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- How to Teach Tracks: A Critique of the Uses of Songs and Song Lyrics, with Advice and Suggestions for Enhanced Usage
How to Teach Tracks: A Critique of the Uses of Songs and Song Lyrics, with Advice and Suggestions for Enhanced Usage
Chris Walklett has been using music, songs and song lyrics in the classroom for many years dating back to his very first lesson in the mid-1990s. Music and its educational use is a subject that is dear to his heart. He is the author of the Teaching Tracks series. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over the years, songs and song lyrics have been a staple in the teaching diets of many EFL professionals. This article will argue however, that rather than this resource being fully explored, overall its use in materials (both in EFL coursebooks and on the internet) is somewhat limited and, more often than not, over-reliant on formulaic activities such as gap-fill.
This practical paper aims to give useable suggestions for how to make the most of what this extremely flexible text-type has to offer, believing that it’s clearly time to reconnect with the possibilities that this resource offers and, in turn, to give it a much needed 21st century makeover.
What follows then are some guidelines and advice as to how to employ songs in order to release their full potential, and by implication how to release the potential that is within all teachers to use this text type to its fullest. As users often admit to being unsure how to make the most of what this resource has to offer, this advice will hopefully aid and offer enlightenment into some of the myriad of possibilities and opportunities available to tutors when teaching tracks.
Considerations of what songs have to offer and what they can be used for
Studies (such as Engh, 2013 & Walklett, 2014) have shown that there is a tendency for this resource to be used in a minimalistic way. Practitioners often seem to limit the use of songs in the classroom to vocabulary gap-fill exercises or use them as little more than a tool to change the pace of the lesson or to create a lively, fun mood. Although such uses clearly have their place, songs have the potential to offer much more besides. Inexplicably however (in commercially available resources at least) these additional uses have remained largely unexplored.
Clearly, songs are a multi-purpose text type, tailor-made for the language classroom as they are invariably concise and are a really effective way of analysing grammar in situ as well as being great for listening practice and pronunciation & phonetic work too. This ‘real-life’ text type is also excellent for analysis of informal ‘everyday’ language like slang/colloquialisms, idioms, common usage and the like. Songs chosen should be culturally rich and, crucially, materials made from this text-type should, like the songs themselves, aim to be authentic.
Another important consideration – perhaps the most important is the song’s theme. If an appropriate song is chosen the thematic use to which it can be put is extensive. Alongside theme, the mood of a song chosen is also of vital importance. Although often in the eye of the beholder, how a song makes you feel, and what it makes you think about, are crucial in the production of materials based on this resource.
Ideally materials that emanate from songs should aim to be multi-skilled, focusing not only on the four language skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) and but also on areas such as vocabulary, grammar and phonetics.
What follows is some advice as to how the above can be achieved.
Advice and suggestions for how to employ songs
Producing quality materials and thus executing top class lessons from songs is not as simple as one might initially think. In order to have a satisfying and successful class, teachers need to adopt a few principles in relation to using this resource. Firstly though before one begins it is a good idea to clear one’s mind of preconceptions as to the way to use this resource – songs do not have to be taught in any particular way, i.e. a formulaic approach is not something to aim for.
Here in no particular order are some suggestions to consider before embarking on your journey of enlightenment into using songs and song lyrics in your classroom.
Care, consideration & respect
Choose a song (or let your students chose one) with care and consideration – especially as to its theme. When a song is selected, familiarise yourself with it. Listen to it, I mean really listen to it. Sing along and maybe watch the video too. Immerse yourself in it and all it has to offer. Songs, good songs at least, have almost always gone through a lengthy creative process involving considerable time and thought, be respectful of this and spend an appropriate amount of time preparing activities with this in mind.
Focus on the lyrics
Locate the lyrics and read through them. Then have another listen to the song with the lyrics in front of you. Remember that due to factors such as connected speech the lyrics may be different from what you thought - creating what is known as mondegreens i.e. misheard lyrics. So be prepared for a surprise or two when the lyrics are more closely examined.
