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Introduction to using songs in a classroom – is there anything else than gap-fills? I. part

Teoretický příspěvek
aplikační příspěvek

Songs have always played a significant part of human lives and have also become an increasingly successful way to experience language in foreign language teaching. Their usage within classroom environment has effectively proven to better learning process. Certain language learning theories implementing sounds and songs into ELT (e.g. Audio-lingual method, Suggestopaedia) had a profound effect on a second language acquisition. Considering the adaptation of songs to Stephen Krashen's theory of acquisition is a clear example. Pupils take a song as a light-hearted fun and relaxation, though underlining message is the learning of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and many more. That means that students acquire target language unconsciously and that is why it becomes more permanent in contradiction to things learned consciously with non-permanent effects. James Asher's Total Physical Response (TPR) is based on repetition and drills which is actually the basics of all songs.

The aim of this article (coming in four parts) is to demonstrate the importance of songs in learning process and its meaningful usage in a foreign language lesson. An investigation into the present use of music in ELT reveals that only a fraction of its potential is being used. By becoming aware of the different ways that music can be exploited to teach English, teachers can equip themselves with an immensely useful teaching tool.

Songs have proven an excellent way to build language abilities not only on segmental  level (concrete realisation of phonemes), but also on suprasegmental level, in terms of word or sentence stress, pitch, correct intonation and rhythm, word clustering or chunking. They also reinforce such skills as listening, reading, speaking and writing. Furthermore, they offer a greater insight into non-standard English or English varieties as well as culture, which plays an inseparable role in ELT. They function as a stimulus to our imagination and produce benefits to different types of intelligences (e.g. bodily-kinaesthetic and musical intelligence), visual memory and auditory processing.

Song treatment in current course books

A perfunctory look at a cross-section of international ELT course books reveals that almost all the major publishers include activities which use music in one way or another. As might be expected from publications that strive to have the widest appeal, the treatment of music is often fairly cautious and, some might say, popularist.

Song rather than instrumental music is strongly favoured and the three most popular activities involve gapfill, error correction and jumbled sentences – with gapfill predominating. Usually the choice of music is clearly reliant on its popular appeal and ease of comprehension due to good diction and slow pace. In some cases gapfill exercises appear to have no grammar focus but rather present unconnected lexical items. Other course books do better in this regard, frequently linking gapfills to lexical sets or areas of grammar such as tenses. The English File series is worth mentioning for the imagination it uses in its approach to the gapfill format – it uses gapfill leading on to comprehension, gapfill with bracketed hints, gaps with pictures instead of words and gapfill with crossword-style clues.

In this sea of gapfill there are a few notable exceptions; Littlejohn and Hicks, make more creative use of music in their Cambridge English Worldwide series. They introduce music as a means of stimulating creativity and thought in teenage learners. A broad range of music (though sporadic) is used, ranging from classical to popular. The variety of tasks is also impressive, incorporating activities used largely in primary education such as singing songs and a more mature approach which uses music to elicit responses from the listener.

In summary, most international course books for both adults and teenagers rely almost entirely on a tiny corpus of music, US and British popular hits from the second half of the 20th century usually, and equally limited activity types - overwhelmingly gapfill exercises. Teachers of these age-groups often take their lead from what is presented in course books. In my teaching career the vast majority of teacher-created activities using music have revolved around gapfill exercises. Not all of them can be used in a classroom as an innovative approach to teaching modern languages but some of the better ones are worth mentioning. In a brief summary, the following set of activities is divided into three main groups according to exercised linguistic terms (Phonetic-lexical, Lexical and Grammar-lexical activities). It is necessary to point out that one activity usually exercises more than one part of speech, for instance all listening exercises of course contain phonetics. For this reason there is no purely phonetic group.

1. Phonetic-lexical activities

a. Photocopying errors – to delete the first or last few letters of every line, sometimes to  draw a straight or zig-zag line with the white-out paint. Guessing the missing letters before listening is welcomed.

b. Drawings - to draw a picture while listening and then pupils explain their pictures in pairs or to the open class.

c. Jumbled lines – to choose the song that tells a story, cut it into the separate lines and place the whole cut-up lyrics in the envelope. Pupils order it while listening. Pupils can attempt to order it before listening. Remark: it is helpful to stop from time to time to allow students to check or correct their version.

d. Ear training - to remove all the rhyming words from a popular song. Pupils are given  those words mixed up on separate stripes. They match the words which rhyme and try to guess what the song might be about. They listen to the song and put the words (the rhyming endings) in order as they hear it. A lyrics sheet is distributed and they insert and glue rhyming words. Then  pupils try to give examples of a similar pair of rhyming words as a follow-up.

