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Using music and english songs in the esl classroom

When students make a major breakthrough in learning, it is music to a teacher's ears. There is nothing more rewarding for a teacher, than seeing their students enjoy the results of their work while they learn. The same can be said for students. Students, who are taught in a fun and creative way, love attending classes. Using music and songs in the classroom is a great way for teachers to achieve success with second language learners (L2) learners [5].

Benefits of using music

Have you ever heard of anyone who doesn't like music? Some people may not like art, dancing, reading, or movies, but almost everyone likes one kind of music or another. Most people like many different kinds of music. Studies have shown that music backs up the learning process in the following way [3]:

  • It improves concentration (when students listen to different kinds of music while studying);
  • It improves memory (students remember the material better while associating it with certain music);
  • It brings a sense of community to a group (after listening to several music samples students may make their own choice together);
  • It motivates learning (students are aware of that education is not only drilling and remembering a lot of things but also it can be very pleasant);
  • It relaxes people who are overwhelmed or stressed (of course, music must be applied only at specific class periods but not during the whole period);
  • It makes learning funny (the spirit of the lesson will depend also on the kind of music);
  • It helps learners absorb the material (music stimulates students’ mental activity so they learn easier).

Techniques for using Music with L2 Learners

There are a variety of different ways to use music in the classroom. Some teachers prefer to use background music and others use music lyrics as the basis of a lesson. Music can be used to:

  • introduce a new theme or topic (for example: Christmas/colors/feelings, etc.);
  • break the ice in a class where students don't know each other or are having difficulty communicating (at the first class or when you have a multi-national class);
  • change the mood (liven things up or calm things down);
  • teach and build vocabulary and idioms (here also a teacher may practice chanting with students);
  • review the learning material (background music improves memory);
  • teach pronunciation and intonation (e.g. falling, raising);
  • teach songs and rhymes about difficult grammar and spelling rules that need to be memorized ("i before e", irregular verbs, phrasal verbs);
  • teach reading comprehension;
  • inspire a class discussion;
  • teach listening for details and gist.

Suggested activities

Many teachers try using music once in the class, but forget to do it again. It might take a few times before he/she and his/her class gets used to hearing music while learning. If a teacher can commit to using music once a week, he/she may soon see the benefits, and realize that they want to do it more often and in a variety of ways. Here are 10 activity examples [1]:

  1. Use background music such as classical, Celtic music or natural sounds to inspire creativity;
  2. Teach a national anthem;
  3. Teach a song that uses slang expressions;
  4. Teach a song that uses a new tense being introduced;
  5. Add variety to a reading comprehension lesson. Students can read lyrics and search for the main idea, theme, and details;
  6. Teach Christmas vocabulary through traditional carols;
  7. Write or choose a classroom theme song;
  8. Create (or use already prepared lessons) cloze exercises using popular song lyrics;
  9. Create variations to familiar songs by making them personal for the class members or the lesson;
  10. Have "lyp sync" contests. Allow students to choose their own songs. A little competition goes a long way in the classroom. Have groups explain the lyrics of their song before or after they perform.

Teaching kids with music

Using music with ESL kids has all of the same benefits mentioned above and more. Children are natural music lovers. A teacher doesn't have to convince them that it will help them learn. If a teacher feels uncomfortable singing in front of the class to teach a song, they may use a tape or CD player. A teacher shouldn’t expect the students to sing if they don't. the teachers must remember, that they don't care about the quality of teacher’s singing voice, just like they don't care about theirs [4]. Here are some suggested activities to use with kids:

Transition songs: one can teach simple songs that indicate transitions from one activity to another, such as "clean up" songs and "hello/goodbye" songs;

Energy boosters: students may learn simple action songs that require kids to stand up and move around. A teacher may think of traditional birthday games that use songs, such as pass the parcel (use a classroom mascot or other favorite item instead of a gift) or musical chairs;

Animal songs: children love learning about animals. The students are taught animals and animal sounds using repetitive songs like "Old McDonald had a Farm" and "There was an Old Lady who swallowed a fly";

Multi-culturalism: kids may learn about multi-cultural instruments and learn how to create them in class;

  • Remembering Names: a teacher helps students remember names of their classmates (this helps teachers too) with songs like "Willoughby Wallaby Woo";
  • Alphabet songs: Use lots of different alphabet songs (not just the traditional ABC) to help kids remember them in English. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault is a catchy children's book and song;
  • Colors: the colors are learned with various color songs and rhythms, such as Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" or Kermit the Frog's "It ain’t easy being green";
  • Rewards: Reward hard working kids with "Music Time". The students are allowed to make requests for background music that they can listen to while they work on their written exercises;
  • Student teachers: the kids are encouraged to teach each other songs from their own language. Turn this into an English lesson by having students translate the meaning.

Tips for using music effectively

  • When teaching students a song, it is a good idea to introduce an instrumental version first (If an instrumental version is not available, play the song softly in the background while they are working on something or hum the melody before introducing the lyrics). If students become familiar with the sound of the music first, they will be more likely to understand the words.
  • Make a vocabulary list ahead of time. Go over the words once before you introduce the song.
  • Expose students to a certain song many days in a row. Within a few days, students will not be able to get the song out of their head.
  • Choose interactive songs whenever possible. Adding actions enhances language acquisition and memory.
  • Have soft or upbeat music playing before class to encourage a positive atmosphere. Turning the music off is a great way to signal to a large class that it is time to begin.

