean our Shoes / etc’ – ‘Oranges and Lemons’ (leading to ‘Here comes a candle to light you to bed, And here comes a chopper to chop off your head’) – children enjoy acting out these gruesome words – ‘Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses’ …leading to… We all fall down’ (thought to be a reference to the Black Death). ‘One, two, Buckle my Shoe, Three Four, Open the Door… Nineteen Twenty, My Plate’s Empty’. This song is good for consolidating numbers, and can also be used to get reluctant children to finish up their vegetables.

3. Rounds – for all ages. ‘London’s Burning’, ‘Three Blind Mice’. These rounds (or ‘canons’ to use the technical term) are great fun to sing, and they also introduce children to the joy of ensemble singing

4. Music for Special Activities – for all ages. Songs that imitate the action of rowing a boat, such as ‘The Skye Boat Song’ – ‘What shall we do with the Drunken Sailor?’ – and ‘The Keel Row’. The children can march to marching songs (but let them be real marches, not namby-pamby academic pastiche). Here are examples: ‘Widdecombe Fair’ (not only a lively folk song, but also the regimental march of the Devonshire Regiment) and ‘The British Grenadiers’ (the regimental march of the elite Grenadier Guards). Brave teachers might try ‘The Campbells are Coming’, played by the pipes and drums of a Scottish Highland Regiment. At a gentler level, Schubert’s ‘Marche Militaire’ also works well.

5. Folk Songs – for all ages. Kodaly’s wonderful and influential singing method (which is mentioned in the appendix to the book) is based on folk songs. In the original version, Hungarian folk songs (mainly collected by Kodaly himself and his friend the composer Bela Bartok) introduced Hungarian children not only to music but also to the foundations of their beleaguered culture. In later adaptations, French children are introduced to their culture through French songs, British children to their culture through their songs, and so on. When we use folk songs with foreign learners we are, in effect, reversing Kodaly’s mission: the songs now introduce students to the new culture instead of their own culture.

Many songs in English have wonderful words – and they have beautiful music too: ‘Cockles and Mussels’, ‘Bobby Shaftoe, ‘Dance to your Daddy’, ‘Sweet Polly Oliver’, ‘Waly Waly’, ‘The Sally Gardens’, ‘John Peel’, ‘Lillibulero;, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, ‘John Brown’s Body’ – ‘Loch Lomond’ and many others.

6. Camp Fire Songs – for all ages. ‘Ten Green Bottles’, ‘She was Coming Round the Mountain’, ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm’ – all are great fun to sing, and they help to create a warm and happy class atmosphere.

7. Popular Songs of our own times – for all ages. A colleague who plays the guitar recently had great success with ‘How Much is that Doggy in the Window, the One with the Waggerly Tail’. I vividly remember my 3-year-old daughter belting out ‘We all live in a Yellow Submarine’ (sic). Care has to be taken in presenting such songs, however. The words on some pop song recordings are unclear (they tend to be sung by people with little or no training in voice production or clear diction). Some pop songs also lack the strong tunes and lively rhythms that appeal to children.
International songs in English can be used. A class of 11- and 12-year olds in a local school recently sang Eurovision songs at a school show – to great applause from all accounts. Such songs widen children’s cultural horizons, and support the idea that English is an international language today – a passport into many cultures as well as the cultures of native speakers. One additional advantage of modern songs is that they frequently become ‘signature tunes’, helping to give the class an identity and a ‘soul’ (as ‘Waltzing Matilda’ expresses the soul of Australians, or ‘Nessun Dorma’ the soul of football – or Chopin’s A flat Polonaise the gallant soul of Poland).

8. Music for Special Occasions – all ages. ‘Happy Birthday to You’ of course – and schools with a Christian tradition have a rich source of beautiful music and words in Christmas carols and Nativity Plays – and music for the liturgy.

9. Music to stimulate children’s own story-telling and dancing – all ages. I draw here mainly on experience with my own children. Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’ contains short and strongly characterised pieces that are ideal for stimulating children’s imaginations – especially ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’, ‘The Arab Dance’ and ‘The Chinese Dance’. Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ contains brilliant short episodes that work well with children. Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Ballet Suite had special appeal for my younger daughter (her name is Juliet). Boys respond to bright trumpet music: how well I remember the thrill of listening to Jeremiah’ Clark’s Trumpet Voluntary, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto and ‘The Trumpet shall Sound’ from Handel’s Messiah. And let children be introduced to the brilliant music of Mozart, as well: how superbly the Overture to ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ raises the curtain on the excitements to come. But let teachers choose their own music too – music they love – and music the children will love, too

10. Stories with a Musical Background – mainly for older children. The classic is Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ – with its strong story and vivid music for Peter, his grandfather, the wolf, the hunters and their guns, the bird, the cat and the duck. There is a superb recording conducted by Claudio Abbado in which the triumphal march that ends the work is brought to majestic life. Children can mime the story as they listen – bright and breezy Peter, gruff Grandpa, the wicked wolf catching the duck, the wily bird, clever Peter outwitting the wolf, and the great march at the end…

Other suitable stories with musical background available on CD are a touching version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ told to Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, and Poulenc’s ‘Babar the Elephant’, translated into English. Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ is another piece that appeals to older children. Ambitious and expert teachers might like to put on shows in which the children perform pieces written specially for them, such as Britten’s musical play: ‘Noye’s Fludde’.


A word of caution is probably in order before teachers rush off to try these ideas out in their classes. It may be necessary, before we actually use music in the classroom, to persuade sceptical Directors and cost-conscious administrators of the value of classroom music. How can we justify the time and expense involved in using music?
Here are five answers:
1. Music brings language to life. It adds imagination and fun to classes that can otherwise easily degenerate into a dry-as-dust academic exercise.
2. Songs help to build a large and interesting vocabulary
3. Music does wonders for students’ pronunciation. Songs help students to use stress appropriately (especially the regular stress-timing typical of English), and to use the wide intonation patterns that are a feature of real English.
4. Music introduces children to the culture of the new language
5. Music can help to display a school to best advantage. Parents and friends are invited to a school show (perhaps linked to parent/teacher meetings) and the parents and friends listen and applaud the children singing. Everyone is happy, the parents go home feeling a warm glow for the school and its staff, and they sign up for another batch of lessons. The school and the teachers are a success.

Author’s Bio:
Mark was with IH from the mid-1990s, as teacher and DoS and has since moved to York School in Krakow. In his youth, he studied music at Clifton College, and played the oboe in the National Youth Orchestra. He then won a music scholarship to King’s College Cambridge, where he played a lot of music and conducted a choir. After leaving University, he played the oboe in the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He then moved to Italy, where he worked as a repetiteur for opera singers (and taught English in the evenings) – before joining the British Council. Today, when not teaching, he enjoys playing the piano in ensemble music with friends. And the two daughters mentioned in the article? One is now a busy London architect who plays the cello in her spare time: the other is a doctor working in Scotland who likes to play the fiddle in Ceilidh bands.

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