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Techniques for using songs in foreign language classroom III. part

Techniky použití písně ve výuce anglického jazyka se mohou adaptovat i na další cizí jazyky nebo do hudební výchovy. Příspěvek rozděluje písně dle různých přístupů práce s texty: 1. dle jazykových prostředků, 2. dle receptivních a produktivních dovedností, 3. dle fáze hodiny, ve kterých je píseň použita, 4. jako stěžejní text tvořící páteř hodiny.

When we wish music to be a dynamic learning tool, it requires more than playing a song and letting students sing along. We need to introduce activities leading to pupils’ understanding and exercising language patterns which are meaningful and interesting enough to draw pupils attention. The importance for a teacher, however, is to exploit and make the best of all aspects and language provided in that piece of music.

1.  Songs according to main language areas of practice

We cannot treat one area irrespective of the others – they are interconnected. On the contrary, current song treatment is targeted overwhelmingly on grammatical and lexical activities. For this reason, the ideas below are shortened, whereas others are being exploited.

1.1 Use of English

Often an obvious and intuitive use of a song does not result in the most imaginative approach, especially when used for grammar practice. As language teachers we instinctively look for language focus in music, relying too heavily on lyrics and ignoring the other, more creative possibilities on offer.  After we have selected a suitable piece of music, where there is always some grammar area to practise, we should try to explore or invent own activites avoiding tedious gap-fill exercises.

The following are suggestions of song (and grammar areas they practise) that could be suitably used within aclassroom. I do not intend to present a list of musical pieces, but just to promt ideas:

Artist/group                          Song´s title                      Structures it practises

Suzanne Vega                           Tom´s Dinner                       Present Progressive

Pink Floyd                                 The Wall                              negation in a sentence

Dido                                         White Flag                           “Will/won´t” for promises

Avril Lavigne                             Sk8er Boi                               Articles:: a, the or --

Jimmy Cliff                   You can get it if you really want            Modal verbs

Madonna                                 True Blue                                Present perfect and past simple

Freddie Mercury                      We are the champions                Present perfect (for experience)

the Beach Boys                        Wouldn´t it be nice                   Conditional clauses – 2nd cond.

Rolling Stones                         It´s all over now                        Used to


At least, it´s worth mentioning the powerful book of Jazz and Grammar Chants by Carolyn Graham, both of which are specifically designed to help students in particular grammar areas, though the material is quite obsolete.

We are offered a wide range of material in a situational context, as in Sh! Sh! Baby is sleeping! which practises present progressive in contracted form in contrast to the simple past, What did you say?/I said. The teacher should also highlight the reduction of sound in the pronunciation of the word did when it occurs with you in did you. It also illustrates ways to complain about noise, from the polite, gentle Sh! Hush! Please be quiet, to the angry, rude Shut up!

Among others we should mention Late Again, Wake up! Wake up! for modal auxiliaries, Rain for past continuous, Selfish and Taking credit for possessives, Meet me in the morning for the use of prepositions and other elaborate range of material to reinforce tenses. Moreover, these structures are tightly connected with emotions in a situational context and sound practise (see Phonetics below).

1.2 Lexis

Various challenging and sophisticated methods are being used to reinforce vocabulary for gradual building-up of pupils´ wordstock. These can be simply adapted to a song when we treat the lines as any language material – a text with the advantage of a tune in addition.

When you wish to present and teach not a random vocabulary, try to find a topic-based song. You can pick e.g. the song Our house by Madness, which works well for members of the family and their duties, a person who makes orders, who keeps the house clean, etc.  In the post-listening stage, a teacher can ask for suitable adjectives to depict that house – busy, quiet, clean, untidy, crowded, traditional.

To raise pupils´ awareness of different word classes, we can delete words of a particular word-class to simplify the gap-fill. E.g. in the song  Holding out for a hero by Bonnie Tyler we can delete all adjectives with the first letter left as a hint. If we want to get our class moving, choose a song with action verbs. E.g. I say a little prayer by the Queen of Soul is a perfect practice of phrasal verbs connected with daily routine.

Using the dictionary in connection with the song lyrics is also worth doing. You can make it into a competitive quiz. In the first stage, pupils choose any vocabulary from the lyrics and try to invent three to four definitions as options. In the second stage, they read out the options for other groups who are supposed to guess the correct words/vocabulary. In the final stage, there should be a final check and appointing the winners.

