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Using Songs in the English Classroom

Hans Mol, Australia

Hans Mol is a writer, trainer and teacher working from Australia. He is published
worldwide for young learners, teens and adults. His next book (Grammar for Young
Learners) is published by OUP in 2009. He is co-director of
and E-mail:,
Songs in the classroom: a useful tool
Songs are part of daily life for most people. Who doesnt enjoy music at home, while
travelling or studying, or even at work? Language teachers can use songs to open or
close their lessons, to illustrate themes and topics, to add variety or a change of
pace, present new vocabulary or recycle known language. But how do songs
actually benefit your students? In the first part of this article we look at the theoretical
background to these questions; in the second half we look at what we can do with
songs in the classroom.
There is strong practical evidence supporting the use of music in the English
language classroom; there is also a growing body of research confirming that songs
are a useful tool in language acquisition. In fact musical and language processing
occur in the same area of the brain. (Medina, 1993)
Types of songs
There are many types of songs which can be used in the classroom, ranging from
nursery rhymes to contemporary pop music. There is also a lot of music written
specifically for English language teaching. A criticism of the latter is that they often
lack originality and musical appeal but there are good examples to be found of
stimulating, modern, cool music, appealing to the real tastes of language learners.
Real music that the children hear and play every day can be extremely motivating in
the classroom, too. However, the lyrics may not always be suitable: they may, for
instance, contain slang or offensive words, there may be grammatical mistakes and
they may only marginally teach the language points you want to focus on.
Which learners like songs?
Howard Gardner once said: Its not how intelligent you are, but how you are
intelligent. No two students learn in exactly the same way. In any classroom there
will be a mix of learning styles, and one student may use more than one style,
depending on what the task or topic is. To appeal to these differences is a huge
teaching challenge. Gardner distinguished eight styles of learning, and students in
his aural/musical category will have a lot of benefit from learning through songs.
They are strong in singing, picking up sounds, remembering melodies and rhythms;
they like to sing, hum, play instruments and listen to music.
This is not to say that learners with other learning styles cannot benefit from songs.
Of course they can, because in the activities we develop with songs we can dance
and act (physical learning style), read, draw and do puzzles (spatial intelligence) tell
stories, and write (verbal learning styles).
Why are songs so suitable?
We cant generalise, but research has found that pop songs have characteristics that
help learning a second language: they often contain common, short words; they are
written at about 5
grade level (US); the language is conversational, time and place
are usually imprecise; the lyrics are often sung at a slower rate than spoken words
and there is repetition of words and grammar. (Murhpy, 1992). Furthermore, songs
are also known to lower the affective filter or, in other words, to motivate learners to
learn. So, what positive contributions to language learning can songs make?
Socio-emotional growth
Youll often find learners of any age singing together socially when they are visiting
friends, at a party or in karaoke bars. Teenagers and young adults seem to know an
endless number of songs by heart and share them continuously through the Internet
and portable music players. Even though its not always easy to copy this
spontaneous love of music in the classroom, singing songs in and with a class is a
social act which allows learners to participate in a group and express their feelings,
no matter what their English is like.
Physical development
Songs provide a great opportunity for young learners to move around. Clapping,
dancing and playing instruments stimulate memory, which makes it possible for
learners to hear chunks of language as they sing and use them in different situations
later. Older learners can also benefit from clapping, dancing, rocking, tapping, and
snapping their fingers to music and songs.
Cognitive training
We all know the phenomenon of the song-that-is-stuck-in-my-head. With the right
kind of song it is easy to simulate that in the classroom. Interacting with songs again
and again is as important to language learners as repeatedly practicing a tennis
