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How to Teach Rhythm in First Grade Elementary Music

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

Teaching beat and rhythm begins in kindergarten, but teaching music notation can begin in first grade when they are learning more about what quarter and eighth notes look and sound like. In this post, I'll break down an effective, fun, and hands-on way to teach basic rhythms to your first graders in music class.


(If you want to back up a few steps and begin with teaching rhythm in kindergarten, you can pop over to this blog post.)





I'd been using a method like what I'm going to teach you for a few years, but it really solidified when I used this lesson for a formal observation in first grade. My observer complimented the literacy connections and the higher level skills that the students were using, and I was happy with student engagement and understanding. Win-win!


Naturally, I want to help other teachers who might not be sure where to start with beginning to teach ta and ti-ti/ du and du-de.


Keep reading to learn how to implement the steps I used in your classroom!


Not just that- I'm also going to teach you how to make your own resources to help your students begin writing notation!



And hey- if the idea of elementary music strategies and resources is something that excites you, you’d get a lot out of joining the ADM community. In my email newsletters, I help educators like you teach meaningfully and joyfully in your classrooms.



There is a precursor to this lesson...

Like I mentioned above, I have a previous post that will help you if you're teaching kindergarten, too. It's full of resources and mini lessons, so DO make sure you head there too to bring all this info full circle.


BUT. If you are ready to dive into my first grade beginning music notation lesson, it begins here!



1. Background knowledge and skills

When are your students ready for music notation?


When your students are solid in their echoing of 1- and 2-sound patterns, and when they can at least keep a steady beat with assistance from you, those are good signs that they're ready to move to basic music notation, specifically stick notation.


This happens for my students sometime around February, given all the other things we do earlier in the year. Your kids might be ready in the fall. But for me, this is the point where we've been working with dot notation (explained in the post linked above and in this blog post), so transitioning to stick notation for ta and ti-ti is a natural next step.



2. Prepping for the lesson

In this single class lesson (which you can repeat again next week with new examples), we all begin together, and then we go to seats where we can do individual practice. Both parts require some prep.


Prepping the whole class component

I begin by gluing magnets to several large popsicle sticks to use on my whiteboard.


I could do something similar on my laptop in a Google Slides presentation, but having large visuals that students and I can physically manipulate is important to me. I believe it's more helpful to everyone's learning styles, and way more engaging and meaningful than me clicking and dragging graphics on a screen.


Prepping the individual component

Each student will need 8 popsicle sticks. I use the mini kind, and I pre-sort them onto paper plates set at each chair. Students will eventually be building rhythms with them. The maximum they'll ever need is 8 since I only use, at most, two eighth note pairs in each beginning example (and each eighth note pairs needs 3 popsicle sticks).



3. Teaching the lesson

We begin the lesson all together on the rug, and I remind them about our dot notation using a relevant example, like a pattern using "heart" and "chocolate" as my 1- and 2-sound words (since it's around Valentine's Day when we begin this).



individual pictures of hearts and chocolate bars with dots written underneath to represent each picture's rhythm or syllables

Students have also had some experience decoding words themselves in an activity like this:


(They've cut out 16 pictures and need to sort them into the right category- 1 dot is one syllable, 2 dots is 2 syllables. This one is Camping Rhythms Cut and Sort.)


Once we've refreshed dot notation- and because I'd rather the students do some thinking and connecting amongst themselves- I redraw one of the rhythms using those big popsicle stick magnets.


Then, rather than explain how the dots are related to the sticks, I ask them to try to connect the two concepts. What are some things they notice? What do they wonder?


As they are thinking and talking amongst themselves, I might decode another pattern from dot to stick notation- without explaining anything. This gives them some more information to analyze and draw connections from.


These concepts of examining, noticing, analyzing, and sharing are things you might see more often in a general ed classroom. But they have places in the music room too! As much as I say that music classroom are different in so many ways, there are similarities that can be harnessed to help students find connections between different subject areas. (And not just students. Remember, my observer was impressed with the cross-curricular connections students were making!)


Either as a class or with me guiding them, eventually students understand that we are now going to label our 1-sound words with a single stick and our 2-sound words with a double stick connected at the top. We call it a staple, or a house without a floor, or a box without a bottom. (That's important, since technically you need 3 popsicle sticks even though you're only representing 2 sounds.)


Whether you want to also start calling these symbols ta and ti-ti, or du and du-de, is up to you. It's more important to me that they decode using the right symbols rather than also get the rhythm syllable names correct.


So how do we read them without names? We say the pictures (heart, chocolate) and clap the rhythm. That's it- for now.




And because I have this big set of popsicle stick magnets, we can practice decoding phrases together in a way where everyone can see and have an opportunity to try! I put up a new set of pictures, and 4 students come up to decode each one.


In my 45-minute lesson period, this takes about 20 minutes. Spending another 5 on group practice with the magnets is certainly worth it if you feel they need it before moving to their seats for individual practice.


