Using Rhythm and Music to Teach Language and Content

Supports students to build their language and content knowledge by engaging with rhythm and music
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About This Strategy

Research shows that rhythm and music can be powerful tools for learning language and for retaining content. In addition, they can be a game-changer in terms of keeping students engaged. In many ways, music transcends language which makes it a particularly effective strategy for students with limited language as they can participate in language production in a way that focuses more on rhythm than on pronunciation or comprehension of words. In this strategy, teachers will seek out songs with high-leverage lyrics and/or will create their own songs with familiar rhythms to use as teaching tools for helping students learn and retain language and content. Although this strategy is particularly effective with language learners, it is also highly effective with special needs students and any student who struggles to focus and/or connect with the content, as music tends to be highly engaging and motivating.

Implementation Steps

  1. Choose a song with rich lyrics that can be used to teach a skill, a concept or specific language and/or that can be used as a model text for writing. Examples:
    • To teach pollution, try My Dirty Stream by Pete Seeger.
    • To teach theme, try Where Is the Love by Black-Eyed Peas or Seasons of Love from the musical Rent.
    • To teach language like days of the week, try Friday I’m in Love by The Cure.
    • To teach question structure or letter writing, try Dear Mr. President by P!NK.
    • To teach compare and contrast, try comparing two songs like Let It Go by Idina Menzel and Shake It Off by Taylor Swift. See Compare/Contrast Activity, located in the resources section below.
    • To teach idioms, try Roar by Katy Perry. See Idiom Activity, provided by Ashley Grannell at Brookside Charter, located in the resources section below.
    • To teach narrative structure, try Ol' Red by Blake Shelton. See Plot Diagram Template, linked below, used to analyze the narrative structure of this song.
    • To teach long vowel sounds, try Apples and Bananas. 
  2. Listen to the song (or a portion of it) with students or watch the music video if available and appropriate. Give the students a purpose when listening. Examples: 

    • Try to identify the theme of the song.

    • Listen for target vocabulary words.

    • Complete the lyrics for the song by filling in a cloze activity. For examples of this, see Ol' Red Listening Cloze Activity and Where Is the Love Listening Cloze Activity, both linked in the resources section below.

    • Listen for answers to specific comprehension questions. For examples of the type of comprehension questions students might answer, see the questions at the end of the listening cloze activities in the resource section below.

  3. Discuss the song, exploring student interpretations of what they heard. Provide students with the lyrics (or review the lyrics from their listening cloze activity) so they can listen again while reading the words. See if this changes their understanding of the song. 

  4. As students acquire the concept, skill or language, begin to pull them away from that specific song to apply the learning in other contexts (i.e., via a different song or text or activity). Example: students are able to identify the theme of a new song, then of an unrelated text, then are able to create their own text (song, poem, story) with an identifiable theme.

  5. Students use the original song lyrics as a text model to write their own version of the song. Student songs / poems may be in the style of this unit’s song or may be entirely new, but their creations should have something that relates to the unit’s song (a shared theme, a shared style, specific targeted vocabulary, etc.) This step should be highly differentiated, according to each individual student's needs.

    • Students who are ready to get started and do not seem to need any additional support may work from a blank page.  

    • Students who need some guidance can be given a writing cloze activity where they will use their own ideas to fill in missing words. For examples of what this cloze activity might look like, see Seasons of Love Writing Cloze Activity or Dear Mr. President Writing Cloze Activity, both linked below. 

    • Students who need a lot of guidance with this activity might complete this as a shared writing activity (either in a small group or with the whole class) with the teacher facilitating the writing process. For an example of a piece of shared writing based on the song "Ol' Red", see High School Interactive Shared Writing Example: Blue Lady.

    • In this phase, teachers should be circulating and consulting with students, providing feedback and support as needed.

  6. Have students partner up to share their creations and provide / receive feedback. For an example of this, see BetterLesson's Peer Feedback Strategy linked below.

  7. Based on feedback, have students edit their songs/poems. Students may join new partners to share their edited versions and receive additional feedback before publishing their creations.

EL Modification

Depending on the language levels in your classroom, there are a number of different ways you can modify this strategy.

Implementation steps:

  1. Using the implementation steps above, identify how this strategy might need to be adapted for the various language levels in your classroom. For example, for students at beginning levels of language acquisition, consider the following: 

    • Focus on a portion of the target song's lyrics, rather than the entire song.

    • When students are expected to speak or sing a lyric, as in the sample case study for transition times below, allow students first to simply listen to their classmates, then shape the word(s) with their mouths, then whisper them until finally, they are comfortable singing or chanting along.

