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Sing It! Chant It! Learn It!

Originally published:

chanting and singing children in classroom

Language and literacy learning is a big part of the early childhood years. Adults spending time with young children play a crucial role in giving young children the best start in language and literacy so that children can be successful readers and writers. Singing and chanting is a joyful and developmentally appropriate way to support that learning. It’s important to remember that oral language, which includes speaking and listening skills, is foundational for becoming a reader and writer. Singing and chanting is a natural way to support the oral language skills of young children.  

Have you been with a toddler and found yourself singing “twinkle twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are”? Or chanting “five little monkeys jumping on the bed, one fell off and bumped his head.” Or maybe you were rocking an infant and humming “rockabye baby” or “A-B-C-D-E-F-G”? These moments are times that model conversation, develop a connection between caregivers and children, and provide children with experience with language’s natural rhythm and rhyme. Young children benefit from repeated opportunities to hear and say these patterns. The benefit of that experience happens whether the words are sung to a melody, chanted to a beat, or recited in a poem.  

Though most of you know me or are meeting me here through the Learning and Growing Together blog and my work with this project, I’d like to share a few song-filled moments I remember and how I think of those moments’ contributions to the language and literacy learning I created for young children. My favorite moments as a teacher, caregiver, and parent of young children have been the moments I have spent with children, their families, and other educators in song.  

Strumming my guitar and singing with groups of young children was how I got my start in the early childhood field! It dismays me to see that there is pressure to bring more formal teaching to young children for language and literacy. As early childhood educators, we know that play and daily routines is how children learn best. Now that I am working as a faculty member preparing teachers, I’m back to strumming my guitar in the college classroom and at conferences to share the importance of joyful singing for young children for their language and literacy learning.  

I remember playing in the rocking boat in the gross motor room with a group of toddlers singing “row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. If you see a crocodile, don’t forget to scream!” The children would giggle wildly as they finished different versions of the rhyme. In these moments, they developed phonological awareness skills with rhyme and played with the parts of speech by substituting in different words.  

Name songs, such as “The More We Get Together,” “Hello and How Are You,” and “Willoughby Wallaby Woo,” were always a part of my singalong sessions. Regardless of language ability, children had the chance to participate and say or show the word that was most important to them on a card—their name! These songs also introduced the whole group to what a word was by using those important names as sight words. We clapped the syllables, subbed in different sounds, and everyone participated in a musical conversation. Sometimes we sang to a melody; sometimes we spoke the words in rhythm.  

The children and I would sing songs that involved “riffing” on a chorus or verse by subbing in action words. We would use rhythm sticks, shaker eggs, and scarves and sing different ways to move or make sounds with these objects. You would have heard me singing, “Can you tap your sticks, tap your sticks, tap your sticks, until the music stops.” Children would come up with many different ways to roll, tap, walk, run, and move their sticks to the music. During these moments, we practiced give and take in conversation, learned to wait for our turns, and experienced connectedness by creating new songs together. In my preschool classrooms, we extended this work into literacy by making songbooks and song charts during interactive writing times.  

I hope these ideas get you thinking of ways to have joyful, songful moments with the young children you care about. Don’t be afraid to clap your hands, chant a verse, or worry about your singing voice when you are with young children. Know that these moments are potent ways you can build connections and support their language and literacy learning.  

Rebecca Swartz

Rebecca Swartz

Dr. Rebecca Swartz is an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She teaches courses in the early childhood education program including courses on early language and literacy, early mathematics, and collaboration with families. Prior to coming to SIUE she was an early learning specialist on state early childhood projects in the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related IEL Birth to Three Guidelines:
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2024