Themes and topics
Think about the song’s and what language emerges from it. Consider also whether it fits any topical/current events that may spark interest amongst your students or subjects recently taught. Alternately, look for songs amongst online resources, databases etc. that fit into the subject area you wish your students to explore.
Keep the mood in mind
Think about what mood the song evokes. Plan associated activities with this in mind. In our busy world students may well appreciate the idea of sitting back and letting music soak into them. Such activities can have linguistic outputs too such as conjuring up adjectives that describe the mood or, as a throw-back to the heady teaching ideals of the 1970s, drawing pictures based on what the mood of the song brings to mind. In turn they can explain this to or discuss this with a partner. Naturally this might work best with instrumental musical – classical, ambient or electronica for example.
To use the video, or not?
With regards to the video, consider whether to employ it in your materials or not. Perhaps the video sets the scene well or maybe it offers little and shouldn’t be used. It could also be that the video works well but only with the sound down. It is a fallacy that student always need a visual element when using this resource. Don’t fall for it!
Consider the input materials and the order in which you would use these. Should you for example introduce the song, the lyrics or the video first? Instead of following any particular formula, you should let the individual song and your teaching experience guide you to the activities that fit, as well as to the staging of these activities.
Think about what linguistic possibilities and activities emanate from the song chosen. Are there for example any particular lexical sets in the lyrics that you could concentrate on? Or any interesting tense uses? Or any areas of pronunciation or phonetics to focus on?
Don’t forget who’s in charge!
Be prepared to be the boss (we could even say the maestro!) in such a class. Control the activities, setting rules for what they do and when they do it. If your students just whip out their phones for the video and the lyrics, the odds they will not be discovering the wealth of cultural and linguistic possibilities inherent in that song. Having said this, ensure that you come over as more as more of a music freak than a control freak!
Consider your students
Take time to brainstorm ideas as to how you are going to implement these activities to suit your students. What will they like? What will challenge them? How can you adapt what’s in the song to your regular style of teaching and your student’s hopes and expectations.
Use songs with confidence. Remember you are doing something your students will love and find memorable. Don’t forget songs are a fantastic text type with real pedagogic purpose, we have just disconnected with them in recent years, this is invariably due to a formulaic approach most notably evidenced through the excessive use of activities such as gap-fill.
Mind the gap (fill trap)
Materials and activities constructed from songs often resort to using gap-fill perhaps as some kind of justification for using songs in the classroom, perhaps just because of plain busyness and/or laziness.
It is beyond doubt that gap-fill is teacher friendly as it is quick to do and has immediate outcomes. Focusing on listening out for the ‘right’ answer could be argued to be motivational, and gap-fill does require certain deductive skills - to work out parts of speech for example.
However, if we think about it deeply enough and are being honest we have to conclude that gap-fill is not only massively overused but pedagogically dodgy too. The problem is that gap-fill has had undue influence on how we use songs and song lyrics as a text type. Ultimately we really need to question how authentic a listening gap-fill activity is. Would we ever listen to audio sources with the sole purpose of picking out discrete language items? Couldn’t one argue that gist listening, for example, might not be both a more commonly required skill and a more useful one?
I have decided to consciously avoid gap-fill activities when constructing materials based on this resource and, in fact, this decision has revolutionised my work with songs. By analysing materials that are available in coursebooks and on the internet, I came to the conclusion that too many have fallen into what I entitled the ‘gap-fill trap’. This trap has I believe two main constituents; firstly, the belief system that this is by default what one has to do with songs, secondly, the worrying knock-on-effect that using gap-fill activities has on subsequent activities, often in reality invalidating them. Perhaps, like exercises such as singing along to songs to practice intonation and sentence stress, the place for gap-fill (if it is felt there must be one) is as an additional activity after more innovative and pedagogically sound uses have been made of the song.
Being gap-fill-free means escaping from the proverbial box. Such freedom makes exploring the possibilities within the song: its theme, the multifarious elements of the language within the lyrics, its video and associated activities, more achievable and the activities much more fulfilling.