    • During partner and group discussions, provide sentence frames and vocabulary for students to use to help them participate.

  2. When it comes to song choice, consider the language level required for comprehension and identify areas where background and vocabulary knowledge may be lacking.

    • Before introducing the lyrics:

      • Front load vocabulary as necessary

      • Build background by providing context

    • During the study of the lyrics:

      • Use images to supplement and help students connect 

    • During implementation step 3 when students are discussing the song, provide anchor charts with sentence frames and language for students to start conversations and build on the conversations of others. For an example of what this anchor chart might look like, see Conversation Builder Anchor Chart linked below.

  3. In implementation step 5, when students are expected to create their own versions of the song, consider these modifications:

    • Scaffold the cloze activity into as many different versions necessary. Lower language level students may have a shorter cloze writing template, with more words provided and a word bank available to help them in the writing phase. 

  4. Consider gathering lower-language level students together in a small group for a shared writing activity where the teacher guides them through the writing process and possibly scripts their ideas for them. For examples of the shared writing that can come out of these small group sessions, see Be Like A... Small Group Shared Writing Samples, linked in the resources section below.

Special Education Modification

Students with sensory processing issues may find some of the music chosen to be overwhelming or too stimulating. Being aware and preparing specific modifications for the lesson can ensure the experience is a successful one for all students.

Implementation steps:

  1. When choosing songs for a lesson, consider consulting the student, the student's family and other stakeholders in the student's education. Gathering a list of favorite songs (or songs used with other teachers and in other areas of the student's education) can be extremely beneficial. Lyrics can then be studied to determine which songs might be excellent tools for teaching specific skills, language and/or content. If a song works for the intended lesson and is a favorite of a student with sensory processing issues, consider using that song for the whole class or for the student individually.

  2. Consider the noise level of the music played and keep it at a level that isn't distressing for the student. Also, consider providing noise-cancelling headphones.

  3. Allow the student flexibility in how close he/she chooses to sit to the speakers. 

  4. Provide the student with ample advance warning that the class will be listening to a new song. Allow the student the opportunity to listen to the song in smaller segments than the rest of the class (or to only a portion of the song if necessary). 

  5. Allow the student the option to only read the lyrics rather than listen to the song with the class. Consider recording yourself reading the lyrics for the student to listen to via headphones while the rest of the class is listening to the song itself.

  6. For more ideas on classroom accommodations for students with sensory processing issues, see the article, Classroom Accommodations for Sensory Processing Issues, linked below.

Distance Learning Modification

The use of rhythm can be particularly effective in a distance learning environment. Students are sitting for significant amounts of time staring at a screen. Incorporating rhythm (chants, music, songs, etc.) into a lesson can be particularly effective at engaging students and keeping them on task and learning.

Implementation steps:

  1. Online transitions and breaks can be hard to navigate. It's easy in a stationary environment, staring at a screen, to just keep moving from one subject or activity to the next without providing critical brain breaks. Consider the following:

    • Playing music during your short breaks, even when students are off screen because it's a restroom, snack or water break. 

    • Keeping your digital classroom open, even during longer breaks, with music playing so that students who wish to can engage in a quick "dance party" during lunch and other longer breaks.

    • Continuing to use in your virtual environment any routines from your physical classroom that involve rhythm or music. The example given in the sample case study for transition times below can still be used online even though students won't be moving from one area of a classroom to the next. Instead, students can simply move in place while chorally responding to the teacher.

  2. In a virtual environment, it may be even more advisable to choose songs that have appropriate music videos that can be shown while listening to a song. This can help students connect. If an appropriate music video isn't available, connected images are advisable. 

  3. Consider using shorter excerpts. It's not necessary to listen to or study an entire song when a shorter segment will suffice, Choose to focus on the critical piece of a song (ex: the chorus or just a line or two) that meets the purpose for the lesson. In a virtual environment, shorter may be a much sweeter way to go. 

  4. For shared writing experiences, consider using Google Docs or some other live platform where students can collaborate in the writing process.

  5. Implementation step 8 is particularly critical in a virtual environment. Consider allowing students to publish their songs as an audio or video recording, rather than just on paper. In their recordings, students can choose to sing or to perform a dramatic reading of their song / poem. In this way, the technology that students are constantly connected to becomes a fun and engaging tool for learning. Some tech tool options are:

    • Vocaroo to create audio recordings (linked below)

    • Flipgrid to create video recordings (linked below)

Related Lessons

  • This strategy is great for almost any content. Depending on the content being studied, songs can be chosen that are specific to a theme or unit of study. For a lyrics-based unit plan, please see Using Lyrics to Teach Content: Song-Based Units of Study, linked below. 

