The Use of Music Therapy with Children Who Speak English as a Second Language: An Exploratory Study

By Schwantes, Melody | Music Therapy Perspectives, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Use of Music Therapy with Children Who Speak English as a Second Language: An Exploratory Study


Schwantes, Melody, Music Therapy Perspectives


ABSTRACT: The following case examples present the use of music therapy with 6 Latino children who were learning English as a second language (ESL). Of the 6 children, 4 were kindergarten students who participated in half hour group sessions using traditional Spanish language children's music primarily from Mexico, which had been translated into English. The other 2 students, a fourth grader and a sixth grader, were involved in twice weekly music therapy sessions that utilized music from Western pop culture. These case examples illustrate the differential use of a client's traditional music and the music of the culture in which they currently live. Through a narrative description of the interventions, one way of working with this population is described. The children's improvements indicated that music therapy assisted in increasing vocabulary, receptive and expressive language skills, as well as sequencing. Interventions and techniques are described as well as recommendations for future directions and research.

As the Latino population continues to grow in the United States, there are more children who speak English as a second language (ESL) entering the public school system and who need specialized services to help them achieve not only their academic goals but also master the English language. Planning and developing an individualized program to meet this need is a challenge to both classroom and specialized ESL teachers.

There are two main types of education to assist students in mastering English. The first is a truly bilingual program where students are taught some subjects in English, some subjects in both Spanish and English, and other subjects in only Spanish. Abril (2003) noted that many school districts provide varying degrees of the bilingual program depending on the population of students and services available. He then described that students are taught English, which is through an English as a Second Language (ESL) or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. Abril noted that students are often pulled out of their classrooms during électives such as music and do not get to participate in these courses especially in the secondary grades. Many music educators do not have the training or resources to provide music instruction to children who speak English as a second language (Abril, 2003). However, music can be an integral part of learning English.

There have been a limited number of studies that measured the outcomes of students participating in ESL programs utilizing music. Fisher (2001) conducted a 2-year quasi-randomized trial involving 1 60 low-income kindergarten students enrolled in a bilingual program. It was found that students in the classrooms that used music to assist in teaching English scored significantly higher on standardized tests of oral language, decoding of written material, and reading comprehension than those whose classrooms did not use music. Of the 80 students in the music classrooms, a quarter could read at grade level based on the results from the reading comprehension test while only one could read at grade level in the nonmusic classes. Fisher (2001) concluded that in addition to significantly better performance by music versus nonmusic environment students, music "complemented the instruction rather than detracted from it" (p. 48).

Ray (1997) achieved similar results with her study of 14 pre-K to second grade bilingual classrooms. In this 2-week study, 93% of those who received daily music instruction for 30 minutes advanced one or more levels on the English Language Assessment while only 23% of those who received no music instruction demonstrated such growth. Ray described the process the children went through when singing along with the English songs. First, their words sounded unclear, but as the songs were repeated, the words became much more precise and much more usable for the children. In addition to the increased word recognition, children were more engaged in the music-based instruction, which seemed to be less embarrassing and discouraging for the children than traditional oral instruction. …

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