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Listen to the Music:

Using Songs in Listening
and Speaking Classes

nyone who has taught a listening and speaking course to
second language (L2) learners knows that it can be
challenging. Besides the challenge of meeting learners’
needs in general, teachers often find that some students are afraid
to communicate for fear of making mistakes or may simply be
uninterested in the topic. Fortunately, there are ways to successfully
address such challenges, and music-based instruction is one
of them.

This article promotes the strategic use MUSIC FROM A PSYCHOLINGUISTIC

of music in L2 classrooms to motivate VIEWPOINT
learners as they practice and produce the
target language and actively participate The field of psycholinguistics reports on a
in the lessons. First, we briefly examine noticeable relationship between the spheres of
the decision to use music in the language- music and language during brain development
learning process from a psycholinguistic that can begin even before the age of two.
viewpoint. Second, we outline several The brain can understand and then organize
benefits of music-based instruction, the rhythm and syntax of music and language
namely that it (1) reinforces the prosody in similar ways (McMullen and Saffran
(e.g., rhythm, stress, and intonation) of 2004). Within the context of L2 learning,
the target language, (2) authentically music stimulates thinking and helps improve
educates learners about the target culture skills such as verbal memory and auditory
and other cultures, and (3) encourages memory. In fact, “both music and spoken
learners to express themselves. We also language involve the use of … complex sound
mention perceived drawbacks of music- and … enhance the encoding of linguistic
based instruction. Third, we consider information at the brainstem” (Wong et al.
general learning strategies in listening 2007, 420). To explore this idea, Wong and
and speaking classes and provide three his team researched the question of whether
sample music-based activities that we music-related experience activates codes in
have successfully used in our own the brainstem and therefore strengthens all
classrooms. Fourth, we offer an example auditory functions, such as L2 listening. The
of how music can motivate learners. researchers measured how musicians and
Finally, we share a few takeaway points to nonmusicians responded to different tones.
keep in mind. They found that the musicians’ brains could


Music stimulates thinking and helps improve skills
such as verbal memory and auditory memory.

interpret and code linguistic pitch information 2 . Clarity of speech: Can your learners
better than nonmusicians’ brains because the understand the lyrics?
coding is connected to a greater familiarity
with musical pitch. Therefore, “musical ability 3 . Age: Repetitive songs may be better for
predicts the ability to produce and perceive young learners, while thought-provoking
the sound structures … of a second language” songs may be more suitable for older
(Wong et al. 2007, 421). This finding suggests learners. What is the median age of your
that more exposure to music both in and out students?
of the classroom could have advantages for
L2 learners as they process and produce the 4 . Speed: Is the tempo, or speed, of the
target language. music what you want it to be?

BENEFITS OF USING MUSIC IN THE 5 . Vocabulary: Is there specific vocabulary

CLASSROOM in the song that correlates with the
An obvious advantage of music is that it is
universal and loved by people of all ages and 6 . Grammar: Does the song highlight a
cultural backgrounds, so it is an excellent way grammar point that your lesson focuses
to engage learners. For young L2 learners on?
and adult L2 learners of all levels, music
provides (1) the reinforcement of aspects 7. Idioms: How much idiomatic language
of rhythm in a language, (2) an opportunity does the song contain, and would you
to examine culture and diversity through like to focus learning on the idioms in
authentic songs and other materials, and the song?
(3) a way for learners to explore human
vocal expression and communication, from 8 . Popularity: Might your learners want to
speaking to singing. suggest songs they like?

When it comes to learning the rhythm of a 9 . Cultural sensitivity: Consider whether

language, using songs in the classroom can the song fits in with the cultural norms
improve listening comprehension and provide of your learners. Do the lyrics present an
pronunciation practice. Moreover, learners opportunity to explore topics of culture,
acquire vocabulary and idiomatic expressions diversity, and multiculturalism?
through music and can even review grammar
points they have studied (Arleo 2000). 1 0. Offensive lyrics: Do you want to avoid
using songs with explicit lyrics?
Students benefit most when an appropriate
song is selected for the lesson. Based on ideas Regarding the ninth question in the checklist,
from Simpson (2015) and Abbott (2002), the an instructor can use music effectively to
following list of questions will help guide the introduce aspects of culture and diversity.
decision-making process for a teacher who is One great benefit of music is that it
choosing a song: promotes multiculturalism among students
in the classroom (Paquette and Rieg 2008).
1 . Content: Does the theme of the song When language learning is introduced
match up with your lesson? within a cultural framework, it becomes 2018 ENGLISH TEACHING FORUM 23

