Using Songs in the English Classroom
Hans Mol, Australia
Hans Mol is a writer, trainer and teacher working from Australia. He is published worldwide for young learners, teens and adults. His next book (Grammar for Young Learners) is published by OUP in 2009. He is co-director of www.supasongs.com and fracasenglish.com.
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Songs in the classroom: a useful tool
Types of songs
Which learners like songs?
Why are songs so suitable?
What can you do with songs in the classroom?
Practical tips and tasks for using songs
Songs are part of daily life for most people. Who doesn’t enjoy music at home, while travelling or studying, or even at work? Language teachers can use songs to open or close their lessons, to illustrate themes and topics, to add variety or a change of pace, present new vocabulary or recycle known language. But how do songs actually benefit your students? In the first part of this article we look at the theoretical background to these questions; in the second half we look at what we can do with songs in the classroom.
There is strong practical evidence supporting the use of music in the English language classroom; there is also a growing body of research confirming that songs are a useful tool in language acquisition. In fact musical and language processing occur in the same area of the brain. (Medina, 1993)
There are many types of songs which can be used in the classroom, ranging from nursery rhymes to contemporary pop music. There is also a lot of music written specifically for English language teaching. A criticism of the latter is that they often lack originality and musical appeal but there are good examples to be found of stimulating, modern, ‘cool’ music, appealing to the real tastes of language learners. ‘Real’ music that the children hear and play every day can be extremely motivating in the classroom, too. However, the lyrics may not always be suitable: they may, for instance, contain slang or offensive words, there may be grammatical mistakes and they may only marginally teach the language points you want to focus on.
Howard Gardner once said: “It’s not how intelligent you are, but how you are intelligent.” No two students learn in exactly the same way. In any classroom there will be a mix of learning styles, and one student may ‘use’ more than one style, depending on what the task or topic is. To appeal to these differences is a huge teaching challenge. Gardner distinguished eight styles of learning, and students in his ‘aural/musical’ category will have a lot of benefit from learning through songs. They are strong in singing, picking up sounds, remembering melodies and rhythms; they like to sing, hum, play instruments and listen to music.
This is not to say that learners with other learning styles cannot benefit from songs. Of course they can, because in the activities we develop with songs we can dance and act (physical learning style), read, draw and do puzzles (spatial intelligence) tell stories, and write (verbal learning styles).
We can’t generalise, but research has found that pop songs have characteristics that help learning a second language: they often contain common, short words; they are written at about 5th grade level (US); the language is conversational, time and place are usually imprecise; the lyrics are often sung at a slower rate than spoken words and there is repetition of words and grammar. (Murhpy, 1992). Furthermore, songs are also known to lower the “affective filter” or, in other words, to motivate learners to learn. So, what positive contributions to language learning can songs make?
You’ll often find learners of any age singing together socially – when they are visiting friends, at a party or in karaoke bars. Teenagers and young adults seem to know an endless number of songs by heart and share them continuously through the Internet and portable music players. Even though it’s not always easy to copy this spontaneous love of music in the classroom, singing songs in and with a class is a social act which allows learners to participate in a group and express their feelings, no matter what their English is like.
Songs provide a great opportunity for young learners to move around. Clapping, dancing and playing instruments stimulate memory, which makes it possible for learners to hear chunks of language as they sing and use them in different situations later. Older learners can also benefit from clapping, dancing, rocking, tapping, and snapping their fingers to music and songs.
We all know the phenomenon of the song-that-is-stuck-in-my-head. With the right kind of song it is easy to simulate that in the classroom. Interacting with songs again and again is as important to language learners as repeatedly practicing a tennis technique is for a tennis player. The skill which develops from this is called ‘automaticity’. Learners get to know what to say and to produce language rapidly without pausing.
Now that most music is accessible to almost anyone anywhere, either through radio, CDs, DVDs and downloads from the Internet, learners can enjoy songs from all corners of the globe. Songs used in English classes can, in that way, shed light on interesting musical traditions in countries, but can also teach teens, young adults and adults to appreciate other cultures. For adult learners they can be “a rich mine of information about human relations, ethics, customs, history, humor, and regional and cultural differences’ (Lems, 2001).
In a world where non-native speakers of English are likely to produce the majority of songs in English, learners have the opportunity to listen to pronunciation in a wide range of varieties of the language. Songs will help learners become familiar with word stress and intonation, and the rhythm with which words are spoken or sung also helps memorization. Again, this will enable learners to remember chunks of language which they can then use in conversations or in writing. As language teachers, we can use songs to practice listening, speaking, reading and writing.
The sky is the limit! There are a few things to keep in mind: simple, repetitive songs often contain a recurrent grammatical pattern which is useful to teach (especially with younger children). More difficult songs often contain interesting vocabulary and idioms. Also there is often a message, a theme, or a story underlying a song which students can discuss, explain, debate, and write about at almost any level.
Start with a focusing activity: anything that will get students thinking about the subject of the song. Have them think about the title of the song, in groups of pairs. Find a picture that relates to the subject of the song and have students make guesses about it.
Put a selection of important words from the song on your board. Have students ask each other what the words mean. Then, have students in groups write or tell a quick story that uses the words. You can also get students to circle, underline or highlight specific words or word categories.
Again, write a selection of words on the board. Students must shout STOP any time they hear one of the new words. You could also stop the song before a word you want them to guess.
Lip sync it
Have students lip sync the song before a team of judges in a Class Idol show. This allows them to become familiar with the words, rhythm, stress and intonation before actually singing the words out loud.
Cut the song into strips. Give each student one strip to memorize. Students put the strips in their pockets. They get up and tell each other their part of the song, without looking at their part or showing their part to anyone else. Students then organize themselves in the right order, speak the song and then listen and check. You can also have students put the strips on a table in order.
Have students ask each other questions about the song (about the words, about the topics or about characters in the song). For more advanced students you could choose two songs of a similar theme, and split the class into two teams. Have each group listen to their song and draw up a list of (open or True/False) questions. Pair each student with a member of the opposite team and have them take turns asking their questions.
You can prepare a gapped version of the lyrics and let students complete them before listening and then check afterwards.
Have students write a letter to the main character or the singer, send an answer to a person referred to in the song, rewrite the song as a story, write a story which began before the story in the song and led to it, or write a story which will continue after the song.
Change words (adjectives, adverbs, nouns -names, places or feelings), and invent new lyrics for the melody. If you have karaoke versions of the songs you can then let students sing their own versions.
Get students to draw or collage the song and compare the visualisations in class.
The possibilities are endless. Music and songs are fun, and most people enjoy them. Make songs a regular feature in your lessons!
Lems, Kirsten, Using Music in the Adult ESL Classroom, ERIC Digest, 2001.
Medina, Suzanne L, The Effect of Music on Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition, ‘National Network for Early Language Learning’, Vol 6-3, 1993.
Murphy, T (1992), The discourse op pop songs, TESOL Quarterly 26”(4), 770-774.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Primary Teachers course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary Teachers course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Teaching through Music and Visual Art course at Pilgrims website.