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Songs and Rhymes in Teaching English at Primary Schools

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2001 20 Seiten

Didaktik - Englisch - Pädagogik, Sprachwissenschaft



1. Introduction

2. The importance of using songs and rhymes in teaching Englis
2.1. Familiar way for language acquisition
2.2. The holistic approach
2.3. Motivation by songs and rhymes
2.4. Provision of meaningful vocabulary
2.5. Support for phonetic development
2.6. The cultural aspect

3. How to teach songs and rhymes
3.1. Guidelines for teaching rhymes and chants
3.2. Guidelines for teaching song

4. Types of songs and rhymes
4.1. Types of songs
4.2. Types of rhymes
4.3. Chants

5. Exploiting songs and rhymes
5.1. Song or rhyme pictures
5.2. Find the word
5.3. Mixed-up lines or words
5.4. Song and rhyme contest

6. Problems

7. Conclusion



1. Examples for types of songs

2. Examples for types of rhymes

1. Introduction

Poetry and music are elements of each human society. They show many aspects of its culture - the relationship to the past and the ancestors, the faith, the fun and the anxieties of its people, the hopes and the view of the future. Music and poetry have immanent powers, for example they give people energy who had none before or they can change people’s mood. They occur in all phases of one’s life from birth to death. So they play an important role in the process of learning and using the mother tongue. Music and poetry are also an essential part of foreign language learning for young learners (see Phillips 1993: 100).

In this paper we describe the importance of using songs and rhymes in teaching English as a foreign language in the primary school. Beside these theoretical points we give practical advices how to teach songs and rhymes. After a classification we describe some possibilities to exploit songs and rhymes in lessons and say something about possible problems with using these language forms.

There are a lot of song and rhyme collections in public libraries or in our personal ones. Therefore we do not work out another collection but list only a few that we tried out in our lessons and which are appended to this paper.

2. The importance of using songs and rhymes in teaching English

There are many reasons for using songs and rhymes in teaching English as a foreign language in primary schools. Naturally, “children really enjoy learning and singing songs” (Phillips 1993: 100) and have fun doing rhythmic activities while reciting rhymes. But there are deeper psychological, cultural and linguistic aspects.

2.1. A familiar way of language acquisition

Children grow up with songs and rhymes and develop their first language by them. Apart from being the most important spoken language, songs and rhymes are the first experienced parts of communication in the children’s mother tongue. They listen and react to nursery rhymes and finger games spoken and often acted by their parents. They go to sleep with lullabies sung by their closest care-givers or try to imitate little songs by babbling. So songs and rhymes give them an intimate feeling, a special connection with their human environment and influence the acquisition of their first language in an important way.

Analogous to the development of the mother tongue, the following points also support foreign language acquisition :

- music, rhythm and rhymes produce a positive live feeling
- they motivate to learn and to be active
- children do not understand all words but do not feel inhibited
- rhythm supports vocabulary and structure learning

2.2. The holistic approach

Songs and rhymes are both means and content of foreign language acquisition. There is no gap between the language used in lessons and that used in real-life situations. Each understanding and each reacting are progresses in language learning.

Songs and rhymes stimulate the hemispherical interaction. Busy with songs and rhymes the left hemisphere (vocabulary, structure of the language) and the right hemisphere (rhythm, feelings, mimic, gesture, senso-motoric etc.) work together and make learning more effective. So it is small wonder how quick students are at learning songs and rhymes.

The holistic approach also means that rhymes and songs are connected with other learning and living areas like sport, literature, music and art.

2.3. Motivation by songs and rhymes

Pupils’ motivation to learn “largely depends on the teaching methods and the teacher’s personality” (seminar script from 24/04/01: 2). If the teacher skillfully uses songs and rhymes the pupils usually are highly motivated. Songs and rhymes are relaxing, they vary the lesson’s progress, they provide fun and action “and encourage harmony within oneself and within a group” (Murphey 1992: 8). So the pupils are learning with fun and more effectively than without these forms. Even shy or slow learning children are given encouragment by singing or speaking in choir and so they feel able to speak in a foreign language.

