Using authentic songs in the ELT classroom

Using authentic songs in the ELT classroom

Fergal Kavanagh, a teacher at the University in Naples, Italy, offers advice on how to use songs in the classroom.

Kylie Minogue’s 2001 hit “I Just Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” was about a man, but she could easily have been singing about a song. We have all experienced hearing a song on the radio or in an advertisement and then finding ourselves repeating the chorus for the rest of the day. It can be very annoying, but from the point of view of a language teacher, with an appropriate song, this becomes an ideal alternative to the traditional, more boring drill of repeating a sentence aloud.

Students listen to all kinds of music outside the classroom, so are very enthusiastic when teachers choose to exploit songs in the classroom. One of the fundamental rules of language teaching is that the activity should be motivating, and letting the students suggest which songs to use in the classroom puts them at the centre of the learning process. Depending on the aims of your lesson some songs will be more appropriate than others.

There are many different ways of exploiting songs, from the traditional gap fill to word/line order exercises – do not forget that songs are essentially listening texts, so any activities you use to develop listening skills can also be used with songs. They are also ideal for practising reading skills, vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.

One of the easiest vocabulary exercises is predicting opposites. Choose between ten and fifteen words from a song, and write the opposites on the board. Students write down the opposites of these words (their answers should, but do not always, correspond to the original words), then listen to the song to check. As a while-listening activity ask students to put the words in the order they hear them. (An ideal song for a low-level class is the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye”, which contains all the following opposites Hello-Goodbye, Yes-No, Stop-Go, High-Low, Why-I Don’t Know).

One of the possible criticisms of the use of songs in the classroom is that the grammar used is often incorrect, or slang. This, however, reinforces the correct use of language, as we are rather perversely more likely to remember mistakes in language use (e.g. “But you don’t got to brag” as opposed to “But you mustn’t brag” in “Summer Nights” from Grease). You can also exploit examples as a test of grammar comprehension. You may need to think carefully when finding the perfect song to practise a specific grammar point, but it is not too difficult to find at least one example in a particular song. Queen’s “We Are The Champions” and U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” are ideal for the present perfect simple, but try finding songs with examples of the present perfect continuous! (Anastacia’s “Left Outside Alone” has two). The past simple can be practiced using “I’m A Believer” by The Monkees (this was covered by Smash Mouth on the soundtrack of the film Shrek, making it popular for a whole new generation). It has eleven different verbs in the past simple. List the verbs, ask the students to write them in the past, then play the song while students put the verbs the order they hear them. Finally give them a copy of the lyrics with gaps in place of the verbs – depending on your students level, and how well they have done the previous step, they can complete the gaps before or while listening.

Songs are very flexible, suitable for different levels of language learners – the task should be graded according to the learners’ needs – for example the past simple activity in “I’m A Believer” is ideal for Elementary language learners, but exploiting the example in the lyrics of the second conditional (“I couldn’t leave her if I tried”) would be far more appropriate for students at intermediate level.

As a teacher, one of the most immediately gratifying aspects of using songs is hearing the students singing in chorus. By singing along as part of a group students are less conscious of making mistakes and are naturally acquiring better pronunciation – English, as a stress-timed language, is very rhythmic, and rhythm greatly aids memorisation, even for single words. Singing also lifts their spirits – apart from the emotional pleasure of singing, the increased intake of oxygen can only put them in a good mood!

Another important benefit of songs is that the learning process does not end when the bell rings at the end of the lesson. When students subsequently actively listen to, or passively hear, the song outside the classroom, at home, in a nightclub, or even in a supermarket (pop music is, after all, everywhere today), they subconsciously reflect on the language used, which helps to consolidate this. So while Kylie was not happy about not being able to get the subject of her worldwide hit out of her head, we can take pleasure from the fact that the songs we choose for our classroom, and the language they use, stay with our students for a long time!

Worksheets for all the songs mentioned in this article can be found on The site also contains many activities for learning English through pop music.

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Fergal Kavanagh

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