Walla Walla schools use song to teach language

Blue Ridge students learning English get a leg up on pronunciation through the lyrics.

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"You, you, you; you can come too, too, too," sings Blue Ridge Elementary School kindergarten teacher Tina Brennan with her class as they sing through a song created to help Spanish speaking students with difficult to pronounce English words. Tuesday, October 11, 2011

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Working on a variety of mouth shapes for difficult to pronounce English words, a group of Spanish speaking Kindergarten students in Tina Brennan's class at Blue Ridge Elementary School sing through a range of songs that the kindergarten teacher's created with music teachers. The songs are designed to help with pronunciation of difficult English words in a way that does not associate specific letters with specific sounds. Tuesday, October 11, 2011

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Blue Ridge kindergartner Christian Garcia Boon-Nila compares his pronunciation face with another student in teacher Tina Brennan's class during a singing lesson developed by kindergarten teachers with music teachers to help Spanish speakers with difficult to pronounce English words. Tuesday, October 11, 2011

WALLA WALLA -- Tina Brennan got her students ready for a lesson by having them stand up and gather their hands to simulate a crawling spider, and turning some music on.

"We are going to start with 'The Itsy Bitsy Spider,'" Brennan told the group of kindergarten students at Blue Ridge Elementary. "Show me your itsy!" she said, as she looked to make sure all the children were shaping their mouths in the right way to pronounce that first vowel sound made by the letter "I."

Familiar nursery rhymes and other childhood songs have taken on special significance inside kindergarten classrooms in Walla Walla Public Schools. Meant to help children who primarily speak Spanish at home, the songs reinforce sounds in English that are especially hard for learners to pronounce.

Brennan, who handles English instruction for the kindergarten dual-language program at Blue Ridge, was part of a committee last year that looked at what English language learners were struggling with.

By studying the data of second-graders who had grown up primarily speaking Spanish in the home, teachers were able to identify about 20 sounds students might struggle articulating.

In the dual-language model, children who speak Spanish primarily at home learn beside classmates who are native English speakers. Together, the students learn both English and Spanish throughout elementary school. But English speakers learn to read and write in English first, while Spanish speakers learn reading and writing in Spanish initially. In second grade, students in the program begin to learn reading and writing in the other language.

Blue Ridge is one of three elementary schools in the district with dual-language programs, along with Edison and Sharpstein. Green Park teaches bilingual education through an early-exit model, where native Spanish speakers learn in their first language through third grade. The district's other elementary schools, Berney and Prospect Point, do not have bilingual programs.

From the committee's work came the idea to produce binders with songs for use in kindergarten classrooms. The binders include lyrics, sheet music and a CD with recordings of each song. In each binder, teachers also have data to show which sounds individual students need to focus on.

The binders were provided to all district kindergarten teachers, even at schools without bilingual programs.

Songs were collected and compiled based on the sounds emphasized. Under "a," children might sing "Apples and Bananas," or "The Ants go Marching."

Some of the tough words and sounds include the "eh" sound found in words like "measure," or "elbow." "Measure" also includes the difficult "zh" sound made by "s."

The songs help students sound out the differences in words like "purse" or "bug," where the letter "u" is pronounced in different ways.

English learners learn to read in Spanish first, so Brennan said the focus with the songs is not to match letters to sounds, but to focus only on the sound and pronunciation. That is why students were asked to check each other's mouths to make sure they were enunciating in the right way.

Using music and songs became a natural way to reinforce sounds while engaging the young children.

"Singing is such a big part of kindergarten anyway," Brennan said. On Tuesdays and Thursdays each week, when English is the language of the day, Brennan turns to the binder and picks songs to sing with her students.

Music teachers Lori Parnicky, Elizabeth Jagelski, Denise Hurst, Ronda Gabbard and Margaret Yount collaborated with classroom teachers to make the binders useful and practical for teaching.

"It's the perfect example of collaboration," Brennan said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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