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"I Know An Old Lady": Silliness in the Classroon
Even Adults Can Learn Using Children's Songs

Pierre Gingerich, of the Minnesota English Center, University of Minnesota, has expanded a statement he recently posted on the TESL-L listserv, for this article about how he uses a classic American folk song with his students. (Also, read three other articles about songs in ESL, See also Tapping Student Interest, "Some Fundamentals of Using Songs" and The Connection Between Song and Poetry!)

If you and your students are willing to be a bit silly, then the right kids' songs can really connect--even with adults. In recent weeks, I've taught "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly" to intermediate level students in an IEP grammar class at an IEP, and to higher level students in a pronunciation class (same IEP). Both sets of students loved it. The repetition is pedagogically useful, and the drama of the old lady's "logic" keeps them entertained.

The words are easy to find on the web (see below). If you or students are really shy about singing, this could be done in spoken form, but the music couldn't be much easier, and it does add a lot. In any case, use a lot of expression and take some dramatic liberty with the rhythm.

The song is great for several grammar points: 1) Shifts from "a fly" to "the fly" to "that fly" provide good context for discussing the contrasting functions of definite and indefinite articles. Point out (or typographically highlight) the first several occurrences of the pattern, then ask your students to find and discuss additional examples (with spider, bird, etc.) 2) There are two very nice embedded questions (I don't know WHY she swallowed that fly.... I don't know HOW she swallowed the cow). 3) There are lots of relative clause constructions (including the doubly embedded "I know an old lady who swallowed a spider that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her."

For pronunciation, the song is nice for thinking about sentence stress and breath groups; "wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her" is good for warming up their lip muscles; and there are a number of reductions worth looking at: "I dunno why", "wriggled 'n' jiggled 'n' tickled inside 'er", and you could probably find more. Have fun...

1) Relevant Resources: I personally like the version of the lyrics found at, except for last line, where I prefer "She's dead of course." (Note that this last line should be spoken). When I printed the song out for my class, I added punctuation. If you like, visuals (an old lady, a fly, a spider, etc.) are available at

2) Music stuff: I haven't found the tune on line, but if you know much musical notation, you can probably make out the rendering I've attached below (in the key of F). The notes all fall in one octave, with c being the low note. For those used to European systems, c=do; d=re, e=mi, f=fa, g=sol, a=la, b=ti. All letters are quarter notes, and the periods (.) are quarter-note extensions of the previous note. The vertical lines are bar lines. The capitalized syllables correspond to the first beat of each measure.

..c|ffa|ffc|ffa|f..| i KNOW an old LAdy who SWALlowed a FLY
ggg|g.f|ecc|c..| I don't know WHY she SWALlowed a FLY
..c|d.e|f..|...| | I GUESS, she'll DIE

..c|ffa|ffc|ffa|fff| i KNOW an old LAdy who SWALlowed a SPIDER that
ggg|ggf|ecc|cc.|...| wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her...
..c|ffa|ffc|f.a|f.f| she SWALlowed the SPIder to CATCH, the FLY, but
ggg|g.f|ecc|c..| I don't know WHY she SWALlowed that FLY
..c|d.e|f..|...| I GUESS, she'll DIE

Guitar accompaniment is pretty easy (just three chords), but not really necessary. You can find chords (in D) at

By Pierre Gingerich
Minnesota English Center, University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota

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