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8 Ways to Use Music in the Language Arts Classroom

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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I think when we talk about using music or art or theater in the Core classes, there is still this persistent suspicion that a teacher who plays music in the classroom must be too "soft" or "granola-y." Don't get angry; I'm just stating an observation of perception, not a fact of truth. I would push back, however, that using the arts in the core subject-area classes is far from fluffy.

What I do understand, however, is that not everyone is a musicologist. Not everyone has in depth knowledge of this composer or that artist, and that can serve as a gatekeeper to incorporating the arts. However, I believe, a more casual everyday use of music can have as much power as explicitly teaching music as it relates to one's subject matter.

One doesn't need Bach in the background to qualify as having used music. There are many ways to trigger the benefits of music in, say, a Language Arts class, that doesn't require too much knowledge of music in general.

Why Use Music?

Music can be used to help control a classroom environment or to support the content within that class. It can be used to signal different transitions within the class as well as to serve as a writing prompt itself.

Music is also a way to build community and to share yourself as a teacher. After all, if the students don't have a sense of who you are as a human, they will inevitably lose respect for you as a teacher. Music is a way in with students, a way for them to learn about you and for you to learn about them. And we know that reciprocal learning in a classroom, whether to build subject matter competency or community, is key in pulling out the best academic results from those students.

The week after I saw The Lego Movie, every period that walked into my middle school classroom was greeted with "Everything is AWESOME!" Haven't heard it? I dare you to be asleep or disinterested in anything for at least a full hour after hearing that 2:43 song. As an a cappella geek, I have been known to play a song from the a cappella group, Pentatonix, every now and then as well. The beat boxing in some of their YouTube videos is slamming every which way you look, and they take on multiple genres with their beautifully blended voices.

Reciprocally, I never thought I'd actually appreciate K-pop until my students shared it (sort of in thanks for me turning them onto some Danny Elfman scores).

Music helps create a classroom environment of creativity, but I would also add that it helps make the brain more receptive to deeper critical thinking. Music opens up neurons, opens doors in your brain that create a kind of loft space receptive to learning.

The Activities

But what do you do if you don't have a lot of knowledge about music? Feeling like you have to bring in another content area can be daunting, but adding music as a learning layer isn't like that, and there are many options you can use to keep those students awake and more receptive to absorbing your content. Here are eight ways to use music for this:

#1 Songs to Teach Academic Vocabulary

Using music as an aid in memorization is just plain smart. Add in songs that are focused in your content area, and they're gold. That's why history teachers still use "Elbow Room" from Schoolhouse Rock fame to introduce the concept of exploration. As a Language Arts middle school teacher, I love the Princeton Review Vocab Minute podcast. You can look through the list of short minute-long songs that teach concepts from word origins to synonyms.

#2 Lyrics as Poetry

I love looking at lyrics through a poetic lens. Clearly I'm not alone because my own second-grader's teacher sent him home with the printed out lyrics to Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive." My son had circled the nouns and underlined action verbs. In my own classroom, I have even had students create a web trying to trace the logic from Willie Nelson's version of "I Am My Own Grandpa."

#3 Songs as Writing Prompts

Picture this. The students enter the classroom. John Williams is playing on the speakers. Maybe it's the ominous opening from the film Jaws or the flying sequence from Hook. Now write.

#4 Music to Aid in Role-Playing

Earlier this year, my students embarked on a project-based learning unit that I developed based on the United Nations. On each day, we had music from the different nations playing, national anthems, processional marches, we role-played as ambassadors to the U.N.

#5 Developing Playlists to Teach Narrative

I once did a great project when I was in eighth grade in Ms. Sauve's class that's always stuck with me. We had to develop an album cover, complete with visuals on the front and a song list on the back. We then had to include a dust jacket that had lyrics to each of the songs. As I think about it, there would be something interesting to have the students develop a mythical playlist, a mix-tape of sorts, that tells a story through its song titles.

#6 Jingles to Teach Persuasive

Commercials jingles are a great way to show that people are writing persuasively in many genres and in many modalities. Have students analyze a jingle as you might analyze an article or review. Better yet, have them write one.

#7 Reviews as Literary Analysis

Music reviews are persuasive, sure, but they are also a form of literary analysis. Look at Amazon reviews or Rolling Stone reviews for elements of analysis. Have students listen to the music they are referring to. Did the reviewer miss the boat? Do they agree with the review and what evidence can they bring to the table to prove their analyses?

#8 Music to take "Syn-naps"

Last, but not least: simply turn on a good tune every now and then. I talk a lot about Judy Willis' concept of "syn-naps." This is when you wake up the brain by jolting it a bit. Sometimes you can use an image stuck in the middle of a Powerpoint slide, but music works beautifully as well, flicking the groggy brain into wakefulness. It doesn't have the last long, merely a stanza or two, but enough to get the oxygen back to their noggin' and the alertness back in their eyes.

I could pretend that I use music in my Language Arts classroom because of all the brain-based research that surrounds its use as a learning enhancer. But the fact is, that I use it to set a tone in my classroom -- a tone that acknowledges that music is in our species' blood, that it makes us smile and cry and laugh and a have a common experience in our hearts.

