Music is a great way for learners to get input in their target language. Almost everyone likes listening to music, so it’s fun and engaging. And most people enjoy listening to the same song multiple times, so learners can get lots of repetitions of the words in the song without feeling bored.
I usually do one song each week with my intermediate-level students. With my lower-level students, I only use songs occasionally, as it is much more difficult to find songs that are at a level they can easily understand.
Finding and Selecting Songs
If you’re going to use songs with ESL students, then you obviously want the songs to be as comprehensible as possible for them. I try to find songs that have fairly simple vocabulary so that I won’t have to spend a lot of time explaining the words. I also try to use songs in which it is pretty easy to hear the words. There are many songs in which the music is louder than the words or the singer doesn’t really enunciate very well, and it’s hard to understand. Even I have trouble understanding the words in many songs, so I obviously try to avoid using those kinds of songs with my students. And, of course, slower songs are usually much easier to understand than fast songs.
This probably goes without saying, but another big consideration for me when I’m choosing music is whether the subject matter/content is appropriate for class. Since I teach adults, I have more leeway with this than K-12 teachers do. But even with adults, I still try to be careful and keep in mind the fact that my ESL students come from cultures that are different than my own, and they might have different opinions than I do about what is appropriate. And I keep in mind that I will have to explain the lyrics to my students, so if it’s something that I would feel uncomfortable having to explain, maybe it’s best to avoid using that song. I also make sure to preview music videos if I’m going to show them in class. There have been a couple times when I thought that a particular song’s lyrics were fine but the music video was a bit risqué, so I just had my students listen to the song without watching the video.
I try to use a variety of music genres in class since different students enjoy different types of music—though, admittedly, a lot of the songs I use have a similar feel since I always try to find slower songs with clearly spoken words. But if students tell me about a particular artist or type of music that they like, I try to fulfill their request if possible.
In my opinion, finding good songs is one of the hardest parts of using music in class. Most of the songs I’ve used in my class are ones I’ve found just kind of by chance. Whenever I listen to music on the radio or hear music playing when I’m out somewhere, I try to pay attention and identify songs that have clearly sung words and relatively easy vocabulary. The Shazam cell phone app can be helpful with this—just turn it on while you’re listening to a song, and the app will tell you the song’s name and artist.
When I play the songs in class, I usually just use the songs/videos from YouTube. The only problem is that with some of the older songs, the sound quality is often not very good, which makes it more difficult for the students to understand. With these older songs, I often have my students listen to more recent cover versions of the song instead of (or in addition to) the original.
Here are a few of the songs I’ve used with my students that worked well.
With lower-level classes:
- “What a Wonderful World” – originally by Louis Armstrong, but I usually use the Michael Bublé version
- Songs by the Beatles, such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Hello, Goodbye,” and “And I Love Her” (for “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” I usually use this cover version). There are A LOT of good Beatles songs. So many of their songs have simple, repetitive language. It’s awesome!
- “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars (Sara Broussard created some embedded readings for this song available here)
With intermediate-level classes:
- Songs by Ed Sheeran, especially “Photograph”
- Songs by Ingrid Michaelson, especially “The Way I Am”
- “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt
- “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole (or the version by Natalie Cole)
- “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” by Meghan Trainor
- “Magic” by Pilot
- “Halo” by Beyoncé
- “Stay” by Alessia Cara
- “Wildest Dreams” by Taylor Swift
- “Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift (This song is a little more difficult than most of the songs I use, and it requires some explanation of American culture, like the idea of school dances and “cheer captain” as a signifier of a pretty/popular girl. However, I love it that the music video very clearly depicts the story of the song. It could be a good video to use as a MovieTalk before looking at the lyrics.)
- “The Reason” by Hoobastank (Another great music video that could be used as a MovieTalk)
How to Use the Songs in Class
I know that some teachers like to do games or activities with songs (check out this list of activities from Leslie Davison if you’re interested), but I usually prefer to just keep things simple and listen to the song. This is my typical sequence for using a song in class:
- I tell my students the title of the song and try to elicit their predictions about what the song will be about based on the title. I also introduce the singer/band by showing a picture and giving a little information about them, such as their age, where they’re from, etc. If you want, this could be expanded into a much bigger lesson, especially if the person has an interesting life story or background. You could even use this as a chance to introduce certain vocabulary words or topics that you will expand on later. For example, I just used the “What a Wonderful World” song and, as an introduction to the song, I told my students a little bit about Louis Armstrong and the racial discrimination he faced. We are getting ready to start reading a book related to civil rights in the U.S., so I was able to tie in the information about Louis Armstrong as a little preview about civil rights.
- Before listening to the song, I sometimes introduce a few of the words in the song that I know will probably be unfamiliar to my students or I might even have them read the entire chorus of the song. With lower-level students, I sometimes give them an embedded reading to prepare them for listening. I started doing this because I realized that if I just play the song right away, my students often can’t understand any words or maybe only a couple of words in the entire song. I figure that if they understand so little, it’s probably kind of pointless from a language acquisition standpoint. But if I introduce at least some of the words ahead of time, the students are more likely to understand those words when they hear them.
- Have students listen to the song and watch the music video (if there is one).
- I pass out a handout with the lyrics of the song. Sometimes it’s a cloze activity where students need to fill in missing words, but usually, I just give them the entire lyrics. We listen to the song again as they read along with the lyrics on their paper.
- I read the lyrics of the song aloud, and I explain any words or expressions that are unfamiliar to the students.
- We discuss the song together—Do you like the song? Why or why not? Do you agree with the song’s message? What do you think about the topic of the song? Have you experienced anything like this?
- Listen to the song again. I usually tell students that they can choose whether or not they want to look at the lyrics while they listen.
- I usually remind my students that if they like the song, they can listen to it again at home. At the bottom of their handout, I often include a URL to the song on YouTube to make it even easier for them to find the song online.
- If it’s a famous song, you can often find several different versions of the song (such as cover versions by different artists or different videos that people have made and posted online). Using a few different versions is a great way to have students listen to the same song multiple times, and it feels like it’s different even though they’re just listening to the same words again. Afterwards, students can compare the different versions and decide which one they like better.
- After you’ve already used a song in class, you can use it again in the future as a fun brain break or on those occasions when you have just a few extra minutes left at the end of class. If your students really enjoyed a particular song, you can save it in an easy-to-access place on your computer so you can quickly pull it up and play it whenever you need it.