Using Chants and Cadences to Promote Literacy Across the Curriculum

Daniel (a pseudonym) had benefitted greatly from the idea that students can creatively represent their ideas in a content area in ways other than traditional spoken and written responses. He was a preservice teacher enrolled in a teacher education program at a small northeastern university. During one class, he shared the following experience he had as a science student in school.

In science class, I wrote [a song] to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” I thought it was pretty cool because, while writing it, I had to think about all of the scientific concepts involved and then figure out how to make them rhyme. I was always thinking about this piece. I could really hear the rhyme in my ears and picture the concepts in my mind. The most important thing, however, is this: Because I had to think about, work with, and write about these concepts, I didn’t memorize them. I really learned them. I still remember them today.

Daniel explained that his teacher often used popular songs to teach important concepts in science class. In this instance, his teacher invited students to write new versions of popular Christmas carols to demonstrate their knowledge of science concepts covered in class. Daniel composed a new version of “Jingle Bells” to demonstrate his understanding of Newton’s laws of physics. He composed this new carol to help him actively learn, not passively memorize, these important laws. The experience left a lasting impression on him. Today, Daniel remembers his Christmas carol vividly and fondly, can sing it without any prompting, and still uses it to identify and explain Newton’s laws of physics.

We were impressed with Daniel’s story. Writing a new version of a famous Christmas carol or any song can be difficult for a student who, like Daniel, is not an experienced or professional songwriter; and it may be especially difficult if it is about a complex topic such as Newton’s laws of physics. We were also inspired by Daniel’s story. Like all teachers, we always look for innovative ways to help students learn effectively and efficiently across the curriculum. For Daniel, creating a new version of a familiar Christmas carol like “Jingle Bells”—with a distinct rhythm, rhyme, and cadence—was an enjoyable, effective, and memorable way for him to learn difficult science content. We wanted to see what would happen if we used a similar strategy with our students, all of whom are middle school teachers enrolled in a graduate course entitled Reading and Writing across the Content Areas.

This article shares a demonstration lesson from our graduate course in which we showed teachers how to use chants and cadences to teach content area material across the curriculum. We selected chants and cadences for two reasons. First, in the past we had used a variety of musical genres such as marching songs, rap music, jump rope rhymes, hand claps, and patriotic songs across the curriculum. We wanted to explore other musical genres, such as chants and cadences, to teach content area material. Second, we wanted participating teachers to actually use chants and cadences in their own classrooms. To achieve this, we felt it was important for the teachers to actually experience the activities that we ultimately wanted their students to experience (Harste, 2004).

Struggling readers: Locating the problem

When students struggle with learning in the classroom, all too often, teachers assume the problem lies primarily, if not exclusively, with the learner. This “way of looking” (Wheatley, 2001) at struggling learners has been particularly prevalent in reading education. When students struggle with reading, teachers tend to look at the reader and not the reading materials. Some teachers, however, know the value of looking elsewhere, or at least looking in more than one place, to explain student disengagement in reading. As one teacher explained:

I’m required to teach special standards in my content area. That’s a good thing. My challenge is not teaching standards. It is understanding why students are bored in class and finding ways to get them engaged. Many teachers think students are just lazy. I don’t think that’s the problem. My hunch is they are bored with the reading materials I am using to teach the standards. I feel like a chef. Each day I plan a meal of delicious readings, but students don’t even nibble. I suspect it’s the curriculum. I need to find ways to make curriculum more appetizing. (Bintz, 2011, p. 34)

This teacher recognized that when things go wrong in the classroom, of course teachers need to look at the learner, but they need to look at the curriculum too. She is right! Middle grades educators need to find ways to create an “appetizing” reading curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory, as recommended by This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (National Middle School Association, 2010; see also Anfara et al., 2003; Erb, 2005; Jackson & Davis, 2000). Chants and cadences are excellent tools for developing integrated curriculum across the content areas—they have the potential to make the curriculum more appetizing.

History of chants and cadences

Writing chants and cadences is an effective way to engage students in learning content while enhancing their literacy skills. Photo by Tim Vacula

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (1999), a cadence is “a rhythmic sequence or flow of sounds in language” (p. 159) and a chant is “a rhythmic monotonous utterance or song” (p. 191). Chants are similar to cadences, in that both possess easily recognizable rhythms; however, chants are different, in that they are most commonly used in sports settings by coaches, fans, and cheerleaders.