2.4. Provision of meaningful vocabulary

Songs and rhymes present a lot of linguistic material in a natural linguistic context. So they support the monolingual and contextual approach in teaching a foreign language. Words in songs and rhymes are meaningful to the learner, which influences the acquisition in a positive way. “In general they use simple conversational language with a lot of repetition” (Murphey 1992: 7). Therefore songs and rhymes stick in the learner’s mind and the words and expressions used are memorized more easily. Besides, songs and rhymes provide many possibilities for constant repetition and revising as important mechanisms of the language acquisition.

2.5. Support for phonetic development

“Poems, rhymes, chants and songs could be used to give a feeling for the rhythm of the spoken language. Many well-known rhymes make use of the iambic pentameter, the natural rhythm of the English language” (Straeter-Lietz 1999: 9). Practising intonation through reciting rhymes and poems is mostly funny and very effective. To vary the sometimes boring pronunciation teaching it is a proven remedy using rhymes and rhythmic chants, e.g. with minimal pairs.

2.6. The cultural aspect

Songs and Poems are important elements of each culture. Learning this authentic material pupils get to know parts of a foreign culture. It satisfies children’s natural curiosity about everything new. Being familiar with songs and rhymes in a foreign language pupils feel closer to the foreign culture and its language. If the pupils hear the same melodies or similar rhymes they are astonished at the parallels between their own culture and the foreign one. So the foreign cultures aren’t alarming and frightening but interesting and worth being discovered. It’s an important contribution to the development of tolerance and open-mindedness.

3. How to teach songs and rhymes

The following guidelines are not meant to be dogmas. According to the specific situations they could be varied by the teacher.

3.1. Guidelines for teaching rhymes and chants

For presentation rhymes or chants should be played from a CD or spoken by the teacher and the actions should be demonstrated. Then the teacher should check if the students understood the content. It is not necessary to translate word by word but the students should know what the rhyme or chant means. This step can be supported by visual aids. Now the students learn the text step by step. In the literature are to be found two tried and tested methods: the snowball principle and the echo principle.

The snowball principle means that the teacher says a sequence becoming longer and longer. After each saying the students repeat that sequence in chorus. For example (from Here we go round the mulberry bush)

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The echo principle (see Schmid-Schönbein 2001: 120, 121) means that the students as a group imagine they are an echo in a mountain wood, a valley etc. The teacher shouts a sequence and the students repeat the teachers sequence. It is expedient to build up a longer structure from its end. For example (from The wheels of the bus)

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Both methods can also be supported by visual aids. If there are any actions they should be done by the students while learning the text because it is easier to learn them together. Longer texts can be learned verse by verse in the following lessons. Now the children say the whole rhyme in chorus, in groups or alone and do the actions.

3.2. Guidelines for teaching songs

The order and the way of teaching songs is similar to teaching rhymes and chants. At first the song should be sung by the teacher or played from a CD once or twice while the students only listen. They begin to understand and to absorb the tune and the rhythm. During the next playing or singing the students can clap the rhythm or hum the tune. Before learning the text step by step (see 3.1.) the teacher should check the understanding and explain the words the children did not understand. Then the students sing the song several times, at first supported by the teacher’s voice, later without the teacher’s support.

4. Types of songs and rhymes

There are a lot of different types of song and rhyme with special characteristics. But not all are useful for primary school students. The teacher has to check the suitability according to the size of the text, the vocabulary, the structure and his didactic intention. The following types of songs and rhymes are each linked with an example of which the texts are to be found in the appendix.

4.1. Types of songs

Finger play songs

The content of these songs can be illustrated by the children’s finger movement. They support the acquisition of gesture meaning and the use of nonverbal expressions. They also develop the children’s senso-motoric abilities. Example: Hickory dickory dock

Counting songs

These songs support the learning of numbers and are often connected with using fingers. Most of them train the numbers from one to ten.

Example: Ten little Indians

Spelling songs

They are useful to train the sounds of the English alphabet. The separate letters mostly sound different from their pronunciation in words. Therefore the pupils need help for learning the individual letter sound.

