Choosing traditional songs for young learners: The good, the bad and the darkly fascinating

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.

  1. Sexism

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.

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Source: Pixabay

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 312 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.



Getting it wrong: How can we harness the power of failure in the ELT classroom?

‘Mistakes are the portals of discovery.’ James Joyce

The opening of the Museum of Failure in Sweden has been in the news in recent months. The museum is noteworthy because as a society we’re often reluctant to admit to our failures. But this museum takes a different stance. It celebrates the prototypes that didn’t work out. Yes, many of these flops are funny. The fat-free crisps that give you diarrhoea, the biro “for her”, the green ketchup. Curator Dr Samuel West says, “I was tired of all the success stories.” What he’s really interested in is WHY these products failed. “I really hope that you see that these mega-brands that everybody respects, they screw up. I hope that makes you feel less apprehensive about learning something new. If you’re developing a new skill, trying to learn a new language or create something new, you’re going to fail. Don’t be ashamed of it. Let’s learn from these failures, instead of ignoring them.”

Why are we so bad at getting things wrong?

Some educators suggest that now, more than ever, children are being shielded from the uncomfortable but developmentally necessary state of failure. Increasing pressure to succeed is making them ever more risk-averse. You can read up on this here, in an article by Julie Lythcott-Haims, a previous dean of the University of Stanford, and here in an article about Jessica Lahey’s book The Gift of Failure.

Image source: Pixabay

Exploring the link between failure, risk-taking and learning

 I first wrote about the importance of failure a couple of months ago when blogging about growth mindsets, and how that concept can be applied to ELT.

More recently, I’ve seen claims indicating that teaching children autonomy and how to deal with failures is a predictor of their happiness.

In order to promote risk-taking and growth, students need a classroom environment in which failure is normalised. Fear of failure is the enemy of creativity and innovation. In a language teaching context, it also hinders fluency. (Feel embarrassed expressing your opinions in a big group? Try doing it in a foreign language!) I think we can all agree that fear of failure is a Bad Thing, both when it comes to learning about language and when it comes to generating ideas of any sort.

As we all know, young children are much better at taking risks with language (both when learning their L1 and additional languages). They just get on with it. And as long as they’re understood, they really don’t care about gaps in their vocabulary. My three-year-old has recently made reference to a “clothes fridge” (wardrobe) and a “float coat” (lifejacket), for example. How can we replicate that essence of carefree communication when teaching older kids in a classroom context? What can we do to cultivate an atmosphere where students want to take risks?

Some suggestions for a failure-friendly classroom

Here are a few ideas, and I’d love to hear yours, too:

  • Share a philosophy of failure with students, emphasising its importance.
  • Allow children the space to get things wrong and try again without jumping in to assist or correct.
  • Focus on guiding rather than instructing or enabling.
  • Talk about times you failed and what you learnt. Encourage learners to do the same.
  • Put up posters and quotations about the role of failure.
  • Find texts about inspirational inventors and pioneers who persisted in spite of obstacles and failures. See this resource for ideas.
  • Encourage a tolerance of ambiguity, of grey areas, and of unanswered questions. At the end of a unit of work, refer back to these questions, asking What have you learnt about this? Can you answer that question now?
  • Set ground rules for brainstorming and discussion. With a clear framework, learners may feel freer to say something original. Emphasise that there are no bad ideas!
  • Encourage play, at all ages. In a state of play, we are open, creative and focussed. An Einstein famously said: ‘Play is the highest form of research.’ I’ve heard good things about the MOOC on this topic provided by the University of Sheffield – it might be worth a look? There’s also this free short course from the Open University.
  • Assess processes, not just products. Recognise and praise perseverance, not just results.
  • Think about self-assessment and developing meta-cognition. Consider integrating ‘Assessment for Learning’ into your teaching. Include some focus on what went badly. Ask What did you learn? What do you need to do next? What would you do differently next time?

Regarding language accuracy:

  • Review the correction techniques for language accuracy you most often use. Can you encourage more self-correction or (respectful) peer correction instead of teacher correction?
  • Share success criteria for speaking fluency tasks, emphasising the importance of participation and ideas generation over the nitty-gritty of language accuracy.
  • Allocate some time to tasks where language accuracy is not important.

