Teaching English with Music: 4 Effective Ways to Use Music in the ESL Classroom

Do you have a CD player in your ESL classroom?

Or how about any other music-playing device?

All right, those of you who answered yes: Could you ever see yourself getting rid of your music player?

I hope you screamed no!

Most ESL teachers find music CDs and songs such an indispensable part of their classroom that they often buy their own—rather than depend on the school’s.

CD players and music have become a vital part of most modern classrooms.

With that being said, there are times when the use of music in the classroom is inappropriate or perhaps even harmful. One of my earliest memories of teaching students was having to correct a young high school student who, with good pronunciation, proceeded to tell me—in a vulgar and crude way that would require far too many expletives and asterisks to write out—what he was going to do over the weekend.

When I asked him where he had learned such language, he revealed that he was a big fan of the Wu-Tang Clan. In fact, the young man owned every single Wu-Tang family CD ever released. While the music had taught him a vast amount of vocabulary, and his pronunciation was very New York-esque, his inappropriate usage and understanding of the meaning of some of the words was a large drawback.

While the above is an extreme example, most teachers who have been working with music and English for a long time can think of their own cringeworthy moments involving music, foreign language and students. Whether it be overly contrived corny songs, inappropriate maturity levels (both high and low) or songs that leave students feeling shy and self-conscious, the stories are endless.

The first hint for any teacher regarding the use of music is that it is a tool, not a panacea. Just like any other tool, it can be used appropriately for great benefit, or if used inappropriately it could be useless or perhaps even harmful. Just as a carpenter wouldn’t use a power saw to drive a nail, don’t use music where it shouldn’t be used.

So, where should it be used? Here are four effective ways to incorporate music into your ESL lessons.

4 Effective Ways to Use Music in the ESL Classroom

1. Use Music as an ESL Warm-up

This tactic is especially useful when you have students who are coming in from a very static period, a boring period or one that was very stressful. For example, I had one class that I would consistently teach immediately following Japanese calligraphy class. For those who are familiar with Japanese calligraphy, the motions are supposed to be very exact, and the students spend the whole time sitting at their desks working on nothing but getting one particular figure or phrase perfect.

When you combine that with a teacher who required silence during this period, you can see the situation my students were in. They had been kept seated statically for the past hour—almost silently—and needed a change of pace before being able to do anything useful in terms of English.

In warm-up situations, keep in mind the mood you want to set for your period. Since I tend to prefer a class that is active but not frantic, I use lots of music that has a “rock” edge to it. When working with students that are already overly frantic, I choose slower, more mellow music. Either way, I choose the music to bring the students into the mood that I want them to be for that class period.

When choosing a song for warm-up, while the mood of the music is paramount, do not forget about lyrics. Students need a few minutes at least to switch their minds from their native language to English. Try to find something with a decent “hook” or chorus that students can at least repeat consistently without feeling stressed. Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” comes to mind, and while it may have very fast verses (many native speakers cannot even keep up, especially if you have a few beers in you), the iconic “we will, we will rock you,” combined with the backbeat make it a fun song.

Group singing is perhaps the easiest way to implement music as a warm-up. Remember, you want something that is quick, easy to understand and can be explained in just a few minutes at most. If you have to spend five minutes explaining how, you’re going to miss your window of opportunity. If you have a lower-level class, just having them sing the “hook”/chorus is perfectly fine.

I prefer to let students move around as they like with this; a little dance or a little jive is great to set the proper mood. For lyrics, choose music that you have previously introduced, or something so simple that they can pick it up on the fly. Remember, we’re trying to get your students’ heads out of their books and papers in this instance—not having them read lyrics sheets.

Personal Favorite ESL Warm-up Songs:

  • Queen – “We Will Rock You”
  • Naughty By Nature – “Hip Hop Hooray” (Note: There are adult lyrics at points, but even native speakers never know what these guys are saying until the famous “Hey, ho” chorus.)
  • The Beatles – “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”

ESL Warm-up Songs for Younger Children:

  • “Mary Had a Little Lamb”
  • “Five In the Bed”

2. Teach Natural Speed and Flow of English Speaking with Music

Once students have a basic grasp of your target language or the structure that you want to practice, a perfect way to work on speed and delivery of English is to use music. In this instance, I think using the numerous ESL-targeted music CDs is ideal.