2. Lexical Activities

a. Guess the words – teacher can make use of a classical gap-fill activity by e.g.  a hint in the form of drawings that demonstrate the word that should be filled in

Variation 1 - The copy can include a glossary of the missing words. The glossary might contain only the missing words or a selection of the words to choose from.Variation 2 - We can make it easier by writting the first letter of the missing words. Variation 3 - We can leave  out more than one word, especially for idiomatic expressions and put a number in bracket to let students know how many words are missing. Variation 4 - Apart from open cloze, gaps can contain multiple choice of two or three possible words that sound alike, are written alike or present small differences that can be spotted only by context.

b. Spot the mistakes – to include some mistakes (depends on the level of a class as well as song difficulty) in e.g. tenses, in rhyme, using different word class or different lexical item (e.g.opossites or synonyms)). The students listen to it twice - the first time to underline the words that are different and the second time to correct it.

Variation 1 - to convert the words from the lyrics into other words that, even though they are grammatically correct in the contex, they are different from original and must be marked. Before listening, the students are challenged to find the words that do not correspond with the lyrics. Variation 2 - to insert an extra word and pupils have to cross it out

c. Stripes of paper – to order an expression or the lines of the song while listening

d. Dictation – to dictate a set of random words from the lyrics and add one extra word which does not appear there. While-listening – pupils tick off the words as they hear them. The winner is the one who first utters the odd one out.

Variation – to dictate a set of random words which pupils have to number as they hear them

e. Make a note – to make a note of 6-8 words that they hear randomly, then they use it to  compose a poem in pairs.

f. Listen and sort – two songs are distributed with mixed up lines, pupils sort them out into two piles again.

g. Hands up - to put their hands up when they hear the word X. We can increase the difficulty : when you hear the word „tomato“ put your hands up, when you hear the word „carrot“close your eyes. It is fruitful to use meaningful gestures whenever possible. E.g.: Show the monkey if you hear the word monkey (activity for younger pupils).

h. Musical chairs - to put chairs in a circle facing each other. Pupils sit on a chair but one pupil stays in the middle. Teacher puts flash cards under the chairs. There must be two flash cards for each word (two monkeys, two lions, etc.). The music is played. When pupils hear the word „monkey“ the two pupils sitting on the chairs with the monkeys have to stand up and change seats and the middle one is trying to get one of their competitors´chairs. There will be always one pupil left (without a chair).

Variation – to put chairs in a circle – backs to each other. There is one chair less in the beginning. Pupils stand next to a chair and move around the circle of chairs. When the music stops they have to sit down. The one who cannot sit on any chair discontinues the game. Teacher pauses the recording after a specific word. The pupil who remains becomes the winner only after he told the key word that had made him sit down.

i. Playing with cards – each pair of pupils is given a set of about 10 cards with a word from a chosen song or with corresponding explanation, 5 of which do not appear in the song. Pupils lay out the cards and decide what they think the song is about. Their task is to make two piles – they separate the words that do not appear in the song from the rest. Afterwards pupils retell the story by showing the cards.

j. Key words - each group of pupils gets a different set of 6 to 8 key words  and pupils create a story out of their words, using them in any order. They act out the story for other groups that have to guess not only the story line and the characters but also the key words. The other groups also show their role-plays. Finally they listen to the original song to compare the ideas and to see that each one has different stories.

k. Word grab - 10 to 15 pieces of vocabulary from the song is scattered and stuck on the board. Pupils play in two teams, each on in a line standing in front of a board. While listening to a song, two competing pupils must race and grab the  word that they hear from the board. Then they go to the back line of their teams and it’s another pair’s turn. The team with the most words wins. We can stop the tape after the board is empty, so it needs to be played a couple of times until students get it.

Variation – pupils shout stop at any time they hear any of the words from the board. The first student who shouts corretly gets a point. (They can also be divided into teams.)

l. Vanishing words – teacher writes lines of one stanza from a song on the board and practices reading aloud  line by line. Then he starts erasing it: e.g. the last word of the line, first word, middle words and every time the word is deleted the pupils repeat the whole line. The activity continues until the teacher has erased all the words of all the lines and pupils can recall the whole stanza by heart.