Freeing oneself from gap-fill will lead to the construction of much more satisfying materials and lessons with extremely innovative outcomes, which can only be more beneficial for you as teacher/provider and, crucially, more beneficial for your students too.
Bottom-up or top-down?
When preparing material/activities based on songs and song lyrics tutors also need to consider what approach to take in terms of processing the activities and the sequence in which this should take place. One consideration needs to be what type of processing to use, i.e. whether the approach should be bottom-up or top-down.
Bottom-up processing is intensive and concerned with details. It starts from the text and assumes that working on detailed elements (in this case a song) will increase a student’s ability to more fully comprehend the text later on. Examples of this processing include using a song to illustrate a grammar form (or point) and vocabulary activities such as a dictogloss - where students listen out for keywords and reconstruct a text from them. Tennant (2007) observes that when learning a foreign language “students are often locked into a bottom-up learning mode”. Whilst not necessarily wholly negative, as some students prefer to do things in a way that is familiar to them, it is always, I strongly believe, worth challenging pre-set or habitual approaches to learning, that is, a shake-up of routine is not a bad thing.
Top-down processing differs from bottom up as it takes student’s schemata (their existing knowledge and understanding of the world) into account. It involves focusing students more on the general meaning rather than on individual words or phrases. Thus it is concerned with ‘the big picture’. Top-down processing activities include: theme orientation, topic discussion, prior brainstorming activities (based on a song’s themes for example), vocabulary anticipation and ‘chunking’. Anything that could come under the banner of contextualisation of the song or its themes is likely to be an example of top-down processing.
A comprehensive lesson plan utilising songs and song lyrics may well have both-bottom up and top-down activities - ultimately one form of processing should feed into the other. Top-down activities are, I believe, the most practical and logical way to begin a song/song lyrics lesson. However, bottom-up processing is workable too, albeit a bit more knowledge about the song may be required in advance and perhaps more thought needs to be given to the activities themselves and also possibly into the order in which they are presented. Indeed Tennant (2007) in regards to the choice between these two kinds of processing believes that the challenge for us as teachers is “not which to use strategy wise but what to use at a time sequence level”.
With using songs and song lyrics in the classroom increasingly back on people’s agendas, it is worth bearing in mind the words of (ELT songs in the classroom guru) Tim Murphey who, more than three decades ago, pointed out that that music and song are not being proposed as a new methodology “but rather as a tool, which we can use to animate and facilitate language learning and acquisition.” (Murphey, 1984:16)
It is clear that materials emanating from songs and song and song lyrics are not adequately catered for in what is already out there, either in book form or online. Overall there is a lack of depth to the materials leading to the production of relatively one dimensional activities which crucially tend to lack exploration of the culture inherent within songs – a factor that is surely too important to ignore.
So much for what is not working though, what needs to be done? Schreider & Emda (reported in Kramer) have suggested that what is needed is a “portfolio of songs representing diverse historical and cultural periods” (2001: 30) which would expose students to “various socio-political and historical aspects of the target language” (Ibid). If we can follow their advice and pursue this, it will help drag the use of what should be a timeless resource (kicking and screaming if necessary) into our 21st century classrooms.
If you would like to see what uses I have found for this resource please visit my website www.teachingtracks.co.uk for examples and inspiration.
Engh. D. (2013) Why Use Music in English Language Learning. A Survey of the Literature. Available at; http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/elt/article/view/23819/15117
Kramer, D. J. (2001). A blueprint for teaching foreign languages and cultures through music in the classroom and on the web. ADFL Bulletin, 3, 29-35. http://dx.doi.org/10.1632/adfl.33.1.29
Murphy, T. (1984) Music and Song. Oxford. OUP.
Tennant, A (2007) Listening matters: Top-down and bottom-up listening. Available at; http://www.onestopenglish.com/skills/listening/teaching-tips/listening-matters/listening-matters-top-down-and-bottom-up-listening/154567.article
Walklett, C. (2014) Have Attitudes to and Use of Songs and Song Lyrics in EFL Changed in Recent Years. Lecture. Available at; https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2014/session/changing-attitudes-using-songs-song-lyrics-efl
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