Squeezing the most out of songs: 10 ideas

This month we launch Pearson Music to learn to, our new Spotify account for teachers and students alike and its first playlist, Songs for St Valentine’s. To celebrate comes a blog post on using songs in the ELT classroom. Many and varied are the reasons for using songs in class and, equally, many and varied are the ways in which they can be used. Why might we use a song?

  • Songs contextualise grammar structures and vocabulary and include repetition and therefore repeated exposure to the same vocabulary and grammar structures…which can  mean remembering language!
  • Particularly If it’s a song they like, songs can be memorable for students…which can mean even more remembering of language!
  • As well as listening to songs, our students can sing them, even better if we go first (and even better with a guitar!). I think I have sung Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire to every class I’ve ever taught and can still picture a student by the name of Juan Cruz doing a cowboy lassoo gesture singing along. Another song I’ve had success singing with a class is Lemon Tree by Fool’s Garden. It inspired the name and picture of this post! And singing songs can help our students…you guessed it, remember language.
  • Many songs have a story behind them that invites interpretation and gets our students talking. A song therefore can be a springboard for discussion.

Next up, how can we squeeze the most out of songs in class? Read on for ten ideas

1) Play part of a song to introduce the lesson topic. Can the students guess what it is from listening to the song? We should stipulate that their guesses should include reasons to maximise language generation and use.

2) Gap fill a song and our students listen and fill in the gaps. What do we gap out? It could be parts of the grammar structure we’re working on, or vocabulary from a common lexical set. To get the students filling in gaps in songs on their own outside of class, the lyrics training website is a useful option.

3) Gap fill a song and our students predict the words before they listen based on the surrounding words – a good reading skill in general when they encounter a word they don’t know. Perhaps we’ve gapped out part of a collocation or a dependent preposition.

4) Gap fill a song, gapping words that rhyme with words around them. Can our students guess from rhyme?

5) Jumble up the lines of the song and our students reorder. Again, they can have a go here before they listen to the song – what order would make sense? This sort of thing is tested in reading exams don’t forget! We can have the jumbled up lines on a piece of paper and our students number them, or we might have our students cut them out and reorder for a more ‘kinaesthetic’ approach. We can also include lines that students don’t hear to make it harder, and we can make these lines similar to lines they do hear to make it harder still!

Let’s stop for a second! 

Isn’t U2’s ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ a great song? Good for teaching the present perfect too!

Look at these four activities and see if you can work out what you have to do in each. Which task seems easiest to you? Which one seems hardest?

Got them? Here are the tasks:

  1. A)     You need to fill in the past participle
  2. B)      You need to fill in the auxiliary, past participle, put the lines in order and eliminate the lines you don’t hear
  3. C)      You need to put the lines in order
  4. D)     You need to put the lines in order and fill in the auxiliary and past participle.

B is the hardest obviously. C or A is the easiest. The point here is that you may decide to provide different tasks to different students. This is an example of differentiation. You might not necessarily provide four different tasks, but songs certainly offer the possibility of using the same input for all students and getting different students doing different things with that input depending on their needs.

Back to our list!

6) Continue the song. To use the above song as an example, the students write down as many things that they’ve done in their lives in pursuit of a goal, such as is the case in the song. For example, all of the things they’ve done to learn English!

7) Word grab! A fun listening exercise that gets students listening out for individual words. Simply choose the language you want to highlight from the song and write the words or phrases on slips of paper (or better, get your students to). Get your students in groups of about 4 – each group puts their pieces of paper face up (1 set per group). They listen to the song and it’s a race to pick up the word or phrase when they hear it. I’ve done this with young learners through to adults and it’s always popular, but fun is not the only name of the game here: students listen VERY carefully to try to spot the language – amazing what a bit of competition can do from time to time!

8) Comprehension questions / interpretation questions. We can ask our students questions about the song – some can be of the comprehension / display type – getting the right answer to show they understand. But others can be more open ended: what do you think they mean? Why does the person in the song do / feel / say that? What would you have done in their position? Particularly if the students like the song and possibly even know the words anyway, they’ll be keen to talk about it and it makes sense to allow students a personal reaction as part of our post-song questions.

9) Have a Songversation. This is an absolutely fantastic idea by Harry Waters. You can read all about it in Harry’s blog post
It involves building a conversation using the singer’s words in the song,  thus creating a Songversation. Here is Harry’s example around Adele’s Hello

“Hi, Who’s calling?”

Hello, it’s me 

“Ohhhh, Adele, Long time no speak. What have you been up to lately?”

I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet

“Ok, no problem my dear, why do you want to meet?”

To go over everything

“Wow, everything, that is an awful lot of things. You know they say time is money. Will we have time for that?

They say that time’s supposed to heal ya But I ain’t done much healing

10)  Have your students act out lines from the song. The rest of the class guess which line is being acted out. If you’re really ambitious you can get them planning and acting out music videos for the whole thing!

So, there you have it, ten ideas for using songs in class. How many have you tried? What are you favourite ways to use a song?


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