One of my great teacher-mentors always advised saving one gem of a song for each concept as a mystery song. Rather than singing the song, why not introduce it by reading the new rhythmic concept they’ve just learned?

Anne Mileski

There have been a handful times I’ve just wanted to sing the darn song and plan the darn game. In those cases, I have to admit, I have made my children victims to lining out a song.

I know, I know. Did you shudder at the mere mention of the good ol’ “your turn, my turn”? I mean, to be honest, if you need to teach a song swiftly, it’s not a bad method. And truth be told, no matter which approach you take in introducing new song material to your students, lining out will probably be a (hopefully small) portion of it

But in the hopes of keeping your classroom alive and engaging, for both you and your students, today I’m sharing seven other ways to teach a song. (psst!! Don’t forget to download your free guide at the end!!)

1. Tell a Story

What do you think is more exciting? Option 1: Telling the most fantastical story about a Good King named Leopold who had all of his servants use the silliest of voices before he would let them cross his kingdom. Option 2: Explaining to your kids that they have to call you Leopold because that’s how the song goes and it’ll make sense when you answer them.

Welp, first of all, option 2 is going to cause a whole lot of confusion. Option 1 gives the chance to engage your students and explain the game they are about to play all at the same time. Particularly in kindergarten and first grade, I take the opportunity to tell a story with as many songs as possible. Since a good chunk of my song material is either directly from or highly inspired by nursery rhymes and fairy tales, it’s usually pretty easy to cook up a good story to go along with the newest song.

2. Ask Questions

Who is this song about? What do you think his job is? When do I need my shoes fixed by? If he can’t get it done by then, what’s my second choice?

These are all questions I ask students in between iterations of “Cobbler Cobbler.” This method of teaching a song is super effective because it gives kids something to listen for. Make sure you ask questions of your kiddos before you actually sing the song. A little question stem might be, “I’m going to sing the song again and I want you to put your hands on your head if you hear…” whichever element you want them to listen for. This gets the kids actively listening since they have to listen for something specific. I always find that when a song has tricky words, kids do super well with this approach.

3. Give Students a Job

“Willum He Had Seven Sons” is my go-to stick exploration song. If you’re wondering what on earth “stick exploration” is, it’s basically singing the song a million different times trying to find a million different ways to keep the steady beat with rhythm sticks. No joke, this could go on for your entire lesson.

When I first introduce this song, I’m the only one with sticks. I start by singing and tapping a steady beat with rhythm sticks. Then I ask students to pretend they have two sticks with their pointer fingers and do what I do. After that I go through a series of questioning to talk about the meaning certain words in the song.

After that, all the students get sticks and we explore as many different ways as possible to make a steady beat sound with the sticks. By the end of the first class period we sing this song, the kids are humming it out on the playground. And begging for the stick game.

#steadybeatassessment #yourewelcome

4. Use Props

There are infinite ways to use props to teach a song. 

Puppets are fantastic and mesmerizing props to use, particularly useful for any songs that are question and answer, like “Lemonade” or “Come Back Home My Little Chicks.” I often use two puppets for both of these songs, so students get the idea that there is a conversation between two people. I have the kids take turns singing each part with the appropriate puppet, and then they get to do the whole things with two “pretend” puppets on their hands.

5. Play the Game

This is pretty straight forward. Not gonna lie, if I’m teaching “Bow Wow Wow” to first graders, I’m going to (1) line it out quickly, (2) show the movements for each motive, and (3) play the game. Is there any better way for them to learn the song? Probably not, because “Bow Wow Wow” lasts for about a million years before kids get back to their original partner.

And it’s magical.

6. Use Movement

Particularly for songs that have repeated lyrics, movement can be an insanely effective way to master both the text and form. Two songs off the top of my head that I practically always teach through beat motions are “A Ram Sam Sam” and “Boom Makaleli.” Both of these songs have unfamiliar words, and adding specific movements to deliberate text helps students remember what comes where.

If you choose to “line out” one of these songs, it’s useful to give students one section at a time, even out of order, that corresponds to one movement. For example, say “your job is to sing the words that go with this motion,” then show them the motion. This is more engaging than traditional “my turn, your turn” lining out because students are accountable for what happens where and when.

7. Make it a Mystery

One of my great teacher-mentors always advised saving one gem of a song for each concept as a mystery song. Rather than singing the song, why not introduce it by reading the new rhythmic concept they’ve just learned?

Mystery songs can be straight-up reading exercises, or something a little more engaging/challenging like a rhythm erase. Either way, starting by isolating an element is a great way to highlight curricular content and purposefully promote your learning target for the day.

Certainly these aren’t the only ways to teach a song. There are about a million and one, and then combinations of all of those put together. As you can see, a lot of times any given song teaching strategy can and will (and probably should) combine more than one of these techniques. Here’s hoping that you’re inspired to try something a little different when introducing a new song to your singers!!


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