Song and Dance

Posted on March 1, 2013 by


This is a post about why I open every lesson with a song.*

I usually start off my new students with something easy and fun – “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” is my favorite for this. Everyone stands, everyone says the names of the body parts, and then we sing the song together. We sing a couple of verses, going faster and faster each time, until the movements are too fast for the kids to keep up with. This inevitably causes everyone to burst out laughing.

In later lessons, I move on to other physical songs – like “The Hokey Pokey” and “Old McDonald Had A Farm** – interspersed with some other fun, traditional English children’s songs that match the students’ progress. For instance, I like to use “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea” to work on prepositions (there’s a frog ON the lump ON the log IN the hole IN the bottom of the sea) and “there is” constructions, which are hard for Georgians because Georgian doesn’t use existentials the way English does. I’m planning to try out “Step in Time,” from Mary Poppins, which seems a great carrier for random directions with lots of variety and topicality. When the kids like a particular song we’ll do it more often, so I mix new songs and old favorites to keep things interesting.

It wasn’t always this way. I’ve had coteachers who didn’t feel that fun and games had the proper pedagogical rigor for a group of eight year olds, or who have been in a rush to cover material from the books in order to keep up with the ever-changing curricular demands passed down from on high. In fact, when I started out, I myself didn’t always see the value in conducting activities that were markedly different from the ones I was subjected to when I was a student. In four years of studying Spanish I didn’t even learn the words to La Bamba (although we did listen to a Spanish-language cover of Ace of Base’s timeless classic, “The Sign”, once. Yes, I learned Spanish in the 90’s). Mostly, though, it was just rows and rows of verb conjugations.

However, my lessons go so much better when I open with a song that I now consider it absolutely integral to my teaching style, at least when it comes to kids below seventh grade. For one thing, it puts everyone in a good mood. In the world of TEFL, this kind of activity would be called a “warmer” – it is supposed to serve as a hard break between whatever happened before (for example, running in the halls) and what will happen during the lesson; in other words, it gets students “warmed up” and thinking in English and sets their frame of mind to “English lesson” mode.

I find that many TEFL warmers, though, lack a certain something. Usually they’re either too simple, and thus boring, or too complicated, and thus impossible to manage in a Georgian classroom. That’s why I like songs – even ridiculous songs – and I always try to find a way to make them fun and interactive. My goal is to have every kid laughing or smiling by the end of the warmer. The good mood isn’t just about being primed to think in English, it’s also about being open and interested. Or, in the words of linguist Stephen Krashen, it lowers the “affective filter”. The “affective filter” hypothesis is just a fancy way of saying that people learn better when they feel good and want to learn, and they don’t learn well at all when they’re annoyed, bored, tired, or uninterested.

Aside from just getting the students primed for the lesson, I find doing a song and dance makes me more popular. The students look forward to English class. They listen more attentively when I talk. Often, an English teacher teaches the same class in all of their grades, so students will have had the same English teacher for their entire time studying English. I’m the newcomer in that scenario, and kicking things off with a silly, fun activity is a way of bonding and establishing trust, quickly and effectively.

In fact, I’ve found that at a certain point my coteachers and school administrators stop referring to me as “our guest” and start calling me “our foreign teacher”, which as far as I can tell is a sort of bump in status, perhaps indicating that I’ve moved a little bit towards the school’s inner circle. This promotion happened much sooner this year than it has previously, and I have to give at least some credit to the opening songs – because the students talk to other teachers about their English teachers, and word gets around, and so the students’ reactions to you have a lot to do with the rest of the school’s reaction to you.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out the pure instructional value of songs. When done right, a song can be a fun and painless drill of grammar and vocabulary, of pronunciation and intonation, and of speaking and listening. A song gets stuck in your head, carrying all the benefits of memorizing a text, except longer-lasting – because the kids are sure to forget the English World poems they’ve learned “by heart” within a week, but they’re sure never to forget about the fly on the spot on the leg on the frog on the bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea, and they’ll always know their head, shoulders, knees and toes better than all their other body parts. And a song conveys not just words, but contexts, speech patterns, and stock phrases.

Songs with physical components can also be used in the Total Physical Response (TPR) style, helping students get used to listening to and responding quickly to directives in English. These types of activities have many advantages – to quote Wikipedia, “Students enjoy getting out of their chairs and moving around. Simple TPR activities do not require a great deal of preparation on the part of the teacher. TPR is aptitude-free, working well with a mixed ability class, and with students having various disabilities. It is good for kinesthetic learners who need to be active in the class. Class size need not be a problem, and it works effectively for children and adults.” I’ll add to that the fact that they require no resources at all – not even chalk – and that in the winter they help to literally warm up the class, making them especially well-suited to a classroom in an unrenovated village school.

What songs and dances do you use in your lessons? How are they received? We’d love to hear about your experiences, so leave comments!


*or some other fast-paced, interactive vocal activity, such as “Wanna Buy A Duck?”
**I make the song physical by having the kids actually do full body animal impressions. My favorites are the chicken and the monkey, although the more clever kids sometimes ask why Old McDonald has monkeys on his farm.