Do you ever feel sluggish and unmotivated when you teach? Do your students?
Even if it’s not ideal, it’s completely normal for all of us to feel low on the motivation scale every now and then.
But if you’re lacking the motivation to teach your English students, just imagine how that will affect their motivation to learn.
Music moves people. It affects us on a deep level, connects with us in ways that nothing else does.
That’s why we’ve put together this playlist of motivational songs in English that you can play for your ESL students. Whether you’re teaching beginners or advanced students, there are benefits to pressing “play” today—or any time you or your students need a boost!
6 Highly Motivational Songs for Sluggish Students in English Class
When you use these songs in class, keep a couple of things in mind.
First of all, the main reason I’ve chosen these songs is that they’re motivational. Sure, they all contain potential lessons on grammar, sentence structure or vocabulary, but that’s not the main focus here. In fact, if you play an upbeat song, but then only focus on something like irregular verbs, it might backfire on you and demotivate your students.
Because of that, it’s a good idea to review any unfamiliar vocabulary with your class before listening to the song. Listening to a song for language purposes is challenging enough. There’s no need to throw new words into the mix. Give your students a head start by making sure they’ll understand all the words that they hear.
Second, music is a part of today’s culture, and that means that many songs will have cultural elements that are unfamiliar to your students. Be sure to check the lyrics for anything that might not make sense (for example, you can’t get the message of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” if you don’t understand that she’s rich).
If you need more content, one great source of more songs and other culturally relevant authentic video clips is FluentU.
If you’re looking for creative ways to teach English, then you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom! FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language-learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch regularly. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities.
You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students.
Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about learning English!
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Without further ado, let’s get motivated!
1. “Don’t Worry Be Happy” – Bobby McFerrin
When you worry your face will frown
And that will bring everybody down
So don’t worry, be happy
I think almost everyone is familiar with “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin. Though it’s been around the sound waves for a while, it still makes a great motivational song for ESL students, particularly beginners, since the words are clearly articulated and the music isn’t distracting.
Before introducing this song to your class, start with a discussion question: What makes you happy? Encourage students to share, especially if they have any particular music that gives them a boost. Then cue it up for the class.
Before hitting “play,” though, take a minute to point out that McFerrin does have an accent. Depending on where you’re teaching English, this may or may not be an issue for your students.
The first time you play it, let students simply listen to the song. The second time through, however, challenge them to a lyrics shuffle. Give students a copy of the lyrics cut into single lines and shuffled. Ask students to arrange the lines in the correct order as they listen. Then give it a third listen so students can double check before going over the lyrics together.
As a follow-up activity, have students brainstorm things that make them happy, and then make a collage with those words and ideas. Let each person take a few minutes to share their collage with the class.
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2. “Lean on Me” – Bill Withers
Call on me, brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’d understand
“Lean on Me” by Bill Withers may be a classic, but it still has relevance today. No one can get through life without friends, and that’s doubly true for your beginning ESL students, who will love this song. Its simple melody and articulated lyrics stress the importance of working together, just like your students need to do on a daily basis.
Before you play the song, ask your students to talk about a person who helps them feel better on a rough day. Have them talk about their friends and family in groups of around three students each.
For this song, try using a cloze activity. Using the lyrics to the song, blank out every fifth word. Then have students fill in the blanks as they listen. Three times should be enough for them to fill in most if not all of the blanks.
As a follow-up activity, ask students to write a paragraph on why friends are important to them, or a paragraph that describes a good friend.
This song isn’t just for beginners, either. Your advanced students might enjoy the challenge of writing out the lyrics as they listen (like a dictation).
3. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough,
Ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from getting to you, Babe
Who among us, your ESL students included, hasn’t faced daily challenges in our lives? “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is great for giving you and your students a boost when you might feel like you’re hitting a wall.
When you review vocabulary before starting the actual lesson with the song, be sure you talk about “ain’t” and how it’s used in English—in casual speech but not in anything formal—and how it’s a not actually a contraction.
After you cover that info, ask your students what obstacles they have overcome in their lives. You might be surprised at the answers your students give.
Play the song once for your students, and then play it a second time, asking students to write down any obstacles they hear in the lyrics.
As a follow-up, ask students to write a short note or card to a friend. They can express thankfulness for the friend being there for them in the past, or their own willingness to be there in the future when the friend needs them.
4. “We Are the Champions” – Queen
We are the champions, my friend
And we’ll keep on fighting till the end
Every high school sports team is familiar with “We Are the Champions,” and for good reason. Nothing says encouragement like a vow to fight till the end. Your students may already be determined to do that on the road to English fluency but if they’re faltering, this song will definitely give them a boost.
Before sharing this song with your intermediate students, ask them to share a mistake they’ve made and how that mistake helped them improve. That’s what this song is all about, after all.
Let your students give the song a listen and then give them a set of doctored lyrics. Include about 20 mistakes throughout the song (writing “we’ll keep on flying” rather than “fighting,” for example) and have students circle the mistakes as they listen to the song with the lyrics in front of them.
Follow up with a role play in which one student offers encouragement to another who has failed at something.
5. “Pocketful of Sunshine” – Natasha Bedingfield
Do what you want but you’re never gonna break me
Sticks and stones are never gonna shake me
Like it or not, sometimes things look bleak, and that’s when we need a little encouragement, a little light. That’s where “Pocketful of Sunshine” comes in. As your advanced students listen, they can imagine their own happy place that gives them a boost when the going gets tough.
Start by asking your students to discuss their favorite type of weather and share why they like it. Then start the song activity.
This song is a fast one, especially for ESL students who are trying to listen to the lyrics. So the first time through, just let students listen. The second time through, ask students to draw while they listen to the song. Make sure to stress that students should draw how they’re feeling. You’re not looking for great artwork necessarily, but rather emotion on the page. Give each person a minute to explain their picture to the class and share how the song made them feel. Then listen to the song a third time with the lyrics in hand.
As a follow-up activity, ask each person to choose an emotion and make a collage depicting that emotion. Then ask each student to write a paragraph that explains their collage and post the paragraphs under the posters in your room.
6. “Livin’ on a Prayer” – Bon Jovi
Whoa, we’re halfway there, whoa, livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand and we’ll make it, I swear
Whoa, livin’ on a prayer
Call me a sucker for a classic hair band, but on a bad day Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” always puts a smile on my face. I expect your advanced ESL students will feel the same.
You’ll need to take a few minutes to explain some of the informal pronunciation in this song (gotta, livin’), but no doubt your advanced students will be ready for the lesson.
Start your lesson by asking the students what gives them strength when they want to give up.
This song tells a story, the story of Tommy and Gina. As students listen to the song, ask them to take notes on the couple’s story. Where do they start in life? What happens? How do they encourage one another? Your students will need multiple opportunities to listen to the song. Play it by ear (pun intended) in deciding how many times your class needs before discussing it as a class.
As a follow-up activity, ask students to write out the story of Tommy and Gina and include an ending to the story. Ask volunteers to share their ending with the class.
When it comes to encouraging and motivating your students, some music may be all you need. But these songs will do double duty because the message gives a boost as well.
So, hit “play” and feel good!
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