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Promoting Active Listening in Bilingual Schools Through Music, Movement, Song and Sound

By Roxanne Rogers


Children in bilingual schools who not only learn English as a second language, but also learn in English as well as in their first language, have a complex curriculum and therefore need to have highly developed listening skills. Often their attention is lost and they do not attend well to instructions or explanations. This may lead to poor performance academically and sometimes to frustration for teachers who must contend with curriculum time constraints. The use of music, movement, song and sound is a fun and effective way to gain attention, hold it and redirect it. This can be an effective way to teach vital listening skills. Songs can aid memory and the pronunciation of new words. Movement is a kinesthetic means of reinforcing memory and comprehension. Music and sound are powerful tools in the creation of a positive ethos in the classroom and can be used to signal particular activities and transitions.

My first experiences of using active listening were in Primary classrooms with economically disadvantaged children whose first language was English. More recently I have implemented active listening activities with several classes of bilingual children. I have found these activities to be very effective, not only to improve listening and to create an exciting learning atmosphere wherein teacher and learners share an empathetic bond, but these ideas also work alongside other strategies to cultivate intrinsic motivation. The class I have at this time had a history of being "poor listeners". For the first two months I found this to be true, but quite recently they have impressed me greatly with their considerably improved listening skills and their comprehension of English lessons.

Music has been used extensively to teach first and second languages. "It is currently a common practice to use songs in the classroom to support second language acquisition. The literature abounds with positive statements concerning music as a vehicle for first and second language acquisition."(Medina 1993)

However, I have found in my bilingual classroom that the students need to be enabled to actively listen due to the high demands placed upon them. They do not need the extra intellectual, left-brained strain of always forcing themselves to concentrate, but rather the enabling power of music along side of kinesthetic activity to help them to focus. Music lowers the 'affective filter' (Burkart and Sheppard). The affective filter can be described as a negative attitude towards learning caused by numerous personal factors in a student's life. When music lowers the affective filter it makes learning a fun and more natural activity, even in the intense conditions of bilingual schools. It also encourages 'active listening' and can also help students to tune into their teacher.

What is active listening and how does music promote it?

My definition of active listening is when children mentally, and perhaps even physically, 'lean-into' what they are hearing because they recognize the relevance to themselves. Or to put it more simply, they are truly interested! Their concentration then comes from personal motivation otherwise known as intrinsic motivation. The following definitions go further to suggest that active listening is a mature skill including empathy.

"Thomlison's definition of listening includes "active listening", which goes beyond comprehending literally to an empathetic understanding of the speaker. Gordon (1985) sees empathy as essential to listening and contends that it is more than a polite attempt to identify a speaker's perspective…that it expands to "non-egocentric prosocial-behavior"…that altruistically accepts concern for the speaker's welfare and interests.

Coakley (1985) tends to define listening skills as the opposites of negative attitudes. She discusses one common negative listening attitude as self-centeredness…as opposed to being "other-oriented," with a genuine interest in others that leads to acknowledging another person's comments by asking open-ended questions."(from Hyslop and Tone)

According to Krashen (in Backer), students not only learn, but also acquire a second language best when their affective filter is lowered. This means that they have a positive and open attitude towards acquisition because they see their need to learn. They recognize that the teacher has their best interests at heart. When they find themselves in a low stress environment they are not afraid to make mistakes. Krashen defined the affective filter as a screening device in the internal processing system, governed by the acquirers' "motives, needs, attitudes, and emotional states" that allows or prohibits the acceptance of new input. (Backer)

Rogers (from Rossiter) argued that learning should be experiential and convergent with learner goals and that it should take place in a supportive environment.

"Schumann (1997, 2001), informed by recent developments in cognition research (Damasio 1994; LeDoux 1996), proposed that the psychology and neurobiology of stimulus appraisal (based on novelty, pleasantness, goal/need significance, coping potential, and the self- and social image of the learner) determine the extent to which second language learning is achieved. These theories regarding the important role of affect in learning have resonated strongly with the intuitions of many second and foreign language teachers." (Rossiter)

Music, movement, sound and song can be powerful tools in lowering the affective filter because they appeal to the emotions and to the more intuitive right side of the brain. It is on the right side of the brain that the melody of music and the emotion melodies can produce are perceived. These tools can help children to feel that there are going to have fun!

All students learn better when they feel safe and secure including their need for self-esteem. Singing can bring a class together creating such an atmosphere of unity, acceptance, security and fun. In such a positive atmosphere with 'lowered affective filters', children will hopefully find that they are leaning into the songs and activities with a trust and openness and that they are indeed actively listening.

Music is also a way of improving and creating moods and promoting a general feeling of well-being. (Field et al.) Teaching songs appropriate to the age of my students, that have words that can be expressed through gestures, has powerfully transformed atmosphere of my classroom. Not only were the children having fun they were also learning language incidentally. Even so their listening was heightened because they needed to hear the words to move with the gestures.


Gestures are a form of movement that express the words and meaning of songs kinesthetically. There are many other ways of using kinesthetic learning in the classroom.