  • This strategy is particularly effective for writing lessons. For reluctant writers, using songs as model texts for writing can be highly motivating and can result in students writing more than they would otherwise. For an example of this, see the Narrative Writing High School Lesson Plan: Ol' Red, linked below.

  • This strategy is also particularly effective during interactive read alouds as a method for teaching students to retell the events of a story through song. For an example of what this might look like, see Pre-K Interactive Read Aloud & Writers' Workshop  Plan (Salsa Visits the Zoo) linked below.

Using Rhythm and Music to Energize Transition Times

Description: There are times during a class period and/or school day when time is lost, due to transitions and/or a loss of student engagement. This strategy can be used to energize students and minimize lost instructional time.

Implementation steps:

  1. Identify transition and other times within a class period that student engagement may drop and/or instructional time is lost. An example would be whenever students are expected to move from one area of the classroom to another:

    • When transitioning from independent work to group work

    • When moving from their desks to the floor

    • When getting their backpacks from the closet

    • When lining up for lunch or specials or to go home

    • When cleaning up from centers and moving to the carpet

  2. Seek out fun song lyrics or rhythmic chants that can be used during these times to keep students focused and engaged, while also giving them an opportunity to practice language. Examples:

    • "I LIke to Move It" from Madagascar. For an example of how to use this song in the classroom, see the video Transition Time in Pre-K with "I Like to Move It" linked below.

    • "Penguin Lament" from Dog Train by Sandra Boynton.

    • Rhythmic chants and songs like the ones featured in the video Classroom Attention Getters by Positive Preschool Tips, linked below. 

  3. Explicitly teach the routine and expectations for when the students hear the song or chant. In addition, if the students are expected to provide a choral response or to sing along, they will need to be taught those expectations as well.

    • Introduce the song chosen. For the official music videos of the above songs, see I Like to Move It Official Music Video and Sandra Boynton's Penguin Lament Official Video, both linked below.

    • Students should move swiftly without running.

    • Students should chant the response back. Students who are in the silent period or reluctant speakers can begin by simply mouthing the words along with their peers, then later whispering then, then eventually saying them out loud.

  4. Practice the routine regularly.

  5. Implement the routine whenever all students (or specific groups of students) are expected to move in class. 

    • Determine how long (i.e., how many rounds) students will need to accomplish the move required (students lining up for dismissal, for example). Tell the students the number of rounds they will have and what the expectation is at the end of those rounds (for example, be in line and quiet at the end of two rounds). Use the smallest number of rounds possible. Some songs and/or some tasks will require more rounds than others. 

    • Begin the first round:

      1. Sing or chant like King Julien in the movie "I like to move it, move it. I like to..." The students respond "move it!" as they move from one spot in the classroom to another. 

      2. Sing or chant "Little legs cannot stride." Students respond, "So we rock side to side, side to side, side to side to move." While singing, students waddle like penguins to their new spot in the classroom. (This section of the song is located at 2:22-2:30 in the video linked below.)

    • Repeat this chant for the number of rounds you announced. Once the rounds are finished, the students should all be in line and ready to go.

Using Rhythm and Music During an Interactive Read Aloud

Description: This strategy is particularly effective with interactive read aloud (IRA) lessons because they provide opportunities for students to utilize targeted language from the reading to create and sing songs. The resources below, Salsa Visits the Zoo IRA lesson plan and T-Rab IRA lesson plan, both feature these opportunities. 

Implementation steps:

  1. During the read aloud, offer students opportunities to participate in the reading with choral response and/or chanting of target vocabulary. 

  2. Walk students through a retell of the story or of a couple pages in the story. Use the frame of a common song like The Wheels on the Bus. 

  3. This can involve either a shared writing exercise or a collaborative speaking exercise where students work together to create lyrics to the tune of a familiar song (for example, The Wheels on the Bus).  For examples of this, see the videos Pre-K Retell in Song: Salsa Visits the Zoo and 1st Grade Retell in Song: Tyrabbisaurus Rex, both linked below.

Tech Tools

  1. Vocaroo is a free web based tool that allows for the recording and sharing of audio with the simple push of a button. Vocaroo can be used in this strategy as an online tool for students to audio record their songs.

  2. Flipgrid is a video discussion platform great for generating class discussion around topics, videos, or links posted to the class grid. Students can video record their responses to share with the teacher or class. In this strategy, Flipgrid can be used as an online tool for students to video record their songs.