Last of all …

Just to round things up, I think we should teach children how much can be learnt through the process of failure. I’ll end with two final examples, showing how heavily other subjects rely on persistence.

I recently made reference in a post about gender to Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, and her inspiring TED talk on the subject of imperfection. If you haven’t seen it, I’d definitely recommend checking it out. She says:

“Coding, it’s an endless process of trial and error, of trying to get the right command in the right place, with sometimes just a semicolon making the difference between success and failure. Code breaks and then it falls apart, and it often takes many, many tries until that magical moment when what you’re trying to build comes to life. It requires perseverance. It requires imperfection.”

I’m also reminded of the example of a science lesson I heard about recently where, on the first day of the year, students invent a game and then their classmates have to work out the rules. Sounds fun, right? Students must come up with a hypothesis, test it, and abandon it or revise it, over and over again. Failure is an intrinsic part of the process – you can only get to the right set of rules by making lots of mistakes first.



Reflections on the science of memory: Implications for ELT young learners

Young learners are notorious for forgetting things. Not just their pencils and books, but also all the vocabulary or structures you carefully presented and practised only a lesson or two before, which they seemed to have such a good grasp of at the time. Teachers of young learners know that this is a fact of life, and regular recycling of language has always been a (frustratingly) necessary aspect of classroom practice. Neuroscience, meanwhile, is revealing more about how memory works and how we can make teaching and learning more effective by incorporating some simple strategies to aid retention. I can’t claim expertise as a neuroscientist or cognitive psychologist, but I plan to use this blog to summarise what I’ve learnt about this area, and how I think this can be usefully applied to teaching young learners.

What we know about how memory works

To really make learning stick, information must move from the short term memory to the long term memory. What’s the best way of doing this? Information processing theory tells us that it’s by creating associations between what you are learning and what you already know.

Neuroscience also shows the proven effectiveness of certain learning strategies:

  1. Retrieval practice Essentially, this means encouraging students to focus on the effort of getting learning out, rather than, as teachers, pouring information in, perhaps over and over again. There’s a helpful summary here.
  2. Distributed practice (or spaced repetition) Regularly revisiting information is more effective than cramming (‘blocking’). Spacing out revision over a series of slots is very effective because it means that the neural connections associated with those memories are strengthened each time that material is accessed.
  3. Interleaved practice Rather than perfecting one skill or completely mastering one area of content knowledge before moving on to the next, there’s evidence that it’s better to mix and match. This may seem counter-intuitive, but jumping around between different topics and skills improves our ability to discriminate between concepts, and also reinforces neural connections by strengthening the associations made between information sets. Interleaving topics also forces us to think about content out of context, without all the helpful cues that were there when we first learnt it. This has proved very effective in teaching maths and sports, but the evidence for language learning is less decisive, so I’m going to treat this strategy with a degree of caution for now, though I think it’s worth mentioning since it helps us think about all the scaffolds and prompts which memory relies on, and which make info harder to access once these crutches are stripped away.
Image source: Pixabay


How can we harness this knowledge when planning ELT lessons?

Here are some ideas for applying these evidence-based strategies in ELT. I’m thinking particularly about young learners, but the principles are relevant across all age groups.

Activating prior knowledge

When beginning a new topic, try getting students to think about what they already know, whether from general knowledge or related topic areas they’ve learnt about at school. This can be in L1. The aim here is not to preview what they are about to learn, or to get kids excited about it (though that might be a nice side effect), or to do a diagnostic test of their English level, but to wake up the parts of the brain that are already logging information about this topic. We’re establishing a clear framework in which the learning can take place. Nice activities for activating prior knowledge include:

  • showing thought-provoking photos
  • asking questions about personal experiences
  • KWL charts (‘What I know’, ‘What I want to know’ and later ‘What I learnt’)
  • class brainstorming to build up a spider diagram


Getting children to create their own internal organisational systems is more likely to help learners create meaningful, memorable associations. Learners can group simple words or concepts from a very early age. So, try creating scenarios that prompt learners to link vocabulary or concepts they are learning to those they already know. For example:

When learning new animal vocabulary ask: Which [of these] animals have four legs? Which other animals do you know with four legs? Which [of these] animals have fur? Which other animals do you know with fur? Which animals swim? Which other animals do you know who swim? etc

Graphic organisers such as spider diagrams and Venn diagrams are a great, visual way to  solidify these associations and distinctions. You can even create caroll diagrams like the one below, which are a good way to promote critical thinking, too.  I’ve written more about the many uses of graphic organisers here.