An obvious advantage of music is that it is universal and
loved by people of all ages and cultural backgrounds,
so it is an excellent way to engage learners.

contextualized. Teaching songs to create DRAWBACKS OF USING MUSIC IN THE

contexts is beneficial because “songs in CLASSROOM
particular reflect and comment on key social,
political and historical issues” (Arleo 2000, While few drawbacks exist, one reason
11). Songs not only give access to cultural instructors resist using music in the classroom
information, but they also bring diversity is that they believe they lack musical ability
into the classroom by highlighting the musical and training. However, “despite a teacher’s
tastes of various cultural groups. In English as level of musical training, the value of fostering
a second language (ESL) settings, learners can creativity and enhancing literacy instruction
access authentic music created by the diverse through music is vital in today’s diverse
populations they encounter in everyday life, so … classrooms. This is particularly true for
they come to better recognize and understand English language learners” (Paquette and Rieg
those populations’ identities. In English as a 2008, 227). The quality of the instructor’s
foreign language (EFL) settings, learners can singing voice should not interfere with the
use music to examine and challenge cultural students’ efforts to learn and to meet the
stereotypes. objectives of the lesson.

Honoring cultural diversity and developing Instructors may also wonder whether music
a sense of acceptance in the classroom are can be used with all students. According
necessary in language teaching. There are to Arleo (2000, 12), “music can be used
many modes of human vocal expression, profitably with virtually all language learners.
and focusing on several of these modes in However, the choice of types of music
the curriculum gives learners the chance obviously depends on many factors, including
to understand different types of cultural the age, language level, cultural background
expression. “Human vocal expression” can and musical interests of the learner as well
be viewed as a scale, “with casual speech as the general learning context.” Once
(e.g., ordinary conversation) on one end again, it is important that the instructor
and song on the other” (Arleo 2000, 10); choose appropriate, inoffensive music for the
heightened speech, which falls in the learners, based on the educational, cultural,
middle of the scale, refers to telling stories and social contexts. Choosing suitable songs
and jokes, reciting poems, chanting, and leads to students having successful and
giving dramatic performances. For some enjoyable learning experiences.
cultures, these forms of heightened speech are
appropriate and comfortable. For instance, MUSIC AS A MOTIVATOR
chants have a rhythm and regular beat and
can be used by learners at sports matches and As mentioned above, music is universally
other cultural events (Arleo 2000). Songs, loved, and it provides pleasure and inspiration
of course, have a place in practically every to listeners. Regarding the role of music as a
culture. By recognizing learners as individuals motivator, Vethamani and Keong (2008, 95)
with their own unique cultural backgrounds write, “songs can be a form of useful resource
and experiences, instructors create an in the language classroom for purposes of
atmosphere of acceptance and diversity language development and to connect learners
through the use of music and other types of to issues that are of interest to young adults.”
human expression. According to Vethamani and Keong, previous