3. Grammar-Lexical Activities

a. Continuing the story – teacher dictates the first few lines of the song and asks pupils to continue the lyrics in their own words in rhyme or in prose. Then they share what they have written with a partner or with the whole class. The original song version is distributed to compare the lyrics. Then the song is played to check.

b. Sentence halves - to match the stripes with the sentence halves to form the correct sentences. The song is played to check and pupils put it in the correct order.

c. Running dictation - each line of the lyrics is stuck on the wall round the class. In pairs; pupil A comes up to the wall, try to memorize the words, runs back and dictates them to student B who writes it down. After some time or after some part of the song they swap - student B dictates, student A writes. Both  try to write down the whole song as fast as possible. Then they listen and sing the song.

d. Conversions - to choose a song with many verbs (adjectives) or grammar points that needs to be practised. Students identify the items and make some conversions:

  • change verbs from present to past
  • change adjectives (or verbs) to give to opossite meaning etc

e. Blanks - teacher chooses the song that has some connection with the use of English we need to revise - it can focus on a particular word-class (verbs, adjectives) or tenses. A few words from the lyrics are deleted. If there is a disagreement or doubt over a given word or phrase, the section is played again until the doubt or disagreement is being resolved (exercise grammar-morphology side of the language).

Songs serve as a greatest contribution for some themes, such as feelings (love, jealousy, friendship, wisdom), exploration, attitudes, different cultures and many others. They can hint some problems, different situations or characters from a real or imaginary world. There are again a number of ways students can be „called for action“:

  • writing a letter to one of the characters from the song
  • rewriting the song as a story
  • writing a story before the action in the song using deduction of forth-coming events or as a post-listening activity as an extension of continuing events
  • writing another verse of the song
  • miming or acting some parts of song or a role – play
  • interviewing one of the characters
  • writing  a dialogue between the characters

Following are the small demonstrations on how to use activities in concrete examples. There are no full text songs, only the selection of parts needed for our pedagogical intentions.

Phonetic-Lexical Activities

Norwegian Wood by The Beatles

Pre-listening task: From the first lines, can you imagine what this song is about? Guess the missing letters.

. once had a gir.

. r should I say she once had m .

. he showed me her roo .

. sn’t it good Norwegian woo .

. he asked me to sta .

. nd she told me to sit anywher .

. o I looked aroun .

. nd I noticed there wasn’t a chai .


a) Draw a picture that music evokes in you.Then explain it to your partner.

b)  Order the stripes with the song lines.

I  once had a girl

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

- - - - - - - -- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

She showed me her room

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Or should I say she once had me

c) Match the rhyming words:

said, time, chair, anywhere, bed, flown, bath, wine, alone, laugh.

Listen to the song and put the rhyming words in the right order.

Insert the mising words into the lyrics sheet.

Post-listening task: Can you add  other words with the same rhyme?

Work with a partner and write down 4 rhyming words. Can you make up a story from your words? Try to write your own song using your own words.

Lexical activities

Eternal Flame by Atomic Kittens

Pre-listening task: Brainstorm ideas: what might these words ETERNAL and FLAME stand for?

Try to predict which word goes into which line to make common expressions;

Close your______                                         Dreaming

Give me your______darling                            Burning

Do you feel my______   ______   ?                  Beating

Do you______?                                            Understand

Do you______the same?                               Feel,Hand

Or am I only______?                                    Eyes,Heart

Is this______ an eternal flame?

While-listening task:
Listen to the song and tick off the verbs  you hear (there is one extra word!) :

watch            rain           life          pain          world          lose           heard           come

You have the stripes of the text of two songs. Listen to one of them and sort out these stripes into two piles:

Close your eyes, give me your hand, darlin‘

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

You light up another cigarette

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Do you understand

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Is this burning

- - - - - - - - - - -

And I pour the wine

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Do you feel my heart beating

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Do you feel the same

- - - - - - - - - -- - - - - - - -- - -

It´s four o’clock in the morning

- - - - - -- - - - - - -- - - - - - - - - - - -

Or am I only dreaming

- -- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -- - -

Pre-listening: Look at these flashcards. These are words taken from the song we are going to hear. Work in pairs.

Do you think this is a sad or a happy song? Is it a love song? Which words make you think that? Using these words try to think about a story-line.










Post-listening: Compare your own version with the song story. Was it similar or completely different?



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Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching, Longman, 2001.

Jedynak, Michael. “Using Music in the Classroom.” In English Teaching Forum, Vol. 38, 4, 2000.

Laroy, Clement. Pronunciation, Oxford: OUP, 1995.

Littlejohn, Andrew and Hicks, Diana. Cambridge English Worldwide, Student’s Book, Cambridge: CUP, 1999.

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Orlova, Natalia. „Developing Speech Habits with the Help of Songs”,  http://marksesl.com/music.htm, 2007-12-21.

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