Sunday, March 4, 2012

Music and English Language Learners

Did you know that March is Music In Our Schools Month? I think that music is an important part of education, and should be included in all programs of study K-12. I started band in 6th grade, and continued all through high school, and even into my sophomore year of college. I played (and still occasionally play) piano, clarinet, bass clarinet and tuba. I participated in concert band and marching band each year, and believe it made a huge difference in my education.

According to Nature Neuroscience (2007), Students in schools with strong music education programs perform higher on standardized tests than students in schools with deficient music education programs. Other research shows that playing a musical instrument increases the brain's sensitivity to speech and language sounds, as well as long term memory. VH1's Save the Music Website has an excellent collection of research statistics and information on the benefits of music education.

So how can teachers of English language learners use these benefits to help our students? The first is to figure out how you can incorporate music into your own classroom. Beyond that, how can you help to improve the quality of the music education program in your school?

When I taught middle school, and we received a newcomer, the counselor and I would discuss what classes would be appropriate for the student. I always recommended a chorus class. The research shows that music is connected to the brain's speech and language center, which is exactly what a newcomer ELL needs to stimulate. Students get practice making the sounds and shapes of the language, without having to deal with the stress of understanding it. Even better, they are surrounded by others and don't have to feel ostracized for accents or mistakes.

Beyond academics, participation in a music program, whether choral or instrumental, can help to raise a student's level of self-confidence, which can translate in to an improvement in academics as well. It can give students the opportunity to find or develop a talent that can eventually help them win money for college.

Music can also make the environment more comfortable. Krashen's affective filter hypothesis states the theory that if a student is uncomfortable, for any reason, he or she will be unable to learn language effectively. This seems to make sense for any student in any subject area. Playing music at specific times to establish procedures or routines, or while students are working independently, can help to make your classroom a more comfortable environment and open your ELLs up to learning.

Gardener's theory of Multiple Intelligences tells us that some students have a specific intelligence for music, and learn best when music is incorporated. Other research tells us that music helps to develop long term memory. With these two pieces of information in mind, I have used simple songs written to familiar tunes to help my students develop, practice and remember important content vocabulary and academic language. Some of the strongest memories I have from elementary school are songs that my teachers used to help us learn concepts, like multiplication. Even better- have students write their own song, poem, or rap about a topic you've been studying.

Incorporate music as part of your rewards program. While I realize that most schools have bans on devices like iPods or cell phones that play music, I have had success with using these devices as part of my rewards and incentives program in my classroom. When I was teaching middle school, my students loved to listen to music. Provided that their behavior and work habits were on target, they were allowed to bring their listening devices, with headphones, to listen to on Fridays. Students had the understanding that if they brought these devices out in other classes, they would be confiscated and I would not help them. I would also occasionally allow students the privilege of playing "dj" and hooking up their device to my computer's speakers. The students who got to play "dj" enjoyed the privilege and did not push the boundaries by playing inappropriate music- in fact, they were very vigilant to make sure the music was "school safe".

Regardless of how you choose to do it, I urge you to incorporate music into your classroom learning experience. It can help improve vital brain functions related to speech and language processing, improve memory and help to make your students more comfortable and open to learning. These things will certainly help your ELLs, but I can see how they could help all the students in your class as well!


  1. Hi Mrs. J. I am a 1st grade ELL teach at a Title 1 kiddos of poverty are really ELL kiddos too because of the lack of language used in their homes. My school and district have been involved in many grants to be trained and provide resources for all of the ELL teachers. I am going to start sharing more strategies on my blog to help ELL teachers. I would love for you to pay me a visit when you can. I am a new follower to your blog.

    Heather's Heart

  2. Hi Heather,
    I'm so glad you stopped by! I am now YOUR newest follower and look forward to reading some of your articles when I have a moment!!

    Mrs. J