Jazz it up: teaching English with jazz chants

Jazz it up: teaching English with jazz chants

Recently, we’ve talked about using music in the classroom. It’s difficult to overestimate the beneficial effect of songs on developing students’ vocabulary and command of grammar structures, as well as their role in fostering a positive classroom climate. However, there is one more alternative to pop and rock and today we’ll take a closer look at it.

Have you ever heard about jazz chants? I bet you have! Created by Carolyn Graham, they are poems which use jazz rhythms to illustrate the natural stress and intonation patterns of English. There are Grammarchants and Small Talk Chants, Jazz Chants Old and New, Holiday Jazz Chants and many more to cater for the needs of your particular class.

Why use them with teenagers?

Jazz chants are instrumental in introducing teenagers to rhythm, stress, and grouping. At this age, they do not show much enthusiasm for drills but still need them. For native speakers, stress is the key to meaning. It’s what we listen for to know what’s important and what to focus on. So, chanting is a practical way to help your teens notice intonation patterns and sound more naturally themselves.

azz chants are funny, though they deal with a wide range of vocabulary and complicated grammar structures. A lot of jazz chants have been designed with adults in mind, so they can be acted out or drilled in a teens class. That’s a great way to vary revision lessons or present a new topic.

Jazz chants don’t require any musical ability. Since they are closer to rap, your grumpy teens with no ear for music have no excuse for not participating in music-exploiting lessons anymore. Just get the beat!

We can use jazz chants to work on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, or small-talk skills.

Below is one of my favourite jazz chants and what you can do with it to focus your teens on pronunciation.

Personal Questions

Where were you born?
I’d rather not say.

Where are you from?
I’d rather not say.

How tall are you?
How old are you?
How much do you weigh?
I’d rather not say.

How much rent do you pay:
I’d rather not say.

How much do you make?
I’d rather not say.

Why aren’t you married?
I’d rather not say.

Why don’t you have children?
I’d rather not say.

Where were you last night?
Why weren’t you home?
Did you stay out late?
Did you come home alone?
Did you have a good time?
Did you see a good play?
Did you go to a concert?
I’d rather not say

(from Jazz Chants Old and New by Carolyn Graham)

  1. Ask your teens to recall some questions which are considered to be personal in their culture. Let them brainstorm the ideas. After that, put on the jazz chant for them to hear any of the questions mentioned.
  2. Have them listen again and go through the written chant. Make sure that all the vocabulary is clear.
  3. Together, mark the chant to show major stresses, intonation, reduced sounds, linking and blending. You decide whether you want to focus on one particular feature of pronunciation or opt for all the main ones. It depends on the level of learners and the general difficulty of the chant. If we work on stress, I usually ask my teens to listen to the chant again after marking it and tap the stressed words. First, it adds bodily/kinaesthetic intelligence to the musical one. Second, rhythmic skills are inextricably linked with motor and cognitive functions such as language and memory.
  4. After drilling the chant chorally, divide your teens into two groups. One group is responsible for asking questions, the other one is answering. When they feel comfortable enough, you can ask them to perform the chant in pairs. One more way of drilling it is to exaggerate. Make it sound dramatic, allocate roles of an inquisitive colleague or a nosy neighbour. It’ll be fun! What’s more, your teens will definitely remember how to avoid answering inappropriate questions in a polite way.
  5. You can go even further than that and suggest your teens making some more questions like that into their own jazz chant.

Some chants are useful for learning or reviewing vocabulary. We usually do the chant below with lower level teenagers while struggling with synonyms for the word ‘good’.

He’s a Wonderful Dentist

He’s a wonderful dentist.
His name is Danny.

She’s a very good patient.
Her name is Annie.

He’s a marvellous singer.
His name is Bill.

She’s a fabulous dancer.
Her name is Jill.

She’s a very good writer.
Her name is Sherri.

He’s a very bright lawyer.
His name is Larry.

She’s an excellent teacher.
Her name is Sandy.

He’s a brilliant student.
His name is Andy.

