Eight New Ways to Include Traditional Songs

By Lisa D. Heintz, M.Ed

Eight New Ways to Include Traditional Songs


Folk/Traditional songs are part of our history, culture and oral tradition. Passing these songs on to the next generation ensures that everyone in the group shares a foundation of the same songs so that they may be referenced and adapted to fit new interests and needs. Once you and your students are familiar with a traditional/folk song, it’s time to get creative! New versions based on familiar tunes are often called “piggyback” or “zipper” songs (as you “zip in” new words/phrases in place of traditional ones). Piggyback songs are a wonderful teaching tool that support immediate success.


Here are a few ideas to add to your musical tool kit:


  • 1) Choose a traditional song that includes spelling words, like “That’s the Way to Spell Chicken” (or “The Chicken Song”--use a culturally relevant version published after 1980 such as the version by Nancy Cassidy) and adapt it to other vocabulary words or engaging topics.

“P - because it's full of pepperoni

I - because I love it so much!

Z - it tastes so zesty

Z - it's in the shape of a zero

A - I’d eat it any day!”



“There is a food I love to eat and PIZZA is its name-o:

 P-I-Z-Z-A (x 3)

And Pizza is its name-oh!”


While the developmental stage of your students may not warrant “spelling words,” the process of learning the song reinforces letter-sound correlations, which will aid in future phonics learning. This process is much like the way the “ABC Song” (usually learned by rote long before it makes sense to children as a phonics activity) later aids in recalling letter sequence and alphabetizing.


2) Help students learn how to spell their name (or other relevant words) using all or part of a traditional tune with a clear rhythm that matches the number of letters, and adding your own ending, e.g.

3-letter word/name: “Hot Cross Buns”



That spells Ben

That spells Ben



4-letter word/name: “Baa Baa Black Sheep”


Spells Lisa’s name.


Can you spell your name? (Next child sings their name)


5-letter word/name: “BINGO” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” 


6-letter word/name: “Happy Birthday (to You)”

O-L-I-V-E-R (x 4)


7-letter word/name: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”

 P-A-T-T-E-R-N (x5)

 (A) pattern is something that repeats. (bold emphasizes the beat)


or “Old MacDonald”


 A pattern must repeat. (x2)

With a P-A-T-T

And an E-R-N

A pattern must repeat.


3)  Write each line of a song on a sentence strip. Add picture cues to key words, if needed. Provide students with a pocket chart and encourage them to arrange the strips in sequence and sing the song while using voice-print pairing (pointing at each word as it is sung). For more advanced readers, cut the lines into words or phrases.


4) Use the “cloze” or “Guess the Covered Word” strategy to encourage and informally assess comprehension by omitting/covering certain words in the song lyric. The student must provide the missing word using context, background knowledge, syntax, vocabulary and rhyme cues in the text. Picture cues should be added for younger children. Example: “Five Green and Speckled Frogs

Green Speckled Frogs Song

5) Sing a Book! Select a book with short, simple text like I Went Walking by Sue Williams or Polar Bear, Polar Bear What Did You Hear? by Eric Carle and set the words to a traditional tune like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”


“I went walking

What did you see?

I saw a black cat

Looking at me.”


Other examples:

            Silly Sally by Audrey Woods (tune: “I’m a Little Acorn Brown”)

            Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell (tune: “Baby Bumble Bee” adapted)

                        I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet

                        They sent an elephant--imagine that!

                        He was too big, I sent him back.

I wonder what they’ll send next? (spoken) [Repeat verse for each new animal].

A Teeny Tiny Toad by Peggy Archer (tune: “Over in the Meadow”)


6) Rewrite all or part of the lyrics to fit your own theme, activity, or in response to children’s interests.