Music can play a valuable role in translation activities. Translation is a much neglected area of ELT, yet learners often express a wish to share the themes of a song with their peers and/or teachers. Since an important part of the meaning is often carried by the lyrics, song can act as a powerful motivation for learners to provide a translation from L1 to English. The product has more than linguistic value – it provides an interesting exercise in cultural awareness. A further cross-cultural exercise, this time of a more light-hearted nature, is to examine the words in different countries to the same tune (for example Happy Birthday or Auld Lang Syne).

1.3 Phonetics

Pupils have to be aware of speech sounds, which have to be regularly practised. To approach musical sounds we can improve the pronunciation through rhythm, singing and movemet. The teacher can prepare any short recording (of two to three minutes length) of suitable music according to the sounds the teacher wants to work on. If he can play any musical instrument, he can play it himself.

Let us start on segmental level, how can we raise pupils´ attention to vowel or consonant sounds? Is it possible to rehearse particular sounds to reinforce it? At first, this relies on teachers´ creativeness – one can take any song, where there is a high occurance of targeted sound and delete it (it could be a phoneme or any other segment) which pupils have to fill in while they´re listening to it.

For voiceless plosive consonants /p/, /t/, /k/ and short vowels /i/ (sit), /e/ (get), /ae/ (bat), / / (cut), / / (dock), /u/ (cool), we can use a piece of music where the rhythmic element is more striking. Flowing, melodic tunes work best with voiced plosives, the fricatives, and longer vowels /i:/ (deep), /a:/ (dark), /o:/ (door), /u/ (cool). Slow tunes are useful for diphthongs, to enable your learners gradually move from the onset position of the diphthong to the final posititon so that all the elements come out distictly (Clement Laroy, 1995, pg. 95).

We can also practise speech sounds in associating them with spellings through vowel/consonant songs. For this, a teacher choses a simple song the pupils know well, where there is each syllable replaced with a single vowel sound. We should use a possible spelling of the sound or the phonemic symbol.

“eight” /ei/                    ei   ei   ei ei   ei  ei

Then, pupils try to sing the song. It is a good idea to invite the class to accompany them by clapping the rhythm. This serves jonly as a warm them up and gives them confidence. Next, they write it down with the new phonemic symbol. This is also a simple exercise in syllable counting.

With the strong class as a follow-up, we can ask pupils to replace this vowel by another one – it should be with different spelling, but the same sound. Then we ask them to find a one-syllable word in which the two spellings are used. Teacher uses several words with the same spelling of the sound:

ay ay ei ei, ay ay ei ei

day eight may rain ....

The teacher expands the range of spellings used, e.g. replace “a” with “ai”, “ay”, “ei”, “ey”, “ea” (as in great) or “au” (as in gauge): ape rain great day..

The students combine words in such a way that meaningful, amusing, or memorable associations are produced: 
May  day  May day

space ray space ray

eight grey apes sleighed

eight state freight trains, weigh great pay weights

You may wish to add consonant sounds as an additional challenge, e.g.:

wail   whale  sail    sale

cake  cape    cage   case

I suggest music recorded by Beatles, e.g. a well-known song Yesterday. It best practises /a:/ and /u:/, but can also be used for /eu/ as in “throw”, if the second element is suitable.

When we want to practice speech sounds on suprasegmental level, to raise pupils´ awaraness of chunks of language, rhytms, intonation patterns and stress, the best is perhaps the work by Carolyn Graham´s  Jazz Chants  or Grammar Chants. It gives pupils the maximum opportunity to practice the sounds of English within a meaningful context. She remarks that American English streches, shortens, blends and often drops sounds. These subtle features of the language are extremely difficult for a student to comprehend unless his ear has been properly trained (1978, pg.3). Further she gives an example to illustrate this. The sound of, “Jeet yeat?” is meaningless unless one has acquired the listening comprehension skills necessary to make the connection with “Did you eat yet?”.

If we come across differences betweenStandard English versus Non-standard English in a song, we have to explain that to ensure students´comprehension. E.g. in the chant I´m gonna go is blended future with “be going to”. Make clear that in written word “gonna” would be considered non-standard English whereas the spoken form is perfectly acceptable in American conversation. The essential element in presenting a Jazz Chant is the clear, steady beat and rhythm. By setting the dialogue to beat we are not distorting the line but simply heightening the student´s awareness of the natural rhythmic patterns present in spoken American English.  The choral repetition also allows the pupils to experiment with expressing strong feelings. These emotions are accompanied by the body movements. They also try various positioning of voice without the natural shyness. Then each student practicing a specific rhythm and intonation pattern within the classroom should be able to use the same pattern in a real-life conversation and be readily understood by a native speaker.