Example: Farmer Brown has got a dog

Action songs

The biggest group of songs aims at associating words with movements of their body. They also “internalize the sounds and rhythms of English, … develop a sense of rhythm [and] … give the children a chance ‘to let off steam’.” (Phillips 1993: 101) Example: If you ’ re happy

Songs for special occasions

These songs are suitable for deepening the special vocabulary and for celebrating these occasions in the school. They emphasize the cultural aspect of songs. Example: Black and gold (for Halloween)


Spirituals are religious songs. They are connected with the Christian culture and

often very traditional. Singing simple spirituals the children enjoy the sound and the special rhythm of gospels. Example: Kumbaya, my Lord

Drop-a-word songs

These songs train the children’s concentration. They are often combined with actions instead of the dropped words. Drop-a-word songs “encourage internalisation of language” (Murphey 1992: 130).

Example: My hat it has three corners

Role-play songs

This type of song “contextualize vocabulary and make the transfer from singing to meaningful referents.” (Murphey 1992: 129) They use the children’s love for stories and role playing.

Example: There was a princess long ago

Topic songs

Many songs support the acquisition of vocabulary according to a special topic like “The days of the week”, “The weather” or “The family”. If they do not fit in with other categories they are called “topic songs”.

Example: Look outside (for the topic “The weather”)

4.2. Types of rhymes

Rhymes are taught “to practise the sounds, rhythms and stress patterns of English and in some cases to practise a structure” (Phillips 1993: 108). The didactic background of some types of rhymes is similar to the types of songs described. Above therefore we list the types of rhymes without detailed descriptions unless there is not a corresponding type of songs.

Finger play rhymes

Example: Incy Wincy Spider

Counting rhymes

Example: One two - I see you

Choosing rhymes (counting-out rhymes)

Sometimes a little trick is necessary to choose one from among the children without causing a squabble. Choosing rhymes are very useful for that. They connect random selection with rhythmic speaking and train the vocabulary.

Example: Apples, peaches

Action rhymes

Example: Jumping Jack

Jump rope rhymes

The children like rope skipping. This rhythmic activity is often connected with these simple poems. Jump rope rhymes support the acquisition of numbers or simple sentence structures.

Example: Bread and butter

Rhymes for special occasions Example: Hey-ho for Halloween

Clapping rhymes

The reciting of these very rhythmic rhymes is supported by hand clapping. Each clapping rhyme has its own pattern how to clap hands with a partner standing opposite. These rhymes support the development of a feeling for rhythm for the language and, moreover, they train the right pronunciation of vocabulary. Example: A sailor went to sea, sea, sea

Ball bouncing rhymes

They train the feeling for rhythm and the concentration both on reciting and ball bouncing.

Example: Number one, touch your tongue

Topic rhymes

Example: Take a snowball (about the topic “Winter”)

4.3. Chants

“A chant is a like a song without music or a poem with a very marked rhythm.” (Phillips 1993: 100) All types of short rhythmic texts or even word groups are suitable to transfer into a chant. The speaking can be supported by finger snapping, feet stamping or the use of rhythmic instruments. Words or texts spoken as chants are more memorable and motivating than normal speaking. For instance, minimal pairs can be spoken as chants to train the differences between the pronunciation of word pairs. Short dialogues in the form of a chant support the memorization of common expressions and structures.

5. Exploiting songs and rhymes

Songs and rhymes can be exploited by other activities after learning and often use. The aim is to enjoy the increase of knowledge but also to practise listening skills and the vocabulary. The following ideas are taken from Phillips (1993: 112,113).

5.1. Song or rhyme pictures

The teacher shows the children pictures that illustrate the content of a song or a rhyme - some with gaps or mistakes. After listening, singing or reciting the children should find the mistakes or complete the pictures.

If a song or a rhyme tells a story, the illustrating pictures could be cut out and mixed. The children listen to the song or rhyme and put the pictures in the right order. It can be done at the blackboard or on a handout.

5.2. Find the word

Before playing or singing a song or reciting a rhyme the teacher asks the children to listen for a certain word. Then they write down the number of times this word occurs.

To train the listening skills another possibility is to sing or recite wrong words in the texts. The children compare with their own knowledge and write down the number of mistakes.

5.3. Mixed-up lines or words

To promote reading skills and knowledge about sentence structure the teacher can copy the text from textbooks or other sources, cut it out and mix the order of words or lines. The children listen and put the lines or words in the correct order again.

