Traditional Songs for Teaching English

One of the reasons I started the Genki English Songs was that I saw many teachers struggling along with traditional songs such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, “Incy Wincy Spider” or the “ABC Song” which at the end of the day didn’t do anything to help the kids communicate in English.

Yeah, there were a few words in there, but most of it was just over the kids’ heads and hence most of the lesson was wasted on words they’d never use.

Heads & Shoulders” though I always thought was cool, because just about every word in there is useful! 🙂

So I was wondering, are there any other traditional songs, like Heads & Shoulders, that you can recommend that contain mainly useful English?

If you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them in the comments!

You never know, I might be able to make up some pictures/videos etc. to help you teach them!

Be genki,


Richard Graham

Hello, I'm Richard Graham. And when I was a kid I found school to be sooooo boring... So I transformed my way of teaching. I listened to what the kids were really wanting to say and taught it in ways they really wanted to learn. The results were magical. So I'm sharing it all with you now...

45 Responses to “Traditional Songs for Teaching English”

  1. Janet Gray

    Old McDonald Had a Farm–great for acting out “here, theré, everywhere.”

    I LOVE to sing “This Land is Your Land”–perfect for acting out.
    The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.

  2. Janet Gray

    Another song I like to do is “If you’re happy and you know it …clap your hands.”

  3. Janet Gray

    HOkey Pokey song: great for “in”, “out,” “shake”, plus body parts.

  4. Liz

    I wouldn’t call it a traditional song, but something similar to “Head&Shoulders” that I used to sing at camp called “Tony Chestnut”:

    “Tony Chestnut knows I love you. Tony knows. Tony knows. Tony Chestnut knows I love you. Tony Chestnut knows.”

    And you touch your “toes-knees-chest-head (nut)-nose-point to self-love sign-point to you” etc.

    Another one I love, again not so traditional and from camp, is “Roostashaw”.

    Teacher: Thumbs up (*plus the action)
    Kids: Thumbs up.
    Everyone: And roostashaw roostashaw roostashaw shaw. A roostashaw roostashaw roostashaw shaw. (*I do this while circling my thumbs in a circle, and bouncing a little)
    Teacher: Thumbs up.
    Kids: Thumbs up.
    Teacher: Wrists together.
    Kids: Wrists together.
    Everyone: And roostashaw roostashaw roostashaw shaw. A roostashaw roostashaw roostashaw shaw. (*I do this while circling my thumbs in a circle, and bouncing a little)

    And you just keep adding until it’s “Thumbs up/Wrists together/elbows together/knees together/stomach out/butt out/tongue out” and at the end you are in a crazy pretzel shape and the kids are dying of laughter. I’ve used this with my preschoolers and elementary (though some of my 5th and 6th graders are almost too cool for it, hahaha)

  5. John

    Re: Traditional Songs

    How about ‘If You’re Happy and You Know it’? I like this song and it’s customisable.

    cheers, John

  6. Mike Konig

    I have always liked the “Hokey Pokey” because it is an energetic song that teaches body parts, left and right and turn around. It is a good intro or review for directions or just to wake up a sleepy class early in the morning.

    Mike Konig
    Hyogo Prefecture, Japan

  7. Dulce

    In last days I found a great song with the Addams’ family to teach DAYS OF THE WEEK.

  8. Jennifer

    Baa Baa Black Sheep is a good one for me… there aren’t many words and the kids love it… I also use head and shoulders, if your’re happy… Hockey Pockey… they like the songs even if they don’t undersand the words easily because they know them in their own language – we even did Hey diddle diddle the other day and they knew the meaning because it has been translated..

  9. Julia

    Hi Richard!

    Traditions are our roots, so I don’t think teachers of English should refuse traditional songs. It’s always good if kids can understand a few words in each. They will get the rest later, and now it will develop their background knowledge.

    But I also vote for such traditional songs which can be presented with gestures for as many words as possible to teach the kids meanings without a direct translation. And what’s more important that words phrases from these songs can be used in games.

    I like “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”,”The Ants Go Marching”, “Here We Go Looby Loo”, “The Wheels on the Bus”,”Kookaburra”.

    Best regards for everyone!

  10. Nathalie

    Hockey Pockey (!!!), Three little ducks, Three red cherries

  11. Sonja

    I always use the “Hokey Pokey” because it’s fun. I also do “If you’re happy..” because you can customize it with a lot of words like “tired, angry, bored, hungry, …”.
    …And the kids love the “Little Teapot”

  12. Sonja

    I almost forgot, I also sing “Five little ducks” (teaching after teaching family members and also including near, far, over, under,…) which kids love to act out and “Five little monkeys”

  13. Gudrun

    You are sooo right about that, Richard!!! That is why I LOVE your songs!!! They’re easy and cool!

