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Musical activities for developing phonological skills

Dr Anne Margaret Smith explains that using music to support language development goes well beyond simply using songs to teach vocabulary.
When I work with neuro- diverse students I’m always trying to find out what their best way of learning might be. Many of my students have responded well to the use of musical activities and they love using songs for vocabulary development. But we can go well beyond that and also help students to tune in to the elements of music that are integral components of language– rhythm, pitch, volume and tempo, duration and so on. Music and language are closely connected, and it seems that we process them in the same parts of the brain. The research evidence indicates that developing student sense of rhythm can be really beneficial for literacy development, particularly for dyslexic learners as it helps to support their phonological processing.
Students also need to be confident in perceiving and producing the individual sounds of English, as well as interpreting changes in pitch volume and duration and understanding the role that these elements play in producing word stress and sentence stress. I’ve often been guilty in the past of encouraging students to practise stressing certain syllables, but without showing them how to do it, expecting them to know intuitively that they need to slightly raise the pitch of the syllable, and at the same time say it slightly louder, and hold it for slightly longer. That’s what we mean by duration. When students have a good command of intonation, they immediately increase the range of messages they can convey even with limited vocabulary and grammar.
It can be less intimidating for students to think about an aspect of language if they’re introduced to it through its musical equivalent. However, some students need explicit practice to tune into these musical elements, and it can be helpful to isolate them and focus on one at a time before recombining them in fluency activities. Have a look at these video clips. In the first one the students are focusing just on pitch change and then in the second one they’re implementing it to produce various intonation patterns using a very simple sentence.
This time do you hear A or B? [TONES SOUND]
Just thinking for yourselves first [TONES SOUND] Check with each other. [TONES SOUND] Now write your answer on the board.
OK, boards up. Let’s see. All gone for A. So we’re all tuned in. So it was this one starting here and dropping down. Remember, the first time you hear, you’re just thinking. Second time, check with the others. Third time, decide on your answer. Here we go. [TONES SOUND]
Would you like to pick a card, any card.
So just have a look at your cards. You’ve got one word. Have a little think about how it would change the expression. So who’s got this one? Me! Me! Ah, two people! Me! Me! I! So would you like to do it together I would like to go with you tonight. [LAUGHING] That means a lot, don’t you think? You. Who’s got you? Me. Ah. I would like to go with you tonight.
I would like to go with you tonight. It just makes me feel better every time.
Makes me feel special. Who’s got tonight?
I would like to go with you tonight. Tonight?
I’d like to go with you tonight. Tonight? OK, perfect. Brilliant. So you can see that actually, even if you keep the most of the sentence pretty much still on the level, just by emphasising one word or even just one part of a word, you change the meaning completely. Studies have also show that people tend to remember better the words that they practise in a musical format, especially when they produce their own versions. So we can ask students to think of a tune that they know well, choose five or six new words that they need to learn, and sing the new words to the familiar tune.
In order to do this, they’ll need to think about the pronunciation, the number of syllables in each of the words, which syllable is stressed, so that they arrange them appropriately within the tune. But they probably won’t realise how much information they’re processing because they’ll be concentrating on completing the task and having fun while they do it. Even learning spelling is more fun when you set it to a rhythm and perhaps make a little dance routine to go with it. Listen to this soundtrack which gives an example of a rhythm for spelling a four-letter word.
W-H-E-N W-H-E-N W-H-E-N W-H-E-N W-H-E-N W-H-E-N W-H-E-N W-H-E-N Do you think your learners might enjoy learning spelling this way rather than just writing out? If they like dancing, making up a routine of moves could also help to secure the spelling. Using musical activities is a great way of developing active listening, and for some students it can be a more appealing, less threatening format for language development. We might be able to encourage some of our reluctant learners to participate. Who knows? We might even discover great talents within our class. But it’s not all about the performances. Students don’t have to be great musicians to get the benefit.
The real learning takes place in the processing of the different aspects of language which music facilitates. Having said that, the boost in confidence and motivation that they get from working with other students to make up their own little songs shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s a great way to build group cohesion and enhance the inclusive learning environment within the language classroom. If you would like to find out more about using musical activities in your classroom, visit the ELT well website and choose the Resources tab and you’ll find more links there.

In this video, Anne Margaret Smith describes how musical activities can be used to teach language. One approach is to isolate and focus on specific aspects of phonology, such as pitch change as a part of intonation patterns. Another approach is to use music to support memory.

  • Do you already use music in your classroom? Why / not?
  • If you do, how do you use it?
  • Do you think you might use these kinds of activities with your students?
  • How would you adapt them to suit your context?
  • What other aspects of phonology could you isolate in this way?

If you want to learn more about the use of musical activities to support language learners with SpLDs, please visit

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Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching

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