While to a native speaker these songs can sometimes come off as a bit hokey or contrived, with a bit of gusto they can readily be used to get students repeating target structures and grammar in a faster, more flowing manner. Make sure you try to pick CDs that are marketed towards the age group you are working with, to minimize the “hokiness.”

When you use music to teach speed and flow, keep your body movements to a minimum. While sitting in their desks or standing in choral rows isn’t helpful, if students are spending as much brain power worrying about movements and dancing as they are about singing, something is going to get lost. This happens even for professional singers in their native language. When you add in the foreign language aspect, students will often let the unfamiliar language slip in order to embrace the somewhat more familiar physical movement. This is especially true when talking about large groups, where students will try to hide in the anonymity of the crowd.

After trying a new song through group practice, there are tons of variations you can do. Songs with multiple parts can be reviewed by breaking up the class into groups, or you could even try a full-on choir style of singing if you have experience. I’ve also used it as a game with younger children, pausing the CD at random points and having them fill in the blanks by singing the next phrase of the song.

Personal Favorite ESL Songs for Natural Speech:

  • Matsuka Phonics EFL CDs

3. Review Previously Learned ESL Vocabulary and Grammar Using Music

This is great for all ages, from children through adults. Recently, anyone who’s been anywhere near a child can listen to them singing Disney’s “Let It Go,” a runaway hit song that has been recorded in 42 different languages. Thanks to this song’s popularity—at least in Japan—there are now millions of children who can sing at least bits of the English version, as well as the Japanese version.

The main difference between the warm-up repetition and using music for previous vocabulary and grammar is that in this instance, the song can vary more like a normal song. The key is that the students are already familiar with the words and the grammar ideas. This means they’re using the song for review, enjoyment and exposure to new variations on familiar themes. For fun, authentic videos to teach your students English through music, check out FluentU!

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

When using music in this way, it’s so important to pick music that fits the temperament of the class or the student. Again, ESL CDs can be useful, but familiar children’s songs, holiday tunes (at that time of year) or even popular music can also be used. As a caveat, try to use selective editing when it comes to language. While adult or older students may be able to “handle” adult language, keep the lyrics clean to safely avoid cultural problems or potential future faux pas.

Personal Favorite ESL Music for Vocabulary Review:

  • Disney Songs – These songs are familiar in most countries and enjoyed by all ages. Also, the song lyrics are invariably safe. “Toy Story,” “Tarzan,” “Winnie The Pooh” and others have spawned dozens of great songs to use.

 4. Increase Cultural Understanding with Music

Communication is as much about language as it is about culture. Often times, miscommunication occurs not because of the words said, but because of cultural assumptions by the parties on all sides that conflict or are not understood. Music stands as the one nearly universal cultural expression. Every culture through history has had music in some form or another.

By breaking down and analyzing the lyrics and the message of a song, students can gain a greater understanding of foreign culture. This application is best used with older or more advanced students, but even middle school students can gain understanding if they have guided help with the translation. When this is your goal, a word-for-word translation is sometimes the best idea, although this is not always possible. If a word-for-word translation is not possible, explaining the meaning of the phrase is best.

First and foremost, for this type of lesson activity make sure to be flexible. The discussion can often go in unexpected directions, and sometimes these tangents can bear great fruit. Again, as with activity type #3, try to pick songs that are an appropriate maturity level for your class. Second of all, be willing to devote the entire class period to the activity if necessary. Between listening, reading, discussing and then trying to perhaps sing, you can easily fill an hour long class or more.

Personal Favorite Songs for ESL Cultural Understanding:

  • Leonard Cohen – “Hallelujah” (Note: This song is recommended only for adult students, as the meanings behind the lyrics can be rather racy, but the slow delivery is helpful.)
  • Pink Floyd – “Another Brick in the Wall”
  • Dire Straits – “Working for a Living”

Music can both bridge gaps and help educate. Songs have been a part of human expression since our caveman days, and there’s no doubt that they help us learn.

Add that to its global impact, and it’s clear music is a key tool for any ESL instructor.

So whether you regularly use music in the classroom, or have only ventured there once in a while, try using music in any of these four ways—and enjoy the results!

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