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Popular Music and Songs: Effective Teaching Tools in the ESL Classroom

written by: Sarah Malburg • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 12/30/2013

By the very nature of teaching English as a second language, instructors are teaching culture, both directly and indirectly. Therefore, it is not surprising that music—an instrument of culture—comfortably fits into most TEFL and ESL teachers’ lesson plans.

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    What the Research Says

    A great deal of research has shown that musical and language processing occur in the same area of the brain, and there appear to be Music Notes parallels in how musical and linguistic syntax is processed. Some of this research is detailed in a report written by Lisa Trei for the Stanford News Service.

    Another study, showing how music improves language-processing skills by altering the brain stem is discussed in Did Sesame Street Have It Right?, a Scientific American article written by Nikhil Swaminathan.

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    The Benefits of Introducing Music and Songs

    Most ESL classroom music activities focus on pop song lyrics because they contain short words, a conversational tone and are often sung at a slower rate than words are spoken. Repetition of vocabulary and recurrent grammatical patterns often present in pop songs also helps the English language learner to understand and relate to popular song meanings and themes.

    A further benefit of pop song lyrics is that like poetry, their meanings are fluid, and allow for individual interpretations. For the more proficient ESL learners, the introduction of more difficult songs containing advanced vocabulary and idioms can be utilized in more in-depth ESL learning activities.

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    Listening, Writing, and Oral Music Activities

    Singing and or listening to popular songs introduces the musical elements of rhythm, stress, and intonation and how they affect the pronunciation of English in a natural and entertaining context. Moreover, students from any language background can benefit from a choral or individual reading of the lyrics of songs.

    Listening and oral activities can also include having the students summarize in writing the action or theme of a song or give oral presentations about a song or musician. Having students who play a musical instrument perform musical selections for the class is also an option. Additionally, a whole class activity can have students fill out response sheets about each song presentation, answering questions about the featured themes, conveying something new they learned, and or relating their feelings about the songs they enjoyed.

    There may also be a message or theme embedded in particular pop songs that the students can discuss, explain, debate, and or write about. For the adult ESL learner, possible responses may include topics comparing music in their homeland with music in the United States, thereby drawing upon the knowledge and experiences each English language learner brings to an ESL classroom.

    Another popular ESL music activity is to have students cut pop song lyrics into lines and then put them in the correct order as they listen to the song. This can be done individually or in small groups.

    Music can also 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. For instance, 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.

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    Selection Criteria

    • Song lyrics should be clear and loud.
    • Vocabulary should be appropriate to the student’s proficiency level.
    • Songs should be pre-screened for potentially problematic content, such as explicit language, references to violent acts or sex, or inappropriate religious allusions.
    • Student song choices should also be considered, because they may be especially motivated to learn the lyrics of one of their favorite new pop songs or an old favorite they have heard and never understood.

    Finding copies of song lyrics is not difficult. Many are available on the Internet, and many recordings contain lyric sheets.

    Song Lyrics

    Lyrics

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    The introduction of song-based activities into an ESL classroom can provide teachers with a rich mine of information about human relations, ethics, customs, history, humor, and regional and cultural differences. And, whether the use of songs is being introduced as a means to expand word study or reinforce words already learned, the use of song- and music-related activities can provide English language learners with material that is easily understood and enjoyed.