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Singing and language

A whop bop-a-lu a whop bam boo!* Making no sense but still learning to talk!

Date posted: Monday 21st January 2013

I visited Spain a few years after Franco had died, when the country was still a fledgling democracy. It was 1980, and Barcelona had just discovered Flower Power. Six months later they discovered Punk, and after that they settled down to become the fashion and cultural leaders of Europe. (Amazingly, the country’s youth never really embraced the New Romantics or Rick Astley.) After years of being told to look inwards, young people were keen to embrace everything from outside of Spain, and especially music from Britain and the US.

A very enthusiastic young guy got me into earnest conversation: What does ‘A whop bop-a-lu a whop bam boo’ mean?” I had to tell him that it was just a load of rhythmic rubbish.

“What about ‘Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the fandango’?

More rubbish.

“Then how about ‘Here come old flat top/He come groovin’ up slowly/He got Juju eyeballs/He one holy roller/’ ? Isn’t this by John Lennon? This can’t be rubbish too?”

‘Fraid so.

Although my new friend’s pronunciation of English was not great, (think Manuel from Fawlty Towers), his pronunciation of the ‘rhythmic rubbish’ was spot on. Had I had too much sangria, or was there something quite remarkable going on here?

One of the jobs that children need to do is to learn to talk- and to learn that lesson as quickly as possible. This includes developing an awareness of the sound system of the languages they are going to learn: not only so they can have clear speech, but as the foundation for reading and spelling. At the same time they need to learn to coordinate the hundreds of muscle movements needed for clear pronunciation. Children’s pronunciation needs to be right by four years of age, so they can make themselves clearly understood, and learn phonics in school.

Children also need to pick up the rhythms of their language, and all the little nuances of their family’s accent, like the Londoners’ glottal stop’ and the Irish ‘brogue’. All of this information about pronunciation needs to be embedded in the child’s mind, so when he speaks he can concentrate on the message of what he wants to say.

It is an incredible achievement for any adult to master the sound system of a new language, and to use speech sounds rapidly and clearly in words and sentences. For a three-year-old-to do this is a miracle! How do they do it? There is only one way: by intense listening and practicing speaking. (That’s two things, but they are part of a whole.) This practice needs to involve thousands and thousands of listening opportunities and chances to use the sounds of your language.

Singing is the answer

I spend a lot of time singing with two-year-olds (it’s my job). I am absolutely convinced that singing is crucial for speech development. Once a child latches onto a song, she will want to sing it over and over and over again. This helps her get to the point where she literally can’t get it out of her head. It is embedded. And we’ve all had the experience when we hear a song first thing in the morning and are humming it for the rest of the day. I’m not proud of it, but The Macarena got me after just one listen. After hearing Gangnam Style for the umpteenth time I’m sure my Korean pronunciation is almost perfect (Though I’m not sure Jom ja na bo wi ji man nol ten no nun sa na ye’makes sense or is appropriate!)

And the more speech sounds children can hear in a song, and the more rhyming there is, the more children are laying down the foundations in their minds for the patterns of speech. And the good news is that it doesn’t have to make sense! I’m glad about that, because otherwise we would have to have a government-led campaign to outlaw Wind the Bobbin Up and Hickory Dickory Dock. Now there’s a thought….

For really fantastic songs that you and the children won’t want to get out of your heads, visit Steve Grocott’s website (Steve’s pages)

And for an interesting article on this subject visit

*Tutti Frutti by Little Richard!

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21 responses to “A whop bop-a-lu a whop bam boo!* Making no sense but still learning to talk!”

  1. Lucy Jenkins says:

    Thank you for an Excellent read!! I totally agree with the importance of singing with children- they respond so well. Steve Grocotts course was so inspiring. I would definitely recommend it !! I especially love the ‘firework song’and ‘all my love is bubbling over’- with actions.

  2. Brilliant article, Michael. I couldn’t agree more. As I was reading it, vivid memories of my children at a very young age came flooding back to me. I always said that my daughter #1 could sing before she could talk. She would copy sounds and speech rhythms in such a way that everyone knew what song she was singing- at 10 months old!
    Daughter #2 sang the whole of Disney’s ‘Little ‘Mermaid’ song and ‘Tomorrow’ from the musical ‘Annie’ aged 13 months in a very recognizable fashion. I think I even have it on camera somewhere!
    I was acutely aware how these songs went on to form the rhythm and melody of speech as it developed.
    Incidentally, I made similar observations with books such as ‘Brown Bear’ by Eric Carle, which both daughters ‘read’ out loud without being able to pronounce a single word totally correctly at first…but they soon did manage to say the words perfectly. And that happened long before they could talk in sentences.
    Thanks for taking me down memory lane, put a smile on my face!!