technique is for a tennis player. The skill which develops from this is called
automaticity. Learners get to know what to say and to produce language rapidly
without pausing.
Cultural literacy
Now that most music is accessible to almost anyone anywhere, either through radio,
CDs, DVDs and downloads from the Internet, learners can enjoy songs from all
corners of the globe. Songs used in English classes can, in that way, shed light on
interesting musical traditions in countries, but can also teach teens, young adults and
adults to appreciate other cultures. For adult learners they can be a rich mine of
information about human relations, ethics, customs, history, humor, and regional and
cultural differences (Lems, 2001).
Language learning
In a world where non-native speakers of English are likely to produce the majority of
songs in English, learners have the opportunity to listen to pronunciation in a wide
range of varieties of the language. Songs will help learners become familiar with
word stress and intonation, and the rhythm with which words are spoken or sung
also helps memorization. Again, this will enable learners to remember chunks of
language which they can then use in conversations or in writing. As language
teachers, we can use songs to practice listening, speaking, reading and writing.
What can you do with songs in the classroom?
The sky is the limit! There are a few things to keep in mind: simple, repetitive songs
often contain a recurrent grammatical pattern which is useful to teach (especially
with younger children). More difficult songs often contain interesting vocabulary and
idioms. Also there is often a message, a theme, or a story underlying a song which
students can discuss, explain, debate, and write about at almost any level.
Practical tips and tasks for using songs
Focus it
Start with a focusing activity: anything that will get students thinking about the
subject of the song. Have them think about the title of the song, in groups of pairs.
Find a picture that relates to the subject of the song and have students make
guesses about it.
Highlight it
Put a selection of important words from the song on your board. Have students ask
each other what the words mean. Then, have students in groups write or tell a quick
story that uses the words. You can also get students to circle, underline or highlight
specific words or word categories.
Stop it
Again, write a selection of words on the board. Students must shout STOP any time
they hear one of the new words. You could also stop the song before a word you
want them to guess.
Lip sync it
Have students lip sync the song before a team of judges in a Class Idol show. This
allows them to become familiar with the words, rhythm, stress and intonation before
actually singing the words out loud.
Strip it
Cut the song into strips. Give each student one strip to memorize. Students put the
strips in their pockets. They get up and tell each other their part of the song, without
looking at their part or showing their part to anyone else. Students then organize
themselves in the right order, speak the song and then listen and check. You can
also have students put the strips on a table in order.
Question it
Have students ask each other questions about the song (about the words, about the
topics or about characters in the song). For more advanced students you could
choose two songs of a similar theme, and split the class into two teams. Have each
group listen to their song and draw up a list of (open or True/False) questions. Pair
each student with a member of the opposite team and have them take turns asking
their questions.
Gap it
You can prepare a gapped version of the lyrics and let students complete them
before listening and then check afterwards.
Write it
Have students write a letter to the main character or the singer, send an answer to a
person referred to in the song, rewrite the song as a story, write a story which began
before the story in the song and led to it, or write a story which will continue after the
Change it
Change words (adjectives, adverbs, nouns -names, places or feelings), and invent
new lyrics for the melody. If you have karaoke versions of the songs you can then let
students sing their own versions.
Draw it
Get students to draw or collage the song and compare the visualisations in class.
The possibilities are endless. Music and songs are fun, and most people enjoy them.
Make songs a regular feature in your lessons!
Lems, Kirsten, Using Music in the Adult ESL Classroom, ERIC Digest, 2001.
Medina, Suzanne L, The Effect of Music on Second Language Vocabulary
Acquisition, National Network for Early Language Learning, Vol 6-3, 1993.
Murphy, T (1992), The discourse op pop songs, TESOL Quarterly 26(4), 770-774.

