Review: Creating Chants and Songs, Carolyn Graham

Reviewed by Deborah Silver, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, IL

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What better way to teach American English than through jazz, the uniquely American form of music that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century? Indeed, jazz is fast becoming a fixture in ESL classrooms, thanks to Jazz Chants, a language teaching method developed by author and long-time ESL instructor Carolyn Graham, which links the rhythm of spoken American English to the beat of jazz. Using Jazz Chants to teach English may take some getting used to for instructors who typically rely on less musical methods to get their teaching points across. However, this book should go a long way toward convincing them to put aside any lingering doubts and embrace the value – and energy – that Jazz Chants bring to the ESL classroom. As Graham presents them in this practical and easy-to-follow book, Jazz Chants can teach far more than intonation and stress; they are also a useful tool for both introducing and reinforcing grammar (Graham calls those songs grammarchants) and vocabulary lessons.

Take for example, a Jazz Chant entitled Throw It!, designed specifically to teach commands, past tense questions and irregular past simple forms. First, students listen to the chant – a CD is included with the book (Oxford University Press, 2011) – writing down all the verb forms they hear (Throw it! I threw it! Catch it! I caught it! Hit it! I hit it!, etc.). Next, students listen again and write the appropriate pronouns (I, he or she) next to the past tense forms. The students then read the chant together with the teacher, and finally, the class chants along with the CD track. (Also included in the book are worksheets and flashcards, number coded for use with specific chants.)

With each chant (and there are almost 100 chants in this volume, plus variations), Graham provides specific directions to help teachers create their own chant, based on the lesson being taught. For the chant mentioned above, for example, Graham notes that, while the topic of the chant does not matter, the commands and past tense forms should be one-syllable words and must take an object. “Start with three commands and past tense forms,” she instructs, and close the first half “with some form of congratulations” (as in, Wow! That’s wonderful!).  For the second half of the chant, use questions (as in, Did he throw it?) and, again, repeat the congratulatory line at the end. The CD includes karaoke versions of the Graham-written chants for use with the teacher-penned variations.

The majority of the book’s chapters are divided thematically – Weather, Food and Drink, Animals, Clothes, Sports, etc. – allowing instructors to teach both vocabulary related to a given theme, as well as grammar points. For example, Food and Drink incorporates fruit vocabulary with a grammarchant on present simple, while Weather teaches weather-related words and clothes using real conditional.

While the chants in this book are clearly geared to younger students (in each chant’s instructions, Graham refers to “the children” being taught), they would work well with any beginner ESL classroom. “Beginner” here is the operative word, as the chants teach elementary vocabulary, including days of the week, numbers and colors, and elementary grammar, such as the 3rd person form of present simple. Even the somewhat more complex chants in the book’s final chapter (sung to familiar tunes such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat and Auld Lang Syne) focus on basic grammar and vocabulary, such as adjective-noun word order using colors and basic objects.

For the appropriate-level students, the chants in this book (not to mention those that teachers could write with this book as a guide) offer an invigorating and effective way to present new material, reinforce previous lessons, and improve students’ speaking and listening skills. Through snappy tunes and simple repetition, these chants provide a wonderful way to fast-track lessons to the brain and embed them in students’ minds, as well as to infuse the classroom with vitality and escape the drudgery of repetitive drills. So, teachers, put aside any reservations you might have as to the value of Jazz Chants – as well as any discomfort you might have with your own musical abilities – and embrace them for their value as a learning tool and the energy they bring to the classroom.


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The ITBE Link - Summer 2013

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