But with 15-20 minutes to go (budgeting 5 for recap and clean up), students can now more to seats where they can try this on their own.



4. Individual practice... aka, Secret Rhythms!

This is the SUPER fun part!


It's now time for a challenge that I call Secret Rhythms.


Just like we practiced on the board together, I will put up a series of 4 pictures that students will then "decode" into our new symbols. This portion of the lesson utilizes Google Slides on my end, but all students need are the popsicle sticks.


(No popsicle sticks? Pencil and paper or white boards and markers work perfectly!)


I explain the activity as if they are detectives trying to solve these mini mysteries, then we begin...


This particular theme is yummy foods! I project an example:

And then echo the pattern after me: "Cookie, cake, cake, cake!"


They get some time to decode and build, then I give a signal xylophone before revealing the "secret"...



How do I make these slides? Canva! I believe you can get the Educator Pro subscription free as a teacher. But I pay for a Pro subscription every year, which is well worth it, especially since if you have Rakuten you can get some decent cash back. Use my referral link to start with Rakuten!


Here's another they try to decode:


"Burger, fries, burger, fries!"


When I reveal the secret, students see this and check their answers:



Once they've gotten good practice, you can mix them up for an added challenge.


"Fries, cake, cookie, pie!"

becomes...



As students are practicing and you're running the presentation, you can peek over to see how they're faring. Circulate while they're building, or ask tables to check their neighbors' examples.


This activity is not passive practice, which is why it's great for an observation like I talked about about. You're there to check their progress. Are some students struggling? Are some soaring ahead? In subsequent classes as you do more of these, put mixed learners together and give them roles. Assessment is important. We know that, of course! But often non-music observers don't make the connections that we have naturally built into our lessons. Secret Rhythms is more direct in its literacy element than some other things we might do in our music classes.


A good way to practice before doing this in an observation is with this YouTube video I made of Secret Spring Rhythms. It's the same concept, just with spring pictures.



5. So... want to make your own slides?


1. Choose a theme! Base it on a holiday, season, or something fun like fruits/veggies or animals.


2. You'll need access to graphics (if you are not using them for commercial purposes, a Google image search works fine).


3. Remember to have and 1-syllable and a 2-syllable word for each example. Mix them up into different orders, and then combine them for an extra challenge!


4. Click and drag your images into your presentation method, then resize them.


5. Make a bunch using only 2 different graphics (4 pictures, but only 2 different graphics), then make a bunch more using 2 more graphics. Just like above, when I used cookie/cake, then burger/fries.


6. Start combining all your different graphics! This is more challenging for your students, but always call them out and have students echo you.


7. Copy each of your picture slides and paste them as consecutive slides. The idea is that you have two slides in a row: one with just pictures, then the same one with the answers revealed!


This is where having access to clip art like basic music notation is helpful, but you could also find popsicle stick clip art and arrange them into stick notation shapes.


That's tedious, for sure... and if you just want to get started with one of these, I have a BUNCH of these Secret Rhythms in my TPT store! We're talking one for just about every major holiday and season. Besides setting up the student element (which, to be honest, kids can prep themselves probably the second time you do this activity), there is minimal prep for you since your portion is done with slides.


8. Looking for more tips on running this activity or something similar? I have a free tip sheet in my TPT store that you can download to get you on the right track.




6. Want to try Secret Rhythms without doing all that work?

I can help with that!


If you want to get started with these on a small scale, go download the mini free sampler of a few of these to get your students going. This is a Google Slides presentation for you, the teacher, but students do not need any technology themselves. You just need a way to project the presentation.



Think your students are ready for a bigger activity?


The entire Secret Rhythms activity line is full of different themed versions for seasons and holidays, like Back-to-School, Halloween, Winter, and Camping! Each version has 17 Secret Rhythms with 6 different graphics; and they come in TWO versions: popsicle sticks, and pencil/paper or whiteboard/markers. You do NOT need popsicle sticks to play Secret Rhythms.



7. Recap/closing and clean up


When your students have practicing their individual examples, it's time for clean up and resetting if you have another class coming in. "Eight on a plate!" I say, and they know to gather their popsicle sticks on their plates for the next class. All you have to do with your Google Slides (or presentation) is go back to the beginning. Minimal prep, maximum results!


You can also ask students to bag up their popsicle sticks, saving even more prep time later when all they have to do is take a bag of 8 sticks.


Wrapping it all up...

Rhythmic literacy is something that will follow kids through their musical lives. It's important to scaffold your teaching so that it's logical and engaging. A hands-on element is even more meaningful, since students are literally constructing their own learning.


If you have any questions about Secret Rhythms or teaching rhythm in general, please reach out! You can find me at the socials below.




P.S. Did you know I have a YouTube channel where I have student activity videos similar to the content in this post? If you're not connected with me there, make sure you subscribe!





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