(from Jazz Chants Old and New by Carolyn Graham)

  1. Ask students to brainstorm the synonyms for ‘good’ in pairs. It can be done at the very beginning of the lesson or as a way of recycling the previously learnt vocabulary.
  2. Play the chant and have students note all the synonyms they hear.
  3. Hand out the script, and play the recording again as they listen and read at the same time. Ask them to underline all the target words.
  4. Drill the chant: chorally, in groups, or in pairs. Pay attention to rhythm, tap the stressed words. With lower levels, we sometimes listen and tap or clap without repeating, just to get the rhythm.
  5. The next step might be thinking of even more synonyms and substituting the ones from the chant with those of the students. You can also recycle the vocabulary related to jobs and change the professions, coming up with something like that at the end:
    She’s a talented farmer
    Her name is Mary.He’s a glorious wizard,
    His name is Harry.

I’ve had a student for some time who spends about half a year abroad. Once she told me that her biggest problem is not even the language but the small talk, so habitual for English-speaking countries. Guess what? I introduced her to jazz chants!

I Like Your Gloves

I like your gloves!
Are they new?
Oh no. I’ve had them for years.
Where did you get them?
I got them in London.
They’re beautiful.
Thank you.

I like your ring.
Is it new?
Oh no. I’ve had it for years.
Where did you get it?
I got it in London.
It’s beautiful.
Thank you.

(from Small Talk: More Jazz Chants Chants by Carolyn Graham)

  1. Ask your students to think of the occasions when we give compliments to each other. Let them make a list of the phrases we use in our native language to answer to compliments. Somehow, every time it turns out to be good fun with my teens.
  2. Listen to the chant and answer two questions:
    Who are the talking people to each other?
    Where is the conversation taking place?
  3. The stage of marking the stress and intonation patterns, followed by drilling, is unavoidable with each and every jazz chant. Here, I’d pay special attention to intonation patterns to avoid sounding flap or impolite, which sometimes is a common problem for teens. You can do three-four drills, escalating the emotions with every next one. We call it ‘emotional regulator’: the first drill without the recording is done in a deliberately monotonous way. The task for the next one is to sound more interested. The final one is for over-excitement.
  4. Drill the chant with the recording, with half of the group paying the compliments and the other one reacting.
  5. Small talk chants inevitably lead to role-playing. Make your teens walk around the room with the chant playing. When you stop the chant, they turn to the nearest person and say something nice and react, taking turns. Repeat several times to provide more practice. Make sure that students retain the rhythm and intonation established before.

As jazz chants are usually built around particular words or structures, you can use them to revise or even introduce grammar structures.

Saturday Morning

First I called my mother.
We talked for an hour.
Then I played tennis,
went home, and took a shower.
I went to the kitchen,
made a cup of tea,
took out my English book,
and studied carefully.
I finished all my homework
without a mistake.
Then I decided
to take a little break.
I sat down for a minute
to watch TV,
fell asleep, and woke up at three.

(from Grammarchants by Carolyn Graham)

  1. Hand out the script with all past verbs removed. Ask your students to predict the words which go into the gaps.
  2. Listen to the chant and check. Focus on the past tense of the verbs, their form and pronunciation.
  3. Read aloud line by line. You can practise various emotions there: read a sad story, tell about a boring Saturday, be proud of a productive morning of yours. Ask your teens to read with a particular intonation and let the others guess.
  4. Concentrate on the intonation of the original chant. Mark the stress, clap it, tap it, stamp it! Chant with the recording.
  5. Move on to creating and chanting teens’ own stories in the past. It can be preceded with brainstorming of verbs and collocations or accompanied by a template like:

First I called _________________
We talked about _________________
Then I played _________________
went _________________ and _________________


This way, your teens will not just get some extra practice of Past Simple, but also improve their automatic use of collocations. And, hopefully, will have a whale of a time.

You will definitely find many more chants in Carolyn Graham’s books and appreciate how effective and enjoyable they are.

Have you ever used jazz chants to teach your teens? What’s your favourite, then?


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