Engaging pre-primary children through varied repetition of songs
If you are teaching in pre-primary contexts, then you probably have lots of songs in your toolbox that you use as vehicles for language learning. We know that children love singing and that the power of songs lies in their aid to memory. Songs are made up of catchy melodies and systematic rhythms that help with the recall of language items, more so when teachers provide opportunities for repetition. However, repetition needs to be kept interesting and children need to connect with the language used in songs in a variety of ways. A given song can be exploited so that the opportunities we give for repetition are full of variety: “varied repetition” (as opposed to dull repetition).
To achieve the aim of providing varied repetition to exploit a song for language learning, we can follow a progression that goes from engaging with the song before asking children to sing it, then moving onto singing the song in different ways and expanding the use of creative language after learning the song: 1- exposure, 2- production, 3- expansion. Here are some ideas that you can use with almost any song:
Sometimes we go straight into teaching children a song, but it can be quite effective to introduce the song before they are asked to sing it. At this stage the aim is for children to listen and to tap into their comprehension skills. Perhaps, have them respond physically or orally, but mostly within the security of the group. Here are some examples:
- Choose two to five key words from the song. Before listening to it, have learners assign an action or sound to each word. Call out the words in a given sequence for children to respond by doing the actions or sounds. Then, change the sequence, e.g. “Wheels! Wipers! Horn!” - “Wipers! Horn! Wheels!” - “Horn! Horn! Wheels!” - “Wipers! Wipers! Wheels!” Repeat the same word twice or start speeding up for an extra challenge.
- Play a game of true or false. Say one of the key words but do an action or make a sound that doesn’t match, e.g. say “apple” and mime peeling a banana. Ask children to correct your mistakes. This gives a real purpose to use the language meaningfully: very young learners really believe you have made a mistake and they feel the need to correct you.
- Similar to the example above, have a puppet make mistakes by holding up or pointing to a picture card that does not go with the words you are saying or singing. You might like to start introducing the song now, so that the puppet can show the wrong picture card. Make sure you do this with words that your group of children already understand well so as not to confuse them!
- Play the song and have children respond physically when they hear a word in the song. You might ask them to jump or stand up and sit back down again if they hear an animal word, or to touch their nose if they hear a colour and to touch their head if they hear a body word.
In the production stage, you would expect your learners to sing along but in different ways so that you provide opportunities for varied repetition. You might like to try some of these:
- Softer and louder. Play the song and encourage the whole class to sing along together. The first time through, ask them to sing very, very softly. For the second time through (or the second verse), ask them to sing louder… then, louder... and louder! This continues until they are shouting out the lyrics. Use your hand to indicate louder (your hand is up high) or softer (your hand goes down low). Then, reverse the process, having children sing softer and softer every time until they are whispering. This is a good transition opportunity to get children to become quiet for the next activity.
- Similar to the activity above, sing the song like a slow tortoise or a fast cheetah! Or use different emotions: sing it in a happy voice, a sad voice or an angry voice, or as though you had a cold or were a robot.
- Sing the song, but instruct children to omit certain words on purpose, replacing them with an action. First, take away one word, but then add more and more words to develop concentration and memory skills. For instance, you would say, “Now, we can’t say the word nose”, and you would sing “Little Peter Rabbit had a fly upon his (touch your nose)…”. Next you would say “Now, we can’t say the word nose and we can’t say the word rabbit” and you would sing “Little Peter (do an action to represent the word rabbit) had a fly upon his (touch your nose)…”
- Divide the class into two or three groups. Use a remote control as a prop to turn children’s voices on or off if you point the remote control towards their group.
- When children are confident singing the song, pass a ball around the circle and when the children have the ball in their hands they say or sing one word or line from the song. (If you are working with three or four year olds, you might want to roll the ball rather than throw it to reduce interruptions and wait time when having to fetch the lost ball!)
- Loose your voice! Start coughing and pretend that you have lost your voice. Your learners will have to guess what song you are trying to sing. Mouth the lyrics of the song so that they can try to lip read while you do the actions. Again, this creates a meaningful situation for children to participate with a “real” purpose (the teacher’s lost his/her voice!).
When you’re at the expansion stage, it means children have already been exposed to key words and engaged with them in a very controlled way and they have practised singing the song many times in different ways. They should now be ready to become more confident and creative with the language of the song.
- Give clues to your learners to help them learn to substitute key words in the song, e.g. point to something red and sing “Baa Baa (point to red) sheep”, and guide them to fill in your gaps.
- Next, encourage children to suggest substitution words themselves to stimulate the creative use of language. Here are some examples: replace colours to get variations such as “Balloons are (purple)”, the main character in a song as in “The Incy Wincy (turtle)” or all the key words in the song “Apples and bananas” to, for example, “Tomatoes and carrots”.
- Suggest a different context or setting for different units of work around a variety of themes or topics. Be ready to accept children’s suggestions, even if these are crazy or impossible ideas or even if the song looses its rhyme. For example, take the popular children’s nursery rhyme “A sailor went to sea” and change it to “A sailor went to the zoo, zoo, zoo, to see what he could see, see, see, and all that he could see, see, see was… a giraffe, affe, affe!”, or “A sailor went to school, school, school, […], and all that he could see, see, see was a… Loose your voice! Start coughing and pretend that you have lost your voice. Your learners will have to nd are now ready to be copencil, cil!” or maybe the sailor went to your house and “all that he could see, see, see was… a living room!”
Children love singing the same song over and over again. By exploiting songs using this framework for progression, learners gradually engage and connect more and more in different ways, making songs’ natural effect even more powerful. Providing opportunities for “varied repetition” adds a pinch of freshness and novelty every time.
About the Author
Sarah Hillyard is an ELT consultant and teacher trainer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She holds a Masters Degree in Teaching English to Young Learners from the University of York, UK. After teaching and coordinating in pre-primary contexts for many years, she now offers INSET sessions and consultancy for bilingual schools. As a freelance consultant, she has written materials and guides for teachers for Macmillan Education, as well as articles focusing on teaching English to very young learners. She also designs and leads workshops, talks and webinars and is currently an online tutor for NILE’s course “Teaching English in Pre-primary Education”.