ESL Through Music Website: Supporting Articles

The Effect of Music on Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition

This Document Originally Appeared in
Volume 6, Number 3
Spring 1993

Suzanne L. Medina, Ph.D.
School of Education
Graduate Education Department
California State University, Dominguez Hills
1000 East Victoria Street
Carson, CA 90747
Fax:  (310) 514-0396

It is currently a common practice to use songs in the classroom to support second language acquisition. The literature abounds with positive statements concerning music as a vehicle for first and second language acquisition. At the same time, empirical support for music as a vehicle for second language acquisition is lacking and there is concern that music may be simply a supplemental activity with little instructional value.  In this study, the effect of music on the acquisition of English vocabulary in a group of second grade limited-English proficient children is reported.

Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition

In recent years, second language researchers have concerned themselves with the acquisition of vocabulary and have distinguished between vocabulary that is acquired incidentally and vocabulary that is acquired intentionally. During the preschool years, children rely exclusively on the oral language they listen to in order to acquire their first language. This acquisition of language takes place before children can read and without explicit instruction of any kind. Furthermore, even after children begin to attend school, they continue to acquire vocabulary that has not been learned formally. Of the 3,000 words the average child acquires each year, only a portion is learned as a result of the instruction received in school. Thus, the remainder of these words must be learned incidentally from a variety of sources (Nagy & Herman, 1987).

There is substantial evidence that vocabulary may be acquired incidentally by reading or listening to oral stories (Cohen, 1968; Elley, 1989; Eller, Papps, & Brown, 1988). This incidental acquisition of vocabulary is explained by Krashen (1989) within the context and framework of his "Input Hypothesis." According to this hypothesis, new and unfamiliar vocabulary is acquired when its significance is made clear to the learner. Meaning is conveyed by providing extralinguistic support such as illustrations, actions, photos, and realia. This, in turn, results in what Krashen refers to as "comprehensible input" since the linguistic input is made comprehensible to the second language leamer. Krashen further states that the amount of comprehensible input is proportionate to the amount of vocabulary acquired. Thus, vocabulary is incidentally acquired through stories because familiar vocabulary and syntax contained in the stories provide meaning to less familiar vocabulary. Picture illustrations support the reading process by clarifying the meaning of unfamiliar words (Hudson, 1982; Omaggio, 1979; Mueller, 1980; Bradsford & Johnson, 1972).

Apart from oral stories, there may be other means of bringing about the incidental acquisition of vocabulary. Songs share all of the same elements of an oral story, except that the vehicle through which the song is conveyed is musical rather than spoken. Furthermore, if the oral story and song are identical, with the exception of the vehicle, then it follows that acquisition of the song's vocabulary may be enhanced by simultaneously providing extralinguistic support (e.g., pictures, actions).

Music and Verbal Learning

While teachers commonly use songs in the classroom to promote second language acquisition, empirical support for this practice is lacking. Nonetheless, the literature a bounds with statements regarding the positive effects of music on first and second language acquisition (Jalongo & Bromley, 1984; McCarthy, 1985; Martin, 1983; Mitchell, 1983; Jolly, 1975). There is evidence that music benefits wrote memorization.  When various types of verbal information (e.g., multiplication tables, spelling lists) have been presented simultaneously with music, memorization has been enhanced (Gfeller, 1983; Schuster & Mouzon, 1982). The literature also indicates that a rhythmic presentation benefits memorization, especially when the verbal information is meaningful (Glazner, 1976; Shepard & Ascher, 1973; Weener, 1971). Music has also proven beneficial when the objective has been to retain the meaning of the verbal information (Isem, 1958; Botarri & Evans, 1982).

The psychological literature offer evidence of the positive relationship between music and verbal leaming. Yet, can music promote second language acquisition as well? Can music, when coupled with the targeted second language, promote language acquisition to the same extent as other traditional and nonmusical approaches (e.g., oral stories)?

A second question is related to the first. The psychological literature points to the interactive relationship between music and meaning.  That is, although meaningful information is memorized with greater success than less meaningful information, retention is even greater when more meaningful verbal information is learned with music. As has been pointed out in the second language research, meaning also occupies a significant role in the acquisition of a second language.  Krashen has demonstrated that language acquisition results when the target language item is heavily laden with meaning. Given this, might the same interactive relationship between music and meaning prove beneficial for language acquisition as it has for rote memorization?

The purpose of this investigation was to determine:

1.  Will music bring about language acquisition to the same extent as other more traditional nonmusical approaches (e.g., oral stories)?

2.  Will illustrations improve vocabulary acquisition?

3.  Is there a strong interactive relationship between the instructional medium (music/no music) and extralinguistic support (illustrations/no illustrations)?

In this study, vocabulary acquisition was investigated under four conditions: (1) Music, (2) No Music, (3) Illustrations, (4) No Illustrations. This study was structured using a control group pretest-posttest design with matching and repeated measures, a variation of the randomized design (Isaac & Michael, 1989).


Subjects participating in this study were 48 second-grade Spanish speaking limited-English-proficient students from two classrooms. All students were enrolled in an elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District during the 1990-91 academic year. The elementary school was located in a suburb of Los Angeles that was largely low-income and Hispanic.

Commercially produced audiocassettes with accompanying big book illustrations were used for this investigation. These materials contained a song and spoken version of A Surprise for Benjamin Bear by Nelson (1989). This story was selected because it conformed to a number of criteria. At its most basic level, the story used for this study had to be illustrated and have tape-recorded sung and spoken versions.

