ESL/EFL Instruction

Learning Through Music: Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Dalian, China

The Artist-Teacher-Scholar (A-T-S) framework and Learning Through Music (LTM) teaching strategies guided me as I journeyed to China over Summer 2002, to teach English as a Second Language at South Ocean School Dalian’s Intensive English Immersion Camp, and as an emissary of American culture and Western teaching.

My China trip allowed me the unique opportunity to simultaneously implement the A-T-S framework and Learning Through Music model with students who had most likely never encountered their equivalents; in fact, the camp’s administration specifically wanted Western teachers who could teach using non-traditional methods.


Adapting Learning Through Music Teaching Strategies to ESL Practices


I engaged English Language Learners at the South Ocean School Dalian in Dalian China in classroom activities that use my Learning Through Music principles and practices in conjunction with their language arts studies.
(Photo by Alan Yang)

One of the most interesting transformations my students and I observed were the elimination of accents from phonetic pronunciation in their English. Most of my students, since they were taught by non-native English speakers, came to camp with severe accents. But when we practiced singing simple conversational phrases, using familiar melodies, their foreign accents began to disappear. And disappear they did, as we took steps further by gradually eliminating the pitch element, so that their phrases really did become understandable. I also experimented with composing melodies that matched the conversational tonality of each phrase; for example, question phrases were marked by rising contours. Because my students’ overall English proficiency ranged from zero to moderate, implementing the Learning Through Music teaching model and A-T-S framework was not only helpful, but highly appropriate.

While observing classes taught by Nellie Yang, my Chinese co-teacher (who herself is an ESL teacher at the Qingdao School, a sister school to the Dalian School that I taught at), and other Chinese teachers at the school, I noticed that students were barely given the opportunity to speak out during class – few, if any questions were asked by the teacher; if a question was asked, a simple “yes” or “no” response would do, and hardly anything more. Certainly, the Five Processes of Learning (Listening, Questioning, Creating, Performing, Reflecting) central to the Learning Through Music philosophy were not present.

Curiosity In Questioning


I encourage classroom students to approach music learning through multiple arts domains and entry points. Students in this picture are working together to build “log” cabins in an activity that helps to make concrete a metaphor linking musical forms with English grammar and sentence construction – and also ties in with a unit on American history in which students learn about colonial America through traditional songs. (Photo by Randy Wong)

By nature, I made it a point to invoke the Five Processes as often as I could – at least to me, lecturing all day about how English should be spoken couldn’t possibly be engaging, let alone useful. As I anticipated, my teaching methods were initially met with hesitation, both from my students and my co-teacher. After my first teaching period, Nellie approached me in the hall, and asked “Why do you ask the students so many questions? They think that if you ask so much, you yourself must not know any answers. And me, if I ask them questions, I don’t know what they will say. Maybe many things that I do not want to hear.” (Ironically, this response was one that I was hoping not to hear; nevertheless, I continued asking my students questions which required them to respond after thinking for themselves).

Apparently, reflective writing was not among the strongest facets of my Chinese students either. When I first handed out journal forms and explained the idea of keeping daily learning diaries, I was faced with a classroom of students who: a) were stunned that I, their teacher, was interested in what they had to write, and b) consequently had no idea what to do or say. One student stood up and said, “Thank you, Teacher”; his peers sat, wooden and silent. Eventually, one of my best students, Amanda Shi Yan-ru, broke the silence and scribbled a few words on her journal form. “Here, Teacher: I wrote, “Today we learned about America.’ ” As she finished, I could hear all the other students quickly write on their journals. “Great,” I exclaimed, “I’m glad that Shi Yan-ru has inspired you all to have something to write.” But as I glanced at papers on desks around the room, I discovered that each of Amanda’s peers had merely copied down what she had said.

For the remaining weeks, I made valiant attempts to ensure that my students would be exposed to as much of the Five Processes as I could. Because I was in the classroom with my students every day from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. (!), we had plenty of opportunities to practice reflective writing and critical thinking. I also made it a point to have several listening sessions, in which we would sit in a circle (unheard of, apparently, in China); I would play a variety of recordings of solo, chamber, orchestral, vocal, folk, and jazz/contemporary music for them; I would ask them to draw something depicting what was played; and we would discuss our listening experiences.

Sample Lesson Plans