How do I teach a song? (elementary)

** This blog post was co-written with my AMAZING sister, Dr. Gaile Stephens, who is a Music Education Professor at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas. (I went to a trained professional.)

Songs are fun, authentic and great for any foreign language classroom. As a new teacher I would hear a song and think, “I WANT TO TEACH THAT!!” So, I would put it in my plans. Then I went in to teach the song. That was one of the first lessons I learned about teaching.

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS.

How do I teach a song?

So I thought about it, and after WAY TOO LONG I realized DUH! I have a music education professional in the family. My sister is trained in teaching music. So I gave her a call. And here is the advice she gave me that I still use today.

NUMBER 1- Start at the very beginning…(a very good place to start.)

What song do you want to teach?

Here is my criteria for a song:

  • I have to like it. (GASP! – selfish party of one?) Not really. If I don’t at least like it, then my job at selling this to my students just got infinitely harder. It doesn’t have to be my ABSOLUTE favorite, but liking the song makes my job easier and more fun.
  • It needs at least ONE PART that is worth teaching. It can be SUPER catchy, repetitive lyrics are always helpful, maybe it uses high-frequency words or tells a story that you can make comprehensible.
  • It needs to be appropriate for school.- This one is pretty obvious, but I say it because while we all know we can’t teach “Despacito,” sometimes we differ on our opinions. “DOUBT means NO.” If it is a borderline for you, then I say “Don’t use it.” Your life is stressful enough without putting your neck out for a song. There are lots of good songs out there that won’t make your blood pressure rise when you open an email from a parent. You see another teacher using it? Great, but that doesn’t mean you are OK teaching it. It also doesn’t necessarily make them wrong for teaching it. Different strokes for different folks.
  • Find a good version with quality- This may be a personal preference but I like to have a good quality recording. (If you are going to use it in class, pay for it. Yes, you could just play it off youtube, but that artist worked hard. It is .99 cents to $2.00. It is less than what you tip a waitress.) My music education sister would say if it is an earlier elementary song, then choose a version that has actual children singing and not yelling. A man’s voice is fine, but watch out that it is not too low for younger kids. Younger kids have smaller vocal cords so their voices are higher and have less range.

NUMBER 2- YOU learn the song FIRST.

You need to know the song… DUH! right?

I don’t mean “know SOME of the words,” or “I listened to it…ONCE or TWICE”

If I am teaching a new song, I like to put it on repeat and listen to it while I work or in the car. How many times? I lose count. If there are a lot of words, then maybe you don’t memorize it but you will have the words posted on the board or a PowerPoint to reference. (I suggest not on a piece of paper because if it is posted your kids can see it, and it keeps your head up and not eyes on a paper.)

I have found that the more eye contact I can make with the students and NOT on the lyrics the better it goes for me.

NUMBER 3 – What are you going to teach?

It was mind-blowing when I realized “I don’t have to teach the WHOLE song.” and I definitely don’t have to teach the WHOLE song at one time.

Consider just teaching the chorus especially with authentic songs from the radio.

Break up a song if you are teaching the whole thing. Teach the chorus first then maybe next class time you teach the verse.

NUMBER 4 – Introduce it to your students

This is honestly the hardest part for me. I knew there were lots of activities to do with a song once they knew it, but how do I introduce it to them? Do I just play it over and over? Do I teach the motions after they know the words or before? Just how do they get the song in their head?

Again I went to the expert…

SPEAK (don’t sing) the lyrics in rhythm to the song while doing the motions in a call & response style.

  • The students respond by repeating the words AND motions after you. If they can’t repeat it, then you may be trying to say too many words at a time.
  • As you go EXPLAIN the translation of the song. They need to know what the song means. Students will repeat gibberish. You want your students to ACQUIRE the language not just repeat sounds.
  • Go line by line, verse by verse taking your time. You can break the song up into multiple little sessions. You don’t have to learn the WHOLE song in one sitting.
  • Each time you add a line or 2, then go back and add it to the previous verses of the verse/chunk of lyrics you are working on.

NUMBER 5 – What’s next? What about the music?

Now it is time for your students to hear the actual song.

You sing it without the music OR with the music doing the motions. Your students can try to sing along, OR they can do just the motions.

If you are learning the song over multiple days, then you could do this at the end of every mini-learning session.

** Side note- I don’t mind singing without the music. I like to review the chunk with just me singing because I can slow the song down as needed to help students learn, BUT you could play the music if you wanted.

NUMBER 6 – Practice, practice, practice

Now you can practice the song by singing it or playing the music while you sing and do motions.

Your students can…

  • just sing or lip-sync
  • just do the motions
  • sing/lip-sync and do the motions

They CANNOT just sit and listen.

NUMBER 7 – Now what?

You have lots of options for what to do with the song now. For example…

  • Make a video of your kids doing the song and send it home.
  • Have them illustrate parts of the song
  • Have a lip-sync contest
  • Students read lyrics and put them together
  • Tell a story with the song as the context
  • Listen and JUST do the motions
  • Sing it fast, slow, dramatic, goofy etc.

Here are SOME of my favorite songs for elementary: