A Model Lesson for Using Songs as ESL Audio Listening Materials

Have you ever tried to count the songs in the world?

Nope, neither have I.

There are millions to choose from, just waiting to be put to use in your ESL classroom!

Much like movies, sitcoms and radio, songs are an excellent listening resource for English learners. They’re short, snappy, lively and fun.

Inserting a song into your lesson plan is a guaranteed way to lift the mood of any class, and most importantly—to get your students listening.

Songs can be used in a short activity, or as the basis for an entire lesson plan.

The vast variety of songs out there in the world means that there are a vast variety of ways to use them as ESL listening materials. Whatever your grammar or language point is, no matter the learner level or topic of the lesson, there is a perfect song out there for you.

So let’s get started by looking at a few general ways you can use songs in the classroom, and afterwards we’ll see numerous specific activities you can implement with songs.

Ways to Use Songs in the ESL Classroom

Tell a Story: Give students a multiple choice worksheet to fill out as they listen, with approximately six questions total, or one for each verse. Students must circle the option with the correct event for each verse, so their answers will essentially tell the story of the song. This can be done with sentences or pictures.

Past Tense: Get students to listen for past tense verbs as they listen to the song. Students should write them down as they go, and then afterwards make sentences using those past tense verbs with a partner.

Questions: Have the students stand up every time they hear a question in the song. Then put the students into teams and have a multiple choice quiz to see if they can remember the questions that were asked. Read out the options and get them to write their answer as a team on a mini white board or piece of paper. Bonus points if they can tell you if there was an answer to the question in the song, and if so what it was!

Introduce a Topic: You can use a song at the beginning of class as a springboard to a discussion topic. Ask students an overall question about the content of the song before they listen for the first time.

ESL Activities to Accompany a Song

You can split your listening activities into the following three categories: gist, scan and detailed tasks. These create stepping stones for the students towards gaining a thorough understanding of the lyrics.

Most of the activities require a minimal response, like writing one word or circling true or false, meaning that students are focused on listening and not on writing out an answer.


Also known as a skim task, the idea of a gist activity is for students to get the song’s overall meaning. This task often takes the form of a question. Here are some gist activities:

  • Sum Up: Give students no information about the song, simply play it and ask them to sum up the main idea in one sentence.
  • Ask a Question: Tell students what the song is about before playing it, and pose a question for them to think about while listening, such as “Is the man happy with his life?” or “What is for sale in the window?”
  • Multiple Choice Question: Ask a question with a multiple choice answer, like “Whose birthday is it? a) Mark  b) Laura  c) Ramon.” When they hear the answer, students can write their choice down, or throw a ball into a corresponding bucket.


The purpose of a scan activity is for students to find out specific pieces of information about the song. Here are three scan activities:

  • Questions: Give students a worksheet with five specific questions to answer as they listen. For example, “What color is the boy’s scarf?” or “What is the name of the road they walk down?”
  • Complete the Sentences: On the board, write the first half of three sentences from the song. When students hear each sentence, they must choose from options to complete the second half of the sentence.
  • Fill in the Blanks: Provide students with a gap-fill worksheet to complete as they listen. If necessary, provide a word bank at the top of the page.

Detailed Comprehension

These tasks check whether students have gained a more in-depth understanding of what the song is about.

  • Correct the Sentences: Provide students with a set of statements, all of which are slightly incorrect. As they listen to the song, students must fix the statements to make them correct.
  • True or False: Give out a set of true or false statements about the song, making sure that the true ones are not exactly the same as the lyrics. For example, if the song says “The boy was delighted with his rocking horse,” you could write the statement, “The boy was happy with his toy.” This is where the comprehension comes in, as students cannot simply listen to buzz words, but must understand the meaning of the lyrics. As students listen they must choose if the statements are true or not.
  • Matching: Students can complete a matching task as they listen to the song, like matching pictures of people with the opinions they expressed.

Find ESL Songs on FluentU

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Sample ESL Lesson Plan: Songs as Listening Material

This lesson plan is based on the song “We’re Going to Be Friends” by the White Stripes. Here are the lyrics:

Fall is here, hear the yell
Back to school, ring the bell
Brand new shoes, walking blues
Climb the fence, book and pens
I can tell that we are gonna be friends
I can tell that we are gonna be friends

Walk with me, Suzy Lee
Through the park, by the tree
We will rest upon the ground
And look at all the bugs we’ve found
Safely walk to school without a sound
Safely walk to school without a sound

Well here we are, no one else
We walked to school all by ourselves
There’s dirt on our uniforms
From chasing all the ants and worms
We clean up and now it’s time to learn
We clean up and now it’s time to learn

Numbers, letters, learn to spell
Nouns and books, and show and tell
At playtime we will throw the ball
Back to class, through the hall
Teacher marks our height against the wall
Teacher marks our height against the wall

And we don’t notice any time pass
We don’t notice anything
We sit side by side in every class
Teacher thinks that I sound funny
But she likes the way you sing

Tonight I’ll dream while I’m in bed
When silly thoughts go through my head
About the bugs and alphabet
And when I wake tomorrow I’ll bet
That you and I will walk together again
I can tell that we are gonna be friends
Yes, I can tell that we are gonna be friends

Type of lesson: Listening/Speaking
Level: Intermediate
Length: 40 minutes
Main Objective: To develop students’ ability to listen for gist and detail in a song, through the context of childhood
Secondary Objective: To develop students’ speaking skills in relation to memories of childhood
Materials: Worksheets, board markers, squares of white paper, tape

1. Lead-in to Set the Context of Childhood

Time: 8 minutes

  • Tell students what you liked doing as a child.
  • Students talk to a partner about what they liked doing, then gather feedback as a class.
  • Students write down three things they can remember doing as a child and stick the paper on the back of their chair.

2. Practice Listening for Gist (First Listening)

Time: 6 minutes

  • Set the gist task by writing the following on the board: “Do the boy and girl like each other? Why?”
  • Tell the students they do not need to write anything, only listen and think about the questions as they listen to the song.
  • Solicit feedback as a group and write ideas on the board.

3. Practice Scan Listening (Second Listening)

Time: 8 minutes

  • Give students a worksheet with a set of words (alternatively you can use pictures). As students listen to the song they need to put the words in chronological order, by numbering them.
    • Numbers and letters
    • Singing
    • Climb the fence
    • Tree
    • Bell
    • Sleep
  • Students check their answers with a partner before going over answers as a group.

4. Detailed Comprehension Task

Time: 10 minutes

  • Give students a worksheet with a set of true or false statements. Allow them time to read through the statements first before listening.
    • The children are at home.                                                                               T    /    F
    • We know the friend’s name.                                                                             T    /    F
    • The children play with insects in the park.
      T    /    F
    • Their clothes are clean when they get to school.
      T    /    F
    • The boy and girl sit next to each other in the classroom.
      T    /    F
    • The boy thinks they will go to school together again the next day.
      T    /    F
  • Afterwards, collect feedback as a group, asking students why they’ve chosen true or false.

5. Free Speaking Activity

Time: 8 minutes

  • Refer students back to the three memories on the back of their chairs.
  • Explain that they are going to find people in the class who have the same or similar memories, and people whose memories are very different. Students get up and mingle, telling people about their memories.
  • Collect feedback in a discussion.

Gist, scan and detailed tasks are a logical step-by-step way to enable students to understand the lyrics and meaning of a song.

And songs are an invaluable resource for ESL listening lessons, so what are you waiting for?

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