Gettin’ Musical: 5 Great Songs for Teaching ESL to Kids

Need to get your ESL students up and moving?

Your lessons lacking a bit of a punch?

Try teaching through song!

It’s been proven that songs help us memorize, so take advantage of your students’ ability to commit information to memory by using songs in the classroom. This is a particularly useful technique to use with children, as it can get them having fun in the classroom — they might not even notice they’re learning!

Of course, just singing a song isn’t enough. But by working a song into a well-crafted lesson plan, you can present new information in an exciting and interesting way that kids are sure to remember. This is a particularly useful way of teaching new thematic vocabulary words.

It’s generally a good idea to teach vocabulary thematically at any rate. Teaching thematic vocabulary allows a teacher to present relatively few sentence structures that give students the tools to express themselves using their new words. Using songs along the way to present these vocabulary words allows students to have fun while they’re acquiring this new vocabulary.

Gettin’ Musical: 5 Great Songs for Teaching ESL to Kids

1. Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes


Who doesn’t know this playground song? “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” is a great way to teach body parts to kids. It only presents eight words, which is a very reasonable jumping-off point for a new lesson.

Start off by singing with them. As you continue, just do the actions while they sing. The children will remember the words and fill in the blanks for you. Avoid over-correcting during singing. If you do hear severe mispronunciation, feel free to join back in for a round or two to provide some gentle corrections.

Once your students have sung the song several times, help them write out the lyrics. This can be done as a group by assigning one child as the “scribe” to write on the blackboard and having students work together to figure out how the different body parts are spelled. Once you have all of the correct spellings on the board, have each student write out the words in his or her notebook.

After the vocabulary is acquired both orally and textually, pass out outlines of bodies and ask them to color them and label them.

Follow-up activity: Introduce Simon Says as a follow-up game to this song. You can slowly introduce even more body parts using this game.

2. Do You Like Bananas?

This song may not be familiar to a lot of native English speakers, but “Do You Like Bananas?” is very commonly used in foreign countries to teach food vocabulary in English. The song not only introduces terms for several different foods — mainly fruits and vegetables — but it has a built-in format for teaching a useful phrase: “Do you like…?”

Students not only learn how to answer the question in the affirmative and the negative, but they also acquire the words “yum” and “yuck,” which are particularly fun for them to use. (Be careful not to let this get out of hand in class!)

Once students have acquired the foods presented in the song, you can use the same format to present new food vocabulary simply by changing the words of the song or creating new stanzas.

Follow-up activity: Have a taste test in class (check for allergies with parents first!) and allow kids to taste, identify and state their preferences for a variety of different foods.

And for more videos geared for teaching vocabulary, try FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

3. The Princess Pat


Songs don’t always need to be used to introduce specific vocabulary. “The Princess Pat” is a common Girl Scouts song that has accompanying hand gestures, which can be very fun for kids and can really get them up and moving in class.

The other benefit is that, once you’ve sung it with them a few times, you can just do the hand gestures and have the kids fill in the blanks, allowing them to acquire the words themselves instead of merely following along.

The song does present a few useful sentence structures like “live in a” and “What is that?” These phrases allow you to use the song to present concrete lessons, if you prefer.

Follow-up activity: The princess Pat, in the song, has a “rig-a-bamboo.” It’s a made-up tool that isn’t described in much detail, aside from giving us hints that it’s red, gold and purple. Have kids draw their own rig-a-bamboo and present it to the class — in English, of course!

4. E-I-E-I-O (Old McDonald)


There are many songs that are great for introducing animal vocabulary to kids, but perhaps none is so perfect for the purposes of an ESL teacher than “Old McDonald.” The benefit of choosing this song in particular is that “Old McDonald” allows the teacher (and eventually, the student!) to decide what animals old McDonald has on his farm. In other words, you can use this song to present any animal vocabulary you would like to teach, even animals that do not appear on a farm.

Before teaching this lesson, be sure to brush up on your animal sound onomatopoeia… it can be very easy to forget one when a student volunteers an animal. Of course, there are some that you won’t be able to come up with, like rabbit or rat. When a student volunteers one of these animals, ask for suggestions from the other students for the sound (or movement) that the animal would do.

Follow-up activity: Have kids draw and label their own “Old McDonald” farms with animal names.

5. Six Little Ducks


There are many songs that allow kids to learn numbers. “Six Little Ducks” is one of the more complicated songs for young English learners, but it’s fun to use with kids that have a slightly more advanced English level.

Once you’ve presented the song for the first time, make the students responsible for the countdown both at the end and at the beginning of each verse.

You can make this song a bit more challenging (and fun!) by changing the song so that it does not go in a strict backwards progression. Prepare cards with different digits from 1 to 9 printed on them. When students are about to say the number in the song, hold one up at random — this is the number they have to sing.

Follow-up activity: Allow kids to create their own version of the song by replacing ducks with another animal. Have the kids teach their version of the song to the class. In this case, the teacher becomes a student! Kids will love standing at the front of the class and playing teacher for this.

Many other songs can be used to create lesson plans. Keep in mind how you’ll isolate the vocabulary in the song after presenting it to the class so that the individual words are acquired as well as the overall song. Once you’ve planned this out, nearly any song can be used to teach in this way!

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