2. The use of songs according to trained skills

Murphey (in Music and Song, Oxford: OUP, 1992) is among a number of educators who asserts that we can treat lyrics with the same degree of imagination and flexibility as we would any other written text. The suggestions below represent a synthesis of ideas gathered from the literature and activities which have succeeded in a classroom environment. They illustrate that, in some ways, lyrics may even increase the number of options for dealing with a ‘text’.

2.1 Receptive skills

a) Listening skill

Jumbling lyrics offers a rich stream of activity ideas. Variations include jumbling on a word, sentence or verse level. Two different songs can even be jumbled for the learners to untangle. Jumbling has advantages over gapfill as it compels learners to re-craft language, using their knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. This requires more active approach to language use, through reconstruction of texts.

Less restricted than jumbled lyrics is the application of Wajnryb’s method of ‘dictogloss’ to song lyrics. The idea behind dictogloss is for learners to listen to a passage of English delivered at natural speed and rewrite it using their own words, but maintaining the original meaning. Some songs present an ideal medium for dictogloss due to a number of factors, particularly because they often tell a story and feature frequent repetition of structures. Variations on the dictation theme also include running dictations, where lyrics are some distance from the learners and they must go to the lyrics, remember as much as possible and dictate them back to their partner and vice versa, and transcription, which is often useful as a basis for further activities.

Adaptation of lyrics is another popular activity type. This can either be in the form of ‘mistaken’ lyrics which the learners must correct, or creation of entirely new lyrics based on the stimulus of the songs. Mistaken lyrics or ‘mondegreens’ as they have come to be known in popular culture, offer an amusing opportunity for learners to explore aspects of English phonology and vocabulary processing. Creating new lyrics can be restricted to text alteration as in Murphey where individual words such as personal pronouns can be changed, or they can represent a very open, guided writing exercise such as creating lyrics to a known tune (1992, pg.79-80).

Penny Ur´s and Jeremy Harmer´s activities are also worth mentioning. They provided activites which ensure that pupils do not lose attention while listening because of immediate feedback. These are based on checking listening comprehension when students are performing some tasks. This prevents less motivated pupils from avoiding their participation in a task. e.g.Listen and draw, Listen and write, Listen and do, Listen and match, Listen and tell, etc. Picture order is the best example to illustrate this. While pupils are listening to the lyrics, they should order the pictures which represent various people, colours, actions, preposition of movements, animals...etc. in order they appear in lyrics.

b) Reading skill

How does a song help pupils to develop reading skills? Again, in a number of different ways. At the beginning, there is a simple idea to use the lyrics as a normal reading or listening text with the bonus of hearing it sung afterwards.

We can use jumbled lines or stanzas. Other work involves  lyrics which contain words with some extra letters which need to be deleted while listening (this also exercises listening skills).

Reading can be also developed in post-listening stages, e.g. Write one word for each stanza that best summarizes the context. Or if some characters appeared in a song, the pupils write their description – ofpersonality as well as appereance.

Multiple matching is another example activity we can incorporate when working with the lyrics. The text is divided into four or five sections and they should match it with 7 statements (there can be some extra) and search for the parallel expressions. They read quickly through the texts for words or phrases with a similar meaning. They should be aware of the key words that connect the statement with only one section. Multiple-choice questions can be also based on the lyrics. Also gapped text, when some lines/sentences have been removed and students have to choose the best ones to fit each gap.

We can use the lyrics of some song for to skim or scan it for some idea. We can involve our pupils in reading for specific information or for overall understanding in a number of post-reading tasks  with a bonus of playing the song.. We should imply bottom-up or top-down approach to reading the lyrics.

2. 2 Productive skills

c)  Speaking skill

Songs may serve as an incentive for speaking English in class. They are marked by the richness of content, poetical metaphors, and symbols, which emotionally reflect the world we live in. Songs may serve as a starting point for conversation. Pupils can discuss a single song, the repertoire of a group as well as different musical trends. Moreover, there can be a discussion about the members of a group, thier apperance, clothes, their life-style in general or the biographies in particular (some peculiarities in tabloids). We can bring pictures taken from a newspaper for illustration.