    I agree with the others on the traditional songs such as Old MacDonald – but much slower PLEASE!!! – Hokey Pokey, Five little monkeys, The Mulberry Bush, If you’re happy and you know it, The Wheels on the Bus, etc.
    It’s not only all those many words in the traditional songs but often also the speed that overwhelms kids who learn English as a second language! So please consider that, too!
    As usual, thanks!

  14. Nena

    My absolute favorite is SING A RAINBOW! kid never forget the colors!

    also use WIND THE BOBBIN UP (because it teaches POINT TO (window, door, floor, ceiling). IF YOUR HAPPY is another favorite one. TEN LITTLE INDIANS.

  15. Sunsook Han

    I use “Down by the Bay”. 1. You can teach names of the animals for younger kids. 2. Rhyming words

  16. Brian

    I teach 4-7 yr olds and have found that with “If you’re happy and you know it”, they just sing “If you’re happy, neh, neh, neh, clap your hands!”, so I changed it to “If you’re happy, happy, happy, clap your hands” and it works much better, lots of repetition. Then I added in the other emotions

    If you’re sad, sad sad, cry boohoo, BOOHOO
    If you angry, angry, angry, stamp your feet
    If you’re tired, tired, tired, go to sleep
    If you’re scared, scared, scared, hide your eyes
    If you’re hungry, hungry, hungry, eat some food
    If you’re thirsty, thirsty, thirsty, drink some water

    Lots of fun singing and doing the associated actions

  17. Olivier

    I like the song if you’re happy, but it would be cool if the song included more feelings (sad, angry, scared, happy, sleepy), and if the song rhythm was fast.

  18. Ruth

    I agree with everyone else …. Wheels on the bus, happy and you know it … As Gudrun says, Old McDonalds Farm has so much potential for animal vocab and fun noises but is just too fast. Way too fast! I’ve also used 2 little dicky birds but more for the fun factor of using puppets and capturing their attention (calming activity) at the end of a lively session.

  19. Amanda

    I use a lot of songs with my infant groups and they love really simple things like skidamarink, ten little monkey’s jumping on the bed, hickory dickory dock, ten green bottles, bingo, rain, rain go away, hockey pockey, one finger, one thumb keep moving… if I think of any more, I’ll add another comment!!!

  20. Maite

    One little finger, ten in the bed, make a circle, slippery fish


  21. Charlie

    I am the Music Man is always a favourite with my kindergarten children. I sing the music man words, which are a bit more complicated, then they ask with a big shrug “What can you play?” and then join in with all the musical instruments.

    We also sing Wheels on the Bus, Ten little Indians, and Old MacDonald (though I also haven’t found a recording yet that isn’t too fast or too slow and includes all the fun repetitions of the animals sounds.)

  22. Dillon Frost

    1….2….345 once I caught a fish alive, 678910 then I let it go again. Why did you let it go? Because it bit my finger so. Which finger did it bite? This little finger on my right!

    From Dillon

    One of my favourites

  23. carmencita

    I use the “Ten Little Indians” for Toddlers ´cause they can count and also have fun. Kids put hand up and closed. They open a finger while counting and singing ” one little two little three little Indians, four, little five little six little Indians, seven little eight little nine little Indians, ten little Indian Boys/Girls.
    Then backwards: Ten little, nine little eight little Indians, and so on and at the end when there´s only one Indian, kids say “one little Indian LEFT”.
    Another one is Open, shut them while opening and closing your fingers. Here it goes ” Open, shut them, Open, shut them, Give a little twist, clap. clap , clap, etc. and each time you can go faster by telling the sts. “faster”, a little faster, etc.

  24. Kolinda

    Hokey Pokey, If you are happy, Old McDonald, Ten in the bed, Ten little Indians,This is the way…..

  25. Mary

    You could make a whole CD with all the traditional suggestions, wouldn’t that be great!! hint, hint!! I like Wheels on the bus, Hokey Pokey, and Old MacDonald. Some other ones are This Old Man and Mary Had a Little Lamb.

    Can’t wait to see what you choose!!

  26. Elizabeth Okafor

    Hi Richard,

    I agree with the others on traditional songs such as:
    (1) Three blind mice, three blind mice,
    See how they run, see how they run,
    They all ran after the farmer’s wife
    who cut off their tails with a carving knife
    Did you ever see such a thing in your life
    As three blind mice.(children cherish it a lot).

