Voices from the Field: Songs in the ELT Classroom

In his monthly blog, National Geographic Learning’s in-house teacher trainer Alex Warren explores what’s going on in the world of ELT on his travels around the region.

October has been another busy month, of teacher training with another few thousand air miles under the belt. Malta (twice), Holland, England, and Ukraine, which is where I had one of those surreal encounters you sometimes get when traveling.

Picture the scene: I’m in a taxi in Ukraine and the taxi driver, while basically speaking no English, is determined to make a connection and talk to me. And he’s trying to make that connection through music. He keeps turning his head around to look at me to recite lyrics from songs he’s clearly heard a million times on the radio. But here’s the thing – he wasn’t just reciting the lyrics back to me with a strong accent, he was doing so in an intonation and voice which was impersonating the singer. This meant that in fact, these little snippets of language were actually fairly accurate in pronunciation. In any case, it got me thinking about the power of music and songs in the English language classroom, specifically in how we can use them to help pronunciation.

Now, the virtues of music and using songs in the ELT classroom have been well-documented in the past – they’re authentic, they provide comprehensible input, they recycle grammar and vocabulary, and they’re both highly motivating and highly memorable. The list could go on and on. However, songs and especially chants, are generally something that we use a lot with young learners, but less so with teens and adults. Why is this? If they work so well with young learners, why not with adults? As David Deubelbeiss (2016) points out, “Using music in your classroom will help your students succeed as English language students.  Language itself is musical, speech has flow and form and songs strongly link and teach the underlying patterns of the language itself.  If you aren’t using music in your ELT classroom, you aren’t following strong research driven instructional practices.”

Jazz Chants

But going back to my singing taxi driver, how can we use songs to help develop pronunciation – intonation, word and sentence stress as well as fluency? Using authentic songs is certainly one way of doing this, but that can be difficult due to some of the natural features that they have, including pace, accent and word stress. What we need is something more controlled, something where we can focus more on specific pronunciation and language features… which is where jazz chants come in. Now I have to admit that when I was first introduced to jazz chants just after qualifying as a teacher, I wasn’t too sure, especially as I’m not blessed with any great musicality. However, I was quickly converted after observing one of my colleagues use them in her class – not only did her students (all of whom were adults), really enjoy it, but I could actually see (and hear) the improvement in their pronunciation. And interestingly, just like my taxi driver, they were even copying (or at least trying to), the accent of the singer.

So, what exactly is a jazz chant? First popularised in the 1980s by Carolyn Graham, they are fragments of authentic language presented through the rhythms of traditional jazz with special attention to the natural rhythm. And this is the key to a successful jazz chant – the rhythms, stress and intonation patterns of the chant are, or at least should be, a replica of what the student would hear from a native speaker in natural conversation. Therefore, in this respect, they are different to nursery rhymes, raps, and songs which can distort spoken language for poetic effect. The beauty of a well-constructed jazz chant is that apart from helping with pronunciation and fluency they provide everyday language which they can really use. Better still they’re easy to make, they’re fun and work really well with large classes. So, what’s stopping you?

Task: How can you use songs and jazz chants to help develop your students’ pronunciation?

Featured photo by FOTOGRAFIA .GES on Unsplash

Further Reading:

Author: Alex Warren

Alex Warren is a DELTA trained teacher trainer with over 14 years’ experience of working in ELT as a teacher, academic director and teacher trainer. Working for National Geographic Learning, Alex is driven by his passion for developing teachers on a global scale and helping them to reach their true potential. A firm believer in a communicative approach to language learning and student centred learning, Alex enjoys working with innovative, thought-provoking materials and presenting on a wide range of ELT-related topics.

One comment

  1. Dear Mr. Warren,
    Having received an invitation from ETAS to your workshop in Lausanne, I read some of your articles for National Geographic Learning. For the past 20 years I have been working with Schools and universities in Mongolia. My program has invited over 45 Mongolian teachers of English or German to Switzerland for three months of training. 109 Mongolian students of German – many of them now teaching German in Mongolia- have been offered one year of university or middle School training in Switzerland. And I have sent over 150 people to Mongolia to teach English or German. My network is huge and I am glad to say that recently I have been able to send experienced experts to Mongolia to teach English to teachers there.
    My question for you: Since you travel a great deal working with teachers, is there a chance that you might travel to Ulaanbaatar and perhaps to two other cities in Mongolia to work with teachers there? Several teachers from Switzerland have worked with the University of Education in Ulaanbaatar and with Otgontenger University, as well as with teachers in the western provinces. All this work is done on a volunteer basis. However, since National Geographic is active in Mongolia, perhaps your employer would be willing to have you work for a few weeks there.
    I offer you my contacts and hope that you will consider a bit of time in Mongolia.
    Yours, Anita Fahrni, Swiss Program for Language Instruction and Teacher Training, Frauenfeld, Switzerland

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