Larry Lynch tells us why songs should be an integral part of any EFL teacher's repertoire of

Language teachers can and should use songs as part of their classroom teaching repertoire.
Songs contain authentic language, are easily obtainable, provide vocabulary, grammar and
cultural aspects and are fun for the students. They can provide valuable speaking, listening
and language practice in and out of the classroom. Some key reasons songs can work
exceedingly well in the foreign language classroom include the following:

1. Songs almost always contain authentic, natural language.
This often contrasts the contrived, stilted language found in many student texts. Of course
songs can also go to the other extreme by using overly crude, foul or otherwise objectionable
language. With careful screening, an extensive library of usable songs for language learning
can be compiled.

2. A variety of new vocabulary can be introduced to students through songs.
Looking to boost student vocabulary with useful phrases, vocabulary and expressions? Songs
are almost always directed to the native-speaking population so they usually contain
contemporary vocabulary, idioms and expressions.

3. Songs are usually very easily obtainable.
Cibemba and Silozi non-withstanding, songs are usually not that difficult to obtain. Local
sources may be available including the students themselves. There's always the internet
which can connect you with song downloads in all but the most obscure languages.

4. Songs can be selected to suit the needs and interests of the students.
In English especially, so many songs are available that selection of songs with suitable
themes, levels and vocabulary is not at all difficult. Allowances can also be made for
complexity or simplicity of language, depending on the students, by selecting and using
suitable songs.

5. Grammar and cultural aspects can be introduced through songs.
Most if not all songs have a recurring theme or story. So excerpting cultural elements is
usually a possible, but often overlooked aspect of using songs. I still use "Hit the Road Jack"
sung by the late Ray Charles to illustrate spoken contractions. He uses spoken contractions is
virtually every line of the song.

6. Time length is easily controlled.
Whether you have an hour, 30 minutes, or only 15 minutes or so, a song can be used in the
course of a planned lesson. Use of songs is very flexible.

7. Students can experience a wide range of accents.
A good thing about songs is that you can expose the students to many different kinds of
English. British English, American English, Caribbean English are all widely available
through songs. Accents too are well represented by songs from different regions and in a
variety of types and formats. Gospel, soul, R & B, Pop, Rock, Reggae, Jazz and other styles
change not only accents, but vocabulary and usage too.

8. Song lyrics can be used in relating to situations of the world around us.
Songs have been used as vehicles of protest for civil rights, workers' rights, even prisoners'
rights along with an untold number of other causes. They've expounded on pollution, crime,
war and almost every social theme or cause. We won't even mention how many songs are
about, related to or explore the theme of sex.

9. Students think songs are natural and fun.
Well actually they are, aren't they? Fun, even silly songs abound in English. Some singers
actually made a career out of them. (Ray Stevens, anyone?) They make offbeat, fun changes
of pace with classroom use.

These are only some of the many reasons songs are useful in the language learning
classroom. They contain authentic language, are easily obtainable, provide vocabulary,
grammar and cultural aspects and are fun for the students. They provide enjoyable speaking,
listening, vocabulary and language practice both in and out of the classroom. So EFL,
English as a foreign language, ESL, English as a Second language and foreign language
teachers should all consider using songs as a regular part of their classroom activities.

Prof. Larry M. Lynch is a bi-lingual copywriter, expert author and photographer specializing
in business, travel, food and education-related writing in South America. His work has
appeared in Transitions Abroad, South American Explorer, Escape From America, Mexico
News and Brazil magazines. He now lives in Colombia and teaches at a university in Cali.
Want lots more free tips, help and information on language learning, public speaking, writing
and mental skills development? E-mail Prof. Larry M. Lynch at: for
professional consulting, EFL Teacher Training or ELT multi-media presentations at your
conference or facility.

Kak boleh guna lagu-ni utk ajar:
Songs for teaching present simple
Eric Clapton / Wonderful Tonight (lyrics)
The Beatles / She Loves You (lyrics)
Bette Middler / From A Distance (lyrics)

