Judy DeFilippo supervised student teachers getting their MATESL degree at Simmons College and was an ESL (English as a Second Language) specialist.  She authored and co-authored numerous textbooks for ESL students including So to Speak 1 and 2, Grammar Plus, and Great Dictations.

Over the years, Judy (now deceased) and I had been in contact during various family events.  (She was my mother-in-law’s sister and amazing educator!)  Her knowledge of ESL always fascinated me, and her interest and desire to integrate her practices with music was wonderful.   In this post, I bring to you some correspondence I have had with Judy on some of the ways music and literacy is connected to English language learners.

Developing listening skills with ESL students

There are connections between listening to language and listening to music.  If you think about how we first learn our native language, it is through the sing-song voice of our mother.  We learn the sounds of our language before we write them down, we hear the intonations of letters and syllables before we learn to read them.  Dictations are a very important part to learning and practicing a language, just as listening to music is key to music literacy.

I’d like to share a comment one of my Japanese students recently made on her evaluation of my class:  “(I) think dictation is most helpful. To do dictation, I could notice where I couldn’t listen to.” The Asian women in this class had excellent grammar and writing skills but I discovered that they were quite weak in listening. I had them do different kinds of dictations: Pair, cloze, prediction, dictogloss (listening to a sentence only once, writing down what they remember, and reconstructing the sentence with a partner).

In ESL the research tells us that listening is the first skill that is acquired, followed by speaking, reading and writing.  We know how listening to language regularly helps build fluency and those of us in the field have integrated music into our listening/speaking courses on a regular basis.  Thirty years ago a jazz pianist, Carolyn Graham, introduced her book  JAZZ CHANTS at a TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) convention and became an instant hit.  This is especially significant for our Asian students who need practice in intonation and stress.

I went and looked up Jazz Chants and found this great video.  Wow!  What a natural connection between jazz and language.  Imagine – the all-American musical genre being used so effectively to teach students how to speak American-English.  How exciting!  This is worth watching.

My co-author, Cathy Sadow, begins every ESL listening class with a jazz chant!  She also uses popular music.  She features one song aweek and plays it at the beginning of each class, M-F.  In one class she’ll focus on vocabulary, another class will discuss the meaning of the song, etc.  We choose music that students can sing to, like James Taylor, Eric Clapton, Ann Murray, and songs with clear lyrics/messages that are appropriate for class discussion.  I began with songs for my core class that focused on specific grammar points, like the past tense.  I used Ann Murray’s “You Needed Me”.   I’d give them the lyrics in cloze form and they had to fill in the missing words they heard.  In another lesson I might give a brief bio in cloze dictation form of the singer, Stevie Wonder or Elvis Presley before introducing the song.

One year I got a surprise Christmas card from a Chinese woman who had been in my class several years before.  On the card she had simply written, “I’ll never forget when you played ‘Lady in Red.’  You never know the long term effects that music can have on your students!!
Music is so powerful and is a natural extension of language and literacy.  Music is language and we learn language through the musical qualities it possesses.  The possibilities of music integration never cease to amaze me!
edited 8/2022