Music can play a really important part in the language classroom. It can change the atmosphere in the room within seconds.

Songs sung in English are listened to around the world and students can often feel real progress in their level of English when they can begin to sing along to the chorus or even just to be able to separate what at first seemed to be a constant stream of words! I am going to split this article into using music and using songs and I will share twelve of my favourite activities with you.

Before bringing music into the class, it may be worthwhile to do a music survey or questionnaire to find out what the students enjoy listening to. As much as possible try to use music they will like. I have found that the students’ motivation levels are the determining factor in whether or not a song will work with them. If the students really like the song and the artist they become determined to understand. If you choose the task carefully even lower levels will be able to get something out of working with tricky songs where the language is way above their level of English.

Using music
Music in the classroom doesn’t always mean listening to a song and using the lyrics in some way. Music can be used in the classroom in a multitude of ways. Here are just five ways to use music in your classroom.

  • Set the scene: If music is playing as students enter the class it can be a nice way to settle the group. Give the class a few minutes to settle down and then turn the volume down slowly and use the end of the music as an indicator to the students that the class will begin.
  • Change the tempo: Music can be used to calm down an over excited class or to wake up a sleepy one. If you know that your students have high energy levels and sometimes need to calm down, try playing some relaxing music to put on as they work. At first they may find it strange but they will get used to it. With sleepy teenagers, try putting some of their favourite tunes on as they work. It may help to increase their energy levels.
  • Time limits: Instead of telling students they have two minutes to finish a task, or with very young learners a minute to tidy the room up after a craft activity, tell them they have until the end of the song. Play the music and when the song ends students should be paying attention ready to listen to the instructions to change tasks.
  • Feelings: Different types of music will provoke very different reactions within your students. You can explore this by playing a selection of different types of music for a minute or so each and asking students to write some adjectives of how they feel when listening to the different types.
  • Musical drawings: Give each student a piece of paper and some coloured pencils. Tell them that you are going to play some music and you want them to draw whatever comes into their heads. As music is playing, all students should be drawing. After 20 or 30 seconds, stop the music. Students stop drawing and pass their picture to the person to the left of them in the circle. Play the music again and they continue with the drawing the person next to them had started. Stop the music again, pass pictures on and this continues until the end of the song. When you have finished each student will have a picture that several students contributed to. Then it’s up to you what to do with the pictures. They can be used to describe to the group, to write a story about, or to pretend they were a dream the student had last night. The rest of the class can try to analyse the meaning of the dream.

    Use different types of music to get different types of pictures. I’ve found that reggae and samba produce happy beach scenes and dance music gets futuristic city scenes.
    Beware – with teenagers this activity can be quite an eye-opener as it tends to reveal what is going on in their minds!

Using songs
Songs provide a valuable source of authentic language and there are hundreds of ways to exploit them in the classroom. The internet has made it very easy to find the lyrics of songs. A search on google with the name of the band, the song title and the word ‘lyrics’ will bring up a selection of sites you can use. Once you have copied and pasted the lyrics into a word document it is quick and easy to make an effective worksheet. Here is a selection of ideas for you to try.

  • Classic gap-fill: Every language student at some point has been given a song to listen to and the lyrics with gaps in for them to fill in as they listen. This activity is not as simple as it sounds and before making one yourself think about why you’re taking out certain words. It may be better to take out all the words in one group, such as prepositions or verbs, and tell students what they should be listening out for. Another option is to take out rhyming words. Don’t be tempted to take out too many words, eight or ten is normally enough. To make the task easier you could provide the missing words in a box at the side for the students to select, or you could number the gaps and provide clues for each number.
  • Spot the mistakes: Change some of the words in the lyrics and as students listen they have to spot and correct the mistakes. As with the gap-fill limit the mistakes to a maximum of eight or ten and if possible choose a word set. You could make all the adjectives opposites for example. Another example of this for higher levels is to show the students the real lyrics and you correct the English and make it proper! E.g. ‘gonna’ change to ‘going to’ ‘we was’ change to ‘we were’ etc. This is a good way to focus on song language.
  • Comic strip: Songs that tell stories are great for students to make comic strips out of. You have to choose your song carefully and spend time looking at the lyrics with the students and making sure they have understood the main ideas. Lower levels may need guidance as to how to divide up the song into suitable chucks that can be represented pictorially. Avril Lavigne’s Skater Boy song from last year was a good one for this activity.
  • Order the verses: With low levels this is a very simple activity. Chop up the lyrics of the song by verse and give a small group of students the jumbled verses. As they listen they put them in order.
  • Discussion: Certain songs lend themselves to discussions and you can use the song as a nice lead in to the topic and a way to pre-teach some of the vocabulary. One I used recently was ‘Where is the love?’ by the Black Eyed Peas to lead in to a discussion about war.
  • Translation: Although some teachers oppose all use of the mother tongue in the language classroom, some students really enjoy translating lyrics into their own language. If you do ask students to do this ensure the lyrics are worth translating!
  • Write the next verse: Higher levels can write a new verse to add to a song. Focus on the patterns and rhyme of the song as a group and then let students be creative. If they are successful, the new verses can be sung over the top of the original! Norah Jones’ Sunrise was a good one for this.

I hope that at least some of these ideas will be good for your classes. The more you use music in the classroom the more uses you will find for it. If you have any ideas to share why not send them to the discussion list.

Internet links This site has short music clips on which can legally be used for educational purposes. This site has a vast collection of hip hop lyrics. Be careful which ones you choose as some have bad language. This is the MTV homepage and has links to loads of potential materials.


By Jo Budden

First published 2008

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