Volume VII - 2002-03

Enhancing Acquisition through Music
     by Robert Lake

          Bob Lake has used music in ESL classrooms for over 10 years in a variety of settings. He began with Southeast Asian High School students in Atlanta. He also worked with the refugee population from Eastern Europe and the Balkans in Utica , NY while finishing his M. S. in TESOL at SUNY Albany. bob@southeasterntech. org .


      Music is three-dimensional. A song is more than just words and notes on paper. Music is an environ-ment that expresses emotion and conveys a message. Could this be part of what Plato had in mind when he said, “Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education ”? Recent studies at the University of California support this ancient observation. Researchers there have found that music trains the brain for higher forms of thinking. In the study, two groups of preschoolers were observed. One group of students took piano lessons and sang every day in class. The other group of students did not. At the end of three months, the musical three-year-olds scored 80% higher in tests involving spatial intelligence —the ability to visualize the world accurately (Hancock1996). The survey concluded that “early music training can enhance a child 's ability to reason ” (Shaw, cited in Hancock, 1996).

     The use of music in first language acquisition is easy enough to substantiate. Children sing in coos and baby-babble before they learn vocabulary. Indeed an infant 's first means of communication is comprised of a series of pitch ranges that communicate hunger, tiredness, alarm and pleasure. Mothers can easily discern what pitch level communicates specific needs. '“The emerging pleasure sounds contain acoustic properties which act as a precursor for the vowels that will later be used in words; and the differentiation between the melody of distress and that of pleasure has been identified as the baby 's first step towards the acquisition of speech (Newham 1996). The tonal quality of babyese operated on a musical scale that paves the way for phoneme and morpheme formation.

      Out of these observations emerges an interesting question: Can music enhance the acquisition of a second language? If so, how can it be utilized in the four modes of learning a language; i. e. reading, writing, listening and speaking? This question has led me to research the literature of language learning, as well as to consider a wide range of music itself. With an adaptation of Krashen 's Input Hypothesis as a foundation, I will present both the theory and the practice of music and language learning.

Krashen 's Theory

     There are several features of Krashen 's theory of Language Acquisition that are strongly relevant in explaining the use of music in language learning. Let us consider three of the most widely accepted components of Krashen 's hypotheses; “affective filter considerations, ” the ”“monitor ”model, and the role of natural input in acquisition. Krashen 's affective filter hypothesis states that optimum learning occurs in an environment of “high motivation, self-confidence, and low anxiety ” (Ellis, 1986, p. 263). According to this theory, the emotional state of the learner acts as a ”“filter ”. “Krashen sees the learner 's emotional state or attitudes as an adjustable filter that freely passes, impedes, or blocks input necessary to acquisition ” ((Richards and Rogers1986, p. 133).


     Many ESL students come to class while still in the state of what has been described as anomie: that is a “feeling of social uncertainty or dissatisfaction —as a significant aspect of the relationship between language learning and the attitude toward a foreign culture ” ((Brown 1994, p. 171). Anomie can be described as the feeling of homelessness. ESL students often feel cut off from their native cultures and find a struggle in adapting to a new culture. I have often seen “music time ” bring an almost visible change in the state of the student 's “affective filter. ” Let 's face it, songs in the English language have made their way into every major city in the world. Movies and pop culture have had an influence for better or worse. If English music can help the acculturation process along, it would be sheer foolishness not to use it.

      Woody Guthrie wrote and sang a song, “This Land is Your Land, ” that resonates among virtually all who encounter it —especially newcomers. Most of us recognize it from the first verse:


This land is your land
This Land is my land
From California, to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.

