In this article, young-learner teacher Claire Venables looks at how using songs, rhymes and fingerplays can make language learning more effective and enjoyable.

Photo of a group of children and their teacher singing in a classroom.  If too hard, just a photo of children singing.

Source: Highwaystarz-Photography, iStockphoto

Songs, rhymes and fingerplays (hand actions combined with songs or spoken chants) are a common tradition in almost every culture and incorporating them into your young learner classes is an easy way to make the language-learning process more effective and enjoyable.

Why use songs?

Music and songs are popular in classrooms around the world. There is no doubt that they are a wonderful way to develop L1 and have so much potential for the L2 classroom.

Listening to and singing songs helps children improve and extend their vocabulary as well as develop an awareness of the rhythm, intonation and individual sounds of a language. Songs also help develop children’s ability to wait, listen, remember and predict, which are the foundation skills for literacy.

However, we cannot forget that an important reason for using songs is the pure enjoyment and social interaction that comes with learning them!

Choosing songs

There are some specific characteristics that make some songs more appropriate than others in the EFL classroom. First of all, songs that fit in with the vocabulary or grammar point you are working on with your class are very useful. Classic children’s songs like ‘I can sing a rainbow’, ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’, and ‘Ten green bottles’ all fit in perfectly with the colours, body parts and numbers themes that appear in most courses.

You should choose a song with repetitive lyrics, a moderate pace and a strong rhythm. Make sure that it’s easy to invent gestures for it, too. Great examples are ‘The hokey cokey’ and ‘The bananas song’. Both of these songs involve actions that support the meaning of the words.

Lastly, the theme of the song should also appeal to the age of the children. The more you know your students, the easier it will be to choose the right songs for them. If you aren’t sure about the kind of music that would appeal to them, ask them or get them involved in the selection process.

With a little research and using these tips as a guide, you can build up a repertoire of great songs for your young learners. This makes incorporating music and movement into your lesson plans quick and easy. It is also useful for when you see that your learners are restless and need a change of pace. Getting them up, singing and moving is often the perfect way to change pace and get them refocused on the lesson.

A few quick tips for singing with your students

  • After choosing a song, make sure you practice singing it beforehand and feel confident about the meaning and pronunciation of the lyrics. Make sure, too, to practice the movements, gestures and visuals you will use to help them understand the song’s general meaning.
  • When you introduce the song to your students for the first time, get them to copy the movements first, before adding the words and singing along. This breaks down the task of learning the song and makes it more manageable.
  • Always make sure you can see and make eye contact with your students. Exaggerate your facial expressions, and smile as you sing.
  • Keep the actions simple and consistent, and don’t insist that they join in. They may only watch for the first few times, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested – they are just getting familiar with the song. Keep going and they will join in eventually.
  • Don’t overcorrect your learners’ English, as this may discourage them from participating.
  • Finally, don’t worry if you feel like you don’t have an amazing singing voice. Enthusiasm is the most important thing, and your students will love to sing with you and each other, no matter how you sound. In fact, the funnier you look and sound, the better!

Songs and chants in games

There are lots of traditional children’s games that you can use with songs and chants. Here are two examples.

What’s the time, Mr Wolf?

This playground game involves a group of children asking the above question repeatedly to another child – ‘the wolf’ – who answers back with different times, for example, It’s five o’clock. The children, who are at the other side of the room to the wolf, should take the corresponding number of steps forward in the direction of the wolf (e.g. five steps for five o’clock). At some point, the wolf will answer with, It’s dinner time! upon which the children must run all the way back to where they started without getting caught by the wolf, who chases them and tries to catch one child. If a child is caught, they then become the next wolf.

This game, and many others like it, provides a natural and fun context for the drill-like repetition of formulaic language. They make the perfect vehicle for the teaching and learning of chunks of language and features of pronunciation such as connected speech and sentence stress.

Duck, Duck, Goose

In this game, the children sit in a circle. One child stands up and walks around the outside of the circle, gently tapping each of their peers on their shoulder or back in time to the music as they walk. When the song ends (or the teacher pauses the music), the child should ask the last person they tapped a ‘yes/no’ question on the same topic as the song. For example, with a food song the question, Do you like chocolate? could be asked. If the answer is yes, the child must jump up and chase their friend around the outside of the circle, trying to catch them before they reach and sit in the empty space. The game continues in the same way.

This game can be used with many different songs. Presenting songs in the format of a game makes them more engaging and consequently more memorable.