5.4. Song or rhyme contest

The English teacher organises a contest where the children recite their favourite rhymes or sing their favourite songs. They can perform it alone or in groups. A jury choose the best performer but all children involved should get an appreciation to keep up their motivation. It is also possible to celebrate a “Day of the English language” where the children can show their knowledge in songs, rhymes and plays. There are no limits for the teacher’s ideas.

6. Problems

Beside the many advantages there are also problems in using songs and rhymes for English teaching. Not all teachers are able to read notes and to work out new songs. Therefore songs should be an important element in further vocational teacher training. Besides, the department of education should provide enough money for CDs and appropriate equipment for English lessons. A good help for quite unmusical teachers is to transfer new texts into well-known melodies.

Some authentic rhymes or songs contain old expressions or dialectal or distorted linguistic material. Therefore teachers should check their collected material for useful and suitable content.

7. Conclusion

Songs and rhymes have an important function in teaching English as a foreign language in primary schools. Beside games and visual aids they support by virtue of their typical characteristics the language acquisition for younger learners. Songs and rhymes combine important didactic claims like the holistic, the monolingual and the contextual approach with fun, activity and motivation. Almost incidentally the children become familiar with parts of the foreign culture and see them as enrichment for their own life.

According to the guidelines for teaching songs and rhymes and depending on the concrete situation the teacher can vary the way of teaching these forms. It should not be forgotten to back up the basic vocabulary before introducing a song or rhyme or making sure that the content is understandable. The teacher should provide different possibilities for the students to comprehend the text.

The English teacher can choose from among a lot of types of songs and rhymes with special characteristics and different actions. Each teacher should collect useful songs and rhymes on which he can fall back. If he or she knows the possibilities to exploit these orms the teacher should be able to use songs and rhymes successfully in English lessons.

We know from our experience that children love English songs and rhymes. All teachers should see this big advantage and use songs and rhymes as an permanent part of their English lessons not only in primary school.

We as teachers also enjoy singing, dancing and reciting with our children in class because it gives us the chance to influence the children’s development in a positive way and to intensify relationship to our children.


Gompf, G. & Fromm, R. (1991): Here we go Teil 1, Lehrerhandbuch. Leipzig, Stuttgart, München: Ernst Klett Verlag.

Lehmann, H. (1998): „We sing and play I & II” in Grundschulunterricht 1/1998 & 4/1998. Berlin: Cornelsen Verlag.

Murphey, T. (1992): Music and Song. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, S. (1993): Young Learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Piepho, H.-E. (1998): “Was soll im Fremdsprachenunterricht erfolgreich vermittelt werden?” in Fremdsprachenfr ü hbeginn 1/1998: 5 -10.Berlin.

Schmid-Schönbein, G. (2001). Didaktik: Grundschulenglisch. Berlin: Cornelsen Verlag.

Straeter-Lietz, C. (1999). „First experiences“ in Fremdsprachenfr ü hbeginn 5/1999: 8 - 12. München.

Bumblebee 3 & 4, Lehrerhandbuch. Hannover: Schroedel Verlag.

Fun & Action 1, Arbeitsheft. Leipzig, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf: Ernst Klett Grundschulverlag.

Kooky 1 & 2, Lehrerhandbuch. Berlin: Cornelsen Verlag.


1. Examples for types of songs

Finger play songs: Hickory dickory dock Hickory, dickory, dock, The mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck one (in the next verses two, three …), The mouse ran down, Hickory, dickory, dock.

While singing the song the fingers of the right hand play the mouse on the left arm. When the clock struck, the children clap the number of strikes and count.

Counting songs: Ten little Indians

One little, two, little, three little Indians. For little, five little, six little Indians. Seven little, eight little, nine little Indians, Ten little Indian boys (in the second verse - girls).

While singing the song the children show the numbers with their fingers.

Spelling songs: Farmer Brown has got a dog

Farmer Brown has got a dog and Rover is his name, sir. Farmer Brown has got a dog and Rover is his name. R-O-V-E-R, R-O-V-E-R, R-O-V-E-R, and Rover is his name.