    (2) If I have a wing like the dove,
    I wld fly, fly away
    over the mountain,
    over the sea where my friends or teachers are waiting
    for me.

    (3) H, I, P for hip for the hippopo,
    P,O,P,O for the hippopo and T, A, M, U,S
    for the hippopotamus – HIPPOPOTAMUS! (children cannot do without this song, very lifely song)

    (4) Roll, roll, roll your boat,
    gentle down the stream,
    merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
    life is but a dream.


  27. Gudrun

    I will definitely NOT teach Three blind mice to “my” kids!!!!!!

  28. Terespain

    I have told the following stories to my students, we have sung and danced plus performed them. They love performing, acting out, etc.
    For example with “The Three Billy Goats” and
    “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the bed”. They loved this one.

  29. Catherine Butler

    Hi Richard,

    One song that I have found that works wonders is all the boys and girls. I can’t find it on the internet for you but I have a CD in my class room if you need details. The idea is that the boys and girls do actions at different times i.e.:

    All the boys are…sitting on the floor, all the boys are sitting on the floor and the girls are swimming in the ocean (boys sit down while girls do swimming actions). Then it is girls sitting down while boys swim.

    Next you can have : climbing up the tree, eating a cake etc.

    It’s a good action song.

    Hope this helps.

  30. Carol

    One great song is the “Green grass grows all around” which uses in/on and simple nature vocab, great around Easter and Spring. I found it on a Barney dvd! Repetition is built in, melody is cool and it’s easy to come up with gestures.

    Richard, if I remember correctly, there is a thread for this on the forum, but it’s old…!

  31. Ana Cati

    Hi, Richard,
    I only use Head & Shoulders and it really works. But I also like , Hockey pockey, Who Stole the Cookies, The Farmer in the Dell, Ten in the Bed, because the children like action, using their body. I tried hand clapping songs like A Sailor went to Sea as an extra word ” sailor” for jobs or Ms Mary Mack. I add jump rope games like Cinderella(for the numbers), Apples, Pears, Peaches and Plums (for the months). They really really enjoy and they all get involved in class.

  32. Ana Cati

    Hi, Richard,
    I only use Head & Shoulders and it really works. But I also like Hockey pockey, Who Stole the Cookies, The Farmer in the Dell, Ten in the Bed, because the children like action using their body. I tried hand clapping songs like A Sailor went to Sea as an extra word ” sailor” for jobs or Ms Mary Mack. I add jump rope games like Cinderella(for the numbers), Apples, Pears, Peaches and Plums (for the months). They really really enjoy and in class.

  33. Jennifer

    I agree with almost all the song suggestions already made and was actually glad to hear of some new ones I’ll have to investigate.
    I have two favorites that work with preK to 3rd grade. First is the “open them, close them” chant which someone mentioned. But I learned it differently than upthread. I add “creep them, crawl them, creep them crawl them right up to your chin” (thrust chin out, finger wiggle onto it) “open up your mouth” (open mouth wide, wave fingers in front it, make a horrified face), then whip hands behind back and say quickly: “But do not let them in!” Even the 2 year-olds love the surprise ending.
    Just as beloved is the “Baby Bumblebee” song. Again, the presentation is key. First make buzzing noise then grab something out of the air, peek in cupped hands and say with delight: “It’s a bee!” Peek again. “It’s a bumblebee!” Peek again and use a baby voice: “It’s a baby bumbleblee!!!!” (Before I start singing I do say in L1 (German) “I’m going to take my baby bumblebee home to show my Mommy!” Just to give them a hint as to where the song’s heading). I do different versions based on the kids’ age. In kindergarten I don’t smash it after it stings me, I “talk to it” – (scold, shaking my finger). Then I say, “What?” hold my cupped hands up to my hear and listen. “Oh, my baby bumblebee wants to be free!” and the last verse we open our hands and set the baby bumblebee free. Finish off by exclaiming: I will never catch a baby bumblebee again!
    The older kids love the smashing, licking up and barfing in the “normal” version.

  34. Petra Bodri

    I use many of the above mentioned songs in a language classroom. I would like to add only one more since I haven’t seen it. When using Head and shoulders, or Tony Chestnut, I start with an easier for the face. which goes like this: The moon is round as round can be, Two eyes, one nose, one mouth, like me! Certainly when saying the words pointing to them first. I find action songs a lot more useful, kids love to move. This is why I love your website.

