Developing pronunciation through songs

Like us, you might already use songs in class, and find that your students enjoy them. But have you considered choosing songs specifically to work on pronunciation?

Songs provide examples of authentic, memorable and rhythmic language. They can be motivating for students keen to repeatedly listen to and imitate their musical heroes. Here, we look at some aspects of pronunciation that can be focused on through songs.

  • Using songs to focus on sounds
  • Using songs to focus on words
  • Using songs to focus on connected speech
  • Conclusion


Using songs to focus on sounds
Sounds are the smallest unit from which words are formed and can be categorised as vowels and consonants.

Why are they difficult?

  • As languages differ in their range of sounds, students have to learn to 'physically' produce certain sounds previously unknown to them.
  • Learners can find sounds difficult to pick out, and may not see the point in focusing on them.

However, incorrectly pronounced sounds strain communication, sometimes even changing a phrase's meaning.


How songs can help

  • Songs are authentic and easily accessible examples of spoken English. The rhymes in songs provide listeners with repetition of similar sounds.
  • Students often choose to listen to songs time and again, indirectly exposing them to these sounds.

What we do
To focus learners on particular sounds, we create activities based on songs' rhymes.

  • Activity 1
    We replace some of the rhymes in the song, with a gap. Students listen and fill the gaps, using the song to guide them. More analytically minded students can then categorise the words according to sounds. (From 'An Englishman in New York,' by Sting)


Phoneme Phoneme


New York



Alternatively, we highlight differences between sounds, using the lyrics to show how changing one sound can alter meaning (minimal pairs).

  • Activity 2
    We choose six words from a song from which minimal pairs can be created
    • heaven - even
    • hunger - anger
    • man - mad
      (From 'Imagine' by John Lennon)
  • We write the pairs separately on cards and give out one set per group of four or five students. The students then match the pairs. They then listen to the song and 'grab' the correct one. Choices are then checked against the lyrics.


Using songs to focus on words
Words are combinations of sounds which form together to give meaning. A word is uttered in syllables, usually one emphasised syllable (the stress) and the rest weak (unstressed).

Why are they difficult?

  • Even when the same words exist in both languages, the number of syllables is not always identical.
  • Each English word has its own stress pattern, with very complex 'rules' to guide learners.
  • Weak syllables are central to English, though students often find this hard to believe. Moreover, focusing on these can result in over-emphasis (not weakening) of these syllables.


How songs can help

  • Words in songs fit the music, helping learners associate the number of syllables / stress in these words, with memorable rhythms.
  • The relaxed atmosphere songs create can expose students to this difficult pronunciation area, without their realizing.
  • Songs contain endless examples of weak syllables, helping to convince learners of the way English is pronounced.


What we do
To raise learners' awareness of the number of syllables / word stress, our activities target specific words, especially those where the music makes the stress patterns clearer.

  • Activity 3
    We give out the lyrics, with certain words for students to guess the number of syllables, leaving a space by each word to write the number in. Students then listen, checking their predictions.
  • At higher levels, we repeat the activity, with students underlining the stressed syllable whilst listening. We then drill these words and sing or chant the whole song through.


Using songs to focus on connected speech
Connected speech is the natural way we speak, linking together and emphasising certain words, rather than each word standing alone. Contractions (two words forming one) are an extreme example of the way we connect speech, to the extent that the written form too is affected.

Why is it difficult?

  • Students normally learn words individually and, especially at lower levels, tend to pronounce each word separately.
  • Students frequently misconceive contractions as being 'incorrect', only used in 'slang'.
  • Not all words within a phrase carry the same weight.


How songs can help


  • Songs, and especially the chorus, provide real and 'catchy' examples of how whole phrases are pronounced often to the extent that students find it difficult to pick out individual words. The music further emphasises the 'flow' of the words.
  • Songs, like other spoken texts, are full of contractions.
  • Students can be keen to reproduce this, in order to sing the song as they hear it.


What we do
We use songs that have numerous contracted words to convince learners that contractions are natural in English.

  • Activity 4
    We rewrite the lyrics with the contractions in full form
    • 'I am wondering why'
    • 'I cannot see'
  • Students listen, identifying the contracted words. On a second listening, they rewrite the words with the contractions
    • 'I'm wondering why'
    • 'I can't see'
  • This works even with the lowest level classes.


To help learners hear how words flow in phrases, we choose catchy tunes for learners to fit words to.

  • Activity 5
    We play each line of the chorus, for learners to hum back until they get the rhythm.
  • In groups, students then order the lines of the song on strips of paper by remembering the tune.
  • Other activities can focus on highlighting the strong words in phrases, and singing only these, replacing the rest with 'mmm'. Finally, students can practise and present their singing, for example for a 'song contest'.
  • Alternatively, more creative groups could write their own words to fit the tune.


There are no 'standard' songs for teaching pronunciation. Any song can be an example of different pronunciation aspects. However, we try to choose songs that are clear (use quality recordings where possible), not too fast, memorable, likely to appeal to our learners (possibly songs they already know) and easy to create activities for, depending on the area of pronunciation we are focusing on.

Finally, a word of warning: songs are creative works, so be ready to justify the occasional 'mispronunciation' to your students!

Further reading
Sound Foundations by Adrian Underhill
Pronunciation by Dalton and Seidlholfer
How to Teach Pronunciation by Gerald Kelly
Teaching English Pronunciation by Joanne Kenworthy

Balbina Ebong & Marta J. Sabbadini, British Council, Cameroon


Submitted by crispychris on Fri, 01/18/2019 - 15:02

I used 'I set fire to the rain' by Adele to reinforce regular and irregular past tenses. I put gaps where past tenses occurred in the lyrics. This gave focused listening practice, an awareness of the tense in context, revision in spelling for irregular verbs and a fun pronunciation exercise. I would be interested to know how other teachers have used particular songs.

Submitted by EkaterinaZubkova on Mon, 02/15/2016 - 17:25

Thank you for the suggestions. I usually use songs for practising the difference between the written words and connected speech.

Submitted by Mane Mehrabian on Sat, 11/29/2014 - 16:41 here is the link of the out of class activity 'Thanksgiving".My sts sang and dance a Thanksgiving song,"let's do the turkey dinner dance'

Submitted by Amin Rahman on Mon, 11/14/2011 - 11:25

Good point.  I have tried on native bengali speakers who cannot normally pronounce certain sounds present in English like "w", "v", "f" "z", "zh"  etc.  It does help.

Indeed, using songs for pronunciation practice is a great resource to activate extrinsic motivation if the students' preferences are taken into account. But how do you get that information in your class to start the work?

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