Ukulele in the classroom

Using Music to teach English

Since day one at the elementary school in Malaga, Spain where I’m currently teaching english, my ukulele has been like my third arm.

If I don’t have it, my students ask me where it is. In the hallways, I’m stopped by kids who ask to play it.

I make them ask me in English. They have to say, “Can I play your ukulele, please?” before I give it to them.

I love watching them try. Most of them strum something for 10 seconds or less and then lose interest. They like to get their friends to watch them playing it goofily. One girl sings a flamenco songs when she strums.

Some of them are learning guitar in extracurricular music classes and are actually pretty good. One boy wanted to play it for an entire 30 minute recess… it was like he was in a trance.

Nancy, my college roommate at UC Santa Cruz, gave me this ukulele 10 years ago. Miraculously, it has traveled with me to several countries (Japan, Spain, and the USA) without a case. On airplanes, I hold it in my lap like a baby or wrap it in a jacket and keep in the overhead compartment.

Since it has survived this long, I imagine it can survive being touched by grubby (hopefully not sticky) child hands.

At my school, I work with 1st through 6th grade, and during my 4th grade classes (with 8 and 9 year olds) I co-teach with a spanish teacher named Raquel. At the beginning of the school year, I showed her a song activity that I recalled from one of my Spanish classes in high school. Since Raquel is a singer herself she loved the idea.

My worksheets have three sets of lyrics on one page and I cut them into smaller sections. Certain words are eliminated which students have to listen for and write in. When I’m choosing words to eliminate, I always try to select words that they know and that are easy to understand. I learned through trial and error that it’s very important which words you remove, otherwise the activity can be demotivating.

After passing out the worksheets, we listen to the song twice on youtube. I walk around the class to make sure they’re following along, sometimes pointing at their papers to make sure they looking at the right section. The third time, I sing and play it with the ukulele, emphasizing the missing words trying to make it easy and obvious for them. Raquel sings along and sometimes we harmonize. A few times she has called in the principal to come and listen to us.

Now we almost always do songs in her classes. We try to choose songs that are catchy, that they’ve heard before, and with easy lyrics. The songs we’ve sung so far are: “Love Me like You Do” by Ellie Golding, “Girls Like You” by Maroon Five, “All I Want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey, “Love is All Around” by Wet Wet Wet, “All of Me” by John Legend, “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran, “Story of My Life” by One Direction, “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars, and “Diamonds” by Rihanna.

Now that we have done so many songs, we spend parts of classes reviewing songs from previous weeks. Their favorite songs so far are “Love Me Like You Do” and “Girls Like You”. It’s so rewarding to see them singing a song that I taught them!

I like doing this activity on a weekly basis, because students know what to expect and seem to enjoy it more with practice.

Today when only 2 minutes were left in the class, one Ukranian boy approached us and said, “I know all the words to the song. I want to sing by myself!” So he came to the front of the class, and without looking at the lyrics, sang the entire song “Love Me Like You Do” with me accompanying him on the ukulele. Raquel and I were so in awe of his fearlessness and adorable accent. This was one of those unforgettable moments that make teaching worth it.

I remember doing similar activities in Spanish classes when I was in high school. I still remember most of the lyrics to “La Camisa Negra” and “El Fantasma” thanks to a Spanish teacher at Santa Barbara City College. I hope that my students will remember some of the songs I’m teaching them, too!

Next year, I hope to continue this method in English classes, and also write more songs – or have students help me write songs! – for the natural science and social science classes I’ll be teaching. We can sing about Egyptian pyramids, French kings and queens, the water cycle, the anatomy of a fish… anything can be a song!

3 thoughts on “Ukulele in the classroom

  1. Kevin Young

    What a great idea to help the learn English and enjoy it at the same time. What a concept! Of course, you teach them grammar and vocabulary right? I remember in an English class I took the teacher made us learn 10 new words each week. Learning should be fun go Amber!

  2. Andy Young

    How fun, for the kids AND for you. Do you sing/play with all the classes or just 4th grade? I think you need to do a Led Zeppelin song now!

    1. youngforever231

      Thanks Andy! I do music with all the classes, but with 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and and 6th I’m mostly teaching social science and natural science (things like astronomy, the water cycle, Spanish history, etc) but with the 4th graders we do songs every week. I’ve done songs with all the 12 classes I teach at least once because it’s so fun! And I sometimes write songs about the material. I wrote a song about fish, for example, haha

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