My best lesson - Foster language skills with a chorus of carols

20th December 2013 at 00:00

Christmas is unavoidable, as much in teaching as in shopping. So why not use the occasion to maximise learning? Everyone knows that singing is good for community spirit; language teachers are also aware that it develops pronunciation, fluency and all-round language instinct.

Songs are typically used to tick the culture box, but they also provide a shortcut into grammar. And beautiful though it may be, for me a carol is never just a carol.

Take three of my Spanish favourites. Set aside the joyous fact that Hacia Belen va una burra (A Donkey Goes to Bethlehem) tells a hilarious tale about Mary battling to protect her child: this is also a masterclass in the use of the present participle. Mary must come running and flying, because gangs of thieves are eating the chocolate, robbing it and taking it away.

The intrinsically musical present participle features with equal prominence in Los peces en el rio (The Fish in the River - and I can't think of any traditional English carols that involve fish excitedly celebrating the birth of Jesus with some festive drinking). In this song, Mary is both fairy-tale princess and hard-working mother, going about the chores of daily life: combing her hair, washing the clothes and hanging them out to dry, while little birds are singing and rosemary is flowering. This catchy carol, which has a slight Arabic influence, includes the auxiliary, too, and some handy immersion in regular and radical-changing verbs.

Campanas de Belen (Bells of Bethlehem) offers up the vital verb "to go" and associated prepositions, not to mention the near-future tense. "Where are you going, little shepherd?" "I'm going to Bethlehem, to the stable, walking through the night. I'm going to take to the baby (the quintessentially Mediterranean) gifts of cheese and wine."

However hard children find it to retain grammar in the abstract, they never forget the singing. A song is not just for Christmas: it's for life.

Dr Heather Martin is head of languages and of enrichment at St Faith's Independent Prep School in Cambridge, England.

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