Singing the lingo
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Oct. 7, 2004
Edward M. Eveld

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Everybody wants a shot at that microphone.

Lined up two by two, the waiting singers fidget in line yet keep their eyes on the karaoke machine, watching for those first words to pop up.

It’s another crowd-pleaser: "The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see."

Karaoke, elementary-school style, is no doubt the loudest thing going on at New Chelsea School in Kansas City, Kan. But it’s not just a fun diversion, a nightclub amusement geared for kids.

Turns out karaoke is a great way to help young immigrants who have been thrust into a sea of English speakers at school, often just days after arriving in this country. It helps speed up their comprehension and speech.

Charlene Littlefield, a New Chelsea teacher, came up with the activity for her English as a Second Language class and won a grant to pay for it.

"What a wonderful idea," said Susan Schindler, president of MidTESOL, the regional branch of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages in St. Louis. "It’s the first I’ve heard of it."

Faced with a growing number of ELLs—that’s English Language Learners—Littlefield had a light-bulb moment one day.

In her classroom, pointing to words on a giant colorful poster as the students read them aloud, she flashed to a memory from her 30th wedding anniversary. Littlefield and her husband had gone on a cruise, a gift from their children, and for the first time observed patrons belting out karaoke tunes.

Music and chants are often used in teaching language, Littlefield knew. Here was an even better method of combining singing with text and pronunciation. New Chelsea has a growing population of students who aren’t native English speakers. A few immigrants are Asian, but most are Spanish speakers. Of the school’s 500 students, about 150 are English Language Learners. That’s up from about 110 last year.

Littlefield recalled the first-day experience of a new student:

Cynthia Negrete, a 6-year-old, arrived in my classroom with her mom and dad. All three looked frightened. Cynthia was crying. They moved here from Mexico only a week before.

I invited her parents to stay, and I led Cynthia to our "Hokey Pokey" circle. Mom and Dad nudged her to follow.

"You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out ..." Cynthia didn’t understand any of the words, but she started participating in all the actions soon enough.

For the next body-part song called "Jump Jim Joe," everybody needed a partner. Another girl took Cynthia’s hand. We jumped, shook and nodded our heads, tapped our toes and turned round and round. I looked up to see Cynthia’s parents slip quietly out.

Despite her worried start, Cynthia was faster than some at shaking off fears and repeating English words and phrases. Now she always volunteers first to read in class and is the one who welcomes newcomers.

Last school year was Littlefield’s first as an ESL teacher. For 17 years she was a music teacher in Texas and southwest Kansas, so she was quick to incorporate lots of singing in her ESL classroom activities.

"It helps wire their brains with English, and of course music is right up my alley," she said. "The music makes it fun."

Paul Markham, associate professor at the University of Kansas, said plenty of beneficial effects come from combining language learning and music. One of the biggest is that singing lowers the natural anxiety and inhibitions when trying to speak another language.

It’s true that singing lyrics can produce some distortions, he said, such as the length of syllables and sentence structure. But it also can improve pronunciation, and the tune helps with recall. The latter is something most people have experienced, Markham said.

"A pop tune comes up and, bang, out comes three verses of a song you haven’t sung in years," he said.

While Markham knew of no studies specifically on karaoke and language learning, he has done research that shows captions in films aid in comprehension. Karaoke captions, which are highlighted as the song progresses, could have similar effects.

"Reading captions and associating that with the auditory representations of the word is very powerful," he said.

Littlefield discovered another benefit, one she hadn’t anticipated. The karaoke speakers make the student very aware of their speech as they hear themselves sing.

"They hear their own voices amplified," she said. "It helps them self-correct their pronunciation."

Carlos Lozada is now a young sophisticate of the second grade. Teachers comment on his progress. Let’s just say he was a very energetic, excited first-grader.

His first weeks here were definitely a time of adjustment. He didn’t understand much English, and his classmates took advantage of that, playing games with him that helped get him in trouble with his teacher. His mom was called, and she came up to school to help him understand the rules and consequences.

Carlos is fast and gives 100 percent in the ESL class. He fearlessly steps up to the microphone to sing karaoke. When it’s time to examine construction careers and pound nails into boards outside, he’s the first to bring his dad’s hammer—even if his dad didn’t know it.

Like a lot of first-graders, he had trouble focusing. Now he’s an excellent student.

During a recent morning session in Littlefield’s classroom, a dozen students queued up for a chance at "The Bear Went Over the Mountain."

Littlefield interrupted at one point, paused the karaoke machine and wrote the word "over" on the board. She underlined the "v."

Littlefield exaggerated the mouth movement for "v" and asked everybody to practice, pointing out that it was not pronounced "b" as in espanol. Then she asked for volunteers to climb "over" a nearby classroom table. A few mixed up "over" and "under," but no one was criticized.

Many students arrive at the school with no English, and some go months before summoning the courage to even try any English. That’s why, Littlefield said, her room needs to be a safe place, a refuge of sorts. School, with its formal classwork and informal social interactions, can be nerve-racking for any youngster.

"Without the power of language, it’s very intimidating," she said.

"Safe" is the first goal and "variety" must be the second. The karaoke machine is but one of many activities in the class, which serves first- through fifth-graders: One moment Littlefield is reading from a poster-sized picture book about things one finds in a neighborhood—they retrieve blue hardhats from the shelf when the topic turns to road construction—and the next she’s dictating words for them to write on their dry-erase boards. A few are working by themselves on LeapPads, interactive storybooks.

When students must leave to go to another class, Littlefield bids them goodbye with a special classroom handshake accompanied by a cheer they say together: "English Language Learners, champions, yeah!"