Creating a common experience with your students is what one's classroom should be all about. Is it place students want to go? Is it a place that isn't a waste of their time? Is it a place that cares about their interests and challenges them to appreciate others' interests? Music helps towards all of those goals.

How do you use music in your classroom? Please share in the comments section below.

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Nona's picture
Music Instructor

Thanks for this blog post, Heather!
Agree with all the points, from my own experience, learning music has helped me to open more than just one door. It is definitely a plus for language acquisition, becoming more confident, more creative, open minded, and most of all, children do not feel stressed. It is the time when they are creators, performers, dancers and singers!

Jason Armstrong Baker's picture
Jason Armstrong Baker
Music Therapist and creator of Sounds Around The World

This is a great list. Thanks for posting Heather.

What I have found while working with teachers in educational settings, is the fact that they don't naturally think about music as a tool. In my understanding, this is because our culture has relegated music to entertainment or as a background space filler.

Developmentally, music is a significant part of children's identity (preK-12) We can break that significance down socially, cognitively, emotionally, and physically. If teachers could understand this more clearly, I think they would see music in a more multi-dimensional way and apply it as a tool.

Heather, your list is a great starting point and very accessible!

Tony Catalfamo's picture
Tony Catalfamo
Kindergarten Co-teacher from Rochester, New York

This is a great blog! I agree, you definitely do not have to be a musician or musicologist to use music in the classroom. Music is a universal language that brings people together. As a kindergarten teacher, I find that music is essential for engaging students.

If you stop to think about what you actually remember learning in school from your childhood it often involves music. For instance, I can't tell you a thing I learned during 7th grade science aside from the song, "King Philip crossed over five giant snakes!" To this day that song has been the reason I have the taxonomic hierarchy committed to memory (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species).

Music helps kids learn by making learning fun. At our school, we have school songs, cheers and chants, and every classroom has it's own cheer that we perform during our weekly community gathering every Friday and often at the end of our lunch period. These songs, cheers and chants foster a strong sense of community, give the students a sense of belonging and purpose, and they help instill our core values such as grit, integrity, honesty, and our ultimate goal for all students to go to college.

In the classroom we use songs and chants as well for transitions, memorization tools and brain breaks. Basically, for anything we want students to memorize, we have a song or a chant for it. Some examples include the Rainforest Layers Song, We Know Our Tens (counting by 10s), Count By Twos Song, Magic E Chant, 2-Vowel Rule Chant, etc. Having a song or chant for transitions between lesson components for subjects helps make the transitions tight and it brightens the lines between the different parts of the day. Additionally, doing a fun and silly song that incorporates movement helps young children get their wiggles out as well as stimulate brain function.

As a person who loves simplicity, one of the things I love most about using music as a tool is that it often requires no materials, unless of course it involves playing live instruments or a technology device to play a recording. All in all, I think music ought to be a part of every classroom; it's the best memorization tool, it brings joy, and it brings people together.

Stephanie's picture

Great Post Heather! Thanks so much for creating this very accessible list.
As a music teacher, I have always looked for ways to make my subject interesting and relevant to students (looking at structure of their favourite pop songs, identifying elements of movie music that help establish theme, mood and story, etc.), and as I now transition to teaching reading and literacy to elementary school students, I am looking at ways to integrate the arts into every day learning. I think that as an arts teacher, we feel as though we are always having to justify the importance of our subjects to the students, parents, and boards of education. I am a huge advocate for reminding everyone that the arts and music are very much part of our society and culture, and not apart from it! As Heather and several others here have mentioned, music is a powerful tool for developing memory, creativity and communication (amongst other important skills). We all hear students constantly singing and listening to music, so why should that stop in the classroom? Why not embrace this for the incredible tool that it is and integrate it when we can? Not only does music in the classroom make learning more fun, but it also improves student learning, which as teachers, is always our ultimate goal.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Quoting Tony Catalfamo:

"Having a song or chant for transitions between lesson components for subjects helps make the transitions tight and it brightens the lines between the different parts of the day."

This is a theme that came up over and over when we teachers talked about their favorite attention getters for the classroom. Chants and music helped engage the students and paved the way for the next part of the lesson.

Here's the link if you're curious:

Mahrukh's picture

I agree with you Heather, I often use music in my Language arts class. I encourage my students to write songs or poems to summarise or write the main point of the story. Generally students consider summarising a tedious job, I wanted to make it interesting for them so I asked them to write a summary of a story using song or poem. It turned out well. My students loved the idea.

Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

Love these ideas! I had an English teacher in high school who would start class by playing songs for writing prompts, followed by 5 minutes of free writing; I always enjoyed it and felt more engaged during the rest of class

Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC's picture
Michelle Lazar, MA, MT-BC
Autism Specialist & Music Therapist

Heather, you did a beautiful job capturing such meaningful yet practical ways to utilize music in the classroom. I found your activity examples to be really unique and several I've never seen used before. Thanks for this inspiration!

Global DJ Academy's picture
Global DJ Academy
Work at Global DJ Institute in Mumbai.

An excellent blog writing, about why Music? And you explained above very nicely, the eight ways to use music.

Thank you so much.

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