Using Music in the Adult ESL Classroom

Kristin Lems
National-Louis University
December 2001
Music can be used in the adult English as a second language (ESL) classroom to create a learning
environment; to build listening comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing skills; to increase
vocabulary; and to expand cultural knowledge. This digest looks briefly at research and offers
strategies for using music in the adult ESL classroom.
Neurologists have found that musical and language processing occur in the same area of the brain,
and there appear to be parallels in how musical and linguistic syntax are processed (Maess &
Koelsch, 2001). In one study, college students demonstrated improved short-term spatial reasoning
ability after listening to Mozart. This was dubbed the "Mozart effect" in the popular press (Rauscher,
Shaw, & Ky, 1993).
Adult learners in South Africa, exposed to instrumental music during an intensive English course,
showed benefits in language learning (Puhl, 1989). Many educators report success using
instrumental music as a warm up and relaxation tool, as a background for other activities, and as the
inspiration for writing activities (Eken, 1996).
Using Songs in Instruction
Most classroom music activities focus on lyrics. Educator Tim Murphey conducted an analysis of the
lyrics of a large corpus of pop songs and found that they have several features that help second-
language learners: They contain common, short words and many personal pronouns (94% of the
songs had a first person, I, referent and are written at about a fifth-grade level); the language is
conversational (imperatives and questions made up 25% of the sentences in the corpus); time and
place are usually imprecise (except for some folk ballads); the lyrics are often sung at a slower rate
than words are spoken with more pauses between utterances; and there is repetition of vocabulary
and structures. These factors allow learners to understand and relate to the songs (Murphey, 1992).
A further benefit of pop song lyrics is that their meanings are fluid, and, like poetry, allow for many
different interpretations (Moi, 1994). Following are strategies to use with songs.
Listening and Oral Activities
Songs contextually introduce the features of supra-segmentals (how rhythm, stress, and intonation
affect the pronunciation of English in context). Through songs, students discover the natural
stretching and compacting of the stream of English speech. For example, the reduction of the
auxiliary have to the sound /uv/ can be heard in the song by Toni Braxton "You've Been Wrong for So
Long" (2000). Similarly, the change of word final t + word initial y to /ch/ can be heard in a line from
the Tracy Chapman Song "All that You Have Is Your Soul" (1989), where the singer says, "Don't you
eat of a bitter fruit." Moriya (1988) points out the value of using songs for pronunciation practice
with Asian learners because of the many phonemic differences between Asian languages and
English. However, students from any language background can benefit from a choral or individual
reading of the lyrics of the songs mentioned above, practicing the natural reductions that occur in
spoken English.
Students may summarize orally the action or theme of a song or give oral presentations about a
song or musician, playing musical selections for the class. To involve the whole class, students can fill
out response sheets about each presentation, answering questions about the featured topic,
something new they learned, and something they enjoyed.
Reading and Writing Activities
Students can fill in the blanks before, during, or after listening to a song, and then check to see
whether their word choices made sense semantically, even if they did not pick the exact word used.
This helps build the important skill of forming hypotheses based on context (predicting). This
activity, called cloze, is usually created by deleting words at predetermined intervals, e.g., every 5th
or 7th word. However, words can be deleted instead to practice a target grammar point, such as
past tense verbs, prepositions, or compound nouns, or to identify key words (Griffee, 1990). For
example, in the popular Enya song "Only Time" (2001), the auxiliary "can" could be omitted. ("Who
can say where the road goes, where the day flows, only time. And who can say if your love grows, as
your heart chose, only time.")
One popular activity is to cut the lyrics into lines and have students put them in the correct order as
they listen to the song. This can be done individually or in small groups. It may be necessary to play
the song several times. After the lines of the song have been put in order, the song can be played
once more as students read or sing along. Alternatively, the class can be divided into teams with
identical sets of strips and compete to see which group can put the strips in the correct order first.
For short songs, students can work in small groups to write the words of a song. The process of
putting the lyrics together as a group involves making decisions about word order, verb tense, and
parts of speech. It also builds the teamwork skills so important to the workplace and community.
When the lyric sheet is handed out, the groups can compare what they heard and wrote with the
actual words.
Adult students enjoy writing responses to songs, either in class or at home. Possible responses
