Music to My Ears: 3 Powerful Methods for Using Music in Classrooms with Emergent Bilinguals

by Valentina Gonzalez

On an average Uber drive in the fall of 2021, I sat in the backseat listening to the music from the radio, trying to figure out the language. It somehow sounded familiar and also brought me back to my childhood memories. As the car pulled up to my destination, I thanked the driver and asked him about the music. He proudly told me it was Greek, and it was the sixth language he was learning through music. At that moment, I began to kick myself for not inquiring earlier. Now I wanted to know more. I had so many questions for the seemingly ordinary Uber driver who was actually extraordinary. 

Does music really facilitate language development? And if so, how? In a Review of Research on the Effects of Music upon Second Language Acquisition, Amin and Soh (2020) share the effects of the patterns and the rhythm and repetitive nature of songs:

  • Stimulate the whole brain
  • Create an avenue for low-stress output
  • Provide practice in producing words and sounds
  • Facilitate retention of words and content
  • Facilitate comprehension of words and content

Overall, music is an excellent way to expose emergent bilinguals to new vocabulary and content in the language of instruction. There are numerous ways to incorporate music into daily routines and practice. Let’s look at three specific strategies teachers can use in any grade level and with heterogeneous classrooms or small groups of only emergent bilingual students. 

  1. Compose songs as a class. While singing has been a popular and common practice in primary grades, it’s not regularly seen in classrooms as students grow older. Yet, people of all ages continue to enjoy music even as they age into adulthood and beyond. Tunes are memorable, and they can evoke emotion and creativity. One way to leverage these great music assets is by composing songs with our students. Dr. Lora Beth Escalante, the author of Motivating ELLs, explains on page 39 how students can use a popular tune or song to create lyrics that relate to the content objectives. This process engages learners quickly as they work together in groups or as a class to embed critical vocabulary and concepts into the lyrics. These songs can be repeated, read, or sung together or independently, promoting language development and literacy. 
  1. Share meaningful songs. Because we know that “music is so important to human beings” and that “every culture and generation has music that is appealing and that awakens the spirit,” we can use music as a conduit for relationship building, too (Escalante 2018 p 37). Noa Daniel, an innovative classroom teacher, blogger, and author in Canada does just that with something she calls “The Personal Soundtrack” or “The Personal Playlist.” Students sign up to present three songs (one that is nostalgic, one related to their identity, and one that inspires them). Some students even share songs in languages other than English. This authentic experience allows a safe place for students to discover and reveal who they are while building community and empathy. Noa said in her TEDTalk that “our shared humanity connects us through our narrative.” When students share the songs and music that are most meaningful to them, we begin to hear their stories, and we begin to know one another at more intimate levels. 
  1. Use music during transitions. Music has a wonderful capability to evoke a variety of emotions. Knowing this, we can use music to relax learners during stressful or unsettling times. For example, playing calming music before an exam, after recess, or as we re-enter the room following a fire drill can change the atmosphere and reduce stress. Some teachers also use music routinely to indicate when it’s time to line up or switch classes. Tina Beene, author of Teaching Social Studies to English Language Learners, describes the Middle School Dance, a simple yet fun and effective way to have students pair up and hold academic discussions. She incorporates music into the structure to provide a relaxed environment and increase student engagement. Teachers who use music in the classroom for transitions have shared that varying the genres and offering music from around the world has boosted classroom conversations and bonded students. 

Music is fun! Children love music long before they walk through our classroom doors, and most of them hear it at home, in car rides, while singing with family, and more.  “Our ability to create and to respond to music predates almost all spoken language,” says Tina Beene. Teachers can easily apply the practicality of music in their daily instructional routines to increase language development and content attainment.

Let’s circle back. Remember the multilingual Uber driver? Well, unfortunately, my questions for him went unanswered. Still I walked away reflecting on the power of music, the role music plays in my own life, how I’ve used music in my work with emergent bilingual students, and also the music lessons I’ve learned from colleagues in the field. Ultimately that ride in the Uber brought to my attention the power music has to build language and build bonds and connections amongst seemingly different individuals. 

Valentina Gonzalez is a content creator and educational consultant for Seidlitz Education, and the co-author of Reading & Writing with English Learners: A Framework for K-5. 

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