Cadences have been used primarily in the military. For example, during the American Revolutionary War, cadences were used by soldiers to gauge the number of steps a marcher or runner took and also to count the sequence of loading and firing a musket. Over time, many cadences have been written and performed by soldiers in the Army, Navy, and Marines. Today, they are used primarily as a way for soldiers to build unity and establish and maintain rapport.

One of the reasons chants and cadences are so popular is that they have recognizable patterns and catchy rhythms and, therefore, are relatively easy to learn. Many use a “call and response” rhythm in which a lead person, such as a drill sergeant, calls out one line and other members respond back. Chants and cadences that use this particular rhythm include “I Don’t Know, But I’ve Been Told,” “Mama, Mama,” “Everywhere We Go,” and “Sound-Off” (also known as the “Duckworth Chant”). Here, we build on this history by using chants and cadences to learn across the curriculum.

Chants and cadences in content area literacy

Little research has been conducted on using chants and cadences in content area literacy. Recent advances in brain research, however, provide some interesting findings related to chants and cadences. For example, much brain research indicates that, from birth until death, the brain actively develops strategic thinking behaviors to make sense of the world (Medina, 2008). Specifically, throughout life, the brain focuses on recognizing patterns and connecting these patterns to larger and larger patterns over time. Humans learn by copying, imitating, and mimicking other people’s behaviors, speech, habits, and mannerisms. In this sense, humans are “patterners” (Gardner, 1985, p. 152) who recognize, utilize, and learn with, from, and through patterns. According to Tankersley (2005),

The brain likes patterns and seeks to connect new learning to prior knowledge and experiences, so it makes sense to provide it with as many ways as possible to connect new information to known information as we are reading. The more ways that knowledge is grounded and secured with links within our mental storehouse, the more accessible and usable the information becomes. (p. 114)

Chants and cadences support what the brain naturally does continually throughout life. They are also entertaining, enjoyable, and innovative ways to learn content area material. According to Silberg and Schiller (2002), “All it takes to unleash the power of rhymes, songs, poems, finger-plays, chants, and tongue twisters is to have fun. And while children are having fun, they will also learn listening skills, vocabulary, and humor” (p. 12).

Chants and cadences are also effective alternatives to memorizing and recalling information from traditional textbooks. Schoenbach, Greenleaf, Cziko, and Hurwitz (1999) captured the importance of alternatives to traditional textbook learning through the voice of one social studies student: “When I think about studying history, the things that come to mind are boring fact and memorizing dates. I think of a boring teacher and a big, huge textbook, and endless nights of studying, outlining, and cramming” (p. 108). This student’s experience is far too common. As Chapin (2011) observed,

Too frequently, students think history is boring because the class is the same from day to day and does not capture their interest. Although content and skills do need to be revisited, if the repeated instruction is at low levels with little or no development of complexity, students gain little. (p. 176)

Chants and cadences are useful alternatives because they draw on the power of rhymes, rhythms, and songs. They can help students make content area material more engaging, informative, and memorable and less boring and dull. Because students become more engaged, they may also learn at a much deeper level than through traditional instruction.

When students create chants and cadences, they apply critical-thinking skills: investigating possibilities, using problem-solving skills, and demonstrating creative thinking. The process of selecting a chant or cadence that best fits a particular subject area involves a variety of critical-thinking skills. Simply stated, “critical thinking involves a complex set of dispositions and abilities including seeking reasons, trying to be well informed, taking into account the total situation, and looking for alternatives” (NCSS, 1994). Creative thinkers use “basic thought processes to develop constructive, novel, or aesthetic ideas or products” (Sunal & Haas, 2011, p. 75).

Lastly, chants and cadences can support writing growth and development. Using the pattern and rhythm of original songs to create new versions helps inexperienced writers stand on the shoulders of expert writers. Hoyt (1999) found this strategy particularly beneficial for reluctant writers interested in writing rap-style music: “I find that even the most reluctant writers enjoy the format and gladly engage in lots of revision to make their phrasing match the rhythm they select” (p. 187).