A Nest of Music

     During 1997-1998, I taught ESL at the Mohawk Valley Center for Refugees. All of the students were relatively new English speakers. Every Friday we would have “singing time ” for the last hour of the school day. As a substitute teacher, I was moved around to five different classrooms. The favorite song in all the classes was This Land is Your Land . In fact, this song became a learning motif in all my classes. Many times I would be greeted in the halls between classes with “Teacher, this land is your land. ”

     When this song is first introduced to the class, a map of the United States is displayed. Various points of geography are mentioned. California, New York, Redwood trees, deserts and the “Gulf Stream waters ” are discussed. Clearly, one song cannot cure all the effects of culture shock, but songs convey a message. Warm welcomes can go a long way toward opening the heart and mind of the language learner. Christine Igoa (1995)talks about the importance of creating a “nest ” for the newly arrived immigrant. . This “nest ” is a “protected place to rest, settle in and flourish ” (p. 21). Music in the classroom can help create a warm and relaxing nest for the non-native speaker of English.

     My favorite day as a teacher took place at the Refugee Center in Utica, N. Y. I was teaching a class of beginning level ESL students from Bosnia. This class was made up of Muslims and Croatians. One Friday, we had a cultural exchange in music. I had the students sing an English song and then we did one in Serbo-Croatian. One of the students brought his accordion. He began to play a song about Sarajevo. All of a sudden, the chairs and desks were pushed back and everyone began to dance in small circles while holding hands. Students from the other classrooms heard the music and dancing and asked if they could join in. A number of them came in and joined the dancing and singing with tears streaming down their faces. Walls came down between Muslims and Serbs as well as between the Balkans and the United States. The following Friday the whole school had “music time ” in the parking lot. . The atmosphere in my class became much more relaxed after those two Fridays. A “nest ” had been formed. .

The Monitor Model

     Another aspect of Krashen 's theory is the “monitor model. ”This is very similar to Chomsky 's theory of the learning acquisition device. Krashen 's approach falls more into the category of applied research, and Chomsky 's is more basic research. “In describing The monitor model, Krashen claimed that adult second language learners have two means for internalizing the target language ” ((Brown 1994, p. 279). The first is “acquisition, ” a subconscious and intuitive process of constructing the system of a language, not unlike the process used by a child to “pick up ”a language. The second means is a conscious “learning ”process in which learners attend to form, figure out rules, and are generally aware of their own process (Brown 1994). Where many scholars have trouble with Krashen 's theory is his treatment of acquisition and conscious learning as mutually exclusive. For example, Larsen-Freeman et al point out that this extreme distinction is not necessary because both features can work together as one triggers the other (1991).

The Input Hypothesis

     One corollary to the monitor model involves the “i-plus-1 ” formula. . According to Krashen, the input that the language student receives should be a little beyond his or her current level of understanding. In other words, the language that the learners are exposed to should be close enough to their own level of competency “plus-one ” or just a bit more of the next level. .

      Song lyrics often work this way because students will pick up the chorus much sooner than the verses of a song. The chorus is a hook to the plus-one feature of many parts of the verses. When students have been in class for about three months, I introduce Bob Dylan 's Blowin ' in the Wind . The complete song consists of nine questions, with the chorus, “The answer my friend is blowin ' in the wind. ”As you can see from the first verse alone, there is plenty of room for “I-plus-one ”:


How many roads must a man walk down
before you call him a man?
How many seas must the white dove sail
before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes and how many times must the cannonballs fly
before they are forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin ' in the winds
The answer is blowin ' in the wind.

When this song is used in class, the following steps can be taken:

1. I play and sing the song, once by myself.
2. A general list of vocabulary is presented on the board. We try to construct meaningtogether.           Various dictionaries are used if necessary.
3. Not every single word is defined, only words such as cannon, banned and dove.
4. We sing the song together at least three times.
5. The following week we use the song to introduce the modal “must ”.

     This song seems to hit home to the people from war-torn cultures. The emotional connection to the words and music has a definite effect in helping to construct meaning. The language is natural and yet poetic. It is apropos for Krashen 's “language-rich environment ” concept. . Another factor connected to the “i plus 1 ” theory involves risk--taking. I have found that students are more willing to negotiate meaning within the circular structure of a song than in simply reading a passage. The music carries you along into the text whether you are ready or not.

