Singing the Praises of Songs: Some Practical Ideas for Using Music with your EFL Students
by Gabi Bonner


''Songs are like an EFL teacher's Swiss Army Knife: portable, multi-purpose, handy, easy to use, and really just fun!'' (Murphey: 2002).

We hear songs on the TV, on the radio, in the supermarket, in the restaurant, at the pub, at concerts. We sing songs at religious services, in our head, in the car, under our breath (hopefully) when walking down the street, and even in the shower. Songs and music pervade almost every part of our lives and thus provide us with rich and invaluable examples of authentic material which can be easily exploited in the EFL classroom, with wonderfully positive results.

Why Use Songs?

The reasons to use songs in language teaching and the benefits of this are numerous and span all areas of language processing, from cognitive and linguistic to affective.

Using songs as part of language learning can be theoretically supported by Steven Krashen's affective filter hypothesis and it can also aid automaticity (Gatbonton and Segalwitz: 1988). Krashen's affective filter hypothesis postulates that optimum learning takes place in a non-threatening, low anxiety environment with high stimulation. According to Krashen, the learner's emotional state (his/her inner feelings and attitude) acts like a filter that can be adjusted and either impedes or welcomes input needed for language acquisition. Negative emotions, such as anxiety, demotivation or lack of confidence act like a filter and can prevent the learner from responding to the linguistic input from his/her environment. Music helps create and sustain an environment which evokes positive emotions, lowering the affective filter, and thus facilitating language acquisition. Songs also provide a break from classroom routine, and learning through songs develops a non-threatening classroom atmosphere in which the four skills can be enhanced (Lo and Li: 1998).

The main cognitive reason for using songs in the language classroom is that they help learners develop automaticity, which is 'a component of language fluency which involves both knowing what to say and producing language rapidly without pauses' (Gatbonton and Segalwitz: 1988). The ability to memorise is critical to the language acquisition process, since it would be virtually impossible to acquire language without memory. The repetitive nature of songs helps students to memorise and thus automatise chunks of language.

Songs can be used to help learners acquire vocabulary and grammar, improve spelling and develop the linguistic skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking (Lalas and Lee: 2002). Other reasons why using songs is advantageous in language acquisition are that it provides authentic examples of the target language and target vocabulary, grammar and patterns are modelled in context, and it's an enjoyable experience for learners and teachers alike.

Which Songs Should I Use?

Now that we've seen how useful songs are for language acquisition, let's have a look at how to use them effectively in the classroom. I've found it most motivating to use songs that the students are already familiar with, or songs of a genre that I know my students like. How do I find out what kind of music my students are into? Simple: ask them! Set aside five or ten minutes of a lesson near the beginning of the semester and do one of the following things:

a) Just have an informal whole class discussion about favourite music, singers and groups.
b) You could give students a few minutes in pairs or groups of three to brainstorm and try to reach a consensus on the most popular genre of music or group or singer and then have a whole class discussion.

Or:

c) You could set students a writing task for homework in which they are required to write about their favourite music/group/singer etc.
d) You could ask one student every few weeks to bring in a song that they like with the lyrics and possibly some background information on the singer or group, and then you can take it away and prepare some activities for the next lesson. Easy.

Where do I get the songs and lyrics from?

You may not have thought about it before, but chances are you already have tons of suitable songs on CD or on your iPod or MP3 player. It's just a question of finding out which ones your students know and like, or listening to your music from the point of view of 'how comprehensible would this song be to a learner of English?'. As I mentioned above, you can borrow music from your students, or free downloads such as Lime Wire give you access to millions of songs which you can either put on your iPod, MP3 or a CD. There are hundreds of websites that provide song lyrics. Some of the ones I use are: http://www.lyrics.com, http://www.songlyrics.com, http://www.lyricsfreak.com, http://www.lyricsdownload.com and http://www.thesonglyrics.com. A word of warning though: Please check the lyrics for spelling mistakes! The people who submit them are not English teachers and quite often can't spell to save themselves.

Now that I know which songs to use and where to get the lyrics, what on earth do I do with them?

Before listening to the song it's often a good idea to begin with a focusing activity which will get students thinking about the subject of the song. You could write the name of the song on the board and get students to speculate about the subject of the song, you could show students a picture of the singer/group and get them to guess what kind of songs they sing, or give students some vocabulary from the song and get them to make up a story using all the words.

