Using familiar tunes to teach languages in primary schools
By Vikki Bruff - VB Primary Languages
The very first time I had any MFL teaching training was before I even had started my actual ITT course. I was working as a teaching assistant to gain school experience before starting the Graduate Training Programme. I was lucky enough to have a Head who valued languages, and who encouraged me to go on a CILT course lead by Catherine Cheater. I clearly remember learning finger rhymes (Monsieur Pouce for example) and a song about classroom management to the tune of 3 Blind Mice – a song which many years later my classes and I sing every single day!
With beginner learners I have found that using a familiar tune or song to base the target language learning around has been really useful – for example, when learning to conjugate verbs, chanting them to a pop song, to the National Anthem (as demonstrated by Julie Prince with the Paradigm of Porter), or even as a Haka makes what could be a tedious repetitive task much more fun and memorable!
Many songs are already translated into the target language – e.g. “head, shoulders, knees and toes” is readily available in many target languages, as is “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” etc. YouTube is a great source for karaoke style videos for these. A quick google search will tell you what songs have been translated, and failing that, Mama Lisa is a great website to look for songs in many different languages.
However, sometimes you just can’t quite find the song that precisely fits your teaching point – and that is where writing your own song to a familiar tune comes in! Use the tune of a well-known song (a pop song, a nursery song, it doesn’t matter as long as it is something that is in everyone’s register) and make it fit your learning objective. Ideas for teaching prepositions, for example, could be to the tune of London’s Bridge is Falling Down as per Skarbek:
Sur, sous, dans, devant, derrière,
Sur, sous, dans, devant, derrière
A côté de.
Or perhaps you could adapt the Hokey Kokey and get the whole class moving?
Tunes such as Frère Jacques, Hickory Dickory Dock, The Farmer’s in his Den, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, If you’re happy and you know it etc… can be adapted and used time and time again for different sets of new target language vocabulary. I have recently started working with very young language learners in a local day care centre, and have been using the Camembear 1 scheme of work. This includes a CD of really simple songs in French written to very familiar tunes. The same melodies reoccur throughout the scheme of work, which mean the children (and nursery staff) learn the songs in no time at all. J’aime Chanter by Catherine Barlow has a selection of songs in French to familiar tunes which will can easlity support primary French lessons. You could even take inspiration from Disney, and write a song to the tune of Hi Ho, Hi Ho:
J’ai soif, j’ai soif
Je voudrais un café.
Que voulez-vous, que voulez-vous ?
Je voudrais un café!
A personal favourite of mine is to teach the months of the year to the tune (and dance moves of course!) to the tune of the Macarena! Sometimes it comes together quite quickly, other times you could spend hours wracking your brain to find a tune to fit your objective! Or indeed, words to fit a tune you really like. I really wanted to play “Charlie Over the Ocean” with my toddler’s French group, and it took seemingly forever to find the right words. But, having finally written a version I am happy with, here it is:
Charlie dans le désert
Charlie dans la forêt
Charlie chasse un ours
Vous ne pouvez pas m’attraper !
Add some BSL signs to the song, and you’ve got an immediate hook to hang the vocabulary on to, but that’s the subject of another blog to follow!
 CILT – The National Centre for Languages, no longer exists
 Young Pathfinder 6: Lets Join in! Rhymes, Poems and Songs by Cynthia Martin with Catherine Cheater p10, CILT
 An idea shared by Sylvie Bartlett Rawlings in Languages in Primary Schools Facebook group
 Young Pathfinder 8, Grammar is Fun by Lydia Biriotti p 35, CILT
 J’aime Chanter, by Catherine Barlow, Brilliant Publications