Working with English language learners (ELL) while teaching music

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Teachers who are working with English language learners (ELL) must teach differently. One way to facilitate learning in any subject is by presenting music to the class.
Music gives individuals around the world an opportunity to communicate beyond the spoken language and share experiences. It’s the perfect transition for young children who are in the midst of learning a language, as it serves as a fun and interesting medium that can bring cultures together.

Group of diverse students sitting at a table listening to teacher lecture.

Teachers of all subjects can benefit from using music in the classroom with English language learners. Music instructors specifically have an opportunity to help ELL students grow their vocabulary and understanding of English, making it easier for them to comprehend subject matter in other classes.

In this article, we’ll discuss some of the music education strategies for teaching English language learners and detail how this medium can help such students excel in other areas of study.

Tips for teaching ELL students in the music classroom

While music education can make it easier for non-English speaking students to grasp subject matter, there still may be barriers to comprehension. Here are a few tips for teaching ELL students in the music classroom, as suggested by the National Association for Music Education (NafME):

  • Create and maintain a low-risk learning environment. Help all of your students feel safe and nurtured by the way the classroom is set up and through your verbal and nonverbal behaviors.
  • Have patience. Give all ELL students a chance to absorb what you are saying or singing before you expect them to respond and participate vocally. These students may need more time to translate and understand.
  • Use fewer words and focus on precision. Use the least amount of words possible to give direction. Be concise.
  • Incorporate visual aids and gestures. Hand gestures and visual cues while speaking can help ELL students comprehend direction. Visual aids can also help students interpret songs and understand music.
  • Songs are learned through repetition. ELL students can benefit from this same strategy in the classroom. The NAfME recommended changing words of a song based on the season so you can incorporate more words into students’ vocabulary.
  • Encourage collaboration. ELL students will benefit from learning from children who can already speak English. Incorporate group learning activities so students can learn from their peers.
  • Bring awareness to other languages and cultures. Music can bring awareness to various cultures. Use this to your advantage in the classroom by singing songs from different cultures and teaching literature from different countries.

Not only can these tips makes ELL students feel more comfortable in an English-speaking classroom, but it can also improve learning and increase attentiveness.

Young student using earbuds to listen to content on laptop.

How music helps students excel elsewhere

Music is a valuable tool that can assist students ― no matter what language they speak ― in other areas of study. It has the power to increase vocabulary, encourage memorization and even enhance the writing process, according to Kristina Robertson of Colorín Colorado, a bilingual site for music educators and teachers.

“I like to play soft music when my students are doing a writing activity,” Robertson wrote. “This helps to establish a calm environment for students to focus and relax while they organize their thoughts and choose their words.”

These skills can take all students to greater learning heights, benefiting them along their educational journey and eventually in their careers.

How Kent State prepares you as a music educator

The online Master of Music in music education program at Kent State provides you with the skill and education needed to make your voice heard like never before. Because the online program offers individualized learning, you can learn at your own pace to take the time to absorb the subject matter. The technological aspect of the program offers another universal experience, helping to grasp the core concepts of your classes and use the musical digital tools and software to expand your knowledge further and enhance your aptitude as a music educator.

If you’re interested in learning more about this program and how it can benefit your career as a music educator, visit or call 1-888-989-7072 to speak with an enrollment advisor today.

Recommended Readings:
What is the Kent State MMME Capstone Project?
How Advanced Music Technology can better prepare music educators

NAfME – English Language Learners in music class
Colorin Colorado – Music and language learning
New Ideas for Teaching English and Music using Songs
Learning to Teach Music themed Mathematics: An Examination of Preservice Teachers’ Beliefs  about Developing and Implementing Interdisciplinary Mathematics Pedagogy
Is Music a Universal Language?
Kent State Master of Music in music education


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