A demonstration lesson on using chants and cadences

Many students struggle to learn challenging content area material across the curriculum (Ness, 2009), largely due to lack of student interest, even apathy, in important topics like experimental design in science, order of operations in mathematics, cultural and social change in social studies, and inferential thinking in language arts. Many teachers struggle, too, to find innovative ways to help students become interested in topics in which they currently have little or no interest. One method is the use of way-in books. Way-in books are high-quality and often award-winning books that provide students an interesting and engaging “way-in” to a world of topics they might otherwise find uninteresting and even boring (Keene & Zimmerman, 1997). Teachers can incorporate way-in books at the beginning of an instructional unit lesson to generate student interest and “promote student exploration of topics across the curriculum” (Bintz, 2011, p. 35). We decided to develop a demonstration lesson that used way-in books to generate interest in using chants and cadences across the curriculum. The aim of this lesson was to help teachers in our graduate course effectively teach content they themselves had difficulty teaching or their students had difficulty learning.

We introduced the lesson with a text set on chants and cadences (see Figure 1). A text set is a collection of texts that are connected by a theme, topic, genre, or some other feature (Short, Harste, & Burke, 1995). Teachers may use text sets in a variety of ways in all content areas (Bintz, 2011; Bintz & Batchelor, 2012; Bintz, Moore, Wright, & Dempsey, 2011; Bintz, Moran, Berndt, Ritz, & Skilton, 2012: Bintz, Moran, Berndt, Ritz, & Skilton, 2012; Bintz, Wright, & Sheffer, 2011). Students use text sets to read broadly and deeply about a theme or topic and make intertextual connections across texts. Here, we used a text set to introduce chants and cadences to participating teachers.

We invited teachers to browse the text set and, while browsing, read several chants and cadences to become familiar with different rhythms, rhymes, and sounds. Next, we invited them to select a favorite chant or cadence and write a new version that taught content area material they had difficulty teaching or their students had difficulty learning. Finally, teachers wrote and illustrated the new version and performed it aloud to the class. As a culminating event, teachers wrote reflections on the experience. The following are samples from the demonstration lesson organized by content area. The samples were selected because they represent different content areas; accurately reflect the original chant or cadence; contain accurate and substantial content area material; use rich and descriptive language; and read smoothly and fluently, as if to create a musical reading that rolls off the tongue (Tunnell, Jacobs, Young, & Bryan, 2012).

Social studies: “My First Amendment Rights” Figure 1 depicts a chant written by a middle grades teacher about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He wrote it for a very personal reason: “First Amendment rights are important. In school I had been taught many things about First Amendment rights but didn’t remember any of it.” He hoped this chant would help his students really learn this content and not easily forget these important rights.

This chant identifies important aspects of the First Amendment. It highlights that this amendment provides U.S. citizens with certain freedoms and rights, such as freedom of religion, speech, and the press; the right to assemble peacefully; and the right to express and resolve grievances. The author did not write this chant to provide young adolescents with a deep and thorough understanding of the First Amendment. Rather, he wrote it to help build student background knowledge and spark interest in this important amendment. He also wanted it to function as an invitation for students to start conversations and ask new questions as they developed a deeper understanding of and appreciation for this and other amendments.

Mathematics: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”

The chant in Figure 2 was written by a middle grades language arts teacher who was interested in integrating literacy and mathematics. In the past, she had collaborated with math teachers and noticed that students had difficulty understanding order of operations, an important concept in the math curriculum. She wrote this chant to share with math colleagues in the hope that it would help students learn this concept more effectively, enjoyably, and meaningfully. The chant identifies and explains some fundamental understandings of order of operations. In mathematics, an operation can refer to adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, squaring, and so forth. The order of operations refers to the sequence or rules that need to be followed when doing calculations. The catchy phrase “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” is the basis for the mnemonic PEMDAS, which is commonly used by mathematics teachers to help students understand, remember, and correctly use the order of operations. The letters stand for:

1. Items in Parentheses
2. Exponents
3. Mmultiplication and Dvision (left to right)
4. Addition and Ssubtraction (left to right)

Language arts: “Verbs”

“Verbs” was written by a middle grades language arts and special education teacher (see Figure 3). She wrote it because each year she struggles to teach parts of speech, primarily because her students find the topic dull and boring. She hoped this chant would spark student interest in this topic. Moreover, while this chant focuses on verbs, she also hoped it would motivate students to write their own version of the chant on a different part of speech.