  1. Children love to hear their name in a song, so simply replace “Jack and Jill” with the names of students, e.g. “Sophia and Liam.” If the song does not include a name, replace “he” or “she” or other pronouns (dame, king, mistress, etc) with a child’s name: “Cock-a-doodle doo, Anika lost her shoe!” If you want to maximize the number of names used, just add them in: “Cock-a-doodle doo, Anika and Jeremy and Lizzy lost their shoes!” Rewrite lyrics to create a new song for a transition, greeting, closing, group or project interest, or any other purpose.

  2. The easiest way to do this is to write down the concept you wish to convey (transition, welcome, birthday, new number song, etc) along with a few key words you want to include. Before writing the new lyrics, choose a short familiar tune that you’d like to use (select more wordy songs if the concept is more complex). Then, while reviewing the original lyrics and tune, think about your first line only. Write that down. Once you have the first line, determine where the rhymes need to be according to the original rhyming pattern (Every other line? Every pair of lines?)--that will help you create the additional lines.


Tune: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”

Purpose: Transition to snack

Key words/concepts: snack, put things away where they belong


Now it’s time to have our snack

Please put toys and games right back

Where they belong so that we may

Find them there another day

Now it’s time to have our snack

Please put toys and games right back


Tune: “All Around the Kitchen” - used as a call & response

Purpose: Clean up/transition to book reading on the large rug

Key words/concepts: rug, clean up, book time


Spoken: “It’s time for us to put our things away and come to the group rug for a story. Where do we need to clean up?” (students sing response as they work)


T: All around the classroom

S: Cock-a-doodle-doodle doo

T: All around the classroom

S: Cock-a-doodle-doodle doo

T: In the Writing Center

S: Cock-a-doodle-doodle doo

T: In the Block Corner

S: Cock-a-doodle-doodle doo…


(Continue by inserting each area of the room until all areas have been identified and students have cleaned them and met you on the group rug).


*You may wish to introduce the song with the concept that as soon as the last area is sung, everything must be cleaned up and all must be seated on the rug.


*Each “verse” (area) could be sung/called by someone you tap in each area of the room with you and the rest of the class responding.


Tune: “Did You Ever See a Lassie?” (aka “The More We Get Together”)

Purpose: Welcome song (sing as students enter the classroom first thing, or after being outside)

Key words/concepts: welcome/happy to be here/glad you’re here; together


We’re so happy that you’re with us,

You’re with us, you’re with us,

We’re so happy that you’re with us

For work and for play.

Here’s Emma and Aliyah

And Jayjuan and Hakim

(continue to add pairs of names as needed)

End: We’re so happy that you’re with us

For work and for play!


Tune: “If You’re Happy and You Know It”

Purpose: Students’ special interest: Fossils

Key words/concepts: rock, sediment, brachiopod, bones, skeleton, ancient, limestone, prehistoric, ammonite, search/hunt/find, dinosaur


A bone that’s buried in sediment is a fossil (x2)

A skeleton left behind

Is a note for humankind

A bone that’s buried in sediment is a fossil!


Prehistoric creatures left behind a hint

Where they stood left a very large footprint

In the mud or the limestone

We find signs of shells and bones

Prehistoric creatures left behind a hint.


If you find a shell in limestone it’s a fossil (x2)

If you find a brachiopod

It’s such a thrill to be so awed!

If you find a shell in limestone it’s a fossil!


7) Go Caroling! Caroling was originally for songs of joy and celebration--not for Christmas songs. After your class has secured their Top 20 Playlist, make arrangements for them to go door to door to sing to other classes. Invite students to help select their best, or most engaging, songs to share, and take them “on the road!”


8) Create your own Song Folder in lieu of (or addition to) a Poetry Folder.


The ability to see the lyrics of a song as children sing the words facilitates voice-print pairing, emphasizes left-to-right/top-to-bottom reading, and provides many opportunities for students to practice important reading skills such as identifying capital letters, punctuation, story sequence, etc.


Song Folders also encourage students to sing and read the songs independently--and the more they read, the better their reading skills will be! Simply print the lyrics on a page using a large, plain font, and add picture cues where needed. Enlarge these pages to chart size for ease of use in a group setting while you are teaching the song. As the children become familiar with the song and lyrics, provide the standard sized page to add to their Song Folder. Soon they will have an entire repertoire of lyrics they can read (or at least begin to recognize) which can be sent home occasionally to promote parent-child reading experiences. Use the Song Folders when you go “Caroling”!


There are so many ways to incorporate traditional songs into your everyday curriculum and they all promote fun, engagement, reading (and re-reading) and other important learning and social skills!




Barrett, Margaret S. (2012). Belonging, being and becoming musical: An introduction to children's musical worlds. Children, meaning-making and the arts. Edited by Susan Wright. Pearson Australia.57-81. Why Shared Music Experiences are Important - a Summary.


Dunst, C. J. , Meter, D., & Hamby, D. W. (2011). Relationship between young children’s nursery rhyme experiences and knowledge and phonological and print-related abilities, CELLreviews 2013, v.3(1), 1-12.


Jay, Erin Flynn. Why Preschool Teachers Need Music Education in Their Classrooms.


WalesOnline.com. 3/21/13. How Nursery Rhymes Help Children Learn.


Resources for folk/traditional songs for the classroom


Building a repertoire:


  1. No music background? No worries! Although some of these sources were created with teaching music/piano lessons in mind, they are free and viable resources for learning traditional songs whether you have a musical background or not!

  2. BethsNotesPlus.com is an outstanding free collection of folk/traditional music from all around the world that includes lyrics and written melody. Owner Beth Thompson has organized all of the songs into easy-to-locate categories such as Songs in Minor Keys, Nursery Rhymes, American (Cowboy, regional, Native Indian), Themes (insects, animals, silly songs, etc), as well as types of music (call & response, songs for movement, partner songs, chants, etc). 

  3. Complete List of Camp Songs - a great collection of songs and chants familiar to camp-goers, most of which are in the PD.

  4. FreePianoMethod.com by Mayron Cole provides free midi music files (simplified sound files that take much less digital storage than typical MP3s) of traditional classics that may be downloaded and used in your classroom.

Look for Pre Level One Folk Song Favorites or Level One Folk Song Favorites.

  1. A bonus feature is that the songs may be sped up or slowed down by clicking Playback > Speed and then selecting your preference before saving (downloading) the file. This is a great benefit because so many recorded songs are played too quickly for young learners. You may wish to return to this site to change the speed settings as students learn the song and can handle it at a faster pace. Lyric sheets are also available for download.

  2. The Public Domain Information Project is considered one of the broadest, most current collections of PD music available in the U.S. (PD laws differ in other countries). Locate a song alphabetically, then click the music staff icon left of the title to find YouTube recordings of the song.

Note: Recorded versions of songs are not in the PD; only the original lyrics and melody. Links to recorded versions are provided for your reference only and should not be downloaded, reposted or otherwise used/adapted without first paying royalties.

  1. RelatedWords.org is a free tool that generates synonyms and related words to your chosen word/topic. This is helpful for brainstorming alternate ways to express your concept when creating new lyrics.

  2. RhymeZone.com is a wonderful source of word inspiration when rewriting song lyrics. You can identify rhyming words that are arranged by the number of syllables, as well as synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, homophones, and “near” rhymes for those extra-tricky words.

  3. www.Songfacts.com provides the history of most of the common folk songs.


If you're a teacher looking for professional development involving early childhood music, check out our webinar series with Lisa!


When Everyone Sings Everyone Learns: A Music Mini Series!

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Lisa Heintz, M.Ed., is an educator with over 25 years of experience supporting learners from toddlers to adults, and owner of Little Songbird: Songs for Learning, a site that provides quality children’s music and book recommendations for PreK-grade 3 educators. She stays “green and growing” by volunteering in community and school projects that focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as with the Children’s Music Network. She is fascinated by birds of all sorts, loves cats, and is the proud mom of a son who is a shining example of what intentional teaching and parenting can do for children with disabilities. Connect with Lisa at Lisa@LittleSongbird.com.

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