“Singlish”: Learn fun songs, action rhymes, and games!

Activity time, All Posts, Global English, Workshops

In preparation for the future Team V (and Team VI), who is (will be) in Laos to teach English this autumn/winter (in the coming spring), Prof. Martin organized two workshops called „Singlish“ this summer. These workshops were also attended by members of her “Global English” seminar, as were two others, “Square Dance Calling”, and “Storytelling”.

Our „Singlish“, which is not related to the “Singlish” of Singaporean English, is a combination of the words „(to) sing“ and „English“. It is a fun, active, emotional and therefore irresistibly motivating technique for the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) classroom and means that everybody performs songs, rhymes, and chants together. It lays the foundation of a positive attitude to language-learning and invites active participation, thereby facilitating the teacher’s work later on. Of course, it also never fails to add spice to more regular lessons.

The workshops were held on 22nd June and 6th July  2017 by two lecturers and two fellow-students of the PH Karlsruhe and took about 2 hours each. One workshop mainly focused on songs dedicated to the secondary classroom: It was performed by future Team VI member Ms Svenja Walschburger, who was assisted by her fellow-future team member Mr Fabian Stober.

The second workshop centered on songs appropriate for the primary classroom and was written and performed by Prof. Martin and Ms Heike Müller, who were – as always – accompanied by the pianist and former Team I member Alessandro Pola.

At the end of each workshop the groups (students studying for the primary or secondary degree) received a Reader containing the lyrics and/or sheet music of all songs that had been taught, with methodological tips or game instructions included.
The Readers include songs like “Hi Everybody”, “Good morning, my dear friend”, “Rise and shine”, “These are my eyes, these are my toes”, “I have two hands, two feet, you see”, “Snap and clap”, “We can jump, jump, jump”, “If you’re happy and you know it“, “Right hand, left hand, these are two”, “The ants go marching“, “Ten in the bed”, “Itsy bitsy spider”, “I like the flowers“, “I’ve got a dog”, “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?”, “Hello my name is Joe”, and many more.

Of course, you can find songs like these with lyrics and sometimes even acted out with gestures or animation on the Internet. Platforms like YouTube and Vimeo provide almost every song ever written, in countless versions. If there is a song you are looking for, chances are you will more likely find it on YouTube than in an actual store. So why go through the struggle to actually sing as a teacher when you can just play a clip online?

First of all, the access to devices delivering the video is not always given when you are inadvertently faced with 5 or 10 free minutes in which you need to engage the children. This could be at the end of a lesson, in the schoolyard during break time, on a school outing, or on a sports field. Therefore, it is imperative to know good songs by heart.

The most important reason why one should sing rather than play a song on YouTube is participation. Children will always be more eager and driven to participate in an activity if a teacher models the given activity for them. Modeling is key for young learner participation. A short clip cannot provide that, at least not as efficiently from a teacher’s point of view.

Another reason is repetition: If a class has to watch the same YouTube video for 5 times in order to memorize a rhyme, for instance, it will quickly become very boring. However, a teacher can change and vary the repetitions and keep them interesting through his or her voice, gestures, and actions. Only a teacher has the possibility to engage the pupils actively rather than having them exposed to a constant flow of visual and audible information. Teachers can combine activity, repetition, participation and foster learning at the same time. Maybe this will change in the future by new technologies but let us focus on the here and now.

Editor’s note: The here and now in Laos started almost two years ago. The right speed, repetition, and appropriate encouragement for any new learner group can most likely not be found online. Our very first “Singlish” workshop in Laos on 1 November 2015 worked on intuition, watching and listening closely, and the trust in our own team. While Prof. Martin adopted the role of motivator and instructor, Team I supported this by helping individual teachers with individual sounds, words, lines, or movements. We did not manage to sing half as many songs as planned, but that was our part of the learning process.

Team V will now continue to work with more experienced teachers and pupils, who are waiting for new songs and Activities! We will keep you posted on the progress made.

Try it out 

“Singlish” is something you have to try out yourself in order to fully understand its benefits for young English learners. The new team headed to Laos this fall – Team V – had plenty of fun and practice with “Singlish” in Prof. Martin’s course „Global English“.

If you partake in “Singlish” activities as a teacher you will experience yourself the potential positive energy that comes up in the room while singing and acting. This is the most efficient way to gain the courage to step out of one’s comfort zone and to grasp the idea of “Singlish”. Just like with the “Storytelling” technique, the most difficult hurdle comes right at the beginning, when you have to get past your childish shyness and adult embarrassment. Once you have managed that, it gets easier! And how do you get there? In a positive learning environment with encouraging teachers who are embarrassingly unembarrassed themselves, their energy will charge the room for you with the necessary operating temperature in a very short time.

The ultimate test of trust in your learning group comes with the final piece of the “Singlish” workshop, the performance of “Hello, my name is Joe”… no-holds-barred, mission accomplished.

Act it out 

Instead of abstract recognition or affiliation, young learners will reproduce meaning by a model provided by the teacher. The model hereby acts out either an action or an object, even abstract matters or entities in a way the pupils can understand.