studies reveal that young adult ESL and EFL areas in particular: (1) addressing global and
students respond positively to popular songs selective listening skills and (2) examining
and participate more in class because the fluency versus accuracy.
songs give them confidence to better express
themselves both orally and in writing. In their Global listening includes presenting new
study, Vethamani and Keong report on how material through authentic sources with
L2 learners in Malaysia responded to popular natural speech patterns. These speech
rock songs by the American rock bands Linkin patterns may include reduced forms, fast
Park and Good Charlotte. Students listened speech, hesitations and errors, and features
to the songs, completed information-gap of different dialects (Peterson 2001). Using
exercises with the lyrics, and participated in music in the classroom connects to global
meaningful discussions about the content of listening because the songs themselves are
the songs. The majority of students felt strong authentic sources that contain varied speech
connections between the messages of the songs patterns. Global listening can be supported
and experiences in their own lives—“searching by pre-, during-, and post-listening activities
for identity, loneliness, helplessness and so that students grasp that the listening is
hope”—and this motivated them to think situated within a certain context. Meanwhile,
and communicate these feelings with their selective listening focuses attention on specific
classmates (Vethamani and Keong, 104). As the features of the language. Examples include
researchers observe, “the ability of students unstressed endings, articles, inflections and
to connect song lyrics to their lives indicates tones, and function words such as prepositions
interactive and reflective learning have taken or conjunctions. Teachers can use strategies
place” (Vethamani and Keong, 105). such as predicting parts of songs and relying
on learners’ background knowledge to help
Music can also help to motivate adult learners students identify specific language features
who yearn for captivating teaching materials in the lyrics. By considering a song within
that will sustain their interest in language global and selective listening frames, learners
learning. Kao and Oxford (2014, 117) can more successfully engage with the song’s
suggest that it is essential to choose appealing meaning and content.
materials such as hip-hop music because a
failure to do so may cause an adult student’s Another strategy is to highlight differences
desire to learn to “fade away quickly after any between fluency and accuracy that are present
minor obstacle or environmental constraint in songs. L2 learners may need assistance with
(e.g., too busy to learn).” Adult learners lead specific fluency or accuracy issues that are
busy lives, so intriguing music activities can appropriate for their level. Addressing fluency
serve to prolong a student’s commitment to in listening may involve looking at reduced
an English class. speech forms, and addressing accuracy may
involve focusing on correct grammatical
MUSIC AND LEARNING STRATEGIES features (Peterson 2001). In response to such
needs and teaching points, instructors may
Learning strategies are an important choose songs that focus more on either fluent
contemporary issue in English language language or accurate language (e.g., songs by
learning. When using music to teach language, The Beatles would be a good example if the
teachers should consider two broad strategic focus is on grammatical accuracy).

Using music in the classroom connects to global listening

because the songs themselves are authentic sources
that contain varied speech patterns. 2018 ENGLISH TEACHING FORUM 25

At this point, we would like to introduce and that student will go stand in the “Always”
then elaborate on examples of fluency- and corner.
accuracy-focused activities involving songs.
The Corner Game is an ideal warm-up 5 . Stop the song. Have students look
activity to engage students from the start around and see where everyone is
of a lesson and get them out of their seats. standing.
While a song is playing, students indicate
how they feel about the music by walking to a 6 . Hold small-group discussions for
designated corner in the classroom where they students in each corner to give them
practice their listening, speaking, and critical- the opportunity to practice speaking
thinking skills through informal, small-group English.You—or the students—might
discussions. This activity, explained in detail ask the following questions to generate
below, is flexible in terms of the significance discussion:
of the corners and the content of the songs,
which the teacher can use to complement • What type of music is this? How do
the topic of the current lesson. Aside from you know?
the fact that they get to listen to music,
students enjoy this activity because it gives • When do you listen to songs like this?
them the opportunity to share their own ideas How does it make you feel?
and opinions and to learn more about their
classmates. • Who are some artists you like or
dislike who play this type of music?
Activity 1: The Corner Game
Strategic focus: Fluency 7. Encourage some students to share their
answers with the whole class. Ask follow-
Time: 5–10 minutes up questions such as the following for
further speaking practice:
Materials: Songs (music player or laptop
optional) • What specifically about this song
or type of music makes you like or
Directions: dislike it?

