The Importance of Music to Teaching English to Very Young Learners
By Sophia Iliopoulou
Teachers of Engish, very often, come up against a challenging task: sustaining their students’ interest and arousing their curiosity. Yet, a good number of them fail to notice or underestimate the importance of music. Indeed, music serves several purposes which in no case should be overlooked. Music is pleasant and promotes well-being but, certainly, it can largely help when it comes to education. First and foremost, music benefits young learners physically, cognitively, and socio-emotionally. Besides, it prepares children for school and increases their overall literacy (Bokiev et al., 2018a).
Gardner (2011, as cited in Bokiev et al., 2018b) states that language and musical intelligence co-evolve, with musical intelligence emerging first. Indeed, early childhood is a period during which children grow, explore their environment and their brain capacities are chalenged by an abundance of stimuli, so it is only reasonable that their brains create neurosynapses at a very fast rate, and to this end, music helps a lot. Given the importance neuro connections have for children’s future learning, we can very easily infer that music paves the way for successful learners (Tanguay, 2018a). When it comes to cognition, music has been found to contribute to attention maintenance and inhibition improvement. Additional findings showed that executive functions act as a mediator component in the relationships between music instruction and intelligence, therefore music and cognitive function are directly associated (Bugos & DeMarie, 2017).
Children’s innate eagerness for sound and movement proves that very young learners highly benefit from music. More specifically, music enhances coordination, develops motor skills, and increases flexibility (Tanguay, 2018b).
Social and emotional development is another domain that music contributes to. In today’s society, where co-existence with people from other cultures is an undeniable fact, programmes of music are tools that positively facilitate communication and interaction (Cores-Bilbao et al., 2019). By listening to music, learners feel relaxed and as a result, language barriers are removed and bonds are created. That being said, young learners improve their social behaviour, explore their feelings, and are led to successfully practise their self-regulation skills (Tanguay, 2018c).
According to a recent study, music and foreign language acquisition are connected. Not only do songs help very active learners vent off extra energy but they also enable quite introvert and reserved learners to become more sociable. What is more, music triggers the part of the brain that is responsible for vocabulary learning and retainment as it reinforces long-term and working memory (Karabulatova et al., 2021). Finally, though young learners are not taught grammar explicitly, music is a very effective way to familiarise them with grammatical patterns (Using Songs to Teach English to Young Learners (TEYL), 2018).
Music also contributes to student engagement. It actually increases students’ motivation, a prerequisite for successful learning, by lowering the affective filter. Authentic materials arouse strong, lasting emotions which facilitate learning, create a non-threatening environment, and increase students’ self-confidence (Bokiev et al., 2018).
In the field of Learning Difficulties, music has a part to play too. Lack of phonological processing is usually the underlying cause of dyslexia. Studies have shown that phonological processing skills have benefited from musical instruction and, although the brain mechanisms behind this relationship are yet unknown, music and phonological awareness are closely related. Instruction through music in preschool years can ensure later reading ability, a highly cognitive process characterised by symbol decoding and meaning derivation. In other words, training through music during preschool years acts as an intervention in reading achievement by influencing brain plasticity in the areas that are responsible for reading (Zuk et al., 2018).
In a nutshell, before we wonder how we can make our lesson more engaging and memorable for very young learners -a really demanding task- and waste valuable time trying to adopt and apply activities or methodologies which might be proved scientifically dubious in the long run, we should give music a second chance. It has been scientifically found to affect children’s development positively. It increases sensory development, facilitates emergent literacy skills, and helps routines establishment by regulating mood. Then, it develops motor skills, builds coordination and it reinforces language acquisition. Additional benefits should be considered too. Students learn in a fun, stress-free, and relaxing way. Last but not least, music integration into language classrooms reinforces what matters most, communication and community building. It is a highly powerful and effective tool that brings all people together regardless of age, gender, religious and linguistic or cultural background.
Bokiev, D., Bokiev, D., Aralas, D., Ismail, L., & Othman, M. (2018). Utilizing Music and Songs to Promote Student Engagement in ESL Classrooms. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, 8(12). https://doi.org/10.6007/ijarbss/v8-i12/5015
Bugos, J. A., & DeMarie, D. (2017). The effects of a short-term music program on preschool children’s executive functions. Psychology of Music, 45(6), 855–867. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735617692666
Cores-Bilbao, E., Fernández-Corbacho, A., Machancoses, F. H., & Fonseca-Mora, M. C. (2019). A Music-Mediated Language Learning Experience: Students’ Awareness of Their Socio-Emotional Skills. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02238
Karabulatova, I., Ldokova, G., Bankozhitenko, E., & Lazareva, Y. (2021). RETRACTED: The role of creative musical activity in learning foreign languages. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 41, 100917. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2021.100917
Tanguay, C. (2018a, June 27). Music in Early Childhood: Physical and Cognitive Benefits. ModulationsTherapies. https://www.modulationstherapies.com/post/music-in-early-childhood-physical-and-cognitive-benefits
Tanguay, C. (2018b, October 15). Music in Early Childhood: Social and Emotional Benefits. ModulationsTherapies. https://www.modulationstherapies.com/post/music-in-early-childhood-social-and-emotional-benefits
Using Songs to Teach English to Young Learners (TEYL). (2018, October 12). OnTESOL. https://ontesol.com/blog/how-to-teach-english/authentic-material/using-songs-to-teach-english-to-young-learners/
Zuk, J., Perdue, M. V., Becker, B., Yu, X., Chang, M., Raschle, N. M., & Gaab, N. (2018). Neural correlates of phonological processing: Disrupted in children with dyslexia and enhanced in musically trained children. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 34, 82–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2018.07.001
Sophia Iliopoulou is an EFL instructor for over 25 years. She has been working for Koutsantonis School of languages in Patras as a teacher of English for 25 years and a branch manageress for 10 years. She has also worked at Sotirchopoulos private primary and secondary school for 15 years. She is a BA and a level 7 Diploma in TESOL holder as well as a level 7 Advanced Professional Diploma in Learning Difficulties and Behaviour Problems holder. Additionally, she holds an Award in Teaching Foreign Languages to Students with Specific Learning Difficulties. She is also a Certified Dyslexia Assessor by Athena Test and a Certified ADHD Assessor of the Greek IV Rating Scale. Sophia is currently studying for level 7 Graduate Diploma in TESOL with London Teacher Training College and MA in TESOL offered by Unicert College in parternship with Staffordshire University.