8 Easy to Adapt Action Songs to teach young learners English

When I first start teaching young kids, I relied a lot on playing songs on YouTube. After a while I realised that it was often more engaging if we just sang the songs ourselves without being fixed on a screen. Then it hit me that we didn’t have to use the original lyrics, and in fact, I could use the songs to teach almost any English I wanted! These are some of my favourite action songs to adapt to different vocabulary and grammar structures.

1. Make a Circle (Super Simple Songs)

make a circle super simple

This is a great transition song! That’s why we have it in our Classroom Management songs playlist. I like to use it after the kids have come in and we’ve done something active in our opening routine. This song is a great signal to prepare the children for sitting down together and doing something more settled.

Add in different actions: dance, fly, jump, run, walk, turn around, wiggle your hips, swim.

I usually do two or three variations at a time. Once the kids get used to it, they can start to suggest different actions. There’s a great opportunity for emergent language there.

2. Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

This classic is always a hit with young learners but there are two main issues I have with it:

  1. If you sing the original version as it is, the children often learn that ‘kneesan’ is the word for ‘knees’!
  2. It restricts the whole body language to those four items. Of course, the face vocabulary is there too, but I’d rather the kids practised a wider variety of body vocabulary.

Use numbers or omit the ‘and’: head, shoulders, knees, toes – 2 eyes, 2 ears, 1 mouth, 1 nose

Change the vocabulary to other body parts: Try ‘arms’, ‘legs’, ‘tummy’, ‘feet’ or any other body language you want the kids to learn. I’ve adapted this song to teach Natural Science vocabulary too – brain, torso, thorax, muscles, heart, lungs, kidneys, bones. The kids can help invent the actions!

3. One Little Finger (Super Simple Songs)

One little finger super simple

This is another great one for teaching body parts, but you can adapt the song to make it more dynamic and squeeze in more language and repetition of key vocabulary.

Instead of repeating the chorus each time, use the target vocabulary. This way, the kids tap and sing the different body parts, rather than going back to their finger each time:

“…put it on your head. HEAD! One head, one head, one head, tap, tap, tap…”

I like to add in adjectives too, so I’ll ask the kids simple questions at each stage: Is it a big head or a small head? Is it a long arm or a short arm? One eye or two eyes? One foot or two feet? They answer and then we exagerate the action each time:

“Two small eyes, two small eyes, two small eyes, tap, tap, tap.”

“One big tummy, one big tummy, one big tummy, tap, tap, tap”

4. Open, Shut them

I really like to use this song to teach opposite adjectives. I love that it has a variety of different possibilities for actions too, so it’s great for your youngest learners. If you can think of an action for it, you can sing it!

Include a wider variety of opposite adjectives.

I’ve used this song to help practise adjectives from the Dinosaur Roar story. My kids absolutely loved it and picked up a lot of the tricky words very quickly.

Strong and weak, strong and weak, Strong, strong, strong, strong, Weak, weak, weak.

Clean and slimy, clean and slimy, Clean, clean, clean, clean, Slimy, slimy, slimy.

Sweet and grumpy, sweet and grumpy, Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, Grumpy, grumpy, grumpy.

5. This is the way / Mulberry bush

I love to use Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush to teach daily routines language. There are a lot of versions of the ‘This is the way’ song on YouTube, but again you don’t need to restrict yourself to the actions used in the song or book.

6. Frere Jacque

This classic song has already been adapted into several different songs by different publishers. One of the more popular ones is Where is Daddy? You can adapt this song in so many different ways.

The two reasons I use this tune are:

  1. It lets me practise any target vocabulary we’re working on. It’s perfect because you can swap in different vocabulary with each verse. (I usually have flashcards for visual support too.)
  2. I can end each verse by asking a child a question, so everyone has a moment in the limelight.

Here are two examples:

What’s your favourite colour?

Red and yellow, Red and yellow,

Pink and blue, Pink and blue,

What’s you’re favourite colour? What’s your favourite colour?

