Many teachers choose to incorporate traditional songs and rhymes in their English teaching. But what are the advantages of this? And are there any drawbacks to using this kind of authentic material?
Why use traditional songs and rhymes?
- Songs play a vital role in early language development among very young learners.
- Songs expand learners’ vocabularies.
- Because nursery rhymes are characterised by alliteration, rhyme, onomatopoeia and strong sound patterning, they are particularly valuable in helping children develop phonemic awareness (the ability to hear sounds in spoken words), which is an essential first step towards literacy.
- Many traditional songs are designed to help children learn basic maths and counting skills (One, two buckle my shoe, Five fat sausages sizzling in a pan, Ten green bottles, Five currant buns in a baker’s shop, There were ten in a bed, and so on).
- Nursery rhymes and poetry can provide learners with a set of memorable grammar templates.
- Nursery rhymes provide exposure to rich, authentic texts.
- Nursery rhymes are a form of oral history which gives unique expression to a cultural legacy. As such they can also provide interesting intercultural insights, too.
- Songs are memorable and fun.
How to choose suitable songs
- Look for songs with a clear rhythm and a strong element of repetition.
- Wherever possible, choose songs with actions (For example: The wheels on the bus, Wind the bobbin up, Heads, shoulders, knees and toes, Incy wincy spider, Row, row row your boat, Here we go round the mulberry bush). Incorporating elements of movement and dance develops motor skills, providing important opportunities for children to learn balance, co-ordination and body awareness.
What to watch out for
When flicking through books of nursery rhymes, there are lots of traditional songs that I always feel deeply uncomfortable with. (I don’t know if this would be the case with traditional songs from other languages, but I suspect that traditional songs probably have traditional problems in common). This is a tricky area, but I’d argue that we shouldn’t undermine teaching about respect and equality by unthinkingly promoting the out-dated values embedded in some traditional songs, especially since omitting verses and making small alterations can often solve the problem.
Many of the gender roles we see in traditional songs are just awful. This is easily overlooked, I think. For some, these songs can be so much a part of our own childhoods that we become uncritical about them or consider them harmless. I’d argue it’s worth stopping to think about the messages some of these lyrics send, though:
This is the way the ladies ride… This is the way the gentlemen ride …
The mummies on the bus go chatter, chatter, chatter…
The farmer wants a wife. The wife wants a child, E-I-E-I the wife wants a child…
Polly put the kettle on…
Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of.
And so on, and so on.
2. A focus on violence and suffering
Let’s face it, many nursery rhymes came into existence at times when attitudes were profoundly different and life was hard. As well as recording the detail of daily life, some also remember gruesome historical events. Ring a Ring o Roses famously describes the horrors of Great Plague of London in 1665, for example. Of course, in many instances, such as this one, the historical allusions are so obscure that they shouldn’t deter us from enjoying the song with young children. The darker side of nursery rhymes isn’t always so well hidden, though.
Even in a contemporary anthology of nursery rhymes, you don’t have to look hard to find unsavoury examples of corporal punishment (see Little Polly Flinders, Tom, Tom the piper’s son and The Queen of Hearts she made some tarts which all describe – you might even say celebrate – naughty children being beaten). Nursery rhymes also present us with examples of religious intolerance (See Goosey Goosey Gander, in which an old man is thrown down the stairs for not saying the right prayers, and the devastatingly sad Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home, which makes reference to the brutal persecution of Catholics in 16th century England).
Just to be clear: it’s not that I don’t think these more grisly and sexist songs provide fascinating insights into history and culture – I absolutely do, of course! But they can be highly problematic unless viewed critically as products of their time. Using them as part of a wider discussion of history or values is an option.
As with all teaching materials, using nursery rhymes is a question of thoughtful selection.
Over to you
Do you use nursery rhymes in your ELT teaching or materials development? Which do you find the most interesting and successful in class? What criteria do you use to select them? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Links and further reading
If you’ve found this post interesting, you may also enjoy this one about choosing picture books for young learners. And if you want to read more about my thoughts on promoting gender equality among young learners, there’s more about that here.
For more information about the history of nursery rhymes, the links here and here make fascinating reading. (Did you know that Humpty Dumpty was actually a huge cannon used during the English Civil War? Or that Baa Baa Black Sheep refers to a medieval wool tax? Me neither!)
I have found the article ‘Grammar Templates with Poetry for Children’ by Janice Bland in Teaching English to Young Learners: Critical Issues in Language Teaching with 3–12 Year Olds, ed. Janice Bland (Bloomsbury, 2015) to be an interesting and engaging read, which explores the benefits of using nursery rhymes in ELT and provides some lovely ideas for exploiting them in class.
There are also some interesting articles promoting the value of singing in the classroom on the British Council website.