include topics comparing music in the students' homeland with music in the United States. This
assignment draws upon the knowledge and experiences that adult ESL learners bring to language
learning and provides a known context for comparing and contrasting, often a difficult skill for
beginning writers.
Many songs tell a story, and these stories can be rewritten or retold to practice narrative or
summarizing skills or direct and reported speech. Students can also complete a writing prompt or
answer a question from the point of view of the narrator or other characters in a song. For example,
the Nancy Wilson song, "Guess Who I Saw Today" (1960) is sung by a wife catching her husband
having a romantic lunch with another woman. The prompt could require the students to respond to
the accusations in writing, saying what the husband might say.
Vocabulary Building Activities
Pop songs are written to be easily understood and enjoyed. As discussed above, they tend to use
high frequency lyrics that have emotional content. This makes them strong candidates for word
study or for reinforcing words already learned through written means. If a series of songs is to be
used, students can be paired and given a song to teach the class.
However, the songs may also have idioms in them that might be difficult to explain, depending on
the level of the students. For example, Cat Stevens' rendition of "Morning Has Broken" (1975) may
appear initially to be a solid intermediate-level song that practices the present perfect tense. On
closer examination, the expression "morning has broken" can be confusing to English language
learners and may need to be discussed prior to listening to the song.
Cultural Knowledge Activities
Songs can be used in discussions of culture. They are a rich mine of information about human
relations, ethics, customs, history, humor, and regional and cultural differences. A song can be part
of a unit that also contains poems, video footage, or still photographs. Recordings of freedom songs
from the civil rights movement can be a powerful accompaniment to watching Martin Luther King
Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on video, for example.
Selecting Music
Songs should be carefully selected for the adult ESL classroom. Lems (1996) and Poppleton (2001),
make the following suggestions:
1. Song lyrics should be clear and loud, not submerged in the instrumental music.
2. The vocabulary load for the song should be appropriate to the proficiency level. For
example, Led Zepplin's "Stairway to Heaven" (1971)-with its vivid imagery and possibilities
for multiple interpretations-might be successful with an advanced-level class. With other
learners, however, its fast pace, obscure references, and lack of repetition could prove
troublesome, as could the word inversion in lines such as, "There walks a lady we all know."
3. Songs should be pre-screened for potentially problematic content, such as explicit language,
references to violent acts or sex, or inappropriate religious allusions.
Griffee (1990) recommends using short, slow songs for beginning-level students and discusses
activities such as creating song word puzzles, drawing a song, or showing related pictures. With
higher levels, he suggests using songs that tell stories, moving toward short, fast songs, and finally,
longer, fast songs that have fewer high frequency vocabulary items.
Finding copies of song lyrics is not difficult. Many are available on the Internet, and many recordings
contain lyric sheets. Beatles' songs such as "Yesterday" (1965) and "In My Life" (1966) have clear,
direct lyrics and a timeless quality that make them appropriate with adult English language learners.
Because teachers will show care and effort when presenting songs they are especially fond of, their
favorites are also good. Finally, students are often strongly motivated to learn the lyrics of a new pop
song or an old favorite they have heard and never understood, so their choices for classroom music
should not be overlooked.
Eken, D. K. (1996). Ideas for using songs in the English language classroom. English Teaching Forum,
34(1), 46-47.
Griffee, D. T. (1990). Hey baby! Teaching short and slow songs in the ESL classroom. TESL Reporter,
23(4), 3-8.
Lems, K. (1996). For a song: Music across the ESL curriculum. Paper presented at the annual
convention of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Chicago. (ED No. 396 524)
Maess, B., & Koelsch, S. (2001). Musical syntax is processed in Broca's area: An MEG study. Nature
Neuroscience 4, 540-545.
Moi, C. M. (1994). Rock poetry: The literature our students listen to. Journal of the Imagination in
Language Learning, 2, 56-59.
Moriya, Y. (1988). English speech rhythm and its teaching to non-native speakers. Paper presented at
the annual convention of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Chicago. (ED No. 303
Murphey, T. (1992).The discourse of pop songs. TESOL Quarterly, 26(4), 770-774.
Poppleton, C. (2001). Music to our ears. American Language Review, 5(1), 23-26.
Puhl, C. A. (1989). Up from under: English training on the mines. (Report on 1988 research project
conducted at Gold Field Training Services). Stellenbosch, South Africa: University of Stellenbosch. (ED
No. 335 864)
Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G., & Ky, K. (1993). Mozart and spatial reasoning. Nature, (365) 611.