Additional criteria were also met. The story illustrations were large, colorful, and clearly illustrated key vocabulary in the story. The story had content and vocabulary appropriate for second grade children and contained at least 20 vocabulary words that would be unfamiliar to some of the children. The voices heard on the tapes were clear, comprehensible, and equally appealing. The tempo of the sung version did not prevent the comprehension of words. The lyrics of the sung and spoken versions were identical. The melody used in the sung version was simple, uncomplicated, and pleasing to the ear.

The testing instrument designed for this study was patterned after that used by Elley (1989) to measure the amount of vocabulary acquired from listening to oral stories. The instrument, used for both pretest and posttest, consisted of a 20-item multiple-choice paper and pencil test. Since the subjects were exposed to oral language, written words did not appear on the test. Instead, each test item consisted of a target word, which was orally presented by the investigator, and multiple-choice options consisting of four illustrations. The students heard a word presented orally three times by the investigator. Students were asked to circle the illustration from among the four options that they believed best matched this spoken word.


Prior to administering treatments four equivalent groups were created by matching subjects on the basis of vocabulary pretest scores. Pretest scores belonging to all subjects were listed from lowest to highest. The experimenter divided each list into fourths, then randomly assigned the subjects associated with each fourth to one of four groups. When all students had been assigned to a group, the groups were then randomly assigned to one of the four treatment conditions.

The experimenter met with teachers and made classroom visitations to establish rapport with the children. Two days later the vocabulary pretest was administered followed by a four-day treatment period. During the treatment period, tapes were played three consecutive times. At the end of this treatment period, the first posttest was administered, while the second vocabulary posttest was administered one and one-half weeks later.

All subjects were instructed to listen to the story which was played on the audiocassette. The Music treatment group heard the story in its sung version while the No Music group heard the spoken rendition of the story (i.e., oral story). Subjects in the Illustration treatment groups were shown large, color illustrations of the story while listening to the tape-recording. The words that had been printed on each page of the storybook were covered with strips of paper. Subjects were able to derive the meaning of unfamiliar words from illustrations. Subjects in the No Illustration group were not shown illustrations; therefore, they extracted meaning from contextual information.

Analysis of Data

In order to determine the short-term and long-term effects of music and illustrations, vocabulary acquisition was measured prior to the treatment in the pretest and at two additional times: at the end of the four-day treatment period (posttest 1) and one and one-half weeks after the last treatment (posttest 2). Consequently, the amount of vocabulary acquired was determined by computing two vocabulary gain scores. These compared the pretest to posttest 1 and posttest 2. Two two-way analyses of variance (ANOVA) were performed, one for each set of gain scores. A level of statistical significance of .05 was set.

Results and Discussion

The analyses of variance revealed that the Music and No Music treatments produced comparable amounts of vocabulary acquisition. It follows that music does not adversely affect second language acquisition. Instead, it is a viable vehicle for second language acquisition. This finding is consistent with the statements that have been made regarding the efficacy of music for language acquisition (McCarthy, 1985; Jalongo & Bromley, 1984; Martin, 1983; Mitchell, 1983; Jolly, 1975). Consequently, results from this investigation have succeeded in providing empirical support for previously unsupported statements.

The Illustration and No Illustration treatments did not produce statistically significant effects. The raw data, however, did reveal a pattern: Illustration treatment groups consistently produced higher levels of vocabulary acquisition than No Illustration groups, both in the short and long term. This general pattern favoring illustrated treatments was expected in light of the research on comprehensible input (Krashen, 1985) and picture illlustrations (Hudson, 1982; Omaggio, 1979; Mueller, 1980).

Although the interaction between music and illustration was not statistically significant, the raw data indicated that the combination of music and illustration consistently yielded the highest average amount of vocabulary gain. The positive effects produced by the combination of music and illustrations were predicted from the psychology literature. Several studies reported positive effects from the combination of music and meaning upon memory retention (Weener, 1971; Glazner, 1976; Shepard & Ascher, 1973).

Illustrations seem to boost the effects of music, yet, could additional extralinguistic support, beyond that supplied by illustrations, further maximize music? Both Cohen (1968) and Elley (1989) demonstrated that the addition of follow-up-activities or illustrated oral story readings resulted in greater vocabulary acquisition. When Elley compared illustrated oral stories with and without vocabulary elaboration, vocabulary acquisition was highest when additional support was provided. Therefore, it is possible that vocabulary gain could be increased with multiple forms of extralinguistic support.


Findings of this study have definite curricular implications. If music is a viable vehicle for second language acquisition to the same extent as other nonmusical means, then songs can no longer be regarded as recreational devices, having little instructional value. Consequently, educators might consider giving music a more prominent role in the second language curriculum. This can easily be accomplished by increasing the frequency with which songs are used in the curriculum. Not only can children benefit from additional exposure to the second language; songs can provide the classroom teacher with an alternative means of promoting second language acquisition apart from nonmusical means such as oral stories.


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Copyright 2000 Suzanne L. Medina. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be copied or reproduced in any form or by any means, photocopying or otherwise, without written permission. Exception: Teachers may duplicate these materials as long as the copyright symbol and statement appear on all copies made. Fax: (310) 514-0396. E-Mail: