There is power in music—power to motivate students and to help their memories when they are learning a new language. For these reasons, songs have been used by language teachers for centuries. Although you shouldn’t rely on music-based activities exclusively (they provide, at best, rehearsed practice), songs can be helpful additions to many lessons—especially when they are used properly.
Scenario: Remembering songs for language learning
Rachel was teaching English to teenagers who didn’t really care much for her complicated grammar explanations. Also, they complained that there were too many new words to learn and remember. They protested that her English class was hard and boring. When Rachel asked another teacher what she could do to liven up her class and motivate her students, that teacher asked her, “Have you tried using songs as part of your lessons?”
Rachel wondered why she hadn’t thought of that before. She remembered that her high school Spanish teacher had taught her class some traditional Spanish-language songs, and those were about the only things she now remembered from that class years ago. She wondered if English-language songs would produce the same beneficial effects for her students. She also wondered which songs would be best for her class and how she should go about teaching them.
What would you do if your students complained about being bored?
Which types of songs might you use when you teach English?
Where could you find these songs?
What qualities and characteristics would you look for when selecting songs for language teaching?
How could you use songs in a language class?
Objectives of this Unit
After you work through this unit, you will be able to…
Explain the benefits of using songs for language teaching.
Choose songs that are appropriate for your students.
Present and practice those songs effectively in your language classes.
If you have learned well, your conversation class will be both enjoyable for those involved and effective in helping them improve their English skills.
The least you should know about using songs for language teaching
This section will cover three important topics related to the use of songs for language teaching: The benefits of music, criteria for selecting appropriate songs for language teaching and ways of teaching songs. This section will also tell you about resources, both in books and websites, where you might go to get some good songs for your English as a second/foreign language class.
The benefits of using songs
Songs can produce many benefits in your language class.
When chosen wisely and used properly, they can produce greater motivation and involvement of students because they involve them actively and naturally in language practice.
When they have fun singing songs in their English class, students can develop improved attitudes toward the class and the target language.
The melody, rhythm, active involvement, natural repetition, and enjoyment in songs all work together to produce increased retention of the language in the songs. Properly chosen songs help improve your students’ memory of the material they are being taught.
Songs and other forms of music can also be used as vehicles for teaching culture. This cultural awareness can be taught directly (along with the other aspects of the song, such as its vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation) or indirectly (simulating native-like experiences in which students pick up the cultural content naturally).
Ways of teaching songs
There’s much more to teaching a song in a foreign language than just saying, “Let’s sing.” You need to plan and prepare in many ways, and the first step is deciding how to present the song to the students and then practice it.
Here are some options:
Teach songs step by step by introducing and reviewing the new vocabulary in them.
Show students a clear model by singing the songs yourself or using video, audio recordings, example students, etc.
Teach songs directly through demonstration, translation, cloze texts, focus questions, true-false statements, private study, jigsaw listening, disappearing texts, dictation, etc.
Use songs as a part of or related to larger lessons and the curriculum.
Provide appropriate support by writing down words on board or poster, or by using pictures and musical instruments.
Demonstrate enthusiasm when you teach songs; your enthusiasm will be contagious and motivate your students to sing.
Selecting songs for language teaching
When you select a song to use in your English class, consider the following:
Language teaching purpose (not just for fun, but it should have instructional value)
Linguistic level (learners’ English level should be considered when the teacher chooses songs. Songs that contain complex vocabulary or grammar should be avoided for beginning level learners)
Maturity level (learners’ age needs to be considered for the same reason mentioned above. Young learners might not be able to understand the content of songs that express complex ideas)
Musical difficulty (complicated melody or rhythm may be too difficult for learners)
Length (not too long, unless telling a story)
Language use (quantity, repetition of vocabulary items, grammatical structures)
Cultural content (see BTR-TESOL Unit 1D)
For instance, the children’s song, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is at a low level linguistically and musically. Plus, it is short and involves a lot of repetition. It would be good for young beginning level learners of English. In contrast, “The Star Spangled Banner” has a tune that is difficult to sing, and it uses many hard, old-fashioned words. In addition, it is very long and expresses complex ideas. The only reason for using it in a language class would be for cultural purposes.
Example song activities
Here are some examples of song-based activities that have been used successfully for English teaching. For more examples or ideas, see the “Where to go to learn more” section at the end of this unit.
Jumbled lyrics - All levels
This activity is designed to practice listening comprehension and to encourage students to use contextual clues to order the words in a text. Choose a song, preferably one that tells a story and is appropriate to the language level of your class. Find a recording of it and type out the lyrics, leaving extra space between the lines. Cut each line or verse in half and put all the cut-up strips for the whole song in an envelope. Distribute the envelopes to pairs and ask them to put the words into the correct order, depending on what they think would be logical and grammatical.
Partial song creation - Intermediate to advanced
This activity can be used to encourage students to create and predict. Find a song that your students would enjoy but which they do not already know. Prepare handouts with the first lines but the rest of the lines missing. Have them listen to the first few lines and ask students to complete the rest of the verse, either in rhyme or in prose. Tell them that they will be hearing the song later, but that they should write their own words first.
Writing to known tunes - All levels
This activity helps students to use language creatively and to explore the use of rhythm, rhyme, and resonance. Choose two or three well-known songs (such as “Jingle Bells,” “We Shall Overcome,” “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean,” “La cucaracha,” etc.). They should be simple songs with a contagious ‘hummability.’ Type out the traditional words of one verse and the chorus for each song. Make enough copies of your typed-up verse for everyone in the class. Students should work individually or in small groups and produce new words for the song tune. They then sing their new songs to each other.
Changing the text - All levels
This activity is designed to practice lexical and grammatical categories, and see the semantic changes that result. Choose a song that has a strong story (for example, “The Boxer,” “Marvelous Little Toy,” etc.). Prepare hand-outs of the song lyrics. Ask students to read the song and change all the verbs/ pronouns from first to second or third person/ adjectives to opposite meaning/ gender references from male to female (or vice versa).
Cloze listening - All levels
This activity is good for students to practice listening to words in the song more carefully. Have students listen to the song first without seeing the words and then give them handouts that have the lyrics of the song and some blanks in place of the words that students need to learn. Have students write in the words as they listen to the song.
Some of the above were taken from Murphey (1996) 's book, Music and Song (pp.73-79).
Songs can be fun, and even addictive, but… remember:
Songs, at best, provide only “rehearsed” practice (see BTR-TESOL Unit 4E)
Songs (if used) must have an instructional purpose. Explain it to students before or after they sing.
Don’t use songs as a steady diet. Rather, use them occasionally to provide variety, interest, and motivation.
Make sure the students know what they are singing or listening to by providing the words at appropriate times depending on the activity.
The lyrics of songs should not include any message that can culturally offend students.
Here are two useful video clips that show teachers using songs to teach English.
“Country Road”, “Moon Represent My Heart” taught by Rochelle Welty at Beijing University, China.
“Fun Fun Fun” taught by Janice Hansen at Beijing University, China.
Both of these teachers provide the lyrics while the students listen and sing along. It is important to use the words when you teach English with songs. The students seemed to be enjoying singing along with the song, “Country Road” since it is a familiar song to them and the melody is easy enough to follow.
Click here for "Country Road".
Click here for "Fun, Fun, Fun".
Reflection and Responses
Think about each of the following questions related to the video you just watched. Write a sentence or two in response to each one.
Did you notice any problems with the teacher's or students' behavior in the video clips? How might those problems be overcome?
What could she do to improve the way she uses songs in class? (Compare the teacher’s action to what you read in the “The Least You Should Know” section above.)
How do these teachers and students’ use of songs compare to your own teaching or learning experiences?
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Where to go to learn more
If you want to know more about using songs for language teaching, you can refer to these additional resources.
Connections to other units in this program
Unit 2C: Designing effective lessons for language learning and teaching
Unit 8A: Conducting effective and enjoyable conversation classes
Unit 8C: Using games and other fun yet effective activities for English Language Teaching
Online and other electronic resources
http://www.songsforteaching.com/grammarspelling.htm Songs for Teaching provides songs that are enjoyable and educational. People can listen to the songs free and they offer printable lyrics. Songs are categorized into different subjects and topics such as mathematics, fine arts, reading, holidays, etc.
http://www.musicalenglishlessons.org Musical English Lessons International provides countless songs with related ESL skills. This free website has many valuable ESL/EFL teaching ideas and materials and is created by Bibi Baxter, an ESL/EFL teacher and materials specialist.