Archive for the ‘ESL’ Tag

Journeys to Australia

When I started my residency at the English Language School (back in 2005) my first projects were focused on journeys, and the stories and music that the students had brought with them from their countries of origin. Their teachers and I wanted to encourage them to speak about their experiences, and recognise what they had in common with each other.

I’ve just uploaded some of these projects to my Soundcloud account – please have a listen and add your comments!

Some projects focused on vocabulary for transport and modes of travel…


some demonstrated the range of countries the children come from,


and all of them involved every child speaking on their own about their experiences and being recorded (a great oral language outcome). At the end of each project the children were given a CD recording of their stories and music – I liked to think that they would find this CD in a few years time, listen to it, and recognise how far they’d come in their transition journey.



Looking for ‘engagement’

I was at Language School today, and this post is about something I have noticed for the last few weeks – the way that the students show their engagement in different ways and how valuable it is to be open to seeing ‘engagement’ manifest itself in a big range of behaviour.

Here are some student snapshots:

Assunta, a Sudanese girl in Upper Primary, is really struggling to cope at school. There is all kinds of crazy upheaval going on at home, and so she is experiencing lots of confusion, distress and anger, and this is being played out at school. In class, if she decides to sit out awhile, or lie on the floor, I usually let her without commenting or questioning it, as it seems like ‘time out’ is often just what she needs. In music she can be very focused and engaged on what we are doing (watching, listening, joining in, working cooperatively with the teacher and other students), but often switches, all of a sudden, to far more disruptive, aggressive behaviour.

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Visual cues (3)

I have written about visual cues for ESL students in the past – using a metronome to encourage a sense of pulse and ensemble, and floor markings giving student reference points for organising themselves in the space. Floor markings also seem to assist students in letting go of physical anticipation/tension, and assume a more passive stance, which made a big difference when they were having a try of the violin for the first time.

Today I have been working with SY, a wonderful early years educator and drama guru, who specialises in story-making. We are leading a 2-day Professional Development Seminar for primary classroom teachers. Today was Day One.

SY taught a warm-up game that involves each person having their own little mat to carry and/or place on the floor. The mats are about 25x25cm, made of felt, and in bright colours. She uses the mats to organise a class, and keep control of their movement, all the while giving the children lots of choice and possibility. She starts almost every lesson with these mats, and they teach the children an important kinaesthetic and spoken vocabulary for movement and working in open spaces.

We tried:

  • Placing our mat on the floor and standing on it, ensuring we each had our own ‘personal space’ (measured by swinging our arms around our bodies like a helicopter, and checking we didn’t touch anyone else). SY: My students know exactly what is meant by ‘personal space’ and how to find it because we do this task so frequently.
  • Walking away from our mat, but on a given cue (a drum beat) we had to run back to our own mat.
  • Walking around the space carrying the mat – on heads/elbows/toes/noses, etc – and observing how this changed the way people used their bodies, and the beautiful, unusual shapes they created in the space.
  • Placing our mats on the floor and had to assume different poses, within a given instruction from SY. A pose with your hands touching the floor; bottoms on the floor, but feet off; one hand and one foot only, touching the floor.

Many of these are similar to theatre warm-ups used widely, but the addition of the mats offers ESL teachers a lovely way of organising students within a space without depending on detailed verbal instructions. The mats can help build a vocabulary with the students – both spoken and physical – for working with their bodies in open spaces.

Writing songs

I had a particularly good lesson with Middle Primary today at the Language School. This is the group aged approximately 8-10 years old. There is quite a mix of children in the class – the most dominant ethnic group is Chinese, but there is a big range of English skills in the class overall. They have been very responsive in music so far this term and we are developing a nice rapport.

As explained in an earlier post, I am building a music project with them based on the picture book What’s that noise? What’s that sound? by Morris Lurie. Today my plan was to create a melody for the main repeated ‘chorus’ (as I call it) that recurs throughout the book, and is rhythmic and rhyming.

I decided to use a tactic I experimented with last year with the Upper Primary class when we worked with Mem Fox’s book Whoever you are. I get the whole group to say the first phrase (or pair of phrases if it is easy to memorise) over and over, letting it work itself into a consistent rhythm. All the while I am listening out for any hint of a natural melody that might emerge from an individual or from the group.

That melody didn’t emerge today, so I started on my second step – I sing the two phrases, for them to copy and sing back to me. I improvise a new melody each time I sing them. I make some deliberately odd, and others quite melodic, in order to demonstrate a big range of possibilities, and in the hope that none of my melodies gets stuck into anyone’s head.

Then I ask the group,

“Did you hear how I changed the music many times? Who would like to sing their own music for these words?”

Today we had hands shooting up straight away.

At this point I hear all the ideas, one by one, and I notate them. First I sing them back to the child, to check that I have heard it accurately (sometimes their pitching can be ambiguous), and then I go to the piano to check (perfect pitch would be a great asset, but not one I can claim, sadly).

This would be a risky approach if no ideas were forthcoming, as the class could lose momentum and energy, but as I said, I have a nice rapport growing with this group, and I felt confident that some of the children would be happy to have a go.