Here is an example:

Careful – cultural differences must be kept track of at all times. The same action that is socially acceptable in European countries may not be acceptable in a place such as Laos. Certain signs made with the hands may mean something comically different. Showing the soles of your feet is regarded as offensive. Patting a child on the head is a religious taboo. Even the set-up needs consideration: On a very hot day in Karlsruhe – and it gets very hot in Kalrsruhe, the hottest city in Germany – we wear shorts, even to university. In Lao schools and universities teachers and students wear a uniform, which for females means a knee-length skirt (sinh).

In addition, one always has to consider the pupils’ environment that they are growing up in when choosing a song from the western world for the Lao classroom. When taking a close look at the song „Little red wagon“ from the “Singlish” workshop for the secondary classroom, for instance, one will realize that there will have to be some adjustments made or explaining of the specific terms before starting with the song, or that you would discard this song altogether because it would require too much abstract explaining. The song „Little red wagon“ talks about all kinds of cars that have broken auto parts like the engine that would not work because the neighbor whacked it, or the front seat and the light speed that are broken. Or maybe this would be a nice song for the college students apprenticed in the automotive section?

However, for most other Lao youngsters the most difficult part of the song would be to recognize the car brands mentioned, like a John Deer tractor, a Lamborghini, or a Millenium Falcon. Therefore pictures to support the movements which go with the song could be a helpful support, or simply rewriting the song to Asian brands of cars could be considered as well.

More songs that were covered: “Polar Bears”, “Chili Chili”, “Pizza Man”, “The Pirate Song”, “Tarzan”, and others – plain good fun, team-building, vocabulary-building and good for chunk-learning and grammar, too.

Have fun

Learning a language is meant to be fun. Yes it is! “Baby shark”, a song about a family of sharks and their dinner, for instance, was easily the most fun for the participants of the primary “Singlish” workshop.

Starting with a baby shark flashcard and a catchy melody, one opens and closes one’s index finger and thumb many times to demonstrate the tiny jaw that a baby shark has compared to grown-up sharks.

Followed by the older sister shark, Mummy shark and Daddy shark, the movements showing the size of the sharks’ jaws grow from clapping thumb and the rest of the fingers together to flapping both hands together to moving both arms up and down. The repetition of each augmented next demonstration paired with the catchy rhythm is eagerly anticipated and great fun already. Then grandma and grandpa shark, who have lost their teeth, are added to the song.

This makes articulating the words a lot harder since everyone has to imitate having no teeth and “blunts” their fingers/”teeth” by rolling them into the clapping palms as well. At this point oppressing laughter and staying in the beat is becoming a real challenge. At the end of the song a boy going to the beach to swim is introduced who – as everybody in the room apart from him knows already – he will meet the shark family in the water.

The gory ending, rendered in a jaunty tune, is relished because the ironic contrast between form and content clearly marks it as fiction, but very young learners will not understand this – for them it is a scary thought. Therefore it is up to the teacher to decide whether it should be used in their specific classroom situation. As a result, learning „The shark song“ is both fun and difficult at the same time.

As we learnt from Prof. Martin, German children in grade 3 and 4 really go for this song, especially the boys, but the 1st and 2nd graders can get a little apprehensive. In Laos, it is the pre-schoolers’ absolute favourite hit, and they apparently cannot get enough of it. I look forward to exploring the cultural differences between a German and Lao five-year-old during my “Mopsy” and “Activity” time soon.


 Learn chunks

The primary benefit of using songs in the English classroom is clearly the acquisition of a positive mindset towards foreign language learning. The songs are reproduced with movements and gestures which foster cognitive learning and build vocabulary. The more often a song is repeated the more the pupils’ pronunciation will benefit, as they become more experienced and successful in distinguishing one sound from another. Too much (careless) repetition will nevertheless result in bored children and should therefore be strictly avoided. Stop when the fun is at its peak, and the pupils are bound to want the activity or song again next time.

Clearly “Singlish” does not enable novice learners to form and understand complicated grammatical structures in the target language. Instead, students will learn meaningful chunks that are often used in everyday speech, which is more valuable for novice learners in the first place. One cannot expect young learners to acquire a language solely from singing songs, of course, but songs help build up a stable repertoire. Learning more and more chunks can also elevate the pupils’ ability to pick up on new ones.

For more general background information on this, please read Heike Müller’s article on “Singlish” as a beneficial method for the EFL-classroom.


The imposter student

As it is insufficient for teachers to constantly look at learning the English language from an expert mindset and professional standpoint, teachers should instead also sometimes take time to empathize with their pupils and try to see things from a young learner’s perspective. As previously stated, learning a language is meant to be fun because then the children are eager to start communicating in the foreign language. Teachers who effectively change perspective are successful not only in fostering learning progress but also in creating the very basis upon which motivation can evolve: Interest.

Ultimately “Singlish” can be an effective method for the primary and secondary classroom to foster interest, fun, and a positive mindset for the English language. After all, a positive mindset is what will make our teaching in Laos productive.



Text by J. Porscha

Photos by I. Martin




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