ESL Songs and Reluctancy to Sing in Class!

Most young boys and girls these days have stage fright when it comes to performing to the class. ESL songs are now a big part of any TEFL teaching book, it’s proven that using language in songs helps memory retention and thus helps students remember what they’re learning. But, the problem is that most children older than 8 hate singing because they feel embarrassed. So, what’s the best way to get them singing?

Class atmosphere.

One thing I’ve noticed in my time teaching, is that a class’s behaviour can clearly show a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses. Just for an example, I have 4 classes that I teach on the daily and they’re all different because they all have different class tutors. Some excel at maths, others at English, and it all comes down to what their tutors speciality is. Not only can this be seen in academics, but in mannerism too. 

My class B is a friendly, loving class that always wants to share and perform, their teacher is very kind and encouraging to them. Their test scores, however, are not so impressive, because they prefer to play and their teacher encourages them to do so, meaning that they don’t do their homework. 

Class A is quite the opposite. Give them a test and you can guarantee that you’ll be impressed, a hand full of 100s, and the rest between 90-99. Rather satisfying, but I just don’t know how they do it. In class they rarely raise their hands to answer questions, and class activities are pretty awful and it generally just feels like they don’t want to be there. The reason for this is because of their class tutor. I don’t want to say she’s cold, but she scares me, and the class too. Very strict and always looks grumpy, yet as a teacher, she gets results. 

Who’s to say which approach is better really? Each teacher is individual and has the right to teach in their own way.

So as you can probably guess, getting class B to sing is a dream, and thoroughly enjoyable. Class A…a challenge to say the least.

So this is how I changed that…

I took class A and B on this year and have been trying to get class A to open up ever since. Apart from the various points systems and prizes for hard work that are given, the thing that has worked the most is just being as open and outgoing as I possibly can. 

I fear singing most of all, but if they saw that, I know it’d be game over. So my approach to songs is:

1. Teach the sentence structure prior to listening.

2. Read through the song together.

3. Play the song once and just listen.

4. Read through the song with the same rhythm and tempo, but do not sing.

5. Listen again and quietly sing to yourself.

6. I sing (So bad, just so bad, but needs to be done.)

7. We all sing along to the song together.

8. 5 minutes group work to make a production.

9. 15 minutes to watch what they’ve made. 

10. Sing again at the end.


This approach seems to have worked well with my class A, and they love seeing me sing. I will be honest and say that I’m awful, and I think that’s actually a good thing. Children learn most from example, and seeing me sing and be comfortable singing when I’m terrible, really helps them realise that it’s not so bad.

Then, by the time group work comes around, they’re eager to sing because they’re still laughing from when I sang! So it’s all worth it in the end.

How much should I push?

There are always a hand-full of students that don’t want to sing or perform, and although I really want them too, you can’t make someone do something they’re not comfortable with. I was the same when I was young, and the only thing that made me sing was when everyone else was doing it. So, not wanting to perform is ok, so long as they sing along when the class sings together. 

One way that seems to have worked fairly well for the naughty boys, is the chance of having their name wiped from the naughty board. We collect ping pong balls in a box, they’re a reward for exceptional work. When the box is full, we get a free class. If your name is on the naughty board when the free class comes around, you get a 5 minute penalty, if your name has 2 strikes next to it, thats a 15 minute penalty, and 3 strikes means you’re out. No matter how many strikes you have, if you perform well for your group, you can get them all taken off. The way I see it, it’s 2 minutes of shame for a whole class of fun, and no one enjoys a free class more than the naughty boys, so they usually give it their all. 

I think the main point of this whole article is to show that by you being as open and willing to perform as much as possible, you give the children a good example to follow. If you’re not willing to sing, how can you ever expect them to be? Sometimes it’s our job to look silly.