June 11, 2012, Encinitas, CA Strumming and singing to learn English in K-8 classrooms helps close the English learning gap – research shows.

Imagine moving from a Spanish-speaking country to the United States at age five or seven without knowing the English language. Along with the trauma of a move, you are going to start school in a new place, perhaps for the first time, and you will be expected to learn to read, speak, write, and take tests in “Academic English.” Since U.S. schools moved away from offering bilingual education, you’ll have to learn fast without the help of translations. Your teacher will want you to understand and use complex vocabulary words and phrases with proper grammar, and you will soon encounter this new language on tests. To help you along, your school gives you a special label. Now you are an English Learner or an “EL.” What you do is going to become part of a statistic.

Add to this pressure you are feeling, a sense that your teacher is under pressure too. Your school will have to make “Annual Yearly Progress” to improve its standing, and your ability to perform on standardized tests- in Academic English- is really going to matter.  Pretty intimidating, isn’t it?

For children, the task of acquiring English is both driven and hindered by a strong desire to fit in and belong. ELs want to feel capable and confident, and to express important needs and feelings to others- teachers, adults, and other children. But many who are new to English and its complexities are afraid to risk speaking in front of their teachers and peers for fear they will make embarrassing mistakes… and feel ashamed. It’s easier in some ways to be quiet.  But there is a price because remaining silent is no way to get good at speaking English. Schools must give ELs a way to practice speaking their new language without experiencing anxiety and release them from this double bind. This is why Guitars in the Classroom’s AMIGO Project was born.

The AMIGO Project-  a special eight week music integration program- turns singing into a learning modality and songs into transmissions of English. Guitars in the Classroom (GITC) trains and equips classroom teachers to learn, sing, strum, teach and lead songs that boost comprehension, literacy and core learning for English Language learners by introducing language-rich lyrics set to catchy melodies for every subject area taught in school. Songs about every subject area are part of the program, and each song contains repetitions that drive the language and learning home. For children acquiring English as a second language, the program is helping them learn everything.

At the core of GITC training is teaching educators to write Lyrics for Learning to embed in familiar melodies. Teachers create lyrics that address content standards and lessons, then sing the song with students as part of the related lesson. Once the teachers are comfortable writing songs, they train their students to do the same thing. Together they reinforce lesson content in songs that everyone enjoys singing. Since the GITC classroom teacher learns to play guitar to accompany songs, children find the activity especially engaging. They not only ask to sing each day, they ask for guitar lessons, too. The program boosts academic skills, language, and musicality.

This is why the NAMM Foundation has just awarded $35,000 to Guitars in the Classroom (GITC). During the 2012-13 school year, NAMM will support GITC to advance its development of Language and Learning through Music. GITC was one of 21 recipients nationwide of the organization’s 2012-2013 grants program. The NAMM Foundation allocated $445,000 in funding to support innovative community-based music learning programs that expand access to active music making and its many benefits.

The new grants, while only a small portion of the National Association of Music Merchant’s (NAMM) overall annual multimillion-dollar-reinvestment into the music products industry, help organizations operate programs designed to increase interest and participation in making music among teachers, seniors, college students and school-aged children. Since 1994, the NAMM Foundation has supported worthy U.S. and international music-making programs with more than 13.7 million dollars in grant-making support.

AMIGO stands for Achievement through Music Integration with Guitars. How exactly does AMIGO help ELs rise to the challenges they face in school each day? Singing to Learn capitalizes on the basic human instinct we have to seek safety in numbers. Like most of us, many new English speakers are more comfortable singing with a group than speaking up. And if everyone sings, the song will sound wonderful or it won’t, but no one person will be thought responsible for the outcome. This safety gives the EL plenty of anxiety-free oral language practice- and the words get easier and easier to say and remember with each repeated singing of the song.  And students who find they really love singing experience greater happiness and self confidence in the classroom. Over the course of two months, many ELs in AMIGO classrooms begin speaking up in class discussions and raising their hands to answer questions. By the end of the school year, many feel they have overcome shyness. The anecdotal results so far have been truly inspiring.

All of this is important to students, but what about to school administrators who are striving for that Annual Yearly Progress?

After 8 weeks of teacher instruction and classroom exposure to AMIGO integration, GITC conducted research into the effects of the training of students’ language-based skills. Dr. Diana Wagner of the Department of Education Specialties from Salisbury University in Maryland discovered students participating in AMIGO in grades 2-5 showed positive results in decoding and word recognition, reading comprehension, writing skills, spelling and listening. This research was presented at the American Educational Research Association, and it demonstrated that when it’s time to take a test, students who have been singing their language lessons do better than those who have not. They remember what they have sung on the spot, and extract the vocabulary words, meanings, spelling, and facts. Their exposure to English through songs may also be boosting their overall reading comprehension.

“Guitars in the Classroom owes its progress with The AMIGO Project to the NAMM Foundation. We have been testing and developing the work in pilot programs funded by NAMM and various academic partners for the past three years and plan this year to match songs to units of study beyond the basic language curriculum with special reach into science and social studies,” explains Jessica Anne Baron, GITC’s executive director. “As the Hispanic population in our nation increases, we want this work to become a tremendously valuable resource for teachers to empower them to meet the needs of their EL students for daily oral language practice.” Baron is both the originator of this work and founder of Guitars in the Classroom.

About GITC

GITC trains, equips and encourages teachers to introduce musical learning across the academic curriculum to students during early childhood and elementary years when new skills and ideas can be absorbed at lightning speed thanks to rapid myelination, a process of brain development in which children make new synaptic connections. Through free programs, teachers learn to play guitar, sing, lead songs, and write new Lyrics for Learning that embed lessons in music for high impact learning.

The AMIGO program’s goals are to engage English Learners and to boost their learning, literacy and language skills as well as improve English fluency, comprehension, spelling and vocabulary. In addition, AMIGO features traditional American and Latin folk songs for the preservation of musical and cultural traditions.

For more information on Guitars in the Classroom and The AMIGO Project please visit http://www.guitarsintheclassroom.org/

About NAMM

The NAMM Foundation is a non-profit organization with the mission of advancing active participation in music making across the lifespan by supporting scientific research, philanthropic giving and public service programs from the international music products industry.

For more information about NAMM, please visit www.namm.org

-Sam Soares




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