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Blog post Part of special issue: Arts for All: Exploring inclusivity in arts education

A case study exploring what role music can play in integrating students who have English as an additional language into education

Simeon Bates, Music Specialist Teacher/Researcher at Bristol Cathedral Choir School

In 1976 Stevie Wonder sang ‘Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand’. Is this not true? And if so, why is there a widening disconnect between this view and how the subject is valued throughout English education, not least for those identified with English as an additional language (EAL)? It therefore seemed odd when, in my professional experience, students with EAL were either dropped into music lessons aged 14–16 with little or no introduction and expected to achieve well or, conversely, removed from music lessons (aged 11–13) to attend extra English lessons.

Given the socio-political and professionally informed backdrop to this case study, it was designed with three core aims in mind:

  1. To gain a deeper understanding of EAL student integration.
  1. To gain a deeper understanding of how music can support this.
  1. To explore the value of student voice in educational research.

In reviewing the current literature in which I drew upon a range of philosophical, pedagogical and theoretical positions across domains that I believed to be pertinent, three themes came out (Arnot et al., 2014; Brandt et al., 2012; Patel, 2008); these were:

  • The criticality of language acquisition and development in an EAL student’s social integration.
  • The importance of socialisation in one’s integration within a secondary school context.
  • The power of music’s universal appeal (which has been made more accessible through the use of technology in music lessons).

I intended to gain rich qualitative data using a mix of collection tools and so adopted the following methods:

  • Questionnaire – pictorial and translated adaptations for all participants to complete, the results from which informed group discussion, as well as providing raw quantitative data.
  • Group Discussion – a series of three 50-minute, largely unstructured, conversations with all 12 participants (aged 11–16 and from which eight languages other than English were represented). The topics of discussion were based on the themes highlighted in the literature and questionnaire and aimed to highlight the value of student voice in obtaining qualitative data.
  • Observation – Underlining the practitioner-led dimension of this research, I (the classroom teacher) was observed teaching a number of the study’s participating students in a mixed-ability music class. This was an opportunity to objectively capture the impact of software-based technology, through which students can realise their musical ideas in real time, on students’ engagement with music.

So, what has this research found?

First, this study emphasised the importance of viewing music as a language, an emotional, accessible and pro-social form of communication that all participating students felt positive about.

‘This study emphasised the importance of viewing music as a language, an emotional, accessible and pro-social form of communication that all participating students felt positive about.’

Second, it underlined the value of music – whether through composition, performance or listening – has on the participating students’ socio-emotional, verbal and non-verbal communication. This was of particular significance in relation to the visual stimulus displayed by music software to communicate the fundamental building blocks of music: pitch, harmony, rhythm and melody.

Finally, this research highlighted the degree to which music can be simultaneously accessible and challenging, thus spanning across ‘Cummins’ quadrant’ (Cummins, 2000). This affirms the innumerable ways into music, whether driven by context or content despite its seemingly complex linguistic nature.

‘I don’t think your first language matters because you can communicate through music.’ (Year 7 Student).

‘Actually, I can’t think of anything in music that is not useful for a new EAL student.’ (Year 9 student)


Arnot, M., Schneider, C., Evans, M., Liu, Y., Welply, O., & Davies-Tutt, D. (2014). School approaches to the education of EAL students: Language development, social integration and achievement. The Bell Foundation.

Brandt, A., Gebrian, M., & Slevc, R. (2012). Music and early language acquisition. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 1–17.

Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power and pedagogy. Multilingual Matters.

Patel, A. (2008). Music, language and the brain. Oxford University Press.