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Kids Learn Better With a Song in Their Hearts

Do you recall the multiplication tables, grammatical terms, or historical documents through song? Many educators recognize that teaching with song makes learning not only more fun, but more effective and long-lasting. When you want to inspire your students, take time to tickle the ivories, pluck the strings, or turn on the boom box and tune-in" to song. Included: Learn why songs benefit learning and how to choose the right material for the school or classroom.

"Pop culture has known for some time that music is an effective way to influence how children think of themselves," says David Craft. "It's about time educators began using music to positively influence how children see themselves in this world."

Craft started playing guitar in his junior year of college because the piano wasn't transportable and he wanted something to add to his "bag of tricks" for teaching. In his 18 years as a classroom teacher, he used the guitar to introduce songs that focused on the curriculum and to entertain during group camping trips. Today, as principal of Greenvale Park Elementary School in Northfield, Minnesota, Craft sings daily during whole-school morning meetings, and the focus of the songs he shares is on building-wide expectations and a "common identity."

"This is my first year at Greenvale Park, which has many experienced teachers on staff," he explained. "I wasn't sure how they would respond to the building-wide morning meeting with the group singing, but after our first one, some of them expressed how impressed they were with the addition of music."

Ask Greenvale Park students who they are, and the response will be, "We are hard workers!" The building message is Work, Respect, Belong. As students enter for morning assembly, they hear recordings that are representative of that message. Song selections include "Working in the Coal Mine" by Lee Dorsey, "Respect" by Aretha Franklin, and "Somewhere Out There," performed by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram.

Why Make
Time for Song?

Early childhood educator and teacher trainer Sharon MacDonald believes there are many reasons why song deserves attention in classrooms.

Music helps children hear rhyme. They hear the similar sounds the words make and the cadence of the rhyming word patterns and word segments.

Music has a rhythm. Children listen to the series of beats in the lines of song and the patterns created by the beats in the words. (Beats are syllables.)

Music helps develop vocabulary. Children increase their knowledge of word meanings and word use by using new vocabulary in a variety of song contexts.

Craft plays classics like "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain," along with selections for his many Spanish-speaking students, like "La Bamba" and "La Cucaracha." He introduces genres of music by allowing students to pick the style and tempo for familiar songs that he plays. A favorite among the students is "Big Booger," an anti-bullying song by Tim Noah.

"Music is a powerful medium to help kids see themselves as who they are and who they can be," Craft told Education World. "Singing with the students allows me to let my hair down and be seen in a different role -- not the iron fist, but the encourager, the supporter."

Craft invites musical performers to visit his students. When one told stories of bullying from his childhood and sang "Don't Laugh at Me," written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin, even the toughest child in the crowd was moved. He plans to use this song to promote mutual understanding and "belonging" at Greenvale Park.

"Sharing songs is one way we promote healthy self-respect and perseverance," added Craft. "A mindset is nurtured and reinforced through the songs -- set a goal, persevere, succeed."

For example, Craft played "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry, which conveys the tale of a kid who mastered the guitar, and pointed out to the students that the "guitar" in the lyric might represent something else for them -- maybe math or spelling or Later, individual students left notes for him stating things like, "I wasn't doing well in spelling. I worked hard, and now I'm doing better."

Says Craft, "The message conveyed is more important than the music itself."


"There are valid conclusions we can make from what we know about songs and chants --they teach," observes Sharon MacDonald, an early childhood educator and teacher trainer. "History invites us, for instance, to remember that in all cultures songs and chants have conveyed important information about work, family, and society."

Choose the
Right Songs

When Sharon MacDonald chooses the right songs, she can use them to teach reading, writing, math, science, fine arts, social studies, language, and motor skills. Experience tells her that songs work especially well for children with special needs and those who have had problems in more structured class settings. There are six elements MacDonald uses to guide her selections.

The songs are relevant, meaningful, and interesting to the children. The children enjoy them. They sing these songs on the playground and hum the songs when they work at tasks. They ask for the songs to be played.

The songs tell a simple story. They have a beginning, middle, and an end so that children develop an understanding of storyness."

They have a simple, memorable melody. There is something special about these kinds of songs. They stay in your head and in the children's heads. Use these songs to build skills.

The songs build a base for future learning. If you select a song that contains information that you need to teach, the children will learn the information and be able to recall it months later, when it will mean something to them.

They review information and practice skills. Look at the skills and concepts you taught during the year. To review, teach a song that contains some of the information you have taught. Let the singing of the song help re-teach and review for the children what they have learned.

They are age-appropriate. Sing songs that speak to the children's level of personal experience.

Recent investigation into the effects of music on the brain reveals that the brain loves music and that information traveling on musical notes is learned more quickly and better retained for speedy, accurate retrieval, MacDonald advises. But while the research also indicates that some children benefit more than others from music in the classroom, there has not been much study of how songs, chants, and lullabies influence learning. She believes that they help.

"Songs, poems, chants, and rhymes, for example, made it possible for workmen in the Middle Ages to be organized to build great cathedrals. They could not learn through reading and writing since few could do either," she added.


Six years ago, the combination of learning to play the guitar, attending an educational conference about music, and teaching a unit about economics led Eric R. Chandler to make greater use of music in his classroom. He introduced a song from the unit about bartering that was written to the tune of a popular children's song, and the kids adored it. At the time, he was just starting out with the guitar, and he hadn't yet tried playing it in class.

"A colleague suggested I combine my new enthusiasm for guitar with my teaching. I learned the chords to the bartering song that night and brought my guitar in the next day, and we played and sang the same song again," Chandler recalled. "The reaction I got was amazing. The children loved it. They began requesting the song all day and into the week. Music not only made my children learn the concept faster, they also began enjoying school more. Today I'm not as apprehensive about using music. We start our day with a song, and sometimes we really rock the house!"

Chandlers early efforts to teach with music involved copying popular artists and creating "parodies" with appropriate curricular content, but as he has gained confidence in his instrumental skills, he has moved to composing fully original tunes and lyrics. To date, the second grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary School in Purcellville, Virginia, has written songs for each of the four core subjects he teaches.

"I would say that writing songs for science and social studies are the easiest, and math is definitely the toughest. It's hard sometimes to explain how to add or subtract in song form," Chandler admitted. He has created seven songs that deal with the beginning stages of spelling and one about reading strategies, but he considers one science tune his "greatest hit."

"I wrote a song called 'Objects Move' that I love to play and my students love to sing," said Chandler. "I was looking through my curriculum and read about the three ways objects can move -- straight, curved, or back and forth. That seemed like a great chorus, so with guitar in lap, I started playing chords and writing down lyrics. We came up with motions, so now my students sing and move to the song as I play it."

Chandler maintains that songs make the classroom a more relaxed, comfortable place for learning. For him, the best evidence of this is not just improved test scores or faster mastery of content but when parents say that their children are excited about learning and can't wait to get up in the morning and go to school. Every time that Chandler's students spontaneously join in singing one of his classroom ditties, it is both reaffirming and rewarding.

"The first time this happened was a few years ago," shared Chandler. "I passed out a snack to my kids and told them that they could trade with others if they didn't like what they had. They all started trading and also began singing that economics song about bartering at the same time. I thought, 'Wow, there's something to this music thing!'"

It isn't necessary to be a musician in order to use songs in the classroom, according to Chandler. Many resources provide content-related songs for the classroom, and he plans to release some of his own original songs.

"I think playing music gets a bad rap sometimes; teachers think it should be reserved for free time or parties," Chandler said. "I think that if you can take something kids love and incorporate that into what you're doing in class, they will begin to make more of a connection and will be more willing to participate, making them ready to retain more information. I see this every day in my class."


A teacher and musician, Jenny Billard is one of the "resources" for songs to which Chandler refers. From Sydney, Australia, her The J.E.M. Site (Jens Educational Music Site) provides inexpensive music downloads for educators.

Working with children in remote communities in the Northern Territory prompted Billard to implement creative" teaching techniques like using songs. She needed to catch the childrens interest and make learning easier and more enjoyable.

It wasn't until some of the grandmothers and mothers of the children visited me at school that I found out that these children were singing my songs all around the community and at home," reported Billard. Since we had a lot of trouble keeping children at school and interesting them in learning in such a remote area of Australia, this blew me away. Of their own choice, these children were taking learning home with them, little did they know."

Billard finds that younger children respond most positively to songs that are cheesy and up-tempo," such as rock n roll style, which she says are also the easiest to write. The musical and lyrical clichs found in these songs actually give them greater appeal to little ones. Older children prefer more sophistication in their music and often respond better to versions of rhythm and blues, hip-hop, or dance tunes. The cheesy" songs that strike a chord with kids have an added benefit -- whether you like them or hate them, they are extremely memorable.

Music is a great motivator for learning!" Billard shared. Not only does it make you more physically relaxed when you learn, it is fun, inclusive, and more efficient. Obviously, if remembering a song and its words is easier than remembering a set of grammatical rules, then it is far better to learn those rules through song and leave behind the stress of learning where you can. If the songs appeal to the children, then they are more likely to have the songs running through their heads away from school too. It beats homework!"

The J.E.M. Site (Jens Educational Music Site) is very new, but Billard has big plans. A current focus is to build the songs teachers most need, so she encourages educators to send song requests to her via the site's contact us" page.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World

Originally published 01/28/2008
Last updated 06/26/2008