Speaking skill can be trained in pre-listening questions, e.g. What is the song about? What feelings does it evolve? A teacher can brainstorm any idea he wishes to exploit. In post-listening questions, we can stimulate students to share opinions in group discussion prefarably. E.g. How do the melody and the lyrics evolve? Who is the lead vocal? What can you say about his way of singing? What instruments accompany his voice? Does the song sound like a classical piece? Whose image is created in the song? About theme or topic: What kind of love is depicted in the song? Is the love story told in a highly emotional way or with a tinge of detachment? Characterize the main musical elements of the song.

The teacher can also find two versions of a song and asks pupils about differences in interpretation between original and the second interpreter. Which singer is more dramatic? We can make space for more critical thinking in post-listening stages. After your pupils have heard a rock song, the hints for thought could be: Some people say that rock music promotes crime/juvenile deliquency. Do you agree?  What do you think are the main qualities of a pop-singer? Enumerate at least three of them. Should a person understand only one musical genre or different kinds?

For nice work with metaphors, symbols and underlying message we can use a song by Queen – We are the champions. It was first recorded in 1977 and was written by lead singer Freddie Mercury. It was a number one hit, and soon became the anthem of successful sport teams around the world, though most people only know the chorus, which could be miss-leading. Although this song can be used after the sport topic as a food for thought. In pre-listening stage teacher can ask a thought-provoking questions: Do you know this singer? What can you remember about his life? Do you know under which circumstances he died? What do you know about that illness? How can it be cured? In post-listening stage, we can take out metaphors - some difficult lines to discuss the meaning of its message. E.g. I´ve done my sentence, but comitted no crime/..But it´s been no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise, I consider it a challenge before all human race/and I ain´t gonna lose/we´ll go on fighting till the end/. Is this about competitions in sports? Teacher could ask for explaination of every individual metaphor as a group discussion.

Last example for speaking practice could be Can´t Buy Me Love by Beatles. In pre-listening questions: In the title of the song the subject is omitted. Can you guess what is it? In post-listening questios: Is the title of the song an anppropriate one? Can you suggest other titles? From whose point of view is the song sung? Do you agree with the singer that “Money can´t buy me love”? Who is doing the lead vocal, back-up vocals?

What is the melody like? Is there a dynamism and kinesthetic appeal in the song? What is more important for a song: music or lyrics? Why?  What attracts you more in this song?

d) Writing skill

Writing is usually trained in post-listening stages and is very often developed in personalised tasks. If there are certain questions to be raised in the song, the author-artist requests, longs for, commands us. In the first stage, the teacher challenges the pupils to write their immediate reactions, responses, answers to it. They should have a possibility to check their ideas in a pair – it raises their confidence before the teacher starts eliciting ideas their answers or reactions/ideas. In the second stage, they are asked to adapt the lyrics into a conversational dialogue. In the third stage, students role-play the interpreter and a responder.

Pupils can underline words that rhyme. If they have enough to create one stanza lyrics, they are asked to work on their own, they write simple lyrics on these rhyming words. Or a teacher can add his own rhyming words. This could be done as a group work when in feedback pupils read out their invented lines. The groups then vote for the best version.

Your students can become composers themselves of completely new song if you stimulate them with an invocative piece of music. So you can play the tune and they should write the lyrics. This activity is quite challenging on stress and rhythm. The tune should be taken from less famous song in order to prevent pupils to know the lyrics. We can simplify it by giving them some words to build up a story on, or more abstract words to create new connotations.  Or to simplify it, we choose the song with a clear story-line as well as vocal sound. In the first stage, we  play only the first part (stanza). Then we pause it. In the second stage, we ask for predictions and elicit ideas. Then in pairs, they try to finish it off. In the final stage, pupils are revealed the original version lyrics and they compare it.

We can also use the powerful dictation device – we can use a chorus or the whole song to dictate your pupils the lines of a song, they finally compare it with the recording.

3.  The use of songs in different stages of lesson as means for different activities

Music can be used  at the very beginning of the lesson to switch your students´ tongue into English and to set the mood. That gives a teacher something to talk about with students at the start of the lessons. This serves as a good warm-up exercise that would simply “tune in” everybody.

The teacher can use any tune from an advertising campaign and students guess what is the add aimed at. They discuss if the music makes the customer buy it. Is there any underlying message in the tune?  Which product would they buy?

Or we can play different musical genres and students form the groups on their own choice. Students should form at least three groups of e.g. Brass-band, Hip-hop, Instrumental, according to them and the number of students.  Then they are about to discuss and explain why they made that choice.

