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Ask a REL Response

Brain research on singing and chanting with infants — April 2019


Could you provide information from the brain research literature on using singing and chanting as a strategy to promote vocabulary development (including among dual language learners)?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search in ERIC for research reports and resources on brain research on using singing and chanting as a means to promote vocabulary development among young children, including dual language learners (DLLs). (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

Research References

Cooper, S. (2010). Lighting up the brain with songs and stories. General Music Today, 23(2), 24–30. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Songs and stories have a strong relationship to each other and have the capacity to boost brain development, increase vocabulary, and promote future academic success. The sounds and foundational structures of reading and singing provide young children with successful pathways for advancing language skills, increasing memory, and promoting emerging literacy. They both provide multiple opportunities for engaging in reciprocal vocalizations while simultaneously immersing children in the structure, rhythms, rhymes, and melodic patterns of language. Brain imaging provides researchers and teachers with evidence the songs and stories can ‘light up the brain.’”

Coyle, Y., & Gómez Gracia, R. (2014). Using songs to enhance L2 vocabulary acquisition in preschool children. ELT Journal, 68(3), 276–285. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article looks at the effects of a teaching sequence of song-based activities on the L2 vocabulary acquisition of a group of five-year-old Spanish child EFL learners. Twenty-five preschool children received three 30-minute lessons organized around the presentation and practice of a well-known children’s song. Vocabulary picture tests were administered to each child immediately before and after the teaching sessions, followed by a delayed post-test five weeks later. The findings of this small piece of research seem to provide some evidence to show that teaching new language through a song can lead to the development of children’s receptive knowledge of vocabulary. However, exposure to the song input was insufficient to develop productive knowledge in the majority of the children. Some implications for learning English in preschool are discussed.”

Davis, G. M. (2017). Songs in the young learner classroom: A critical review of evidence. ELT Journal, 71(4), 445–455. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Songs have been a common feature of young learner classrooms for decades, and numerous publications describe how songs should be employed in order to improve motivation and facilitate the acquisition of various aspects of language, including vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and listening skills. However, empirical research examining the effects of songs as used in young learner classrooms remains scarce. This article reviews nine such studies in order to draw general conclusions and pedagogical implications. Findings indicate that songs may be effective at promoting vocabulary acquisition and improving classroom motivation in young learners; other aspects of language such as pronunciation, general oral proficiency, and receptive skills have received little focus in the empirical literature but the research that does exist also shows promising results.”

Trollinger, V. L. (2010). The brain in singing and language. General Music Today, 23(2), 20–23. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article summarizes currently available brain research concerning relationships between singing and language development. Although this is a new field of investigation, there are findings that are applicable to general music teaching classroom. These findings are presented along with suggestions about how to apply them to teaching music.”

Werner, R. (2018). Music, movement and memory: Pedagogical songs as mnemonic aids. TESOL Journal, 9(4), 1–11. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article proposes a theoretical foundation and practical strategies for incorporating pedagogical songs and corresponding gestures into the language classroom. Music and movement are connected to verbal memory, which is a key component of language learning. Music and language are processed in the same areas of the brain, and recent empirical studies conducted with pre-K–12 learners around the world have found a range of benefits when music is integrated into language classrooms. In addition, neuroscientific research has found that presenting text through music can lead to increased recall. Verbal recall can be further enhanced by the incorporation of gesture. Pedagogical songs—created for classroom use and designed to target specific linguistic items—can harness the memory benefits of music for language learning. When teachers create these songs themselves, they can have full control over the songs’ linguistic content. This article outlines three approaches to the creation of pedagogical songs with accompanying examples, so teachers can create lyrics that fit the content they are teaching. Research-based strategies for incorporating gestures and teaching songs are also presented.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Exchange, Inc.: The Early Childhood Leaders’ Magazine

From the website: “Since 1978, over 27,000 early childhood professionals each year rely on Exchange for practical ideas and proven strategies for dealing with the day-to-day challenges of administering an early childhood program.”

REL West note: Exchange Magazine has one resource relevant to this request:

Schiller, P. (2010). Early brain development research review and update. Retrieved from (see p. 27 for information on singing)

National Association of Independent Schools, Independent School Magazine

From the website: “Independent School is the award-winning quarterly magazine published by the National Association of Independent Schools. It provides thought leadership for education leaders, administrators, and practitioners on topics that range from operations and administration to teaching and learning to student wellness to governance—and more. The magazine and the affiliated Independent Ideas blog serve as an open forum for information and trends in elementary and secondary education in general, and independent schools in particular. Independent School has been the premier publication in private education for more than 75 years.”

REL West note: Independent School has one resource relevant to this request:

Winter, E. (2015). When children sing: The important role of music in early childhood learning. Retrieved from


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

[“Research” AND “brain” AND (“singing” OR “chanting”) AND (“dual language learners” OR “DLLs” OR “young English learners”) AND “vocabulary” OR “language development”]

[“Research” AND “brain” AND (“singing” OR “chanting”) AND “preschool”]

[“neuroscience” AND (“singing” OR “chanting”) AND “preschool”]

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.7 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2004 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.