How to Teach English with Songs

Learning how to teach English with songs is a key skill to have in your teaching repertoire. I used to feel rather dismayed when I started teaching about using songs in class. My CELTA teacher trainees would sometimes look at me nervously, saying they felt rather uncomfortable about the whole thing. Why? Who doesn’t like music? Name me one time when something hasn’t been enhanced through music?

It turns out the preconception of using songs in class is often that the teacher has to get their students to sing. For the teacher to stand in front of the class, waving their arms around like a demented conductor trying to get their embarrassed students to belt out nursery rhymes or London’s Burning. No wonder my trainees looked grim. But no! No karaoke required, no songbooks needed, no mi mi miiiiiis to warm up. Just a song, listening and working with a song.

I love using songs in class and I know how effective it can be from a student’s point of view.  More than 10 years ago I had some Spanish lessons and I still haven’t forgotten how to say “I like……” -  “Me gusta…….”. All thanks to my inventive teacher, who prepared a lesson around a Manu Chao song. 

How to teach English with songs

To get the most out of a song it’s best not to just play it a few times and ask them if they like it, but to prepare and deliver a full listening lesson. Here are some suggested stages:

  • Start your lesson with a context to introduce the learners to the topic of the lesson.
  • Teach the class some words to help them understand the song (pre-teaching).
  • Use a prediction task to help prepare the learners for listening (prediction).
  • Listen once or twice to listen for the overall meaning of the song (gist).
  • Listen again (once, twice or three times) to pick out some specific information (detail). 
  • Afterwards, talk about the song or the topic of the song (personalisation, speaking).

Of course, you don’t have to follow these stages exactly, but it is important to lead the students in gently.  For example, teaching them some words before they hear the song will give them confidence when they hear them. Asking them to listen for overall meaning (gist) is less demanding that immediately asking them to pick out details.

Where to find ESL Songs

Course books will include some songs to coincide with the topic of the lesson, for example, Our House (Madness) on the topic of houses and homes.  The internet will also provide various songs prepared with learners in mind. They may include worksheets and may fit your topic perfectly. However, you might wish to include a song of your choice in your lesson, in which case you’ll need to design your own materials.

Example: The Snake, Al Wilson

I use this for an intermediate or higher level. Please keep in mind that the below is only a suggestion. You can achieve these stages in different ways.

Context/ prediction:  I give the students some pictures I have prepared which illustrate the events of the story. They have to put the pictures in order and tell the rest of the class what they think the story might be. No artists required! Stickmen are fine.  Here’s my offering:

On her way to work one morning/ Down the path alongside the lake
                                     A tender-hearted woman saw a poor half-frozen snake/

Pre-teach: I then give the students some sentences where the keyword is underlined. The sentence should give the students some information to help them work out the meaning of the underlined word. For example,

My sister was very kind and gentle to with the children. She’s always been very tender-hearted.

Listening for gist: I then play the song (once or twice) and ask the students to put the pictures in the correct order according to the song.

Listening for detail: Then I hand out the lyrics to the song with 10 or 12 gaps, ideally including some of the words that I pre-taught. Students listen and fill in the gaps.

Speaking: Students talk about the contents of the song and discuss any morals/lessons we can learn. They can also talk about any similar songs they know that tell a story.

Obviously I include feedback stages to check answers and hear points of view at every stage. And yes, they can sing a long if they want to!

Tips on how to teach English with songs

1. Consider the level of the learner

Think about what your learners are capable of. A fast-paced song full of phrasal verbs or colloquial language may be fine for your advanced students, but lower levels will struggle.

2. Tell them a story

A song with a story is often easier to follow, for example, Perfect Day, Common People or A boy named Sue.

3. Avoid songs with adult content/lyrics:

You don’t particularly want to have to explain the meaning of too many dodgy words during your class, so avoid them in your song. You also don’t want students using bad language when they don’t fully understand the implications of it. Think Killing in the Name of and a possibly avoid it. Saying that, you don’t necessarily need to sanitise all your materials, make you own judgement based on where you are, who you are teaching and what you want them to learn.

4. Avoid songs where the pronunciation isn’t clear.

I love The Kings of Leon, but I have no idea what they are saying, so the students will have no chance!

5. Finally - Don’t take it personally

It might be your favourite song, but don’t be offended if your students don’t like it. People have all sort of different tastes. You didn’t write it! Even if you did, it’s a learning experience, not entertainment.  If they’ve learned something, you’ve done your job, and if they sing along – well that’s just a bonus.

Written by Rachel Kilner. Rachel is a CELTA teacher trainer and Senior English teacher. She's been teaching for over 10 years in the magical, metropolitan city of Manchester. Rachel suffers terribly from dromomania (a desire for frequent travel or wanderlust), which is relived by meeting lots of wonderful people from around the world in her Manchester classrooms, both face to face and online. 

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