One of the later suggestions seemed to please everybody, as all joined in with it when I played it on the piano – so that was the one we stuck with. I invented a simple accompaniment on the piano and we sang it a few times, to get the feel right and let the melody and implied harmonies digest a little.

We then repeated the process with the next two lines. The melody we came up with for these suggested the shape for the next two lines and suddenly our chorus was finished. It had all come from the children apart from one rhythmic suggestion that I made for the very last line (mindful of how I wanted it to fit in the larger piece we will be composing). I think it is fine for the teacher/adult to have a voice in the process – it is a collaboration after all, and I am one of the collaborators!

What I love in particular, is that before we started on this process I already had an idea in my head of how this chorus could be sung – and now we have a melody that is totally and utterly different. I would never have composed it myself. It really has emerged from a group process and that is a very satisfying thing. The children know this too. I saw their faces light up as they began to see where the process was leading us – these are children with very little knowledge of English, and very little prior experience (if any at all) with this kind of group devising process. There was enough repetition for them to see how all this incomprehensible jumble of speaking and singing was starting to connect and form a shape.

More thoughts on my teaching methodology

As I started planning the next term at the Language School I began to make a list of  some of the key principles I keep in mind when working in this environment. It is starting to look a bit like a methodology description… nearly. Here goes:

Things I learned from my research project in 07:

  • Repetition builds confidence. It gives the students time to become familiar with a task, and then to build skills. Create a warm-up sequence for each group and repeat this at the start of each lesson for about 4 weeks.
  • Lots of the children can only copy. They simply don’t have the language skills yet to understand any explanations. Therefore everything we do in music class should be do-able simply by joining in what the other kids do. Music is ideal for this.
  • Syllable awareness is a challenge for many of the students (and a significant step towards literacy as well as oral fluency), therefore a challenge worth pursuing. It is also an ideal, self-evident compositional tool. It is good to work in both directions (the rhythm of words becoming music; setting music to the rhythm of words) – this is one of the ways I work with text from books, for example.
  • Establish with the group the important skills for music work – Good Looking, Good Listening, and Good Waiting. And Working Together. I use these phrases to reinforce the ideas to the students in every lesson. The language is simple and familiar. I can add the gesture of pointing to my eye/ear to further illustrate the meaning for the newest students.  I make a point of praising students who demonstrate these skills – this gives me a further chance to use the phrases and increase their familiarity.
  • Keep the mood light and happy. School is hard work for these students – they are navigating and negotiating a lot of unfamiliar territory, all in a new language. Music should be fun, a time for everyone to feel good. Use light-hearted questions to refocus attention (eg. “Who is the teacher?” and “It’s Eric’s turn. Who is Eric?” are some tactics I use).

Ideas from music therapy:

  • The role and use of a consistent ‘framing’ song (ie. a song or chant that always starts/finishes the lesson, and frames it in the children’s minds so that they come to recognise this space as a safe/creative/non-judging space).
  • Using the idea of entrainment – matching the ‘tempo’ of the group’s energy with a task, game or song, and then moving it one notch at a time towards the energy level you need them to be at for the main body of the lesson.

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2nd last day at the Language School

I worked out today that I only have one day left to teach at the Language School this term, and that will be taken up with a performance at Federation Square with the Upper Primary students.

I’m finishing term early because of my overseas travel (less than three weeks to go – yay!) but it has been a patchy term anyway, due to the Hunger and Musicircus  performance week taking up so much time. Then, the week following that one, I called in sick, exhausted and with a cold gearing up to invade my head. The students have therefore only seen me three times (including today) this term.

Well, we had a great day. The projects based on books have been embraced by the students and teachers, and in my absence a lot of work has been done. Here’s a summary:

Middle Primary have memorised their ‘colours’ song. We made this through a very organic and literacy-focused process – in Week 1 we developed some chants by string students’ names together in combinations that made interesting rhythms. We practised saying the phrases rhythmically, then the rhythms evolved into simple melodic phrases. In Week 2, we listed all the different colours we could think of (using those in  Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? to get us started), and we compared the syllables counts of the colour words with the names. We then replaced all the names with colours of the same number of syllables, and that is the song the children have memorised.

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Musical Alphabets

I’m exploring Musical Alphabets at the moment with two of my classes. ‘Alphabets’ meaning a bank of sound-options, which can be put together in different orders, to spell out new words, and thus make new melodies and patterns.

Middle Primary students are working with a dance-alphabet. Each letter of the alphabet gets assigned a particular movement (for example, letter A is the right hand flung high in the air). So far we are up to the letter P. It can be slow going as each letter has to be memorised by the students, and some find that easier than others.

With the letters A-P now created, there are already quite a few words and sentences we can create. My plan is to divide them into pairs (or groups of three), ask each group to choose a word or phrase to dance, and to practise performing that dance over and over again.

We’ll be able to build up a big ensemble piece that might involve groups/pairs performing on their own, everyone performing their own phrase all at the same time, maybe everyone doing a unison word (as a kind of chorus), and if anyone is up for it, longer solos.

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