Brain Gym (Educational Kinesiology - enhanced learning through movement - was created by Dr. Paul E. Dennison and Gail E. Dennison through their extensive research in areas that include education, brain function, psychology, and applied kinesiology.) and TPR (Total Physical Response) are also very effective in promoting active listening because the children need to look as well as listen and then they are in the 'leaning-into-learn' posture. Both of these techniques require the children to listen in order to respond to instructions. This is not stressful, however, as the children do not need to speak, only to respond physically and all of them at the same time. There is security in the group response! Children enjoy doing these activities and ask to do them if I do not initiate the activities.

Brain Gym and TPR are especially helpful between lessons or in the middle of a long lesson to help children to re-focus. Neither of these techniques requires music, but carefully selected instrumental music could be played quietly in the background to create a desired atmosphere and to enhance enjoyment. They both provide children an opportunity to stand, stretch their bodies and get more oxygen into their brains.

Personal Experience

My first experience of using music in my classroom was simply singing songs with my class leading them on my guitar. This created a lovely atmosphere and sense of "belongingness".

Not long after that I decided to use chimes to get the children's attention during or after lessons and to save my voice. This was also far more pleasant for them than me raising my voice! Since then I have begun a collection of unusual handmade musical instruments found here in Mexico. I now may use a 'rainstick' (folk instrument made from a hollow branch filled with beads that flow through it slowly making a sound like rain or running water) to calm the class if they are getting too noisy while doing pair or group work, or a maraca to get their attention quickly to give further instruction or to signal the end the period.

I have also used various types of music to create specific learning moods before, during or after lessons and to signal a change of activity. Turning down or turning off music can also signal a change of activity in class or help to recover the children's attention quickly.

In my early days of teaching I discovered Brain Gym and began using it to prepare students for lessons or to give them a break during a test or other task that required intense concentration. I have since discovered that Brain Gym can be combined with TPR, as both only require listening, watching and doing.

I have effectively used both of these techniques with new classes to help children to actively listen to me just before a new lesson. They were acquiring new words by responding with actions without even realizing that they were learning.

Later, I used CD listening activities to encourage the children to appreciate music and discovered that it also helped them with active listening. One example was using a gentle piece of music with lyrics that had vivid images that children could respond to by drawing. Another example was having the children listen to San Sans 'Carnival of the Animals' while matching the pictures and names of these animals on an activity sheet. This was effective in teaching the names of the animals as well as appreciating music that reflected animal sounds.

Eventually I discovered a wonderfully creative resource of songs with gestures appropriate to the middle and upper primary age groups I was teaching. 'Fischy Music' (Fischbacher) songs deal with all sorts of issues including the wonders of the world, self-esteem, bullying and family issues. Many of these songs are excellent for teaching English and encouraging listening skills because of the slightly complicated lyrics that have fun gestures.

Often I have encouraged the children to create gestures that they felt expressed the meanings of the words. In one case, I taught some children who were also gifted in dance and they found these songs helpful in creating their own routines. I have also used these songs for children to perform in their school assemblies using the songs, gestures, and dance and even to show paintings they have made expressing the English lyrics. One of the songs I have used very recently even helps the children to spell using gestures. It is called "Creativity" and five hand gestures represent the five syllables. In their school assembly last September the children also spelled the word by using their whole bodies.

Creativity is the key in promoting listening skills. Music taps into the right, creative side of the brain. Using music, movement, songs and sound help me to feel better in my classroom and release my creativity. These tools can also help the children to be released in theirs.

I also use the Alphabet Counting song with another class to begin teaching the basic alphabet along with a counting song both of which I found on the Elementary School Rock CD. (Kids DIRECT 2000) These songs are a way of teaching learners in the first stages. To respond to these songs children can initially follow the alphabet letters or numbers as a teacher points to them when they come in the song, and later to follow along in their own books and also sing when they are confident. They could also shape the letters with their hands to help them associate the sounds with movement.

Finally, the game 'Simon Says' is very popular with all the children I teach. It is using movement in a fun way and helps children to listen with acute concentration! They are of course learning words at the same time as it uses the same principles as TPR.

Music is proven to enhance enjoyment, improve memory and encourage creativity. Purposeful use of music in the classroom should greatly promote listening skills.

Works Cited

Backer, James A., "Multi-User Domain Object Oriented (MOO) as a High School Procedure for Foreign Language Acquisition", Doctoral Program in Computer Technology in Education School of Computer and Information Sciences Nova Southeastern University, December 1998., Accessed July 2004 <>

Burkart, Grace S. and Sheppard, Ken, "CONTENT-ESL ACROSS THE USA: A TRAINING PACKET". OELA's National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA) Accessed July 2004 <>

Field, T. Alex Martinez, Thomas Nawrocki, Jeffrey Pickens, Nathan A. Fox, Saul Schanberg. "Music Shifts Frontal EEG in Depressed Adolescents". MSB Productions. Accessed July 2004 <>

Fischbacher, S., Suzanne Adam, Tracy Francis, The Royston Trust (Fischy Music is the operating name of the Trust). WEB SITE: ©1999-2004 Fischy Music

Hyslop, Nancy B. and Tone, Bruce "Listening: Are We Teaching It, and If So, How?" ERIC Digest. Accessed July 2004. <>

Medina, Suzanne L. Ph.D. "The Effect of Music on Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition." ESL Through Music. Accessed July 2004 <>

Rossiter, Marian J., "The Effects of Affective Strategy Training in the ESL Classroom" TESL-EJ, Volume 7 Number 2, September 2003. Accessed July 2004 <>

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