Ten Timely Tips

     Osman and Wellman (1978)provide “ten timely tips ” for using songs in the ESL classroom. This advice
goes well with the way I have chosen to use these songs.

1. If you 're shy, “can 't sing a note, ” unsure of your musical talents, , use recordings!Have students prepare a record selection and present it to the class, having students who play instruments perform for the class. Use a simple rhythm such as a tambourine for accompaniment —or both you and the students can play homemade rhythm instruments, RELAX!
2. Help students build their confidence in their ability to decode the new language. Allow them to use their intuitions when analyzing new song lyrics in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation, inflection and syntax. Interfere only when absolutely necessary.
3. Always introduce a song as a whole. Play or sing it through several times. Encourage students to respond by tapping, clapping, or responding in any way they might enjoy. The natural sequence is to learn a tune before the words, so allow time for this.
4. After the students have a feeling of the entire song, then you may want to break the song down in order to explain lines or words that may be unclear. Whenever possible, examine the lyrics in sentence units.
5. 5. Don 't let song practice seem like work. Keep it brief, never tedious. Keep it spontaneous. Never force a student to sing.
6. Try different musical styles —folk, rock, calypso!And important to remember, ask students what they like.
7. Try dividing the group into sections for two-part songs such as question-answer and other dialogue songs. Try using a student leader for each group. This is a good way to take the focus off the teacher.
8. Have students pantomime some of the actions in the songs. This assists less-adept students in their comprehension.
9. Try writing original words to an existing song. Students can do this as an individual writing project, or you may wish to work with the group as a class project. You might also try writing songs of your own.


Song are frequently used as a follow-up activity after a new structure has been introduced; however, on occasion, you might also want to try playing or singing a new song without any expla-
nation. This would serve as a good motivation for a lesson which
deals with a new structure or vocabulary.
(These ten items were quoted with permission. )

     Another song is used when the class is covering a unit on opposites. This song was adapted by Pete Seeger from the words of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8.


To everything, turn, turn, turn
There is a season, turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep.

A time to build up, a time to break down,
A time to dance, a time to mourn,
A time to cast away stones,
A time to gather stones together.

     The structure of the lesson plan I use with this song is similar to the one for Blowin ' in the Wind . The difference is that when vocabulary is taught from this song, I will write one of the opposite pairs on the board. Then, in a group activity, the students will call out the opposite pair and/or write it on the board. This lesson has worked well with my adult ESL students. They have lived long enough to experience all of the seasons in Turn, Turn, Turn , so personal schema considerations are present. The following list of songs is provided by Osman and Wellman (1978. )


Name of Song , Album, Singer
Selected for:
Ruby Love, Teaser and the Firecat, Cat Stevens Contractions
Father and Son, Tea for the Tillerman, Cat Stevens Order, Present Tense, Simple Commands,
Conditionals Present Tense
(third person and other)
Suzanne, Colors of the Day, Judy Collins
I Should Have Known Better, A Hard Day 's Night, The Beatles Modals, Past Tense
If I Fell in Love with You, A Hard Day 's Night, The Beatles Conditionals, “If ” Clause and Result
The Fool on the Hill, Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles Present Tense, Negatives
A Day in the Life, Sgt. Pepper 's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles Past Tense
Leaving on a Jet Plane, Album 1700, Peter, Paul and Mary Present Tense
If I Had a Hammer, Peter, Paul and Mary “If ” Clause and Result, , Repetition
Where Have All the Flowers Gone, (No Album) Pete Seeger Tense Wh ” Questions with Present Perfect
Killing Me Softly with His Song, (No Album) Roberta Flack Past Tense, Reported Speech, Present Participle

     Even though these songs are considered “oldies ” now, , they have endured in popularity worldwide. Folk music and Beatles material are currently undergoing a renaissance. The tunes are singable and the lyrics understandable.

Music and Whole Brain Learning

     The human brain is extremely complex. Individual differences are as varied as humans ' visible features. There are general conclusions about the functions of the left and right brain, however, that can be used to help relate music to the language student.