1 . Give each corner in the classroom a title: • Is this music popular in your
the “Always” corner, the “Sometimes” country/city/village/home? Why or
corner, the “Seldom” corner, and the why not?
“Never” corner.
• What is a song that you would
2 . Tell students that you are going to play recommend to your friends?
part of a song (up to 30 seconds), and
they should think about how often they Note: Step 4 can be adapted in many ways for
listen to this type of music. the purposes of your lesson. For example,
if you teach adjectives and emotions, you
3 . Play part of the song. can give corners titles like “Happy,” “Upset,”
“Energetic,” “Calm,” etc., and students in each
4 . As the song plays, students stand up and corner can explain why the song makes them
move to the appropriate corner based feel that way (e.g., “This song makes me happy
on how often they listen to the type because of the sound of the guitar”).
of music represented by the song—
always, sometimes, seldom, or never. Another popular fluency-focused option
For example, if you play a rock song and is Verse Scramble, an activity that can be
a student always listens to rock music, conducted at any appropriate point in


the lesson. With Verse Scramble, students no paper copies are available, write the
practice listening comprehension, reading lyrics on the board. Make sure the verses
comprehension, critical thinking, and or lines are mixed up in a random order.
speaking as they try to grasp the sequence
and message of verses in a song. If students 5 . Before playing the song, give students
are at a lower proficiency level, lines can be two or three minutes to read the lyrics
used instead of whole verses. An advantage and try to put the verses or lines in the
of this activity is that it can be done correct order.
individually, in small groups, or as a whole
class, depending on the class size. One reason 6 . Play the song. Students should listen
students enjoy this activity is that when they carefully to the lyrics and arrange the
predict the content and meaning of a song, pieces of paper so that the verses or lines
there is not necessarily only one right answer. are in the correct order.
Student fears of being “wrong” are decreased,
making it less intimidating for them to express 7. After the song ends, see if the students
their ideas. were able to order the verses or lines
Activity 2: Verse Scramble
Strategic focus: Fluency 8 . Ask the students questions to encourage
more speaking:
Time: 10–15 minutes
• What type of song did we hear (rock,
Materials: Song lyrics on pieces of paper; pop, etc.)?
songs (music player or laptop optional)
• Were your predictions about the song
Directions: accurate? Why or why not?

1 . Choose a song with several verses that is • What do you think the lyrics mean?
appropriate for the students’ proficiency
level and the content of the lesson. • What are some important words
Write or type each verse on a separate in the song that help explain the
piece of paper. meaning?

2 . Divide the students into small groups (in • How is the message of the song
a small class, students can do the activity related to your life?
Finally, an example of an accuracy-focused
3 . Give the students the title of the song. activity involving music is Madlibs. Like
Encourage small-group or whole-class the previous activities, it is flexible and can
discussion by asking students to predict be conducted at the beginning, middle, or
what the song will be about. Making end of a lesson. Also, teachers can choose
predictions gives students an opportunity songs according to the topic of the lesson as
for English speaking practice and helps well as the students’ proficiency level. With
them become interested in the activity. Madlibs, students integrate their listening
comprehension, reading comprehension,
4 . Give the groups pieces of paper with the grammar, critical thinking, and speaking
song verses (one verse per paper). If the skills. Going beyond a standard information-
students have lower proficiency levels gap exercise, this activity allows students to
(e.g., beginner or low-intermediate), test the grammatical limits of a song in a fun,
you can give them one or two lines of creative way, and in the end they even have the
the song instead of an entire verse. If opportunity to write their own songs. 2018 ENGLISH TEACHING FORUM 27

Activity 3: Madlibs • What do you think the missing words
Strategic focus: Accuracy are (from the given context)?

Time: 10–15 minutes 4 . Before you play the song, have students
fill in what they think the missing words
Materials: Song lyrics written on paper or are on their papers or on the board.
the blackboard; songs (music player or laptop
optional) 5 . Play the song. Students will listen to see
if they guessed the missing words.
6 . When the song ends, ask students if they
1 . Choose a song that is appropriate for correctly guessed the missing words and
the students’ proficiency level and the engage them in a discussion about the
content of the lesson. The song should be vocabulary and the meaning of the song;
new or unfamiliar to the students. you might ask these questions:

2 . Show students the lyrics from a verse • What words in the song did you
(either pass out papers or write the lyrics already know?
on the board). Some of the words should
be missing, and the part of speech of • What are new words you learned
each missing word should be given under from the song? What do you think
the blank. For example, here are the first they mean (from the context)?
few lines of the classic folk song “Home
on the Range” presented this way: • How does the singer feel in this song?
How do you know?
Oh give me a _________ where the
(noun) • What do you think the meaning of the
buffalo roam song is?

