Benefits of Music Instruction for English Language Learners (ELL's)

Music and English language arts have three fundamental learning processes in common. First, music and language learning are auditory and involve the ability to hear and manipulate sounds (Butzlaff, 2000; Hansen, Bernstorf, & Stuber, 2014). Second, music and literacy uses a system of written symbols as a means to communicate information to others (Hall & Robinson, 2012). Finally, music and literacy involve encoding and decoding systems used to process and construct meaning (Hall & Robinson, 2012; Hansen et al., 2014; Jancke, 2012; Rautenberg, 2013; Tierney & Kraus, 2013). In today's post, I’m sharing four benefits of music instruction for English Language Learning (ELL). 


Singing Music & Phonological Awareness

The ability to hear and manipulate sound is referred to as phonological awareness. For ELL’s who are generally unfamiliar with the sound structure of English, experiences that help them to learn to manipulate sound structures in English further enhances their ability to recognize spoken words and to learn vocabulary (Brooke, 2018). Early music instruction that focuses on the sound structure of English is beneficial. For example, teaching elementary students to sing the lyrics to songs, such as “Skip to My Lou,” “B-I-N-G-O,” and “Hickory, Dickory, Dock,” provides opportunities for students to experiment with sound in terms of pitch, timbre, and duration. Other activities might include, teaching students to move to songs, walk or skip to the beat, clap or tap syllabic divisions, identify the repeated sections of songs, make up new verses with words that fit the song’s rhythm, and experiment with variations in dynamics, such as loud or soft, and tempo or speed (Hansen et al., 2014). Additionally, teaching elementary students to sing chants by dividing words into syllables using children’s names, favorite desserts, and pets enhances the phonological process of syllabication as well (Hall & Robinson, 2012; Hansen et al., 2014).  

      Ear Training Exercises & Phonological Awareness

In the secondary school, general music activities can help to develop ELL’s sensitivity to timbre by having middle school ELL’s discriminate between instrumental (e.g., woodwinds, brass, percussion) and vocal timbres (e.g., soprano, alto, baritone, bass) from a source recording. A music-theory activity, asking high school ELL’s to transcribe melodic intervals and rhythms heard from listening to a musical excerpt, is another example of a music activity reinforcing phonological-discrimination skills. Student-centered rehearsal-questioning techniques encouraging ELL’s in vocal and instrumental ensembles to aurally assess vowel and consonant placement and production (i.e., vocal ensemble), articulation length, shaping phrases (i.e., instrumental ensemble) balance, blend, and dynamic contrast (i.e., vocal and instrumental ensembles) can help to reinforce phonological-awareness skills within the purview of the secondary music classroom (Hall & Robinson, 2012; Hansen et al., 2014). 

Teaching Music Notation & Phonics

Phonics instruction involves the link between the aural representations of sound with the written representation of sound. Linking short and long vowel sounds, beginning and ending sounds, and the process of linking sounds to letters represents typical processes associated with phonics, and such experiences are also regularly reinforced in the music classroom when children learn to sing folk songs and other choral works (Hall & Robinson, 2012). Similarly, teaching students to read and interpret music notation combines the written representation of pitch and rhythm (i.e., music notation) with the aural representation of sound. Singing music with text provides additional opportunities to reinforce phonics. For instance, reading song lyrics aloud before singing, singing songs with repeated lyrics that contain duplicate words, and rehearsing with solfege hand signals to connect singing pitches to a visual symbol provides multiple opportunities to reinforce phonics in the music classroom (Hall & Robinson, 2012). 

Photo by  David Beale  on  Unsplash

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

Singing Text & Music Vocabulary

For both music and ELL, “vocabulary refers to the words or symbols that are required to communicate effectively both orally and in written form” (Hall & Robinson, 2012, p. 13). In reading text, the individual must have an understanding of the definition, meaning and function of specific vocabulary words to effectively use the vocabulary to comprehend or carry out the author’s purpose. For musicians, vocabulary words or symbols are used to effectively communicate to the audience the composer’s musical purpose (Hall & Robinson, 2012; Hallam, 2010).

Musical vocabulary is embedded within a musical selection as a means of articulating the composer’s intention to the performer. In the music classroom, ELL’s can develop a collection of vocabulary words that will help them in describing and interpreting music (Hall & Robinson, 2012; Hansen et al., 2014). ELL students can experience musical language in the music classroom orally in music lessons and rehearsals. Other opportunities for ELL students to experience music language include the following: creating a word wall in the music classroom to introduce and review music vocabulary words and asking ELL’s to share what new music vocabulary was learned and how the vocabulary contributed to a successful concert performance (Hall & Robinson, 2012; Hansen et al., 2014). 

Music & Comprehension: A Deeper Understanding

Comprehension in music and reading English involves “the ability to understand, remember, and communicate with others about what is read or performed” (Hall & Robinson, 2012, p. 13). Reading comprehension is contingent upon the active and thoughtful interaction between the text and the reader, whereby the reader systematically uses a set of steps to make meaning of the text. Musicians utilize comprehension skills to develop a deeper understanding of music lyrics, concepts, and elements of a musical selection. For example, musical comprehension skills are used when musicians discuss, describe, compare, and evaluate musical performances (Hall & Robinson, 2012). 

Music teachers typically use comprehension activities when introducing technical, emotional, and historical characteristics of a musical selection being taught (Hall & Robinson, 2012). As part of music lessons or ensemble rehearsals, music teachers can aurally model the cognitive process occurring within comprehension, using questioning techniques that help ELL’s to explore the technical, emotional, and historical aspects of a musical composition (Hall & Robinson, 2012). Similarly, music teachers can engage ELL’s in a critique of a concert performance, which is an activity providing students with the opportunity to practice comprehension skills utilizing personal musical vocabulary to evaluate individual or another’s musical performance. 

Photo by  Xu Duo  on  Unsplash

Photo by Xu Duo on Unsplash


Brooke, E. (2018, November 15). Understanding the unique instructional needs of English learners. Retrieved February 10, 2019, from

Butzlaff, R. (2000). Can music be used to teach reading? Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34, 167-178.

Hall, S. N., & Robinson, N. R. (2012). Music and reading: Finding connections from within.General Music Today, 26(1), 11-18.

Hansen, D., Bernstorf, E., & Stuber, G. M. (2014). The music and literacy connection (2nd ed.).Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 

Rautenberg, I. (2013). The effects of musical training on the decoding skills of German-speaking primary school children. Journal of Research in Reading, 38, 1-17. doi:10.1111/jrir.12010 

Tierney, A., & Kraus, N. (2013). Music training for the development of reading skills. Progress in Brain Research, 207(2), 209-241. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-63327-9 .00008-4