Instead of “dog” and “Rover” in the next verses stand: cat - Pussy - P-U-S-S-Y

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Action songs: If you ’ re happy

1. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it, If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.
2. If you’re happy and you know it, stamp your feet…
3. If you’re happy and you know it, sing a song, tra-la- la…
4. If you’re happy and you know it, shout “HOORAY”…
5. If you’re happy and you know it, do it all: clap your hands, stamp your feet, sing a song, shout

Songs for special occasions: Black and gold

1. Black and gold, black and gold. It’s Halloween tonight. Black and gold, black and gold. It’s Halloween tonight. Brooms and cats and pitch-black hats and a pitch-black night.

Brooms and cats and pitch-black hats and a pitch-black night.

Spirituals: Kumbaya, my Lord

Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya. Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya. Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya, oh, Lord, kumbaya.

Drop-a-word songs: My hat it has three corners

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Role-play songs: There was a princess long ago

1. There was a Princess long ago, long ago, long ago There was a Princess long ago, long long ago.
2. And she lived in a big high tower, a big high tower, a big high tower, And she lived in a big high tower, long long ago.
3. A wicked fairy waved her wand, waved her wand, waved her wand, A wicked fairy waved her wand, long long ago.
4. The Princess slept for a hundred years, a hundred years, a h. y., The Princess slept for a hundred years, long long ago.
5. A great big forest grew around, grew around, grew around, A great big forest grew around, long long ago.
6. A handsome Prince came riding by, riding by, riding by, A handsome Prince came riding by, long long ago.
7. He chopped the trees down one by one, one by one, one by one, He chopped the trees down one by one, long long ago.
8. He woke the Princess with a kiss, with a kiss, with a kiss, He woke the Princess with a kiss, long long ago.
9. So everybody’s happy now, happy now, happy now, So everybody’s happy now long long ago

Topic songs: Look outside Look outside, look outside, it’s sunny out today.

It’s sunny outside, it’s sunny outside, it’s sunny out today.

According to the real weather can be sung instead of “sunny”: cloudy windy rainy foggy snowy

2. Examples for types of rhymes

Finger play rhymes: Incy Wincy Spider

Incy Wincy Spider climbed up a water spout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out. Out came the sunshine and dried up all the rain. And Incy Wincy Spider climbed up the spout again.

While saying the rhyme the fingers play the spider, an arm is the water spout. The fingers show the rain. The sun is shown by a big arm wave.

Counting rhymes: One two - I see you

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Choosing rhymes: Apples, peaches

Apples, peaches, pears and plums, Tell me when your birthday comes!

While saying a game leader point at a child at each syllable. The last child tells its month of birth, e.g. “March”

The next children say the month beginning from January.

January, February, March.

The last child is the chosen one.

Action rhymes: Jumping Jack

Jumping Jack, jumping Jack, Clap your hands - clap, clap, clap.

While saying this rhyme the children jump like a jumping Jack.

Jump rope rhymes: Bread and butter

Bread and butter, sugar and spice, How many boys/girls think I’m nice?

Now the jumping child or others count the jumps.

Rhymes for special occasions: Hey-ho for Halloween

Hey-ho for Halloween. All the witches to be seen. Some black and some green. Hey-ho for Halloween.

This rhyme can be spoken like a witch, a ghost, a cat etc.

Clapping rhymes: A sailor went to sea, sea, sea

A sailor went to sea, sea, sea, To see what he could see, see, see, But all that he could see, see, see, Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea.

The children stand in pairs facing each other and clap in time to the rhythm of the words.

Ball bouncing rhymes: Number one, touch your tongue

Number one, touch your tongue. Number two, touch your shoe. Number three, touch your knee. Number four, touch the floor. Number five, learn to jive. Number six, pick up sticks. Number seven, go to heaven. Number eight, over the gate Number nine, touch your spine. Number ten - do it again.

While saying this rhyme the child bounce its ball and tries to do the described action.

Topic rhymes: Take a snowball

Take a snowball, put it on the ground, push it, roll it, make it big and round.

Look, your snowman is big and tall but has no eyes, no nose at all.

Two stones will do and a carrot, too. Now, Mister Snowman, how are you?


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Songs Rhymes Teaching English Primary Schools Seminar



Titel: Songs and Rhymes in Teaching English at Primary Schools