  3. Hi Michael,
    You nail it each time. These are becoming a loved read in our staff room. We adore your insight into nonsense language and singing. we agree all the way.
    Many thanks

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Beverley
      I must admit that a lot of my inspiration has come from visits to your setting. I know that all of your staff value their interactions with children as their main priority.
      It’s not easy to have conversations when there are so many children competing for attention, but it can be done!
      Best wishes from Michael

  4. Most interesting, really great. I need to circulate this.

  5. Shagufta Anwar says:

    You have just confirmed my most strong belief in the amount of language that needs to be spoken around children. The other most important thing for language is singing. We do a lot of sing and sign, in addition to ‘sign to learn’ and our 2 year olds’ language is amazing. I really feel we are on the right track with speech and language as our young ones are able to express themselves and feel confident that someone is interested in what they are saying.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hello Mrs Anwar!
      It was very interesting (and exciting) to hear the Head Teacher of the school where the children move to from your setting comment on how much the confidence of the children had increased. Your staff are very hard working and motivated, and I know they are all dedicated to developing children’s language.
      As someone has recently commented: you can have lots of interaction in a setting, but if you share songs you have had thousands!
      Best wishes

  6. Janet Moyles says:

    A great article, Mike. I have for long promoted the idea that children need to play with language in whatever way they choose for words and meaning to become embedded. Anything that’s fun – and that means silly nonsense words with rhyme, alliteration and rhythm (and songs are included here too) – enables children to enjoy and appreciate the sounds of their own language and replicate – and build – on them. These fun and rhythmic nonsense words and phrases, of course, are not compatible with those strategies that include nonsensical nonsense words in a test as a suitable way of estimating children’s phonic capabilities!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Janet
      It’s great to hear from you again!
      My friend Annika Hallsvik, who is a dyslexia specialist and Speech and Language Therapist, will be interested in your comment about phonics. She and her Lexion programme ‘rebuild’ older children’s phonological awareness very successfully.
      This reinforces the need for phonological awareness. I spent time working with older children who had had glue ear under the age of five. They all had spelling difficulties, and had got by with using the ‘whole word approach’ to reading. Once we rebuilt their phonological awareness, they raced ahead.
      They had been diagnose with ‘dyslexic signs’ in KS2, but they were not dyslexic.
      Very best wishes

  7. Debbie Brace says:

    Hi Michael, blog made me laugh!
    I play a game with children as I am sure do many other early years practitioners and parents…
    We sing to the tune of twinkle twinkle little star but swallow a phonic like “B” first. We end up singing “binkle binkle bittle bar, bow bi bonder …” etc. Always good for a laugh and as we know if children are laughing they are learning! (especially good fun if a hand puppet like Gizelda the Giraffe swallows the phonic!)
    Higher up the phonic fun or when my two boys are in the bath we sing twinkle twinkle with completely mixed up sounds. Could go something like this. “Squong pash nink la ban wash doo, Zong mi fal rak fnosh swonk quoo….” My 5 yr old can do this and I think apart from being very funny it gives the mouth muscles and the brain a good exercise!
    Total rubbish all the way for me! Love it!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Debbie
      Thanks, once again, for your nice comments and insights!
      ‘Swallowing the phonic’ is a great idea!
      Speak soon

  8. Amber says:

    I think this is great. Thank you Michael. I will have to update the ipod!!!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Amber
      I’ve lost my iPod, so I will have to buy a new one before I update it!!
      Steve Grocott has some great songs for babies and young children. His website is on the blog post.
      love from Michael

  9. Sue Chambers says:

    This is a fantastic article. I shall be forwarding the link to your blog to my contacts.

  10. Paul Isaacs says:

    Dear Michael

    Again a brilliant article about speech development certain word amused me as young infant because I didn’t process them as words but multiple sounds which I would listen to over and over again my receptive language is still rather poor in terms of how much meaning I was picking up but I still continue to develop it as well as my expressive language which is made up of what I call refined echolalia which is a massive bag log of pre-worded sounds (which have meaning) cobbled together from my old TV shows I used to listen to years ago.

    Kind regards

    Paul Isaacs

    Autistic Speaker, Trainer, Consultant and Author

  11. Michael, you convey the link between listening and speech development so well and emphasize the importance of those ‘thousands and thousands of listening opportunities’ that we must provide for our children. I have always been a fan of singing and making up silly rhymes with children so echo your sentiments. A highly entertaining read, thank you!

    Hilary Preece, Early Years Consultant

  12. In my opinion this is a great post! It is always valuable to help adults understand the importance of hearing and using repeated language to make the brain connections needed for verbal language. The brain is experience dependent, so a child HAS to be exposed to rich and direct language throughout the day to make the needed brain connections. (and not through TV or DVD’s especially in the first two years)

    I always find it interesting to think about how the brain understands a word weather it is said with a different tone of voice, whispered, spoken with an accent or sung!
    Thank you for your points on the importance of singing.
    This is a post I will be sharing with others.

    Founder of Brain Insights, author and speaker

  13. Ava says:

    Great post so on point, well written..
    As child therapist and songwriter, I love how music helps speech, reading, and emotional literacy:)

  14. caroline says:

    Excellent blog post, it is such an important role to promote language and singing can be done from birth.
    Thank you

  15. JUST WONDERFUL – an addition to the Staff Training and Development File (in my nurseries) INSPIRING! So will network it further afield too.

  16. Tamsin Grimmer says:

    Great blog Michael,
    I totally agree that signing is a fantastic way to learn practically anything! Incidentially, I think I sang my way through my education – making up rhymes and ditties to help me revise and now I make up lots of nonsense songs to sing with my own children and those I work with! I too have used Debbie’s swallow a phonic game, but didn’t call it that – will do from now on! Great stuff – keep it coming! Thank you.
    Tamsin Grimmer
    Early Years Consultant

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