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Oats, Peas, Beans and Barley: Learning Through an Action Song

About this video

In this video, we see a group of children singing the folksong, “Oats, Peas, Beans, and Barley Grow” during a large group activity. The children are enrolled in a half-day bilingual classroom. They are at a range of levels of English proficiency. The teachers provide instruction in both English and Spanish. The children may use either language during their choice time activities, but at certain times the teacher expects them to use English.

According to the teacher, the children began learning the song several months earlier. They are now familiar with the lyrics and the actions that go with them. They also understand that, eventually, each of them will have a turn to be the teacher’s partner, although this may not be “their day,” and no one calls out for a turn.

Support for English Language Learning

Before the start of this clip, the teacher introduced the activity in English, and she comments in English during the activity, such as when she tells her partner “This is better” as she changes their hand positions. The children watch the teacher and join in as she sings the English lyrics and performs the motions that accompany the song. In the final time we see the children singing the song in this video clip, the teacher takes Vera’s hands as the group sings, “I’m looking for a partner.” The child holds her teacher’s hands as she jumps up and down while the group sings the melody with the syllables “tra la la.”

This action song supports the children’s growing competence in standard English in several ways. The fact that many of the lyrics are complete sentences (“First the farmer sows his seed,” and “I’m looking for a partner…”) helps them become familiar with English sentence structure as they sing. Their vocabulary of movement-related words and concepts is strengthened by matching specific motions with phrases such as “stamps his feet and claps his hands.” The children’s understanding of sequence is supported by the “first/then” structure of part of the song, with one finger raised to emphasize “first.”

Experience in the Arts

In addition to its value for language learning, this action song provides the children with opportunities to address music and movement/dance benchmarks. The children sing and perform the same series of movements in unison. They sing without instrumental accompaniment, and their singing is the accompaniment for the movement. Vera gains experience being a partner (a key concept in dance), and other children observe what is involved in that role.



No transcript is provided because the children are participating in the singing and dancing activity and singing collectively.

Benchmarks and How They Were Met

BenchmarksHow They Were Met
Language Arts
1.B.ECa: Use language for a variety of purposes.
The children experienced the English language by singing during this activity. Through the song, they were exposed to the structure of the English language.
Language Arts
1.E.ECc: With teacher assistance, use new words acquired through conversations and book‐sharing experiences.
The children used specific vocabulary words, including several movement-related words such as stamps, claps, and turn, and they made movements related to those words.
Physical Development and Health
19.B.ECc: Combine large motor movements with and without the use of equipment.
The children crossed their arms, stamped their feet, turned in place, and performed other large-motor movements related to the song. The girl who was chosen as the “partner” repeatedly jumped in place.
Physical Development and Health
21.A.ECa: Follow rules and procedures when participating in group physical activities.
For the most part, the children were able to remain in their personal space while making the body movements that accompany the song. They followed the familiar sequence of words and movements They also followed the established procedure of not asking for a turn when the teacher sang “Looking for a partner.”
The Arts
25.A.ECa: Movement and Dance: Build awareness of, explore, and participate in dance and creative movement activities.
The movements that accompany the song are an opportunity for children to explore and participate in dance activities. The children used a variety of movements that communicated meaning during the action song, such as pretending to throw seeds or look into the distance. As the teacher’s “partner,” Vera was able to separate from the group and operate as part of a pair, an essential set of skills in dance.
The Arts
25.A.ECc: Music: Begin to appreciate and participate in music activities.
The children participated in singing the song lyrics and melody in unison.

WIDA Early English Language Development Standards (E-ELDs)

To assess and make curriculum decisions regarding children whose home language is not English, Illinois educators use the Early English Language Development (E-ELD) Standards, developed by World-class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. The observational data described here would be useful for planning instruction. However, a teacher would need multiple pieces of evidence to evaluate a child’s performance level.

For this video, we focus on the use of music for large-group English-language instruction rather than the development of individual children. The WIDA standards highlight the importance of providing opportunities for English-language learners to use language in a variety of contexts. Song lyrics provide opportunities for children to participate in use of developmentally appropriate academic language. The elements that the children are exposed to through the song will appear in other language contexts. Singing slows down the rate words are said, includes repetition, and may add movements and gestures that coordinate with the vocabulary being introduced. From conversations with the teacher, we know that she  had previously introduced the song’s vocabulary using pictures of growing oats, peas, beans, and barley. She also introduced the idea of planting seeds through hands-on activities.

A teacher may consider several factors when choosing music to include in the classroom. She may consider the vocabulary she wishes to introduce for a specific content area. She may also wish to expose children to specific language patterns that they will use in conversations or that will appear in other language experiences through the day. Formulaic phrases, sentence structures, and idioms can be introduced through song. The advantage of learning through singing is that it is a low-stress learning activity with clear expectations for children.

Group song opportunities allow children to watch, listen, and join in as they are able. All the children, regardless of their English-language proficiency, can join in the group activity and practice the language without being singled out to “perform.” By looking closely at the video, we see that many of the children’s mouths are moving, but they may not all be saying the same words.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2017