Winner of the TeachingEnglish blog award Miguel Míguez explains how teachers can use song lyrics in the classroom.
Song lyrics are great for developing broad comprehension skills
Teachers often use songs in the language classroom for comprehension exercises like 'gap-fills' (finding the right word to fill a gap in a sentence), re-ordering words so they make sense, or matching related words. In these exercises, students have to listen for words or phrases connected to a specific grammatical focus or semantic field. This approach involves working with individual sounds, words and phrases, rather than the text as a whole.
But you can also use songs to develop broader comprehension and critical thinking skills. Rather than focusing on individual words or sounds, students can make predictions about meaning, and then confirm or reject these predictions as they read or listen to the lyrics.
The focus is on the students: how they interact with the text, and what they bring to the reading or listening process.
Why song lyrics work so well for comprehension tasks
Instead of having students simply recognise facts, we want them to delve more deeply into a text. They can compare information, make connections with other parts of the text and their knowledge of the world, or use the information to create something new (such as a letter to the singer, or rewriting the story from a different point of view.)
There are four reasons songs are so useful for improving higher-order comprehension and critical thinking skills:
1. Lyrics are short – songs are very short texts, yet they can express a lot. This short length makes song lyrics ideal to develop specific skills intensively, or to zoom in on a particular learning approach.
2. Lyrics usually follow a similar structure – songs are often predictable in their structure, especially pop songs, which are most often used in the language classroom. They may raise questions and give background context first, before building up to a chorus that might answer those questions and express how the singer feels. Because students are often familiar with the structure of song lyrics, it allows them to concentrate on meaning and overall comprehension.
3. Lyrics may express emotion – students can identify with the singer’s feelings or relate to their situation, which often encourages meaningful discussion in class.
4. Lyrics are often vague – the language in song lyrics is often open to interpretation. Mysterious references are perfect for critical thinking skills, since they generate a lot of discussion and place students at the centre of the learning process, by making the content personal. And when the text can be understood differently by different people, the number of creative follow-up tasks is not only higher, but always much more engaging.
Examples of ways to use song lyrics in class
These qualities make song lyrics perfect for comprehension tasks that promote critical thinking. Don't just ask your class to simply recall information from a song, or listen for a specific set of words. Instead, get them to analyse the meaning of the song lyrics, compare the lyrics with other similar texts, such as poems or short stories, or make personal connections. There are lots of creative possibilities.
In the examples below, we will look at some ways to help students develop their reading, listening, speaking and writing skills, using the 1995 song Lemon Tree by the German band, Fool's Garden. The song is about a person who is bored and alone, waiting for someone’s help. It begins:
'I'm sitting here in the boring room
It's just another rainy Sunday afternoon
I'm wasting my time
I got nothing to do
I'm hanging around
I'm waiting for you
But nothing ever happens and I wonder'
Receptive skills: reading and listening
Here are a few ways students can develop reading and listening comprehension skills, such as inferring or deducing the meaning of unknown words:
Students can use song lyrics to identify the main idea of the text, then find the words that helped them to reach that conclusion. In Lemon Tree, for example, words such as 'boring', 'nothing', 'lonely' and 'tired' support the singer's expression of sadness.
Inferring, or reading between the lines, is a skill that works particularly well with songs due to their often-vague language. When making inferences, students usually have several options, so long as they can say why they have come up with each interpretation. For example, who is the 'you' in the line 'I’m waiting for you'?
'I'm waiting for you
But nothing ever happens and I wonder'
In the chorus, the singer sings:
'I'm turning my head up and down
I'm turning turning turning turning turning around
And all that I can see is just another lemon tree'
Why is the singer turning his head up and down? Is the lemon tree something positive or negative? Students can often deduce the meaning of unknown words by using context clues. These clues will help students deal with new vocabulary in any type of text. By looking at the words, phrases or sentences around an unknown word, it is often possible to get an idea of what the word means.
Consider the line: 'Isolation is not good for me'.
Is 'isolation' a positive or a negative word? Look at the sentences before and after the word (‘nothing ever happens’, ‘not good’.) Are there any other words in the text with a related meaning? (e.g. ’lonely’, ‘nothing to do’, ‘nothing ever happens’.) Students could also deduce the meaning of ‘waste’ in the line 'I'm wasting my time' by looking at the surrounding words and phrases (‘boring’, ‘rainy’, ‘nothing to do’.)
Productive skills: speaking and writing
Ask students to write a story based on a few words from the song lyrics, and then compare it with the actual story in the song. What type of story do you think students could come up with using the title of the song Lemon Tree, and a few other words?
Ask students to make connections between the song and their own experiences. Can your class think of times when they felt the same way as the singer in Lemon Tree? What was the reason? How did they solve the problem?
These personal responses to song lyrics can produce meaningful classroom debates and creative writing. Students could write a letter to the narrator of Lemon Tree, giving advice on how to solve his problem. They could continue the story, or even write a piece from the point of view of a friend who is trying to help.
Engaging students in critical thinking skills helps students understand texts better and improves language learning by making the texts their own. Songs are a perfect way to teach many of these skills.
Miguel is a teacher of English at a state bilingual secondary school in Madrid, Spain. He regularly shares lesson plans and ideas on his blog.