The Impact of Kodaly Hand Sign Use in a Multi-Lingual Middle School Classroom

The young middle school singers who arrive in my choral classroom each August are incredibly diverse.  In my room, I have children whose native languages are Dari (the Persian language of Afghanistan), Mandarin, Hindi, German, Spanish, Swahili and many more.  I've taught singing to children in my classroom who, believe it or not, are almost completely deaf, some who have trouble matching pitch, some who can barely articulate due to cerebral palsy, children with severe intellectual limitations, extreme cases of Autism, and children who are legally blind.

...And almost all of them come to me utterly unable to read music.

My room is a true public school classroom in America, and I absolutely love that fact.  There are many resources in marketplace for helping break through language barriers.  Smartling, for example, is a translation software company that helps us break through language barriers by translating mobile apps and websites for companies.   

My feeling is that if children want to sing, they should sing, and it's up to me to find ways to communicate in a way everyone can understand so they can learn.   I don't test their voices. Middle school children are so afraid to be put on the spot and forced to sing alone, so I stopped testing their voices years ago.  I can hear what I need to hear in the group setting, discretely work on the issues that need addressing, and avoid causing them the extra stress.

To be in my chorus class, the only requirement I have of them is that they have a true desire to learn to sing.  Each year, there are over 300 children who walk through my doors each day electing to take choir, and I am honored they make that choice.

To help them become musically literate, I had to learn to teach using all three learning modalities each day:  Kinesthetic, Visual and Aural.

When I began developing my Sight Singing Program, S-Cubed, the main goal I had was to help my beginning students, regardless of whether they speak English or whatever their individual challenges may be, truly learn how to take the dots, curves, stems and lines off of the page and successfully and accurately turn them into sound.  I wanted to help them understand the language of reading music better, and I wanted them to have fun in the process of learning it.

To reach them, I knew that I had to incorporate every possible learning modality.

One of the most important parts of my sight singing method is the use of the Kodaly Hand Signs.

The hand signs help to connect pitch to the physical movements of the hands.  The use of the vowel sounds in the words of the Kodaly scale helps intonation and blend tremendously because teachers can teach students how to use tall vowels when they sing.

In the Sight Singing approach I developed, I took the Kodaly Hand Sign movements and added more layers to help my beginners experience more success.  When you see my students tackling a new piece of music for the first time, you see them pulsing their hands to keep the steady beat, and you see them lifting and lowering their hands to match the changing pitch.    
I carefully and deliberately teach those skill sets to my students and slowly build the coordinations required to successfully execute them one step at a time.  It is all outlined in the descriptions of the individual lessons in my program.  

...But the single most important element of my program is "fun".  To begin building the skills I've described above, I play a game with the children called Forbidden Pattern.  Click here to see a description of the game.  Click here to see me playing the game with my students.  This is really the "hook" of the program I've developed and it works with all of the children I've described in the first paragraph of this post. 

Regardless of what language they speak or what other challenges they face, when we turn the learning process into a game, our middle school children listen, laugh, thrive, and best of all, in the end, we all learn to speak the common language of music.


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