Sing it with me – Alternative uses for songs in the EFL/ ESL classroom

Written by: Mauricio Ortega G.


Teaching EFL/ ESL in a non-English speaking country is a challenge. Aside of having to prevent students, even advanced ones, to go their mother tongue in the classroom, we still have to do something in order to keep their interest high in the class and have them practice the English language. There are many ways in which Teachers can turn a boring class into a lively one and amongst others, there is the use of songs.

Just by playing some music in the classroom we can get our students involved in something different and attractive to them. Music alone provides the mood that can enhance a friendly atmosphere and gives learners another option for promoting and enhancing learning because both the left and right side of the brain are active at the same time. Now, if we add songs to the class we will include a wonderful tool that combines visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles with musical and emotional intelligence. Songs are highly motivated, especially for children, adolescents and young and adult learners. Popular music in its many forms constitutes a powerful subculture with its own mythology, its own rituals and its own priesthood. As such is part of the student’s lives in a way that so much else we use is not. If we can tap into it, we release unsuspected positive energy (Murphey, 1981).

Using songs in the classroom can be quite an experience for both teachers and students. Presentations, grammar reviews, vocabulary input, and other activities can be done through the relaxing and fun way of songs. Most of the times our students enjoy songs very much, since they create a nicer atmosphere than that of other classes.

But how can we use songs? There is no reason that justifies the use of songs as merely an escape activity or –worse- a time filler when students are definitely not in the mood to work or when teachers did not have enough time to prepare the lesson properly. Songs can be used in lots of different ways.

Most of us have both seen and used the traditional “fill in the gaps” exercise. But this is definitely not the only possibility. Here is a glimpse to more possibilities:

  1. Listen and write. Designed for elementary level activities. Students listen to each line and write the lyrics themselves or dictate them to the teacher who will write them on the board and thus make sure students will keep their attention focused. When the song is over, they are allowed to copy the lyrics down. This kind of exercise provides elementary students with the necessary motivation to realise they are actually learning, reading, writing and singing in English. Some picks for this kind of exercise are the songs by “The Beatles” such as And I love her, Love me do, and Love by John Lennon.
  2. Jumbled lines. This activity can be used by both elementary, lower intermediate and even intermediate students. The lyrics are arranged in, for instance, alphabetical order and the task is to listen to the song and number the lines as they listen to them. The exercise provides an insight to the scanning strategy most commonly used in reading comprehension activities. The kind of songs I have used with this activity are both ballads or slow songs such as Dust in the Wind (Kansas); More than words (Extreme); as well as more snappy songs such as The Future’s so Bright I gotta wear Shades (By Timbuk-3) and Lovefool (performed by the Cardigans).
  3. Error correction. Students get the lyrics of the song, but full of mistakes. The level of complexity will depend on how the mistakes are presented. I usually present the song for upper intermediate and advanced students and the mistakes in the lyrics are most of the times words with similar sounds. Students then, while listening to the song, have to a) Identify the mistake and b) correct it. This is perhaps one of the best ways of using songs with listening comprehension purposes. It also provides an opportunity to work with pronunciation and vocabulary. The choices may vary, but some of the exercises I have developed are with Lemon Tree (Fool’s Garden); Fast Car (Tracy Chapman) and Hotel California (The Eagles).
  4. Morgan’s game. This activity can be used with practically any level. The lyrics will be posted at a certain place in the classroom. Students work in pairs: one of them is Morgan while the other is the secretary. Morgan has to run to the lyrics, read the first line, go back to his/ her secretary and dictate it to him/her. Then the roles are swapped. The songs that can be used here may vary and believe it or not, students accept all beats from Memory (from the musical CATS), to the King, Elvis Presley’s Don’t be cruel.
  5. Sentence transformation. A new release in this series of activities, the exercise is designed to work in the same way and exercise from a FCE test would. This is, students are provided with sentences and are given certain words so they will transform the sentences and the product will be as close as possible to the lyrics of the song. This is a real challenge students love to take. So far the activity has been done with Ribbon in the Sky (Stevie Wonder); My one and only love (from the soundtrack of the film LEAVING LAS VEGAS, performed by Sting); and More than a woman from the soundtrack of the film Saturday Night Fever, performed by The Bee Gees).

Learning English through songs and TPR activities such as mingling, running and singing and dancing provide entertaining oral and written activities that practise and develop the language in the songs. Re-activation and transfer exercises in class teach learners to handle and produce language learnt in the action songs independently. The unforgettable melodies and strong rhythms of these original songs help to accelerate permanent memorisation while favouring correct pronunciation and boosting motivation. Yet, there are some hints that should always be present:

  1. Make sure you pick a song that you know or listen to before presenting it as an activity.
  2. Use activities you feel at ease with. It is not very recommendable to have students do something we would never dare to do ourselves.
  3. Create the mood little by little with warm ups and a friendly atmosphere. This usually helps students and teachers feeling comfortable before starting any activity.
  4. Sing along with them! Students feel twice motivated if they see teachers participating and having fun with them.
  5. Last but not least. Keep your song stock updated. Music and songs are changing constantly and we have to keep up to the times to ensure an attractive activity.

References
Murphey, Tim. Music and song. Resource books for teachers. Oxford University Press.

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