Education language learning

Could a simple song be the answer for struggling language learners?

For kids living abroad, language classes are not just about learning for exams. They’re a ticket to understanding the local culture, socialising outside of the expat community, and discovering a wealth of music, books and cultural activities which would otherwise be beyond their reach. It’s essential therefore that kids feel the vitality of a language in their classes and can quickly see their progress in real world contexts, outside of the textbook grammar drills.

For a quarter of a century, one UK school has been setting an example of how this can be done through a simple, but highly effective method. Using songs to quickly and effectively commit grammar and vocabulary to memory. The songs engage the kids during class and provide a highly memorable context for learning language essentials. Kate Heery, Head of Modern Languages at Cheam High School, tells us more:

How does song and language interact in your classrooms?

The songs become embedded in our classroom routines from the very first language lesson the students have in Year 7, so that it becomes second nature for them to sing in their language lessons.
We have songs for starters, for classroom instructions, for pronunciation activities, for recapping every topic, for teaching grammar, and even for historical topics such as the French Occupation.

In general, we use songs that everyone knows, such as nursery rhymes, songs from films, jingles, or popular songs. Sometimes it’s just a chant or a rap rhythm. We don’t really use songs to teach individual items of vocabulary. Everything is linked to a language structure so that it’s transferable.

What is the age group this is most impactful with?

Probably the Year 7s, as they participate most enthusiastically, but that’s probably the same for most activities!

It’s also very helpful for the Year 11s who depend heavily on the songs in their preparation for their GCSE exams.

Do you think the method makes a noticeable difference to exam results?

Definitely. The singing is key to instilling the correct pronunciation and to memorising important vocabulary.

If we think about how many song lyrics we know the words to – probably thousands without even realising – it is the same with foreign language songs. If you learn them early enough, you’ll never forget them. Some students use this technique in their revision, writing their own songs to help them learn a key topic, or an answer to an essay question. And we encourage them to transfer this revision technique to other subjects as well.

Does it also make a difference to how confident the students are in speaking the language?

Yes, students tend to be more confident speaking the foreign language than is sometimes the case in other schools with a more traditional methodology. The lessons are all geared around the spoken language and the development of their spontaneous language, via classroom interaction.

Does it make a difference to student focus in the classroom?

I wouldn’t say it makes students behave better generally, but it does help to engage and motivate them. Certainly, when you lock the whole class onto a song, there is little room for students to go off-task.

Can the parents of your students help their kids with this method outside of the classroom?

It is a very effective tool for independent learning and for revising work done in class. We often set students homework to teach the song of the lesson to someone at home. At parents’ evenings in Year 7, parents will sometimes mention it, and occasionally give us a tune!

Students need guidance on how to revise using songs and/or how to write songs themselves to help them learn. However, once clear guidance and support is given, many students will throw themselves into it with enthusiasm. Most people like a sing-along and they are often surprised at how many melodies they know that they can use.

Obviously with so much interest currently in performing and developing dance moves, students are more confident with performing and creative song writing, so this trend could definitely be harnessed.

Have a go at home…

There are two methods you can try. The first one is simple. Take a song in the language you want to learn and then examine the words and grammar as you learn it. It’ll bring the language’s structures alive and you’ll get a sense of accomplishment when you realise how much you understand. A beginner could start with La Vie en Rose by Edith Piaf, which only uses the simple present tense and has easily understood vocabulary. Just make sure you pick a song you like!

The second method, is more challenging and may require some support from your language teacher. It involves taking the structures you’re trying to learn (not just a list of vocabulary but something where words are set in a useful linguistic structure) and setting them along to a memorable tune or beat so that when you need to access them in conversation or in an exam, they’ll be imprinted indelibly on your brain! For example, if you’re trying to learn a set of structures and phrases to which you can add the infinitive verb in French, then list these out…

  • On peut + infinitive (-er, -ir, -re)
  • On ne peut pas + infinitive (-er, -ir, -re)
  • aime + infinitive (-er, -ir, -re)
  • aime pas + infinitive (-er, -ir, -re)

Then, set it along to a catchy tune or beat and get singing!

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