When you read, you begin with…ABC!
Maria from “The Sound of Music” sure knew what she was talking about.
That’s why we’ve united our favorite songs for teaching English. And we promise—they’re far from what you’d expect!
Songs are a fantastic way to help students work on different elements of language learning. There are many different ways to use songs in the classroom, from sing-a-longs to more structured listening exercises, depending on the class you have and the goals you have in mind.
A more structured exercise will take a bit longer to prepare, but it’ll be far more helpful for your students. Ideas for structured exercises will depend on the grammar points you’re trying to teach, but they can include fill-in-the-blank exercises, writing exercises to continue the song or even creating adaptations of the song with new words.
Whatever you decide to do with the song you choose, scientists agree—music offers loads of benefits to language learners. Take advantage of them in the classroom right now!
The first step is to choose a song, which can seem daunting at first. After all, you have a wide variety to choose from!
We’re here to help you out with this. We’ve chosen 9 different songs adapted to different levels of ESL students. In our selection, we’ve made sure to choose songs that are written in a grammatically correct way and that highlight certain key vocabulary or grammar points in their lyrics. That being said, advanced students can take full advantage of their favorite songs as well. As students to contribute their favorite songs for new class lessons. The only limit here is your imagination.
If you’re on the lookout for songs to use, try resources like YouTube and FluentU to track down your favorites in a format that’s easy to listen to in the classroom. All FluentU videos are accompanied by interactive subtitles which allow you to see definitions, in-context usage examples and more on screen.
If you opt for YouTube or another site, you’ll often find lyrics included along with the songs, which, of course, you should reread and edit as needed before using them in the classroom. But once you’re armed with these tools, you’ll be ready to start planning your lessons!
9 Modern Songs for Teaching Hip English Grammar and Vocab Lessons
When using songs to teach beginners, repetition is key. Repetition in a song allows a beginner to catch on to what is being said/sung and then chime in by the end. Choose songs with catchy refrains and repetitive structures to make sure beginners are getting the most of them.
Teaching Point: Yes/No Questions
“Do You Like Bananas?” is a great song that’s ideal for teaching yes/no questions to beginners. The lyrics go through a series of questions beginning with “Do you like…” and then answer each question by saying, “Yes, I do,” or “No, I don’t.” Simple enough, right?
As for the refrain, it goes a little something like this: “When I like it, I like it, yum, yum, yum. When I hate it, I hate it, yuck, yuck, yuck.”
It’s no surprise, then, that most of the elements in the song are food vocabulary words. The song is ideal for introducing and reinforcing this vocabulary.
The ideal way to use this song in the classroom is in an interactive way. Because the song is fairly easy to learn, you can go through it in class once or twice with the video as an accompaniment, but soon after, ask students to write (and sing!) their own “Do you like…” questions. In order to do this without putting your shy students on the spot, try having the whole class sing the song. Then call on people at random to insert a food item to be asked about.
To ensure that the question form has been well integrated by all students, be sure that the song isn’t the only element of the lesson. Start the lesson by introducing the question form, and follow the song portion of the lesson with a worksheet of yes/no questions or a pair work activity to reinforce what’s being taught.
Teaching Point: Days of the Week Vocabulary
It’s fun to find ways to use classic songs in class, and the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” is a perfect example. While this classic rock song is certainly fun to listen to, it’s also great for learning the days of the week.
You can approach this song in several ways. For true beginners, it may be enough to ask the class to chime in at moments when the day of the week is being said. In this case, the exercise makes a fun way to end a week of classes that have introduced them to the days of the week and months of the year.
You can also use it as a jumping off point to allow students to make their own sentences about what they do on each day of the week. Be sure to closely examine the lyrics for new vocabulary with students in this case, helping them to truly understand the words of the song before moving on to making their own sentences.
Teaching Point: General Vocabulary
“My Favorite Things” is a fun song to help students get talking about things that they enjoy. While the things that Maria describes in the song are fairly poetic, students can also use the structure to describe things that they like themselves, and they don’t have to get nearly as descriptive as Maria does!
