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Using songs in English teaching

Everyone likes songs -- you just put on a CD and press "play", don't you? All you'd then need would be a "fill-in-the-blanks" worksheet and you've got a dead-easy to prepare listening exercise... But, in fact, it's not quite as easy as all that, as CELTA course tutor at IH Ellie Keegan explains...


Choosing a suitable song

"Probably the most important thing about choosing a song to do with a class is to make sure that the lyrics are clear," Ellie says. "It can be very frustrating for learners not to understand a word." Choose a singer with a nice clear voice, like Frank Sinatra, Ellie suggests.

The recording should also be a good one: a studio album is probably going to be better than a live version, if you have a choice. A CD will also give you much better sound than a cassette, obviously.

There's also the issue of whether or not the language is a suitable level of difficulty. And the language (and the subject matter!) itself should be suitable, we might add! The suitability of the subject matter is a particularly important issue if you are teaching young learners.

It's also a question of whether your students are going to like the song. "I've found that it's difficult to find songs they like which are actually useful language-wise," says Ellie. Because what you really want is a song with some useful language in it, of course.

Ellie gave us Abba's Money Money as an example of that -- one with both an interesting lexical field and the second conditional in it. Phrasal verbs tend to be plentiful in songs, if you are working on them -- Kate Bush's Don't Give Up was the example Ellie gave us.

What do you do with a song?

Apart from just pressing "play" and doing a "fill-in-the-blanks" type exercise, what else can you do with a song?

"Well, you certainly don't want to do only that," says Ellie. "Doing a song is not just a question of pressing 'play'. It's a bit like doing any listening exercise -- in planning what you are going to do with a song you want to think about productive pre-, during- and post-listening tasks that are going to be language-rich."

"If anything," says Ellie, "the build-up to the listening is really the most important stage". The pre-listening activity, in other words. "You also want to consider whether or not you need to preteach some of the vocabulary, and how you are going to deal with it," Ellie adds.

When it comes to the "during listening" stage you could provide the lyrics but include in them either information that is wrong, which has to be corrected, or multiple-choice type answers.

If you do want to do "fill-in-the-blanks", note that you will find it a question of trial-and-error: some of the things you pick out will prove impossible for your learners to catch. Blanking out the words at the end of alternate lines, but not the words that they rhyme with, is one fun alternative.

You could also try giving them, say, 12 chunks of the song, and get them to do it (before listening) as a "jigsaw reading" exercise, which they could then confirm during listening.

Ellie has also used songs for dictionary work, and also used them as the basis for an exercise in getting her learners to teach each other vocabulary.

A song you can respond to in some way

Songs that work best are almost invariably those that produce some sort of response to the music. There is the question of whether or not your class like the song -- but you really want something a bit more than just that.

Songs with a good story line make a good choice, apart from anything else because your students can then agree (and disagree) on what happened, and perhaps why it happened (and who was to blame). Examples would include a number of Bruce Springsteen songs, Nebraska and Johnny 99, for example.

A song which requires you to actually work out what is going on is also a good choice -- because then your learners can discuss that. Ellie suggested You Don't Know My Name (Alicia Keys) as an example of that.

"A song like Coldplay's Shiver, for instance," Ellie went on to say, "gets them not only to talk but also provides an opportunity to use modals and other language of speculation: what kind of woman is she, what does she look like?"

At a high level, of course, if your lyrics are more poetic, arguing about what the writer actually meant can sometimes work well. Bob Dylan's She Belongs to Me is an example (does he like her or hate her, we might ask).

Follow-up activities

Ellie had a number of suggestions for follow-up activities for songs:
  • planning a video for it
  • actually making the video
  • writing a letter (or a mobile phone message) from one of the characters in the song
  • writing a diary entry

Having "done" a song with their classes, one of the things that the teachers in the English Department at IH Barcelona use, to round things off, is to have their learners use the Storyboard computer program to reconstruct the text.

Other ideas

Two versions of same song can sometimes work well: Ellie suggested Father and Son, of which there are versions by both Cat Stevens and Boyzone. Which do you prefer? You could also use the different versions simply for the sake of variety (do your students really want to listen to the same recording of the same song again?!)

Doing two different songs on the same theme (growing up, or love, for example) can also work well.

If you can get hold of the promotional video that goes with many songs, that can also work well. Many have a storyline and you can stop the video and make up the dialogue, speculate about exactly what the story is, and so on.

On the wonderful TeachingEnglish.org.uk site you will find lots more activities for using songs.

Finding and editing the lyrics

Song lyrics have got to be just about the easiest thing to find on the Internet, Tom Walton adds, as there are so many sites dedicated to them.

You might want to ensure that you have a pop-up blocker fully functional before you head off to Google, as lyrics sites tend to carry lots of advertising! We found LyricsFreak agreeably clean in that sense. AllMusic is quite good if you want a biography as well.

For other lyrics sites, see sidebar.

On Google (or any other search engine), type the following, for example, into the search box:

  • lyrics Bruce Springsteen Paradise

You got them first time, right?

If you want to paste the lyrics into a Word-type document, you may find that -- rather than just copying and pasting -- you want to choose "Edit" from your menu and then "paste special" (not just "paste") from the dropdown menu, to avoid picking up formatting from the webpage.

See also

An image or two might be nice to brighten up your handout...

On this page

CELTA course tutor Ellie Keegan sat down and gave us stacks of good advice on using songs in class...

Webmaster Tom Walton found finding lyrics a cinch...


Some of Ellie's other favourite songs for ELT:

• Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin)
• Boy Named Sue (Johnny Cash)
• Bang Bang (Nancy Sinatra)
• Common People (Pulp)
• How About You (Frank Sinatra)
• Up the Junction (Squeeze)


Checklist for choosing songs
• Clear recording?
Interesting to learners (will they like it)?
• Suitable level of difficulty?
• Suitable subject matter?
• Useful language content?
• What are you going to do with it, before, during and after?
• Will it produce a response?


Useful songs sites
As explained below, finding lyrics is very easy.

Can't find them? You could try one of these, with those marked * particularly recommended:

LyricsFreak.com *


What do you then do with the song, once you've found it?

If you have young learners, there are songs on the British Council kids site, as well as a pdf file of ideas for using them.

There are further ideas on the British Council Language Assistant site, for both music and songs.

Although it's not intended for ELT, songsforteachers.com has more tips, links, for using songs in class.

And finally you'll find lots more suggestions for using songs on Dave's ESL Café.

More ideas on using songs in the usual places!