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Teaching with pop songs
by Sarn Rich

Identification and analysis

Griffee (1992) suggests that songs resemble poems, with three typical differences:

- a song tends to contain a lower amount of information.

- the language of a song involves more redundancy, frequently being filled with such devices as proverbs and cliches, and following expected patterns

- songs have a more personal quality, relating more directly to the listener.

The music is also significant, helping to fix the song in one's memory. It is probably also a factor in songs' contribution to language-acquisition in children and thence perhaps turns into what Murphey and Alber (1985) call 'adolescent motherese', filling adolescents' need for something to replace 'motherese', the affective musical language that adults use with infants.

Songs may also be considered in terms of what we do with them. Murphey (1992) lists such activities as listening, humming or tapping along during or after listening, talking and reading about them (the lyrics, ideas, music, artist,..), playing them to create an atmosphere or for background, and creating associations.

Problems inherent for adult learners

Perhaps because of their association with adolescence some adult learners can consider pop songs childish or inappropriate for serious study.

Learners can also vary in their tastes, so that what one learner (or teacher) likes will not necessarily appeal to another.

On the other hand learners might become so enthusiastic that they want to do nothing but enjoy the music. This situation arose a few times when I taught in Georgia, where singing is so much a part of culture that any song brought into class is virtually bound to be sung by the learners (In many paces we might expect this to occur with children, but in Georgia I taught only adults.). This is fun but sometimes might lead to teaching/learning purposes being forgotten.

There are practical considerations, too, such as whether equipment or recordings are of sufficient quality for a song's words to be intelligible.

The teacher needs to be careful with some songs if the message is sexist or revels in violence, or if it contains figurative language or cultural assumptions alien to the learner. For example, the Beatles' 'Oh dear, what can I do, baby's in black and I'm feeling blue' might perplex learners in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

There may even be issues o1 legality and censorship to consider. In Iran an Azeri trainee English teacher told me that although pop music is available on the black market, Khomeini imposed a ban on any music 'which makes you move' (The learner was amused at the picture he was conjuring of the Ayatollah methodically going through a music collection, stopping to throw out a record whenever he started getting the urge to boogie.).

Teaching - Why?

Nine years ago, I had not been in Bulgaria for long when a young man came up to me anxious for explanations to a long list of song lyrics. As we chatted I realised that his speech was curiously peppered with phrases from his heavy metal music collection. The experience confirms Alan Maley's observation (in Murphey 1992:3) that two major advantages to teaching with songs are that they are memorable and that they are motivating.

For Griffee (1992) there are six broad reasons to use songs in the classroom

- They can create an enjoyable, relaxing or particular atmosphere, to establish a mood or to suggest associations. In Suggestopaedia, specific kinds of music are selected to relax learners and make them receptive to language. Music or songs can also provide cover to encourage learners to speak, acting in the same way as music at a party to break down people's inhibitions about talking to one another.

- Songs often contain particular features of language in an accessible context, such as rhythm or colloquialisms.

- They can introduce aspects of L2 culture.

- They may be exploited in the same ways as any other text. Being generally short and self-contained can make them particularly suitable for the classroom.

- Songs can supplement the course, for example to mark special occasions like Christmas or to fill in background information to a topic discussed in class.

- Songs can be exploited in teaching, for conversation, vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation, either to introduce a topic or as subject to analysis in their own right.

In my own teaching all of the above reasons have played a part in my use of songs in class, but perhaps what has been most important is the motivation and interest they can inspire by their authenticity, and the possible associations most of my students have with them. I hope that when they regard a song as something enjoyable, its appearance in learning will make learning all the more enjoyable, too.


Activities with songs as a theme

There are many familiar classroom activities which can be adapted to make songs the focus of attention. Mostly from Murphey (1992), these include:

- Icebreakers in which the learners put information about themeselves on badges and mingle, asking each other questions. The information can be about musical tastes (Appendix Al).

- 'Twenty questions', and secret names stuck on learners' foreheads. Learners ask yes/no questions to work out the mystery identities. The names can be of musical artists (or musical genres).

- 'Find somebody who...' Learners look for people in the class who meet given descriptions (...likes punk,.. plays the piano,.. .went to a concert recently...).
- Questionnaires and surveys (Appendix Al) provided for or written by the learners. Results can be included in newsletters, along with interviews and articles to do with pop songs.

- Discussions generated in response to extreme opinions or quotations, about music and songs (op.cit:31,66 - Appendix Al).

- Drawing, comparing and discussing proximity mindmaps (Appendix Al).

- Writing stories, dialogues and interviews incorporating titles and lines from songs (Appendix A2).

- Reading and manipulating texts about pop songs or artists (Appendix B).

- The Heinemann 'English Puzzles' books contain some nice little activities using song titles for language work, dealing with contractions, tense and time references, parts of speech and a crossword drawing on Beatles song titles (Appendix C).

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