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Teaching with pop songs
by Sarn Rich

Direct use of songs

Murphey puts forward some good arguments for using learners' own songs, such as the time it can save the teacher in finding songs and keeping up with learners' tastes, the equality which this establishes between teacher and learner (Each is giving something to the other.), and of course the motivation it is likely to draw from the learner. I have followed this suggestion on a number of occasions and though I cannot say I have enjoyed the 'Offspring' tape proffered by some Italian learners I have known, it was very popular in class and maintained their complete attention when we went through the language. On the other hand an Ozzie Ozbourne song presented by a learner in Poland was less successful, as nobody else in the school liked it either. (Murphy's sample handout for the collection of student-selected material is in Appendix A3).

Songs tend to be exploited in class with gapfills, the learners filling in the blanks using their knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, appropriacy, rhyme, etc. (A gapfilled 'No Reply' in Appendix El focusses on the past simple.). In variations on the gapfill there may be options to choose from, picture clues, or inappropriate words substituted for the right ones. Another common approach is to chop up the song for learners to put in order (A chopped 'For No One' in Appendix E2 requires learners to be aware of the third person singular 's' and to put together a coherent text).

In any of these activities it is usually best for the learner to attempt the task before listening, since to do so while listening only requires the learner to listen for the odd word, requiring no comprehension and little authentic listening.

Suitable activities if we do want the learner to listen out for specific words while listening include

- Listing. As they listen the learners list all the words or expressions they hear to do with something, or of a particular kind, or with a certain sound, or whatever we
o want to focus on.

- Spot the words. Learners circle, cross out or grab words as they hear them. This could be followed by a gapfill activity in which the learners put the circled words in the blanks in the song.

Murphey suggests that specific songs may be subjected to poetic analysis (picking out items like verse-chorus structure or rhyming scheme) (1992:81-2), language analysis (looking at poetic, colloquial, archaic, slang and non-standard usage) (ibid:84-5), discourse analysis (Appendix A2), or genre analysis (examining stereotypical language and images) (ibid:88-9).
Learners may manipulate or rewrite lyrics, perhaps to make a song describe a particular situation (ibid:74-5) or to practise specific language. Rinvolucri (1996) suggests getting learners to exercise their musical intelligence, for example when looking at the present perfect, by hanging the words of 'Where have all the flowers gone' onto another tune, or fitting new words to the original.

Learners can also rewrite songs to make them reflect their own personalities or outlooks, and then discuss them with one another. I have explored this technique successfully with a class of upper intermedate Polish learners, using 'El Condor Pasa' (Appendix E3).

The approaches discussed so far involve listening only for individual words, or are based around reading the text, requiring little of the learner in terms of developing the listening skill. Activities more directly tied to listening are:

- Listening to answer specific comprehension questions.

- Learners listening and filling in a form to record their reactions or how they would describe the song, or to compare songs with each other (Appendix A3).

- Songs used for dictogloss.

- Learners controlling the pause or rewind buttons, or working in a language laboratory, writing out the lyrics to their chosen songs (ibid:95-6).

- Griffee's collection of pre-listening, while-listening and follow-up questions is in Appendix D.

Following on from songs

A pop song might usefully set the groundwork for

- Dialogues invented by learners in which they incorporate language drawn from the song.

- Roleplays. Pop songs do not tend to be set in a specific time or place, and are often imprecise about the people involved. This makes it possible to relate them to a lot of different circumstances, and often for learners to play the part of characters in the song. For example after using 'No Reply' (Appendix El) for the past simple we might practice past tenses in a roleplay involving the boyfriend questioning a private detective hired to record the girlfriend's movements over the last week ('Well, on Monday she went to Canterbury, where she met Alonso...'). 'For No One' (Appendix E2) can be followed by a roleplay involving a rowing couple seeking the help of a relationship councellor to patch up their differences.

- Some songs lend themselves to starting discussions. For example after using 'El Condor Pasa' to examine comparatives and the second conditional, learners might ask each other what they would rather be, out of pairs like 'a colour or a sound', 'a rainbow or a star', 'a candle or a lightbulb', 'a beach or a wave' and their reasons for their replies. Such a follow-up requires considerable imagination on the part of the learners, but I have found it to work very well, helped perhaps by the way that the imagination is stimulated by the music itself.

Other songs, dealing with such issues as class (e.g. Pulp's 'Common People'), slavery (Bob Marley's 'Buffalo Soldier), domestic violence (Tracey Chapman's 'Last Night I Heard the Screaming'), homelessness (Phil Collins' 'Another day in
Paradise'), war (John Lennon's 'Give Peace a Chance'), politics ('Imagine', or Morrissey's 'Margaret on the Guillotine), racism or the environment, can provide vocabulary, or start learners thinking in preparation for other discussions.

- Writing. Learners might take the part of characters in the song (e.g. girlfriend and boyfriend writing to each other after 'No Reply'), act as observers reporting on what has been said (e.g. in a column in a newspaper), or create compositions inspired by a song or by ideas they associate with selected snippets from songs.


Songs cart he inspiring and enjoyable, lending themselves to the classroom as tools for drawing ideas and sensations out of the learner. Murphey (1992:15) suggests: 'What we are doing is insearch not input: we ask students to use their feelings, experiences, and thoughts, stimulated by the music, as the primary materials for our teaching.'

Songs caii also be interesting, providing an insight into L2 culture, and motivating, forming complete authentic texts which learners can feel they have succeeded in getting under t[tcir belts.

A song's positive associations can turn language work drawn from it into a more enjoyable experience. And by presenting a whole story or argument in a brief and accessible form, they can lay the groundwork neatly for roleplays, discussions and writing activities.

We have to he careful, bearing in mind that the learner will not necessarily react to a song in the same ~vay as the teacher, or in the same way as other learners, but, properly used, pop songs can be a useful and versatile resource for teaching.


Case, 1991. English Puzzles. Heinemann.

Griffee, D.T. 1992. Songs in Action. Prentice Hall.

Murphey, T. 1992. Music and Song. Oxford University Press.

Murphey, T. and J. L. Alber 1985. A Pop Song Register: the Motherese of Adolescence as Affective Foreigner Talk. TESOL Quarterly 12

Rinvolucri, M. 1996. The Seven Jntelligences and Grammar Teaching: Js There a Role for Multi-Sensory Teaching in ELT? EL Gazette, September

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