Language teachers can and should use songs as part of their classroom teaching repertoire [1]. Songs contain authentic language, are easily obtainable, provide vocabulary, grammar and cultural aspects and are fun for the students. They can provide valuable speaking, listening and language practice in and out of the classroom. Some key reasons songs can work exceedingly well in the foreign language classroom include the following:

  1. Songs almost always contain authentic, natural language. This often contrasts the contrived, stilted language found in many student texts. Of course songs can also go to the other extreme by using overly crude, foul or otherwise objectionable language. With careful screening, an extensive library of usable songs for language learning can be compiled.
  2. A variety of new vocabulary can be introduced to students through songs. If a teacher is looking to boost student vocabulary with useful phrases, vocabulary and expressions songs are almost always directed to the native-speaking population so they usually contain contemporary vocabulary, idioms and expressions.
  3. Songs are usually very easily obtainable. Songs are usually not that difficult to obtain. Local sources may be available including the students themselves. There's always the Internet which can connect the class with song downloads in all but the most obscure languages.
  4. Songs can be selected to suit the needs and interests of the students. In English especially, so many songs are available that selection of songs with suitable themes, levels and vocabulary is not at all difficult. Allowances can also be made for complexity or simplicity of language, depending on the students, by selecting and using suitable songs.
  5. Grammar and cultural aspects can be introduced through songs. Most, if not all, songs have a recurring theme or story. So excerpting cultural elements is usually a possible, but often overlooked aspect of using songs. "Hit the Road Jack" sung by the late Ray Charles illustrates spoken contractions. Spoken contractions are used in every line of the song.
  6. Time length is easily controlled. Whether you have an hour, 30 minutes, or only 15 minutes or so, a song can be used in the course of a planned lesson. Use of songs is very flexible.
  7. Students can experience a wide range of accents. A good thing about songs is that you can expose the students to many different kinds of English. British English, American English, Caribbean English are all widely available through songs. Accents too are well represented by songs from different regions and in a variety of types and formats. Gospel, soul, R & B, Pop, Rock, Reggae, Jazz and other styles change not only accents, but vocabulary and usage too.
  8. Song lyrics can be used in relating to situations of the world around us. Songs have been used as vehicles of protest for civil rights, workers' rights, even prisoners' rights along with an untold number of other causes. They've expounded on pollution, crime, war and almost every social theme or cause.
  9. Students think songs are natural and fun. Well actually they are. Fun, even silly songs abound in English. Some singers actually made a career out of them. They make offbeat, fun changes of pace with classroom use.

These are only some of the many reasons songs are useful in the language learning classroom. They contain authentic language, are easily obtainable, provide vocabulary, grammar and cultural aspects and are fun for the students. They provide enjoyable speaking, listening, vocabulary and language practice both in and out of the classroom [2]. So EFL, English as a foreign language, ESL, English as a Second language and foreign language teachers should all consider using songs as a regular part of their classroom activities.

Almost everyone loves music. It is a part of our language and life from before birth onwards. As babies, we hear lullabies. As young children we play, sing and dance to a myriad of nursery rhymes. As adolescents, we are consumed by the beat of popular music artists worldwide. As adults, every form of advertising we hear, every special event we experience, is in part, music.

Music pervades television, movies, theater, and even the nightly news. When we exercise, when we work, when we play, when we worship and even when we die, music is there to reinforce or alter every mood and emotion. A catchy tune is played, hummed or sung, at times in our head, as we go about our everyday lives. So, why not include music and songs in language learning as well?

Use of new vocabulary, idioms and expressions. You'll need to address the new material offered in each song. This includes grammar, vocabulary and usage.

Pronunciation and accent of the singer. Every native speaker doesn't pronounce or sing with the same accent. Students may be exposed to an accent which is outside the realm of what they might normally hear in context.

Use of new grammar and structure. Song writers and singers are notoriously "loose" when it comes to use of grammar, structure, pronunciation, stress and other language factors applied to songs. The teacher must prepare for this.

  1. Use songs that are popular with the students whenever possible. Unfortunately, students frequently select songs for classroom use which are objectionable in some way making the song unusable.
  2. Songs must have clear and understandable lyrics. Nothing is worse than a song almost nobody can understand. If you have trouble understanding the lyrics by listening, then another song needs to be selected.
  3. Songs should have an appropriate theme. There's enough bad news, negativity and violence in the world already. Songs with any type of negative theme should be avoided. There are plenty of positive, upbeat, even humorous songs available. Use these.

Music pervades virtually every aspect of our lives. Students adore it. It contains numerous useful elements for language teaching and it's fun for both the teacher and students. So, why not include music and songs in your language learning classes as well?



  1. Eken, D. K. 1996 Ideas for using pop songs in the English language classroom. In English Teaching Forum, 34, 1, 46-47.
  2. Graham, C. 1993 Grammar chants: More Jazz Chants. OUP
  3. Graham, C 1994 Mother Goose Jazz Chants. OUP
  4. Jedynak, M. 2000 Using Music in the Classroom. In English Teaching Forum, 38, 4, pp.30-32
  5. Murphy, T. 1992 Music and Song. Oxford University Press.
  6. Saricoban, A. & Metin, E. (October 2000). Songs, Verse and Games for Teaching Grammar, The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 10, October 2000
  7. http://iteslj.org/

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