At one point or another, most of us have used songs as a teaching resource. Students generally enjoy listening to music, and songs provide a natural way of exposing our learners to various types of language. They help learners get a sense of the rhythm of the language in a way that is natural and accessible – particularly because they often use elisions and shortenings, repetitions, and colloquial language. Songs can be used to create a great lead-in activity to introduce a new topic or theme and to generate an initial discussion. Certain songs may also be used as input to help students identify and practise particular structures or vocabulary. Songs can be a way of varying lesson content and encouraging listening for pleasure. In addition, certain songs may provide an engaging narrative in a condensed and structured form. Songs can be used for intensive or extensive listening practice – or, depending on the task or activity, can be used to provide some background music to create a relaxed and productive working environment. I’ve even seen songs used by a teacher as a way of getting students to identify and correct grammatical errors! I can’t get any satisfaction? There isn’t any sunshine when she’s gone? Whilst this feels a little cheap and easy and ignores a pretty common genre convention, it could be a fun short activity.
Classic Pop Songs
What we are talking about in this blog, are classic pop and rock songs for use with teenagers and adults. We have the advantage these days of working with music-literate groups of students who are used to accessing and listening to music from a variety of genres and periods. In my experience these days, young people are far more eclectic in their tastes, so this opens up a wide range of possibilities.
Of course, with younger students, you can use traditional children’s songs or nursery rhymes, or songs that have been written by practitioners to focus on specific vocabulary or structures. However, these latter vary widely in quality and, by their nature, usually feel quite contrived. They are unlikely to get the same kind of response as songs that have been written for a mass listenership. Having said this, I can understand the temptation to come up with your own song rather than spending hours trawling YouTube or Spotify for a song with enough examples of the third conditional!
However, sourcing songs to use can be fun too, particularly if you build up your playlist over an extended period and let it develop organically. If you do this, you will eventually have a ready-made playlist from which to choose something that is age, level and task/activity appropriate.
Classic Pop Songs that Exemplify Grammatical Structures
There are quite a few lists of these online, but a lot of lists include entries that have relatively few examples of the target structure. If you have time, you can get around this problem by editing together a compilation of short clips from different songs. This is easy to do these days – there are a lot of free music editing apps, but it does take a little time and effort. The good news is that for several structures at least, there are songs out there that include multiple instances of the target language form. We’ve curated a list of our favourites, just to get you started:
Wonderful Tonight – Eric Clapton
Tom’s Diner – Suzanne Vega
Candle in the Wind – Elton John
And She Was – Talking Heads
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2
All my Loving – The Beatles
‘Going to’ future
Brass in Pocket – The Pretenders
I’ll Sail This Ship Alone – The Beautiful South
If I Were a Boy – Beyonce
50 Ways to Leave your Lover – Paul Simon
Adjectives and Adverbs
The Logical Song – Supertramp
Using songs for general listening practice
If you are planning to use songs for general listening practice, or as an introduction to a theme or topic, there are a couple of decisions you need to make:
- Do I need to produce an accompanying handout?
- Do I use just audio or a video version of the song?
If you are working with a group of more advanced students, having them listen to the audio-only may help them focus on the language. We suggest playing through once and having them listen extensively, then playing a second time and letting them take notes, listen for specific information or answer some comprehension questions. However, videos are great with lower-level students, and there are a lot out there with lyrics overlaid if you want to make it a combined listening and reading activity.
These days, producing handouts is a quick and easy business. You can source copies of most lyrics online. However, watch out for sites that use machine-generated transcripts, that can be littered with errors and inaccuracies. Once you’ve found a decent copy, just cut-and-paste into a document, and reformat to adjust the font, line spacing and text size. Make sure you credit the writer on your handout. If you are a teacher, producing handouts for your class for non-commercial, educational purposes is generally considered Fair Use, so you are unlikely to have any issues with copyright. However, it is a common courtesy to credit the writer – and your students will probably want to know anyway.
Once you have your handout, you have several options for activities, including:
- If it is a structure-focused activity, have students circle or underline any instances of the target structure. Elicit or present the form and discuss the various functions. Move on to grammar practice activities focused on the production of the form.
- If it’s an activity focused on listening for keywords and phrases, save a copy of the document and create a gap-fill by deleting selected words and replacing them with lines or boxes for students to complete whilst listening. Because this is simple to do, you can easily create differentiated versions, with easier or more difficult words to identify, and with fewer or more gaps. If you have a mixed-ability class, you can produce two or three different versions, and assign these accordingly, or let students decide for themselves which version to work with.
- If it’s going to be used as the basis for a discussion, you might want to do the listening first, ask some questions about it, then hand out the transcription for reference and/or further discussion.
- You could produce and copy some sets of cards with words from the song and during or after listening, have groups order the words according to where they come in the song. Replay for the groups to check and correct.
Narrative in Song
There are lots of songs out there with stories and they are a fantastic resource because they tend to engage the students and are great for issue-based discussions, for ordering of events, or for discussing emotions, personal experiences or important life events. There is so much out there that you should be able to find something that is thematically relevant and in a genre that will appeal to you and your students. Again, just to start you off, here are a few examples that demonstrate the diversity of musical styles and themes you can tap into. They range from the humorous to the tragic. Remember, always be careful when dealing with upsetting or challenging subject matter, or songs containing language that could cause offence.
- Hurricane by Bob Dylan (racial injustice)
- Nothing Compares to You by Prince (Loss)
- Save the Last Dance for Me by The Drifters (a disabled man watches his wife dance with other men)
- Fast Car by Tracy Chapman (poverty and young love)
- Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles (loneliness)
- Someone Like You by Adele (relationship break-up)
- Jolene by Dolly Parton (love and jealousy)
- *Sheila by Jamie T (drink, drugs, domestic violence and suicide)
- The Most Beautiful Girl (in the room) by Flight of the Conchords (spoof about a loser who meets a girl at a party)
- Mean by Taylor Swift (bullying)
- Stan by Eminem (obsession)
- Common People by Pulp (Class difference)
*Explicit lyrics, adult themes, and quite tricky colloquial language.
A few suggestions for follow-up activities to song-based work
- Song writing: Learners write another verse, alternative lyrics, or song of their own.
- Desert Island Discs: Learners choose a few songs or pieces of music they would choose to have with them if they were marooned on a desert island – and explain the reasons for their choices.
- Playlists: Learners create a class playlist for language learning, or work in groups to create a playlist for a special event.
- Learners create an imaginary band, give it a name, and design an iconic album cover.
- Karaoke: For an end of day or end of term treat, learners sing along to a karaoke backing track.
If you don’t know it, here is a bit of fun for all you grammar nerds out there:
Word Crimes by Weird Al Yankovic: a grammar nerd parody of Blurred Lines
Written by Mike Turner