A great way to use this song is to have students draw pictures of one of the things that Maria says she likes, for example, “whiskers on kittens” or “brown paper packages tied up with string.” Once you’ve discussed the song together and have figured out what the lyrics mean, have each student contribute a picture. Then, have students stand in a line and hold up their picture when their lyric is being sung.
After this exercise, have students adapt the song to their own favorite things. You can either have them write out the song themselves or give them sheets with blanks to fill in, as follows:
These are a few of my favorite things!
As students move into the intermediate phase of their learning, they’ll be ready to tackle more difficult topics with their songs, particularly grammar points. The good news for students is that they can use many songs that they’re already familiar with to study these different grammar elements!
Here are three choice songs for intermediate level students.
Teaching Point: Past Constructions
Use “Somebody that I Used to Know” or “Call Me Maybe” to review different past constructions with your class. Lyrics like the following allow them to think about which past tense is appropriate to use and why:
No you didn’t have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number
I guess that I don’t need that though
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know
(From “Somebody that I Used to Know”)
I wasn’t looking for this
But now you’re in my way
Your stare was holding
Skin was showing
(From “Call Me Maybe”)
In order to use these songs in class, the most efficient way would be to make worksheets in advance with the lyrics typed out and the appropriate past construction removed. Replace these removed past constructions with a blank, accompanied by the infinitive verb in parentheses.
Students should fill in the correct answer. Once they’ve finished, verify answers using the recording as a dictation. Hopefully, this activity will get students singing along!
Teaching Point: Future Simple
This classic Beatles tune will have students using the future like pros soon enough!
“All My Loving” uses the auxiliary will construction in the future fairly consistently, making it ideal for practicing this future form. Make a worksheet as you did for the last exercise, replacing future tense conjugated verbs with blanks and the infinitive verb in parentheses.
This exercise is ideal to use with false beginners (beginners who have studied English before and forgotten) to remind them of the future tense, as well as for intermediate learners who just need a bit of practice.
Now, on to songs for advanced learners!
When you’re teaching advanced learners, you can have a lot of fun using songs in the classroom. Here are a few of our favorite ways to use songs that will interest and engage your advanced students.
Teaching Point: Verb Tense Review
By the time students have reached an advanced level, they’ll usually have seen pretty much every verb tense there is—but that doesn’t mean they’ve mastered them all! “Counting Stars” is a fantastic way to do a general verb review using the same fill-in-the-blank exercise we discussed above.
The reason that this song is so perfect for this exercise is that “Counting Stars” features the past progressive (“I’ve been losing sleep”), future (“we’ll be counting stars”), present, (“I see this life”), present progressive (“life swinging”) and that’s all just in the first two stanzas!
The only trouble with using this song in this exercise is that many of these verb choices are open to interpretation based on how the student understands the song—so turn it into a debate! Ask students to defend their choices, and they may just open up a new side to the song. Then play the song at the end of class to see what One Republic really meant to say.
Teaching Point: Subjunctive
While advanced students will usually have seen quite a few different verb tenses in their day, they may have yet to encounter the subjunctive, and that’s where “If I Were a Boy” comes in. Use this song to introduce a lesson on the subjunctive, asking students what they think this mood implies in English.
Once you’ve established the correct use of the subjunctive with your students, allow them to come up with their own “If I were…” scenarios. You can either have them share these statements orally in class or use this in-class preparation for a take-home written production assignment. If it’s the latter, it’s up to you whether you want students to write a more formal essay or a song of their own!
Teaching Point: Gerunds
Gerunds are something that students first encounter as beginners or intermediate learners, but advanced students can always use a good revision of gerund forms. Listening to the Beatles classic “Across the Universe” is a great place to get this review.
Once you’ve done a gerund review, perhaps with a fill-in-the-blank exercise, allow your students to delve further into the poetry of the song. Advanced students will likely have a lot to say about the figurative language used by the songwriters and, for this reason, this song can also be an excellent way to delve into topics related to stylistic or figurative writing, culminating in a songwriting exercise for the entire class!
Whether your students are writing their own songs or learning from the lyrics and music of others, we’re sure that making the most of these songs in your ESL classes will not only make the ESL classroom experience more fun, but more fruitful too!
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you liked these fun songs, 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 on the regular. 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 English!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.