where the deer and the antelope • Which words help us understand the
_________ meaning of the song?
7. Have students write their own version of
where seldom is heard a _________ the song by replacing the missing words
(adjective) with words of their choice. They can do
word this in small groups or as a whole class.
Students can choose any word as long as
and the skies ____________ not it is the appropriate part of speech. This
(linking verb) is a chance for students to be creative
cloudy all day. and have fun. When they are done, they
can even sing their new songs!
3 . Before you play the song, discuss the
lyrics and vocabulary to create context CONCLUSION
for the students. This can be done
in small groups or as a whole class. Music appeals to practically everyone.
Questions you might ask include the Although keeping L2 learners engaged can
following: be challenging, using music as a teaching
tool is a way to bring the class together and
• What do you think the song is about? inspire interest in the lesson. Using songs in
the English classroom benefits learners in
• Which words seem most important? many areas, including linguistic development,


Although keeping L2 learners engaged can be challenging,
using music as a teaching tool is a way to bring
the class together and inspire interest in the lesson.

exposure to culture and diversity, and REFERENCES

experience with multiple ways of human
expression and communication. Fortunately, Abbott, M. 2002. Using music to promote L2 learning
the number and types of music-based activities among adult learners. TESOL Journal 11 (1): 10–17.
Arleo, A. 2000. Music, song and foreign language
are seemingly endless; the three included
teaching. Cahiers de I’APLIUT 19 (4): 5–19.
in this article are only the beginning. For Kao, T., and R. L. Oxford. 2014. Learning language
example, you could give your students a title through music: A strategy for building inspiration and
and have them create the first verse of their motivation. System 43: 114–120.
own song based on that title, or you could McMullen, E., and J. R. Saffran. 2004. Music and
have them create a melody for their favorite language: A developmental comparison. Music
English phrase or idiom.You could also do a Perception 21 (3): 289–311.
timed class songwriting activity, where small Paquette, K. R., and S. A. Rieg. 2008. Using music
groups of students write the first verse or to support the literacy development of young
line of a song, and then they pass their paper English language learners. Early Childhood Education
to the next group of students, who will write Journal 36 (3): 227–232.
the second verse or line, continuing from the Peterson, P. W. 2001. Skills and strategies for proficient
listening. In Teaching English as a second or foreign
previous group’s work. Of course, the class
language. 3rd ed. Ed. M. Celce-Murica, 87–100.
could perform the song together after it has Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
been written. Simpson, A. J. 2015. How to use songs in the English
language classroom. British CouncilVoices Magazine.
We encourage those who have not used songs
in the classroom before to pick an activity how-use-songs-english-language-classroom
and a song, then give the activity a try. And Vethamani, M. E., and T. W. Keong. 2008. Connecting
we encourage teachers who have used songs Linkin Park and Good Charlotte to ESL learners. 3L:
in the classroom before to examine your own Language, Linguistics, Literature 14: 95–108.
music-based activities and see how they can be Wong, P. C. M., E. Skoe, N. M. Russo, T. Dees, and
adapted for different ages, proficiency levels, N. Kraus. 2007. Musical experience shapes human
and course content. brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns.
Nature Neuroscience 10 (4): 420–422.
Whether you are teaching certain grammar
points, focusing on accuracy or fluency, or Andrew Mobbs holds his MA-TESL from Northern
conducting speaking practice, and whether Arizona University. He has taught ESL in Arkansas
you are teaching beginning, intermediate, and Arizona and EFL as a Peace Corps Volunteer
or advanced learners, there is likely a suitable in Mongolia and as an English Language Fellow in
song for your lesson. For instructors, music is a Uzbekistan.
strategic choice that increases learner motivation
and awareness in the classroom. For learners, Melinda Cuyul teaches ESL at the University of
music is a way to gain access to authentic Denver. She received her MA-TESL from Northern
materials from a specific cultural context. Arizona University and has taught EFL in South Korea,
If music is used effectively, everyone wins. India, Morocco, and Patagonia, Chile. 2018 ENGLISH TEACHING FORUM 29