After setting the scene, what you choose to do with a song will depend on the level of the students. I've used songs with absolute beginners, proficiency, and everything in between. One activity that works well with very low-level students is the following:

1) Choose a song in which the lyrics are clearly pronounced and not too fast; preferably a song in which the same words are repeated several times (in the chorus for example).
2) Pre-teach about seven or eight words from the song; preferably the ones that are repeated several times. I usually do this with pictures. Make sure to drill pronunciation.
3) Ask students to choose their favourite three words and write them down on a piece of paper.
4) Play the song and students stand up when they hear one of their words and then sit down when they hear another one (or the same one again). They keep doing this (standing up or sitting down) whenever they hear one of their words.

One advantage of this activity is that it's quite humanistic, in that no one knows which words each student has chosen, so if they get it wrong they don't feel embarrassed in front of their classmates or teacher. Also, if it's a big class it can look quite comical with people standing up and sitting down at different times, and students seem to really enjoy it. It shows low-level students that they can listen to a song in English and understand some words, so it's also quite motivating. I actually challenged a group of native speaker English teachers with this activity in a teacher development workshop, using an Italian song. My colleagues are living proof that it works with absolute beginners and can be a lot of fun. If the class is very low level you could give them a copy of the lyrics with all the pre-taught words blanked out; this way they can read along as they're listening and they know when one of the words is going to come up. A variation of this activity is to all stand in a circle and students step in or out of the circle when they hear one of their words. I've used this activity with You've Got a Friend by Carole King, Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison, and Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel.

Another activity that works well for low-level students is a 'word grab'. Here's what to do:

1) Select a song in which the words are clearly pronounced. Type or write about ten words from the song on slips of paper, one word on each slip. And give one set of words to each group of three or four students.
2) Pre-teach the words if you need to; make sure to drill pronunciation.
3) Students spread the slips of paper out so that everyone in the group can see them. Play the song and when a student hears one of the words he/she grabs the slip of paper with that word on it. The student in each group with the most slips of paper at the end of the song is the winner.

Students like the competitive factor to this activity, and the fact that you need to be quick and alert. A fun (and energetic!) variation is a board race:

1) Write the words on the board, put students into lines of three or four, and give the student at the front of each line a board pen.
2) Play the song, and the students at the front of the lines race to circle the word as they hear it.
3) They then quickly pass the pen to the next student and move to the back of the line. The team with the most circled words at the end of the song is the winner.

A word of caution though: make sure the song isn't too fast and that it's very loud, as all the moving around can make it difficult to hear. Make sure the words are spaced out in the song so that students have time to get the pen and be ready to leap forward. Also, I wouldn't recommend this board race with a large class, as you need lots of space. A follow-up activity for the word grab (or board race) is to give students the song lyrics with the 'word grab words' blanked out. Give them a few minutes to fill in the blanks, guessing where the words go if necessary, then play the song again and they can check if they were correct. The word grab works just as well with higher levels. What I tend to do first is give each group a set of words, tell them that the words fit together to make some kind of story, and then they use the words to make up a possible story. Then each group tells their story to the whole class and everyone votes on the best story. Then students can listen, do the word grab, then the cloze activity, and then discuss how close their 'speculative story' was to the real one.

An activity which works well with all levels is ordering pictures. For low levels, do the following:

1) Select some words from the song (about 7 or 8) and draw a picture to represent the meaning of each word.
2) Pre-teach the words using the pictures and drill pronunciation.
3) Play the song and students put the pictures in the order in which they hear the words.

As a variation, you could do a 'picture grab' in the same way as a word grab. This works especially well with young learners. With higher levels you can select a song which tells a story or evokes concrete or even abstract (if your students are creative!) images. Draw pictures to represent events, feelings, and ideas expressed in the song. Students then listen and put the pictures in the correct order. I used this activity with Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash, as the lyrics evoke clear images like 'I fell into a burning ring of fire', 'I went down down down and the flames went higher'.

Often students like to learn something about the singer or group before they listen to the song. You can do this in several ways: a reading, a listening, a quiz, a dictation, a video, or a combination of the above. In my Johnny Cash lesson I did the following:

1) I played twenty questions with my students to make them guess who I was thinking of.
2) We did a running dictation with a list of words taken from the reading about his life and music.
3) Students used the words to speculate what might have happened in his life, and we listened to each group tell their story and voted on the best one.
4) Students read the text and checked their ideas.
5) I gave them slips of paper with important events in his life which the students had to read again and put them in the correct order.
6) I gave students the pictures I'd drawn and they had to speculate on what the song might be about.
7) Students listened to the song and put the pictures in the correct order (they may need to listen twice in some cases).
8) We sang the song together.

As well as providing opportunities for intensive and extensive listening, songs can also be used to introduce, test, practise and revise grammatical structures. Here's what to do:

1) Choose a song that contains several examples of relevant structures or tenses.
2) Print out the lyrics and blank out all the examples of this structure or tense.
3) Give the lyrics to students and get them to try to fill in the gaps as best they can.
4) Listen to the song and check answers.

A variation on this is to type out the lyrics with mistakes relating to the target structure and get students to try to correct the mistakes before they listen. I often do this with prepositions and/or articles, as these are common areas of difficulty for my students. I've often seen my students refer back to the lyrics of a song we'd done in class if they're not sure which preposition or article to use in a certain context; Clear evidence that automaticity really can be enhanced through songs! I've used this activity with Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For by U2 to practise the present perfect, Way Back into Love by Hugh Grant (from the film 'Music and Lyrics') to practise present perfect continuous, It Must've Been love by Roxette to practise past modals (then you can get students to re-write the lyrics from a pessimist's point of view using 'can't have been', should've been etc). For higher levels you could also get students to change all the verbs and time markers from past to present or present to future or vice versa.

You can also use a cloze activity such as the one outlined above for rhyming words. Choose a song in which the final words of each line rhyme, blank out the last word of each line, if it's a low-level class you can give them the words in a random order and give them time to fill in as much as they can before listening. Suggestions of songs for this activity are The first, The Last, My Everything by Barry White and Way Back Into Love by Hugh Grant.

I taught a successful lesson to my advanced class recently based on Hand In My Pocket by Alanis Morissette. The focus was adjectives describing personality, state, and physical appearance and present continuous verbs describing a temporary state; in the song there are pairs of adjectives/verbs which express a contrast. Examples are: broke and happy, poor and kind, high and grounded, etc. I did the following:

1) I gave each group of three students a set of cards with the adjectives/verbs, and they had to discuss the meaning and put them into pairs.
2) We listened to the song and students checked their answers.
3) I gave students the complete lyrics and we listened again, thinking about the meaning of the song.
4) We had a discussion about the singer's emotions and personality, why certain adjectives were paired up and the contrasts they expressed, and which adjectives students would use to describe themselves.

If you have a close-knit group who feel comfortable with each other, you can try singing the song as a follow-up activity to any of the ones mentioned above. Put the song on loudly so that students don't feel self-conscious about being heard, and just sing! I managed to get my class of middle-aged state school teachers belting out Hotel California by The Eagles and requesting to sing it again and again! If students are too shy to sing, you could have a lip-syncing competition as an alternative follow-up:

1) Put students into groups facing away from each other and play the song a few times so that they can practise and make up moves to accompany the song.
2) If you have enough time, each group can perform separately and then vote on the most realistic performance. If time is short then everyone can perform together. Tip: You might want to take some extra board pens to use as microphones.

A final word

As we've seen, songs really are an invaluable tool to aid language acquisition. They lower the affective filter, aid automaticity, and provide authentic examples of the target language with vocabulary and grammar in context. Songs can be exploited in the EFL classroom in terms of all four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) as well as spelling, grammar and vocabulary, and it's an enjoyable and motivating experience for both teachers and learners. So, what are you waiting for? Good luck!

References

Gatbonton, E and Segalowitz, N. 1988. Creative Automatization: Principles for promoting fluency within a communicative framework. TESOL Quarterly, 22, 473-492.

Lalas, J and Lee, S. 2002. Language, Literacy and Academic Development. Pearson Educational Publishing.

Lo, R and Li, H.C. 1998. Songs enhance learner involvement. English Teaching Forum, 36, 8-11, 21.

Murphey, T. 2002. Music and Song. OUP.

Biodata

Gabi Bonner has been teaching at Akcent International House in Prague since completing her CELTA there in 2006. She has an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and her current research interests lie in motivation in Second Language Acquisition, methodology and using songs and music in the EFL classroom.

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