  35. richard

    Just added Youtube videos to some of the songs!

  36. Jennifer

    I have to come back to add two things. First, I want to point out that “useful” language and songs really depend on the context. I spend one half hour a week with a group of about 15 very attentive and delightful under-threes. I like to say they’re my best group because they do EVERYTHING I do. And they just love “eency weency spider”. They love the hand play although none of them can actually do it. But it fascinates them. And they always remember the big sweeping movement with “WASH the spider out.” So, for this group, it’s a useful song because it keeps them engaged. They like it. That’s almost all that counts in a group of this age, this size and this limited exposure to English.

    Also, if camp and more modern songs count, elementary school kids love the “Brush your teeth” song. Here’s a guy who sings a fun version of it on youtube:

  37. jasi

    where is thumbking.
    one two buckle my shoe.
    do you know the muffin man.
    down by the station.
    looby loo.

  38. Julie

    What about

    “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed a fly. I think she’ll die”

    Older primary school kids like this one.

    I made a kami shibai (paper theatre) kind of book where the old lady has a very flexible jaw and can swallow all the animals.

    I thought it was hilarious anyway!

  39. Geraldine

    Hi Richard and all concerned at Genki

    Thank you for all the wonderful teaching tips always.

    I used to like the song, Open them Shut them

    where my own kids would open and close their hands as they sang.

    With regards,


  40. Chris Cooper

    Lots of great suggestions from everyone on here!

    A few people have mentioned the speed of Old Macdonald Had a Farm, I agree. Recently I’ve had success playing it on the ukulele, which is great because you can control the speed and length and even change the words
    (for younger classes I change ‘here a moo, there a mpp, etc to ‘moo, moo, moo, moo, moo, moo)

    It’s really easy to play (about 3 chords). I’ve been a guitar player for years, but got a cheap ukulele last xmas and have found it works really well with teaching because they are so small and light and easily transportable.

  41. Leona

    -Head Shoulders..Excellent interactive song.
    -The wheels on the bus.
    -Hickory Dickory Dock..the clock strikes one, two upto five…..the kids love this one….great for numbers.
    -The rainbow song including not only rainbow colours..the clouds are white and the sky is grey and it’s raining too but we can sing a rainbow..

  42. Vicky

    I think Brians idea with ‘If you’re happy, happy, happy clap your hands’ etc is a brilliant idea. I’m going to try that with my group of 2-5 year olds! Thanks. Lots of great tips here!

  43. Susan K

    Wow, thanks for the suggestions everyone! Thanks Richard for your cool songs (and I agree that your own versions of suitable traditional children’s songs would be great, not that I want to add to your workload! :))My students enjoyed head, shoulders, knees and toes and I tried to teach ‘1,2,3,4,5, Once I Caught a Fish..’ but the grammar and vocab was a bit advanced as they were beginners. It is a great way to teach all kinds of grammar to little children, though!

    I’ve heard an alternative for ‘Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream..’ As a second verse you can sing, ‘Rock, rock, rock your boat gently down the stream, if you see a crocodile, don’t forget to scream!’ (then everyone screams as loudly as they can!). I found a video for ‘The More We Get Together’ with actions:

    I find it’s always easier to get hold of good songs and teaching materials for young children but harder to find suitable materials for teens and adults. Some songs are suitable for teaching grammar points e.g. R. Kelly ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ (after teaching ‘I can sing but I can’t dance.’ etc.) Although sometimes the words are not sung very clearly. Does anyone know any other suitable songs?

  44. Julie

    Hello from Italy!! It’s been wonderful reading everyone’s suggestions , I use many of the songs mentioned in my classes, I teach kindergarten to fifth grade in Italy, I also use traditional melodies and make up my own words. I have always used my guitar , just recently I have started to use videos in class. Not all classes have interactive boards. When I teach the cardinal points to the fifth grades I teach them this song to the melody of the Christmas song Up On the Housetop. UP IN THE NORTH THE SNOW IS FUN , DOWN IN THE SOUTH THERE’S LOTS OF SUN, EAST AND WEST THE OCEAN’S BLUE I LOVE TO TRAVEL , HOW ABOUT YOU (ME TOO!!) NORTH AND SOUTH EAST AND WEST NORTH AND SOUTH EAST AND WEST , UP IN THE NORTH THE SNOW IS FUN DOWN IN THE SOUTH THERE’S LOT’S OF SUN



    I’ve never shared my songs with anyone except my kids at school so let me know what you think . Thanks

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