The chant introduces students to verbs, particularly action verbs, as an important part of speech. It provides several examples of action verbs and italicizes each for emphasis. Non-action verbs are also included (e.g., am, is, are). The teacher wanted to use this chant to highlight differences between action (talk) and non-action verbs (am) and to help students understand that non-action verbs are forms of the verb “to be” and represent simple tense verbs. She also wanted to use this chant to teach writing—specifically, to show students that action verbs are more descriptive and powerful than passive verbs.

Science: “Rainforests Have Four Layers”

A language arts teacher wrote a cadence related to science titled “Rainforests Have Four Layers” (see Figure 4). She wrote it primarily for her young daughter who, at the time, was studying the rainforest in kindergarten and, secondarily, for her middle grades students who enjoyed earth and environmental science. She wanted to help her daughter and her students better understand the term “ecosystem,” the complexity of an ecosystem (i.e., a rainforest), and the variety of species that live in a rainforest ecosystem. The cadence teaches that a rainforest has many layers, identifies and names the different layers, and provides hints that each layer is almost its own biome. The cadence separates each layer, describes the primary occupants who inhabit those layers, and includes animal names and interesting information about them. Additionally, this cadence orders the layers in terms of height (i.e., highest to lowest) and concludes with a dramatic ending about how the rainforest is being eradicated. Many species are disappearing, along with indigenous groups who have called the rainforest their home for centuries, due to over-logging and the quest for new pharmaceutical resources.

Lessons learned

We learned several lessons from this experience. First, we learned that the participating teachers were actively engaged throughout the lesson. Specifically, they were actively engaged in problem posing and problem solving. They spent time posing and reflecting on questions about content they have difficulty teaching or their students have difficulty learning. They also spent time solving problems, such as deciding which chant or cadence would be best to use to write a variation that could teach content area material and determining how the chant or cadence could be written to teach content area material while maintaining the catchy rhythm and rhyme of the original. Participating teachers also actively engaged in personal reflection as they shared with others how this experience helped them be better teachers and learners.

Second, we learned that participating teachers became authors, not recipients, of integrated and exploratory curriculum. That is, they personalized their own curriculum by creating and sharing new interdisciplinary curricular resources. These resources were meaningful to them and responsive to their students’ needs. In this instance, they personally created interdisciplinary curriculum by developing, performing, and reflecting on writing chants and cadences to integrate content areas.

Finally, teachers in our course were actively engaged in critical thinking. In their written reflections, many teachers discussed how this experience broadened and strengthened their thinking. One teacher’s reflection was particularly illustrative:

I have a real sense of authorship and ownership about my chant on the amendment. I have never felt that before. While writing it, and especially when revising it, I started thinking about the amendment in a much deeper way than I ever had before. In many ways, it was a balancing act. Not only did I need to make sure I was communicating historically correct and accurate information about the amendment, I had to stay true to the original chant. I had to analyze what was most important for my students to know while creating language and manipulating words to fit the rhythm of the chant. I was surprised at how deep my thinking became when I worked on word manipulation. I had not envisioned this being a major factor. However, throughout this experience I was proud of the amount of thinking and learning I did and am looking forward to passing this experience on to my students.

Final thought

All the participating teachers found this experience enjoyable, personally rewarding, and professionally informative. According to them, the keys to their success and enjoyment were personal interest, active engagement, and thoughtful writing and revision. We hope this article will be a key to success for other teachers interested in developing and implementing relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory curriculum in the middle grades and, more specifically, for teachers interested in using chants and cadences to teach content area material across the curriculum.

This article reflects the following This We Believe characteristics: Meaningful Learning, Challenging Curriculum, Multiple Learning Approaches

Previously published in Middle School Journal, November 2012


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Lisa Ciecierski is a doctoral candidate at Kent State University in Ohio. E-mail:

William P. Bintz is a professor in the Department of Teaching, Leadership, and Curriculum Studies at Kent State University in Ohio. E-mail: