Vocabulary Instruction in Music Classrooms: It’s Not Just ‘Music Words’!

As I’ve been contemplating vocabulary in my future music classroom, all my ideas (and my peers’ ideas, when I ask them about it) are creative ways to teach music words. There is so much tier-3 music vocabulary that students must learn; many call it a language of its own. I doubt it would be hard for any music teacher to come up with 50 tier-3 music words, and only feel like they are scratching the surface. Because of this, music teachers tend to forget that teaching tier-2 words is also an important part of any classroom.*

There are a lot of ways that music teachers can help students start to think in new ways by teaching tier-2 vocabulary throughout the rehearsal instruction. One effective way I found to do this is getting students to find ways to describe the music using specific adjectives, emotion words, as well as personifying the music in order to describe it in creative ways. Here are a few lesson ideas I had to get started:

1. Simply ask the students how they would describe the music. Prompt them to give creative answers and not repeat the same word twice. This can be anything from “dramatic” to “bouncy” to “melancholy”. This is a good way to get students initially thinking about how to talk about music in new ways.

2. Give a simple synonym assignment. Have the students brainstorm words that describe the music (either emotion words or style words would work!) and make a list on the board, split up the words (perhaps give each section a word or a few words), and have each student bring in a list of five adjectives that still fit the music the next day.

3. Write a short story that personifies the music. An idea for a prompt in a band/orchestra classroom could simply be, “If this music was a day in the life of a person, what would their day look like? On a separate sheet of paper, cite specific reasons for each part of your story (For example, they would wake up frantically because of the tempo and fast woodwind runs at the beginning of the piece).” This could be a simple in-class, writing-to-learn assignment, or it could turn into something that is peer-edited and reviewed for presentation to the whole class. It just depends on your learning outcomes!

These are just a few ideas of how to incorporate literacy, and specifically vocabulary learning, into a music classroom. Through these outlines, many more can be created and utilized no matter what type of music classroom you have.


*Tier-3 vocabulary refers to content-specific words that can’t be readily applied to other subjects, such as concerto or allegro in music. Tier-2 vocabulary refers to words that aren’t considered basic words, but can be used across the disciplines and have several meanings, such as contrast (being strikingly different from something else, or in art, the arrangement of opposite elements).


Literature Circles in Inclusive Settings

It seems like most new teachers don’t feel that their undergraduate education adequately prepared them to teach in inclusive settings. While I have not taken my university’s required special education course yet (“Teaching Students in Inclusive Settings”), many of my peers have expressed similar frustration concerning their readiness to jump in to an inclusive setting. There just isn’t time to take more special education courses during our already long undergraduate career. With this in mind, I have been trying to find ways to think about what I’m learning in my other education courses through the lens of an inclusive classroom.

Literature circles have been a focus in my Content Area Literacy course, and I am finding more and more ways that this incredible tool is the perfect way to promote literacy in an inclusive setting. In literature circles, students are broken up into small groups of four to six students who are all reading the same text. Often, but not always, the text is chosen by that group. Each student is assigned a role that they assume while reading the text outside of class or during the assigned reading time. Roles may include Summarizer (shares a summary of the selected portion of the text), Word Watcher (picks out and expands on important vocabulary in the text), and Connector (shares connections that he/she made through the text such as text-to-self or text-to-world connections). Each time a literature circle meets, these roles share their findings as well as participate in discussion stemmed from their findings. Literature circles are very empowering – students have control of and responsibility for their learning.

There are many advantages of using literature circles in inclusive settings. I’ve picked three to highlight that I think are a good starting point to think about this tool for inclusion:

1.Educationally, students with disabilities will be able to move through the curriculum more readily in this group setting. If the teacher is conscious of how they place the students in groups, the group members will be able to help and encourage the students with disabilities to stay accountable for keeping up with the reading of the text. When a whole class is reading a text together, students who read proficiently could easily participate in class discussion, leaving those who struggle out of the awareness of the teachers and other students. In literature circles, students with disabilities have the opportunity to work closely with peers to understand and explain what they read. The success rate of all students is bound to be higher when there is such great individual attention.

2. If the roles are used wisely, there is a greater chance for students with disabilities to be successful in improving their literacy. It is possible to give roles out in a way that will challenge the already successful students and play to the strengths of those students who are struggling to be successful in reading. Giving a student with disabilities a role that they can definitely be successful in will build their confidence within themselves and will also build rapport with the group.

3. Literature circles give students with disabilities the chance to work closely with their peers. Peer tutoring is an important strategy for teachers to take advantage of that are working in inclusive settings. Literature circles are an easy way to provide students with that peer tutoring. It also gives the students a chance to build relationships. Relationships are key to the success of students with disabilities, and relationships with peers can build students’ confidence and social skills.

The more I think about literature circles in an inclusive classroom, the more advantages I find. The great thing about literature circles is that there’s not just one right way to do them; they can be adopted for any subject and any type of text. Whether you’re an English teacher doing a unit on dystopian novels or a music teacher teaching important historical pieces of music, literature circles will work in your favor – especially in an inclusive setting.