Animals with four legs Animals with no legs
Animals which can swim crocodile, frog elephant, dog fish, shark, whale, dolphin, seal
Animals which can’t swim cat, rabbit, camel worm, slug, some snakes

From a content perspective, this presents an opportunity to tease out information which helps learners group animals into mammals, reptiles and so on, or to group them by habitat. But my suggestion would be that links can be as wacky and wonderful as you and your learners feel inclined to make them. It’s the link-building process that matters.


Elaboration is the strategy of making information memorable by expanding on aspects of what is being learnt. This might be through extrapolating or applying new knowledge to other scenarios/problems (e.g. Milk comes from cows. What do we make with milk? … So we need cows for milk, cheese, yoghurt and ice-cream!) It might also be through making comparisons and defining contrasts (e.g. Birds can fly and sing. Can you fly and sing?).

Creating analogies is another useful way to elaborate, and to identify a ‘hook’ on which to hang new information. For example, if, in a CLIL lesson, students are learning about photosynthesis, we might say:

Plants need carbon dioxide. They change it to oxygen. This is the opposite of humans. We need oxygen. We change it to carbon dioxide.

Building in thinking time

To work out what they know and what they can’t remember, a process which is central to retrieval practice, learners need a bit of space to think. Teacher questioning techniques can address this. (I’ve been influenced by Sarah Priestley on this topic – you can see her conference slides from Innovate ELT conference here).

Straightforward techniques to adopt are:

  • Wait time After asking a question, don’t allow the first person to put their hand up to answer. Wait until most of the hands in the class are up (the popcorn technique).
  • Think Pair Share When considering a question or task, learners spend a few minutes thinking on their own before pairing up and discussing with a partner, and then sharing their ideas with the class.

Both these techniques have the added benefit of reducing the anxiety associated with being put on the spot to speak in open class.

Reviewing, recycling and self-assessment

Research evidence shows the value of integrating regular short quizzes or low-stakes testing activities where the objective is not for teachers to assess learning, but for learners to see what they can produce without assistance. These activities could be:

  • games, such as scattergories (e.g. Name three animals beginning with S).
  • quick recaps in the form of think-pair-share discussions (e.g. Say two facts about mammals).
  • pen-to-paper mini tests written by the teacher or taken from a course book.
  • short multiple choice or true/false quizzes older learner write for each other.
  • exit slips (Say one new fact you learnt this week / Say three animal words you learnt etc)

Remember: rather than scheduling revision sessions only at the end of term, in advance of a test, it’s more effective to have regular, short review sessions over a longer period of time. We can use warmers, songs or freer practice activities to regularly revisit vocabulary and structures from a few weeks or months previous.

Last but not least, I want to mention self-assessment. Building metacognitive development and an awareness of learning goals also feeds into effective reviewing and assessment. You can see more I’ve written about how to do that here.

Over to you

Have you tried integrating retention strategies into your lessons or materials you’ve developed? Do let me know in the comments what you’ve found works well and how your students feel about it.

Further reading 

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, Belknap Press, 2014



Guest writer for IATEFL YLT SIG blog

I am delighted to be the guest writer for the IATEFL Young Learners and Teenagers blog this month. I’ve written about materials development, and have tried to come up with a helpful checklist of things to consider when writing resources for early years and primary-aged students. You can read the post here. Comments welcome! It’s certainly not a definitive guide so I’m sure you’ll have plenty of other suggestions to add to the list.


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Photo credit: Pixabay




Graphic organisers – what’s the big deal?

You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz around graphic organisers. They’re often used in mainstream education, and this is having an influence on ELT and CLIL methodology. This post sets about answering two questions: why they are important, and how you can use them to best effect.

What is a graphic organiser, exactly?

Before we go further, I should clarify what we mean by a graphic organiser. Venn diagrams, matrices, tables, charts, bar charts, pie charts, time lines… these are all good examples. They’re also sometimes known as key visuals. A graphic organiser is a tool that uses visual symbols to express knowledge, concepts, or ideas, and the relationships between them. Why is this important? It allows us to grasp ideas very quickly, as the pictorial form serves as a kind of short-cut to meaning-making.

Sometimes this is used to great comic effect. You have to love this deceptively simple Venn diagram by Elise Towle Snow, for example.

NARWHAL UNICORN by Elise Towle Snow
Reproduced with permission from the artist Elise Towle Snow at ArgyleWhale
Another artist, Chaz Hutton, has gained a huge Instagram following through his ability to exploit the humorous potential of a concise bar chart, flow chart or Venn diagram to express some of life’s complex existential dilemmas. You can see a

selection here.

Why should I use graphic organisers for teaching English?

Put really simply, graphic organisers help us cut out the background noise, and get directly to the main points.

I was first introduced to the importance of graphic organisers while studying for a postgraduate qualification in CLIL. There’s no doubt that in CLIL teaching, the potential to overload students with new content and new language at the same time is pretty huge. Graphic organisers help us manage the amount of processing required for the students, and enable us to keep it at manageable levels. But graphic organisers aren’t only useful in CLIL contexts – they’re a useful component of any teacher’s toolbox.

Imagine writing a text describing the life cycle of a frog to an A1-level primary student. Think about the language control issues you’d encounter. How many sentences would you need, as a minimum? What structures would you need? What unfamiliar vocabulary (frogsporn, tadpole, lay, grow …)? Can you do it without using phrasal verbs like turn into? How can you convey a sense of progression and the passing of time if students don’t already know vocabulary like first, then and next? What would you need to do to support their comprehension of the text?

Tricky, right?

Now imagine showing the same learners a labelled flow chart: a picture of some frogsporn with an arrow pointing to a tadpole, and from there another arrow pointing to a frog.

It’s fairly obvious which of these scenarios is going to result in something that’s easier for students to understand.

Graphic organisers can be really empowering for students.

  • They present information visually, in a way students comprehend at a glance.
  • They can be used to by-pass difficult vocabulary and structures.
  • They can make complex concepts accessible.
  • They allow us to keep the cognitive challenge of a task high while controlling the language.
  • They give structure to critical thinking.
  • They can scaffold speaking and writing production.
How should I use graphic organisers?

There are two main ways you can use a graphic organiser:

1. As a way of analysing a text or checking comprehension

Learners read or listen to a text, then complete an organiser with the information they’ve understood.

2. As a prompt for production

Learners look at information in a graphic organiser, either text or artwork, which then forms the basis of a speaking or writing task.

How can I choose the right graphic organiser?

It’s important to select the right kind of graphic organiser for the kind of information you want to explore. Different information requires different types of graphic organiser. Imagine you are reading a story text with young learners. You might consider doing all of the following tasks. How could you present the answers generated in visual form?

  • A brainstorming task about the topic before students read the text
  • An activity analysing the personality traits of two characters. How are they the same? How are they different?
  • An activity requiring students to sequence a chain of events from the story.

Mind maps are a great tool for brainstorming, activating prior knowledge or revising content knowledge. KWL charts (What I know, What I want to know, What I learnt) are also particularly useful when starting a new topic as a way to activate prior knowledge, engaging students with the topic and require them to think about their learning process. For any comparing and contrasting task, consider using Venn diagrams or Caroll diagrams. Flow charts and timelines are useful for sequencing tasks. Remember that before students can write, these visuals can still be used – young learners can draw pictures to complete Venn diagrams and flow charts, for example.

There are tonnes of examples of graphic organisers if you search online. Here are some other quite simple ones which you might find useful.

  • The ‘diamond 9’ formation, where students have to organise cards into a diamond with the most important at the top. You or your students can write the cards here. It’s great for ranking tasks.
  • A fishbone diagram, which can be used for identifying cause and effect
  • Story maps (which come with various degrees of complexity) help students summarise a text, either in writing or with pictures.

Which graphic organisers do you use with young learners (and beyond)? I’d love to hear your ideas and favourite activities in the comments.