Teaching English through Music, A Practical Guide for Teachers

Teaching English through Music, A Practical Guide for Teachers

Christie Cassel headshotby Christie Cassel, ELP Instructor

Do you love music? Most people do, at least to some degree. We connect with music on an emotional level and the lyrics can become imprinted our brain (for better or worse). Can you think of catchy lyrics in a foreign language that you’ll never forget? Feliz Navidad? Thanks to that song, most Americans know how to say “Merry Christmas” in Spanish. Do you often think of songs that have content relevant to your classes or are filled with a grammar construction you are teaching, but are not sure how to use the song in class?

From the research I have come across, using English songs in class can help students increase motivation, acquire new vocabulary, reinforce grammar, and improve memory, among other benefits. See “for future reading” at the end of this article for selected resources on the topic or do your own. The research is out there and not hard to find. Most teachers are aware of at least some of the pedagogical justifications for teaching English though music in theory, however, it is not the “why” that prevents teachers from using songs in their classes but the “how.” Preparing a song listening activity for a class can be time-consuming and maybe not all that productive in the end, but if you try my step-by-step instructions, you might be able to avoid some of the common pitfalls.

Find a song. Not surprisingly, this can be the hardest part! So many songs are too fast, the words and phrases have different stress patterns when sung than when spoken, the grammar is bad, the lyrics are inappropriate, etc. etc. Look for songs that have a slow pace, minimal instrumentation, clear voicing and enunciation. A good rule of thumb is: if you can’t clearly hear each word without looking up the lyrics, your students likely won’t understand a thing, and it will be noise to them.

Consider your objective. The first few times I prepared a song activity, once in graduate school, and later as an instructor, I felt like I was pulling vocabulary words out randomly with little to no connection to the objectives of the course. Then, it clicked! Parts of speech, I thought, that is what this is about. So many of our students struggle with parts of speech and word forms. It is one of the most common writing errors I see at all levels. Of course, you can make a song listening activity about a variety of objectives, but mine is typically building parts of speech awareness or verb tenses.

Put the material together. For every song, I have 3 documents: the full lyrics, the cloze (a partial version of the lyrics with choice words taken out and replaced with a blank), and the missing words (like a word bank) in columns organized by parts of speech. First, I find the full lyrics for the song online, copy and paste into a document, and reformat accordingly. Then, I save it into my ESL (English as a Second Language) songs folder. Next, I decide what words I am going to take out. This becomes the language objective or grammar focus.

Let’s use I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You by Elvis Presley as an example, a song that you are probably familiar with, but likely haven’t considered viable material for an ESL class. If you think it’s too romantic, don’t worry. Have fun with it. As long as you’re not embarrassed, your students won’t be either. This song is chalked full of lovely present-tense verbs and basic nouns, and that’s exactly what I would take out for the cloze. It is perfect for beginning to intermediate level students.

Nouns Present Tense Verbs
life (2 times)

things

hand (2 times)

sin

sea

goes (2 times)

be

stay

rush

are

help (5 times)

flows (2 times)

take

say

Pro tip: For maximum efficiency, as soon as you save the full lyrics document, save the current document as the cloze and create a third document for the missing words. Most of the work is going back and forth between the cloze and the word bank document and cutting and pasting into a table, organized by parts of speech. Systematically cut from the cloze and paste into the word bank table, and be careful that there is a one-to-one correspondence of words.

In class: Do the activity in the reverse order of the documents. First, pre-teach the missing words in the word bank and encourage note-taking. They might already know much of the vocabulary, so it may be a good opportunity for the students to express that they know the meaning by explaining it or using it in some way. You could also do some pronunciation practice here. Then, listen to the song with the cloze. Some philosophies recommend listening to the song first with no inputs, and ideally that might be better, but I find that for the sake of time, I tend to listen with the cloze on the first listen. Check in and see how they are doing. If you want to make the focus more about parts of speech, you can challenge them to solve the puzzle by the parts of speech clues alone. For example, “there’s an article here, so what kind of word must go here?” If you want it to be more about listening, then you can challenge the students to figure out what the words are with their ears only.

Singing: the icing on the cake. After you have listened to the song several times and puzzled out the missing words, if time allows and your students are up for it, you can sing the song together. Some groups are more willing than others. That being said, I have found that even a shy group will be excited about singing if you are. Depending on time, you could first sing along with the music and then try a karaoke version (if one exists). This progression could also be carried out over several classes. You can always bring back old songs for karaoke as well.

Note: I have found a grammar focus to be more applicable and versatile that a vocabulary one. It’s unlikely that you can find a song with the target vocabulary in it, but grammatical structures are everywhere in songs and tend to be consistent. In other words, songs are likely to stay in one or two verb tenses and have a reoccurring theme of using a lot of one grammatical structure or another. For example, She’ll Come Back to Me by CAKE, and Sunday Table by Pink Martini are full of pronouns (subject, object and possessive) and possessive adjectives. Rather than having the exact missing words listed for them, you could have a table that includes the complete list and make them think about what is possible in the lyrics of the song.

 

Subject Pronouns Object Pronouns Possessive Pronouns Possessive Adjectives
 I me mine my
you you yours your
we us ours our
he him his his
she her hers her
it it its its
they them theirs their

I hope you find this pragmatic guide helpful and inspiring to try using a song in a listening and speaking class. I have found these activities to be ideal for lower levels, but, depending on the song, language objectives, and personality and interests of your students, anything is possible. I once made high intermediate students do karaoke presentations, and they acted like they hated it at first, but it ended up being one of the highlights of the session. Good luck and have fun!

For further reading:

Language Learning Enhanced by Music and Song

Teaching and Learning English through Songs: A Literature Review

New Ideas for Teaching English Using Songs and Music