Songs, rhymes and chants for pronunciation

Pronunciation often gets omitted in the young learner classroom due to lack of time. The next two activities are practical examples of how songs, rhymes and chants can be easily incorporated into lessons to help develop our learners’ pronunciation.

Icka Bicka Soda Cracker

The lyrics of this “counting out’’ chant don’t make sense but it has the functional purpose of selecting someone from the group by process of elimination. The children each put a fist into the circle and say the chant as one person taps each hand. The child tapped on the last syllable of the chant is out. This is a great way to practice long vowel sounds, sentence stress and teach the concept of syllables. Use it in your lessons every time you need to choose someone to be ‘it’ in a game or even just for fun.

Icka bicka soda cracker

Icka bicka soda cracker

Icka bicka boo;

Icka bicka soda cracker

Out goes Y-O-U

Miss Mary Mack

This is just one of many hand clapping games that you can use with your students as a jump-off point for looking at rhythm, rhyming words and spelling. Make sure you teach the movements and the chant before looking at the written form. Especially during the early stages, learning to read and write words is easiest when children are already familiar with the sound and meaning of the spoken word. This particular song is good for teaching the short ‘a’ sound, as well as -ack, -igh and -ly word endings. The song could also be illustrated or acted out as an extension activity.

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back.
She asked her mother, mother, mother
For fifty cents, cents, cents.
To see the elephants, elephants, elephants
Jump the fence, fence, fence.
They jumped so high, high, high
They reached the sky, sky, sky
And didn’t come back, back, back
Till the fourth of July, ’ly, ’ly!


Writing your own songs and chants

Songs and chants can also be used to work explicitly on vocabulary items and lexical chunks that appear in your curriculum. When we allow students to use English creatively by writing their own songs, we are giving them a sense of ownership of the language. They can experiment, take risks and personalise the language, making it meaningful and more memorable.

The following activity is a task best suited to children who are already reading and writing in English, rather than beginners. However, you will still need to bear in mind that they may not have had exposure to this genre before – even in their first language. The children will need lots of support and more than one opportunity to try the activity out over the course of a school year. You can provide support for this activity by:

  • making sure you are teaching lots of vocabulary in context, not just word lists;
  • teaching students about syllables and rhyming words;
  • giving students access to tools for finding rhyming words (eg; and
  • scaffolding the activity by modelling how to create a chant, then creating one together before getting them to try on their own or in pairs.

Here are the steps for creating your own jazz chant or song :

1. Write a list of key words you’d like to work on. These might be words related to a theme you’re working on, useful classroom language you want to teach or even the students’ names (around ten words is best).

2. Make a list of rhyming words – you can tell the students to check on

3. Write a list of other individual words or phrases to describe or add information to your list of key words, eg fresh, frozen, delicious.

4. Divide the words into groups according to their number of syllables.

5. Use the melody from a familiar or popular song and create new lyrics for it.

Adding music to your classroom instructions

One of the richest sources of input in the classroom is our ‘teacher talk’, like:

  • come and sit down on the floor
  • circle time
  • story time
  • tidy up
  • get in line
  • put on / take off your shoes

Teachers are constantly told to reduce their teacher talk, increasing the time available for students to talk instead. However, in the classroom children need lots of natural, clear language that provides them with a model they can copy.

Many teachers fall into the trap of grading their language to the point where it becomes unnatural. This may be because they feel that beginner students are not going to understand them if they speak at a normal pace. That is probably true, but one thing is sure: speaking like a robot is not going to make it easier for students to understand your words. Adding music to your classroom instructions instead and gradually phasing it out as the school year progresses is one of the easiest and most effective ways of helping students understand you and your classroom instructions, without having to resort to L1.

Children learn to recognise songs much quicker than words. If you team songs up with a regular and predictable class routine and deliberate, planned language and gestures, they will understand what is expected of them in just a few classes. After a while, you can remove the music from these commands and just say them. Then, you can even start changing or extending the language you use. For example:

  • Everybody, sit down on the floor.
  • Come and sit down next to me / on a chair.
  • It’s circle time, it’s not story time.
  • Get in line here, please.
  • Maria, tidy up, please.

Finally, you will see the children using this language too – naturally, fluently and appropriately.

The benefits of using music and movement in the primary classroom are widely known, so I encourage all teachers to build up a repertoire of songs and games that can be used to introduce and review language and to use them regularly in class. It is so easy to incorporate songs into your class routine, and they can contribute to building a love of language learning that will last for years to come.