     James Asher has based his Total Physical Response method on what he calls “brain switching. ” He says, “My hypothesis is that no genuine learning can happen until there is a brain switch from the left to the right (Asher 1993). ”There must be an image attached to the mental representation of a word in order to retain and use it. Asher presents a strong case with the following bit of research data. “Many language instructions have an illusion that left brain learning strategies are effective. Examples are pronunciation exercises, dialog memorization, pattern drills, and grammar explanations. Only 4%of those who attempt a second language with a left brain ? teaching people to talk approach ' (Behaviorist Approach)continue to fluency ” ((Asher 1993). Even if the figure were multiplied by five, the results of the research are startling.

     In terms of cultural diversity and learning styles, it 's clear that some cultures are more right-brain dominant than Americans are. Some ethnic groups think more in picture than in words. ESL students represent that diversity. According to H. D. Brown (1994, p. 54), some of the features of right-brain dominant personalities are preferences for drawing freedom in expressing emotions, and frequent use of metaphors. Right-brain dominant people respond well to illustrated or symbolic instructions and rely on images in thinking and remembering. Brown describes the left-brain dominant individual as verbally oriented and objective. They rely on language in thinking and remembering and tend to be analytical in their reading. The left-brain learner rarely uses metaphor.

     Music with words uses both brain hemispheres. Emotion and language are one in a song. When coupled with visual images, music becomes a very powerful learning tool. Perhaps this is why a television program that dramatizes contemporary songs has been so “successful ” as a medium for youth culture. . Whether it 's a positive or negative message, the input sticks. One of the lessons I used with an advanced ESL student this year involved a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, and a song, “Vincent, ” by Don McLean, about him. The first verse and chorus are as follows:

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer 's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They would not listen they did not know
Perhaps they 'll listen now

The Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh

1. I have the students look at the painting and describe it in their own English. Color, style, and personal attitude toward the painting are expressed.
2. We talk about Van Gogh style in simple terms.
3. I have them read the words to the entire song '“Vincent ” aloud. .
4. I let them work with the text for a while by themselves, using the dictionary if they need it.
5. Next we look at the painting and the text of the song together. We connect descriptive words to the painting: starry night, violet haze, china blue, etc.
6. We talk about what it might be like to be “ahead of your time ” in something as Van Gogh was and how it feels to be misunderstood.
7. We listen to Don McLean sing “Vincent ” on a cassette player in the room.

     One comment from a student that I used this lesson with was particularly poignant. She said that you don 't need to look up all the unfamiliar words to get the message. She said that if you take the poetry apart too much, it takes away from the beauty of the song. The lesson must have made an impression on her. When she moved to Germany, she gave the classroom a gift. It was a large framed print of Starry Night.

Pronunciation and Singing

     My career as an ESL teacher started as a volunteer tutor in the ESL department of an Atlanta high school. I was asked by the department head to bring my guitar. There were several levels of English proficiency in the program. We began at level one with a children 's song with motions. Strangely enough, they liked the song. Most American teens probably would have sneered at it. Repetition, pronunciation and hand motions combined with a good-humored attitude can be a powerful tool in language learning. We also sang other songs already mentioned in this paper. We met for music time once a week for about 90 minutes. At the end of the school year the ESL director for the county commented that there was a dramatic improvement in pronunciation that she attributed to the singing exercises.

     Similarly, speech therapists are using music to help patients who are recovering from strokes or accidents to recover speaking ability. An innovative researcher, Paul Newham, operates the Voice Movement Therapy Center in London. He sees a strong connection between the pattern of intonation in sentences and music. In fact, he states that “speech without music leads to language without heart (Newham 1993). In other words, the connection between words, feeling, pitch, stress, and accent equates with musical expression. Phoneme production emerges out of this matrix of pitch, emotion, and stress in L1 and L2 acquisition.

