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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 7, May/June 2006

Let us sing together

by Verena Foxx

Every school morning, for the first 20 minutes, primary teachers Patricia Gudlaugson and Arlene Blond, of Fleming Elementary School, in Vancouver, can be found in the school gym. That’s where they assemble their combined Grade 1 and 2 classes to sing and move to variations of carefully selected folk song—games that provide the basis of a language acquisition program known as Singing English.

"Your day is better when you start it off singing," says Grade 1 teacher Gudlaugson. "The children like this session so much that they encourage their parents to get them to school on time. No one is late since we started this program."

Several years ago, Gudlaugson and Blonde, both studying for their Masters of Education, took a course with Dr. Fleurette Sweeney, Singing English founder. Sweeney, a seasoned international public school and university teacher (including UBC, SFU, UVic), describes Singing English as "so simple in its outward appearance but so profound in its epistemological underpinnings." She emphasizes the importance of teachers in delivering the philosophy on which the program is built. "We use songs in which the music is shaped by the acoustic properties of oral English," she explains. "Certain songs become apt intermediaries, or links, for children moving through the sound-to-symbol process." Sweeney says that the songs that she has chosen hold the acoustic properties of spoken English, so that through the repetition of the words and melodies, children not only practise the natural cadence of spoken English, but also practise managing their breathing in ways appropriate to spoken English. Singing English offers the many opportunities that are needed to establish "the sensory-motor perceptual infrastructure on which speaking and thinking of a language rests." Children have the opportunity to hear sound patterns, to practise breathing the phrasing of the language, and to use their tongue and lip muscles to create sound patterns.

"It’s gentle, and inclusive of all children," adds Pat Gudlaugson. "A transformation takes place when children play the singing games. Our ESL learners take more risks with their language learning and there is an obvious development in both the language and social skills of the whole class."

"Definitely," says Grade 2 teacher, Blonde, "it is much more than language acquisition. There is social interaction and growth of a community of learners who come together." Watching the students in action, it is obvious that they are learning to follow directions, to co-operate with each other, to take turns, and to be kind to each other while they are moving around the gym. That’s in addition to hearing them learn words, sing melodies, and practise syllables and rhythms.

Sweeney explains that the folk song-games give students the opportunity to express their emotions playfully, to structure their own behaviour in socially responsible ways, and to engage and re-engage their sensory motor co-ordination skills while they are sharpening their cognitive/lingual skills.

"The songs we use hold the natural clustering of the word chunks and phrases of oral English," says Fleurette, who also stresses the importance of combining specially selected songs with specific song-games to create a combined experience of language learning and joyful play. "A song," she concludes "is both music and language."

Dr. Sweeney is available for full-day workshops, FleuretteSweeney@shaw.ca

Verena Foxx is an ESL consultant, Vancouver School Board, vfoxx@vsb.bc.ca

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