If we want to make our students move, we can choose a song where there are action verbs and set a task to show the action by miming it when they hear it. It raises a lot of entertainment. If  we want to make them listen for  specific information, a good warm-up is that a teacher writes four words from a song on the board and asks students to choose one. At this stage, nobody knows about their peer´s choice. Then you ask them to stand up each time they hear the target word and sit down when they hear it again. The teacher plays the song during which students are fully concentrating and move. Then the teacher asks a pupil which word/words their peers had.


The essential thing, however, is  to make pupils aware of beat and tune of English (stress, rhythm and intonation). The teacher can play the song and let the pupils draw any associations which have crossed their mind while listening. Pupils finally explain their drawings.

How can we make pupils more aware of how they perceive English? To increase pupils´ awaraness of perception, we can give them statesments to tick to accompany the music:

  • it is like the sound of waves breaking on the beach/mountain brook
  • it brings back memories of winter/summer
  • it brings back my past memories of my mother and me as a child/my first date/teenage age
  • it makes me feel like dancing/sleeping
  • I can smell flower/food/orient
  • it sounds ideal for giving orders/courtship/romantic evening/dirty streets/jungle
  • it reminds me of eating a banana/an apple
  • it reminds me of rainy season/dry season
  • I imagine myself beeing on a desert/at the top of the moutain/at the sea/in the garden/alone/at a party
  • I see everything in bright colours-yellow, white, blue/dark green,black

For the first week of term, it is necessary to create a good and positive learning environment in any new group. Teachers let their pupils make initial contacts with each other through English, want them to learn names, let them find out something about other group members and pupils begin to get to know each other in an informal and friendly way. We want to encourage fluid seating arrangements and discourage territoriality (Hadfield, 1992, str. 25). We need to create a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. Why not make it with the help of music? This works well within new groups which are a bit “icy”, but we can build on these “ice-breaker” activities through these musical associations. In the first stage, the teacher asks the pupils to write down the name of a song which they like. It can be a heavy-metal song, a folk song, a song from the opera, anything. They do not show this title to anybody else for the moment. In the second stage, students do mingling activity and speak about the song title and how it makes them feel, what the song makes them think of, what it makes them feel like doing, where they would most like to hear the song. In the third, feedback stage, the teacher asks if anyone heard anything particularly interesting that they would like to share with the group.

In another stage (which we introduce after a warm-up) we need to bring a lead-in that serves as an introduction to the topic we want to deal with. For the vocabulary topic of Films and TV, we can choose  a theme song of some TV series, a soap opera or sit-coms your target group would know – e.g. Friends, Simpsons, Star Trek, South Park and they should discover its name. Or you can play songs taken from different movies and pupils should discover the title of that film. If this is difficult, you can hint the titles on flashcards or blackboard for the limited number of choices.

We can also play different genres songs and pupils should incorporate them into some well-known films such as Cinderella, Minority Report, Pretty Woman, Lethal Weapon, etc. The music should reflect the horror, romantic, scientific movie genres. You can discuss in which situation it would be particularly effective.

When in need to introduce a grammar topic, e.g. Adjectives, we can play six different pieces of music or songs without lyrics and pupils should note down words that describe their feelings while listening to it. This is a personalised task that stimulates your pupils´ imagination.

Fillers are another example where to use a song, simply as a break between different activities. The song as well as any change of activities raise pupils´ attention span. It helps them to relax and to concentrate more on a following activity.

Background music also plays an excellent role in language acquisition. Pupils are concentrating on a given task, in pair or group work or individually, the background music reinforces their work. They feel more safe and are more task-oriented. We can use it while pupils work on “dull” exercises or to set the scene while pupils do a particular task, e.g. some kind of scientific or space music during a discussion on life on another planet, romantic music when role-playing a dating agency or fast, exciting music during a competition. The background music is helpful and essential to raise imagination when using personalised tasks. Students close their eyes and visualise images from their own memory. You set a task, e.g. My first day at school. It can be accompanied by your words underlining the song. Your voice should be calm and moderate to fit in the music.

  • Was it a nice day - sunny day or was it raining?
  • Who did you go with? Your mother, father, grandparents or alone?
  • Was it far/near from your home? Was the building big or small?
  • What did your classroom look like? Were there pictures, posters, photos on the wall?
  • What about your teacher? What was she wearing? Was she young or older?
  • Do you remember the girl/boy you sit next to?

When ending and evaluating the group performance and after feedback, we can offer a song to handle with. It is also good if there is some time left before the break, we can round off the lesson by a song. It is a nice way how to close down, conclude or to say goodbye before the weekend.


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