Story Songs and Whole Language Learning

     Krashen 's emphasis on naturalistic whole language input has changed the way English is taught in mainstream classes. For more than twenty years, the emphasis in K-12 language classes has been “learning in context. ” Stories, , articles, and input directed by the students ' interest is being utilized successfully. Is the field of ESL instruction using these strategies enough? There is room for a much more eclectic approach that accommodates a diversity of learning styles. This year I decided to try using a story song with two of my advanced ESL adult learners. The song is written and sung by James Taylor. As with all my music curriculum, I try to use word-dominant songs with broad appeal. Folk music or folk-rock seems to describe the genre of all the songs used in this study. The story is called “The Frozen Man. ”We present the first verse:


Last thing I remember is the freezing cold
Water reaching up just to swallow me whole,
Ice in the rigging and the howling wind
Shock to my body as we tumbled in.
My brothers and the others are lost at sea,
I alone am returned to tell thee,
Hidden in ice for a century
To walk the world again.
Lord have mercy on the frozen man.

     The technique I used for teaching this combined a critical-thinking approach and group discussion.

1. The two advanced students in the class read the words together.
2. They helped each other with vocabulary, calling on me only if they needed help
with a phrase such as “state-of-the-art ” or the reference to the hospital nurse as an “angel of mercy. ”
3. The students listened to the song on tape.
4. Next, we discussed what it might feel like to die in the 19 th century and come back
to life in 1998 (we discussed this lesson in October 1998). One student was from Pakistan. She said life wouldn 't be that different.
5. I then asked them if they would want to be kept alive if they knew they might be
a “vegetable ” on life support. . The word “vegetable, ” as in brain--dead, was
an interesting concept for these ESL students.

     This approach worked very well with the two advanced-level students. Using a story to teach a whole concept or idea in English can trigger the connection to speaking and writing whole paragraphs in English.

Music and Memory

     The world of advertising uses music to make viewers retain information about a product even to “feel ” something about it. . ”“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there, ” for example. . This jingle plays on the emotions and the memory. “The key to storing material in a person 's long-term memory is rehearsal ” ((Rose 1985). Adding rhythm and melody to chunks of language invites rehearsal and transfers words into long-term memory.

     One interesting application to music and memory comes from Bruce Chatwin 's description of the Australian Aborigines. When the native Australians cross the vast wilderness of the Outback on foot, they use singing maps passed down from there ancestors. The songs describe what land features to look for in this barren setting, which has few trees or other landmarks. Singing helps them remember and soothes the fear of the unknown (Chatwin 1987).


     After using music at least once a week for most of the school year, I asked one of the advanced adult ESL students to write down a summary of how the music approach helped her. I changed nothing that she wrote down.

• Helps with pronunciation. .
• Helps with understanding the vocabulary out of the context. .
• Lets see the beautyness and variety of the English language. .
• Lets get more interest at the English language. .
• Lets feel success after many repeating of the songs. .
• Improves the solidarity feeling of the class. .
• Offers the possibility to learn more about the American country ((either because of the names in the words or because of the           thoughts).
• Furthers the acoustic learning so that the student understands the American people better. .
• Helps with grammar.


     When I first started to use music in the ESL classroom, it was hard to find teaching materials using this strategy. It was actually good that I couldn 't find anything, because I ended up developing my own curriculum. Since then, I am seeing more materials available and more research being done. In 1996, Millie Grenough developed an entire series of lessons called Sing It for the ESL classroom. Other methods being used involve karaoke and classroom music-video production. And, of course, Carolyn Graham has used Jazz Chants since 1978. Her approach connects the rhythm of language to different points of grammar as well as to specific language functions.

     In conclusion, there does seem to be strong evidence supporting the use of music in the ESL and bi-lingual education classrooms. Language and music are closely tied together in brain processing by pitch, rhythm, and syntactical phrasing. Music familiarizes students with these connections and provides a fun and relaxing way to acquire, process, and produce English. The use of music, art, drama, or any creative adaptations for teaching and learning depends on the individual styles of the teacher and student. Each teacher has strategies that work better than others do. As for me, “How can I keep from singing? ”


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