15 criteria for a good kindergarten English song

By Alex Case

1. Memorable
For children who can’t yet read in English and don’t live in English speaking countries, singing English songs to themselves is about the only practice they can get outside class without the help of their parents. Ways of making this happen include using a song with a catchy tune, using a seasonal song that they will hear or be reminded of when they are out and about, using a song that is about other stuff that they come across every day to remind them of it, and having accompanying actions (see below).

2. Useful language
As popular a song as “Old Macdonald Had a Farm” is, the first bits of language kids pick up when singing it are the nonsense word “Eyaieyaioh” and animal noises, rather than the names of the animals. Although it is often more a case of finding a compromise between the songs your classes love and those that fit in best with the syllabus rather than finding lots of songs that are perfect for both, useful language to look out for includes: objects they will come across in their everyday life, typical actions for kids, and classroom and other functional language (“Here you are”, “Thank you” etc.) Songs that are especially written for ESL learners, e.g. ones in pre-school English textbooks, tend to be better for this than ones that are popular with English native speaker kids. Another approach is to replace the words in the song to make them more useful, e.g. using “arms” and “legs” instead in “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes”.

3. Easy to sing
Another common weakness of traditional children’s songs is that the rhythm and tune make them difficult to sing. For example, children who have learnt the English alphabet from the ABC song take years to be able to distinguish that the rushed line “LMNOP” is five letters rather than one. If, like me, singing is not your strong point, you might also want to avoid songs with particular high notes or low notes.

4. Easy to explain
Once you have dealt with the fairly difficult challenge of finding songs that ESL learners will sing, remember and even sing to themselves, you then need to make sure that what they are singing actually means something to them. Ways of explaining the meaning of what they are singing include doing actions as you sing (see below), using pictures that explain it, using an English version of a song they already know in their own language, and using a storybook based on the song.

5. Actions
As well as making the meanings of what they are singing clear, using actions also makes it easy to see if they are paying attention, means students who are too shy to speak out or sing can also take part in some way, and adds to the warmer element of songs. It is also a good way of making sure you can recycle the language from the song in other parts of the lesson (see below). Almost any song can have actions added to it, but until you and the kids get used to the concept it is probably best to start with songs that involve touching things and doing everyday actions (e.g. “This is the way we brush our teeth” in “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”).

6. Can use the language in different ways
The best kinds of useful language in the songs are things that you can use before and after the song in the same lesson, e.g. language that you can also find on flashcards or objects that are also in the classroom that the students can run and touch. In a perfect world, you should be able to move smoothly from the game and drilling to the song with students hardly noticing the transition.

7. Sitting down and standing up
The best kinds of songs are ones that can be used both as a warmer and as a cooler, e.g. “The Wheels of the Bus”, which can be done running round and round the classroom or sitting down on chairs arranged into the shape of a bus.

8. Can be made shorter or longer
This helps you respond to the students’ interest and energy levels and match the length of the song to the length of the remaining time in the lesson or how long you want to spend on one particular point. Ways of adapting them this way include cutting out lines or verses (not possible with all songs), adding other verses with different vocabulary to extend it, and repeating a verse in different ways (see below).

9. Can be varied
Other ways of varying the song include singing it louder and softer, replacing some of the words (maybe with student suggestions or with real details about the students, teacher or classroom), stopping and starting, and deleting words (e.g. the variation on “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes” where the words gradually disappear).

10. Positive
This means using songs that have both positive feelings and positive social and moral values in them, e.g. ones in which the kids make happy faces, shake hands or pretend to clear up the room.

11. Something they would like in L1
The easy way of finding these is finding ones that are already available in the children’s language. Otherwise it can take some time to work out which new songs would be that popular (in pre-school classes something being familiar is often one of its chief selling points), but them singing it to themselves even before they properly know the words is a good sign.

12. Tied to their lives/ fantasy
These two opposite ideas both make the songs easy to remember. By doing songs about helping my mother in the house etc it should seem relevant to them and perhaps even come into their heads next time they are in that position. It is difficult for such songs not to become dull though, so a song about a tiny elephant helping my mother in the kitchen (or doing anything else) will have more of an impact.

13. Stimulates emotions
E.g. feeling scared when you mime a spider crawling up your body towards your face in the song “Itsy Witsy Spider” or feeling excited as the song gets faster and faster

14. Anticipation
The most important emotion that you will want tied into almost every song you use in the classroom will be a feeling that something exciting is going to happen but they don’t know when. For example, always do “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes” slowly and then quickly, but changing to quickly at a different point every time you use it.

15. Repetitive
Repetition makes the song memorable, easy to sing and easy to adapt by changing words etc. It also teaches students what parts of the sentences usually remain fixed and what parts can be replaced with their own ideas. The very best repetitive songs are ones where in each line or a verse only one part is changed, but the pattern is occasionally changed, e.g. at the very end of the song, to stop it getting boring.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net June 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


  • Kim Dammers says:

    These are very useful ideas that will help me concentrate aspects of my selecting and using the songs to greater effect.

    Do you have a list or a link to a list of good pre-K EFL songs (especially for kids who are just starting English)?

  • Nancy Xu says:

    I am looking for some good English songs to teach my 2 year old grandson as I find he is interested in music and can follow a little bit. I happen to read this article and find it is very very well written and would like reading similar articles if possible. Thank you.

  • tarek says:

    Thank you for your useful information and I hope you continue feedin my email with the useful information on the kidergarten stage .

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