(John?) I like blue.

John likes blue.

What (food) do you like?

Pasta and rice, Pasta and rice,

Brocolli and cheese, Brocolli and cheese

What food do you like? What food do you like?

(Sara?) I like cheese.

Sara likes cheese.

What’s the best way to sing Frere Jacque with young learners?

  1. Sit in a circle with the children.
  2. Start a clapping and patting rhythm. Don’t start singing yet, until they can follow your rhythm (more or less!) The easiest one is to pat your legs and clap your hands alternatively on each syllable: Red (pat) and (clap) yel (pat) low (clap). For kids aged 4 and up, I prefer to make it a bit more complicated to increase concentration levels: Pat legs, clap hands, tap shoulders, clap hands. You can add in your favourite ‘ask a question’ gesture at the appropriate points too.
  3. Place 4 flashcards of your vocabulary set in the centre of the circle face up. Elicit the names of the items and get the children to repeat after you.
  4. Start up the rhythm again and this time sing it with your 4 vocabulary items.

The kids are really engaged when singing songs in this way, because they don’t know who you’re going to nominate next. I find this works really well to revise new vocabulary, because you are only focusing on 4 vocabulary items at a time. For each new round I’ll swap 1 or 2 for other words in the same set.

7. Jimmy Crack Corn

Actions Christmas Song resource cover
One way I adapted this song.

This is another song that I adapted to prepare for a Christmas performance but you could adapt the same song for many other themes or topics.

To be honest with you, the Christmas connection is pretty tenuous! The adapted song consists of actions with a final line of “Christmas time is here!” I really just wanted my group of kids to be able to practise and then show off all the action language they had learned – with a friendly nod to Christmas too!

Each verse consists of 1 action (repeated 3 times) and a final line. For example:

You can invent other actions and a final line, and hey presto! You have another fun action song for your kids to sing and dance to.

8. In and out the dusty bluebells

This is a song I used to love singing and playing when I was a child! There’s plenty of action and it involves everyone. The kids join hands in a circle and raise them above their heads to form arches. One child weaves in and out, going under the arches, then stops at the end of the first verse. They tap the child they stop at on the shoulder as they sing the second verse, then together they weave under the arches again.

These are the two verses that repeat many times throughout the song:

Verse 1

In and out the dusty bluebells x 3

Will you be my leader?

Verse 2

Tippy, tippy, tappy on your shoulder x 3

You will be my leader

The original lyrics aren’t particularly useful for EFL/ESL learners, but we can easily adapt them. Here are a few ideas:

Adapt for a natural landscapes theme

  1. In and out the leafy jungle x 3 / Will you be my monkey?
  2. In and out the hot, dry desert x 3 / Will you be my camel?
  3. In and out the deep, blue ocean x 3 / Will you be my dolphin?
  4. In and out the tropical grasslands x 3 / Will you be my elephant?
  5. In and out the cold, cold arctic x 3 / Will you be my polar bear?

Adapt for classroom management training

You don’t need to accompany the song with the traditional circle actions either. You could combine the song with different actions.

  1. This is the way we line up at the door x 3 / When we’re going home.
  2. This is the way we listen to a story x 3 / When we’re in a circle.
  3. This is the way we clean up our things x 3 / When we’re finished class.
  4. This is the way we sit at our tables x 3 / When we’re doing our classwork.

Adapt for fun action brain breaks

  1. Stand up, sit down and wiggle your hips x 3 / I can move my body!
  2. Clap your hands and touch your toes x 3 / I can move my body!
  3. Turn around and wave your arms x 3 / I can move my body!
  4. Jump up and down and stomp your feet x 3 / I can move my body!

Looking for more songs? You might also like our Top Ten Fingerplay for very young learners.

How do you adapt songs to teach English to your young learners? It’d be great to hear about your favourite songs and how you adapt them. Please leave a comment and let us know.

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