You’re all ready for class, which starts in just a few minutes.
Prepositions are on today’s agenda, oh goody!
Your students start to trickle in to the room, chatting with one another.
But then, above the buzz, you hear someone utter those dreaded words:
“Are we doing anything fun today?”
Is there any other profession where you are not only responsible for a specific, projected outcome, but also under the emotional obligation to make it fun and entertaining?
I guess that’s why we love our jobs.
Indeed, we language teachers are charged with the creative task of making the mundane and everyday tasks into fun, memorable, relevant and authentic activities. If you and your students have lost momentum and are feeling the pain of routine, or you simply want to change things up, look no further.
Singing and music are known for their positive emotional effects on humans. It is also a highly efficient tool for language learning.
So here’s a complete guide to help you begin implementing a singing curriculum that should turn your students’ expectations into unlimited possibilities. Using Spanish songs will also motivate both you and your students in new and unexpected ways.
Why Teach Spanish Through Songs?
Words are easy to memorize with context
How many vocabulary words have your students memorized in the last two days? In contrast, have you noticed how easily they learn the latest rap tongue twisting songs? They play it over and over until they get it right! There is passion and purpose at work here.
Similarly, can you think of a song you’ve heard on the radio you weren’t even intent on listening to, and inadvertently found yourself humming? We memorize songs much faster than we do isolated words.
Songs provide us with a physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual context, whereas isolated vocabulary words don’t. Are you going to remember a word that has no significance in your life, or the words to the song that made you feel alive?
Students learn grammar implicitly
How many times have you taught ser and estar to an excited and engaged audience? Teaching grammar explicitly has to be one of the most boring ways to spend our time, not to mention it’s hard for developing brains to comprehend.
Songs, on the other hand, teach grammar implicitly. The lyrics are learned very much the same way we learn our native language when we are infants. Topics like ser and estar make much more sense when they’re backed by an experience in the target language.
Sustain immersion longer
How long do you really stay in the target language during class time? More importantly, how purposeful is it? I remember the stressed looks and blank stares I ran into when I spoke nothing but Spanish in my level I high school class.
When you use music, you are able to effectively sustain immersion for longer periods of time. It was easier for students to let go of wanting to understand every drop of audible output. Instead of focusing on what they don’t know, they are able to relax and get excited when they recognize a word or phrase being sung.
Inspire and increase production of Spanish
Without a doubt, the hardest part of the language classroom is getting the students to produce the language at a rate that’s balanced with expectations, pacing and reality. Using songs as your curriculum will help. It’s a matter of switching your methods and expectations, and being able to experiment.
Having students feel comfortable with the language is key to their intrinsic motivation to learn it. As we all know, if a student is eager to learn Spanish, the process is always inspiring to the instructor as well. Although singing is not a two-way communication dialogue, it has the learner producing language with meaning and purpose. It’s a highly effective way to get students comfortable with producing the language.
Create meta-linguistic awareness
Meta-linguistic awareness is perhaps my favorite reason of all. When students begin to objectify language and dissect it as an arbitrary linguistic code independent of meaning, it means they are thinking deeply! Singing, rapping and chanting accelerates this process. After all, it mimics the way we learn language as infants: willingly repeating words to purposefully communicate.
More importantly, Spanish songs provide enlightenment. In other words, it’s not something you lecture or explicitly teach, it is something you facilitate and witness—and then go home and re-play over and over in your mind in a happy daze of “teacher high.”
There is no better self-regulator of pronunciation than producing with passion and purpose. When the goal is to emulate a song that matters to you, and you have an audience, you hone and polish your words.
If, on the other hand, you are reading meaningless sounds from a text, there is rarely any self-awareness. You’ll never forget listening to that one particular student who reads Spanish text in a perfect English accent… ¡madre mía¡ Songs will help eliminate this sort of pronunciation, since students will be mimicking native singers.
How to Get Started Teaching with Spanish Songs
To reap these benefits, there are a few stages to follow when teaching with Spanish songs.
In order for any new methodology to work, students must buy in and have ownership. To that extent, you first must interview your students about their musical habits. You know, things like, what kind of music do they have on their iPod, what makes music enjoyable for them, how do they learn new songs, etc.
Nobody knows your students as well as you, so tailor the questions to your experience in the classroom. If you are teaching elementary and middle school students, it’s particularly important to know if they have any parental restrictions when it comes to music.
For more advanced levels, make your survey in the target language. Be sure to make room for student questions, and also ask students to add any additional comments they feel are relevant. Reflect on what stirs your own passion. It’s important that both teacher and student “likes” are represented.
Passion and purpose feed off each other and as such, it will be extremely helpful if your students see how energized you are by a project. Likewise, you will be motivated if they are.
The interview stage will provide you with a good idea of the relationship your students have with music. Now it is time to have some fun!
Implement and Involve
I’ve found it’s best to begin with groups when starting out with Spanish songs. It makes the process easier on those who are shy, and still allows for those seeking the spotlight to do so. A great first project, then, is to have groups become masters of a particular song, which they’ll later teach to the rest of the class.
For this project, decide what kinds of choices you want to give your students. Letting go of controlling everything in the classroom can be scary, but 21st century learners are designed for choice and need to be involved in the decision-making process.
If you let your students select the artist, you may want to pick out the songs they can choose from. On the other hand, if you would like them to select the song, choose a handful of artists that align with their interests (and yours!).
Next, have students listen to the song multiple times. Once I challenged the class to a “sing off.” The group that could sing their song for the longest period of time was the winning group! This activity could take as long or as short as you deem necessary. The point is to get them to listen with purpose.
After listening to the song, students can search for the singer/songwriter’s biography. Once students are familiar with the life of the artist, they then search for the lyrics online and copy them down into their notebooks. Yes, you heard right: Do not print the words with a printer! This step is highly important, since reading and writing every word strengthens memory.
When the lyrics are copied down, students identify all unknown words and define them in English and Spanish. Then groups are ready to prepare their fill-in-the-blanks activity sheet that they’ll give the rest of the class when presenting their song.
A format to follow when groups present their song is to first play the song (again, multiple times), and then ask many questions about meaning, symbols, themes, etc. This is a great moment to teach question words and transitional phrases (spontaneously, as they come up). The discussion should be a mix of English and Spanish. The aim is to use as much Spanish as students can without losing momentum in the discussion.
Finally, once the songs have been memorized, dissected, understood, analyzed, discussed and are permanently stuck in everyone’s brain, it’s time to have the first round of lip syncs. I strongly suggest you invest in one or two karaoke machines. They are so much fun and really highlight the “production” stage.
Having a video and sound recording is also excellent for formative assessments! You could invite an audience or have a private show—it’s entirely up to you. At some point, though, it’s advisable to have a show with parents and community members. It validates the learning and broadens the cultural context.
As you have probably noticed by now, this is a full-fledged project-based learning curriculum. Grammar questions will come up along the way, and you will be able to provide mini-lessons that are inquiry based rather than textbook driven.
The learning will be much more dynamic. Your students will create, manage and more importantly, pace their own learning. You will be the facilitator and mentor, guiding students and advising them along the way. Therefore, there is not one right way to organize and structure this type of curriculum—it really does depend on the teacher and students.
Above all, remember that authentic learning is not linear; it needs to get messy and chaotic (not behaviorally, though). At the end of each song, have students reflect on their learning and suggest changes to make the process better. Once you have read and processed their reflections, do it yourself: Reflect and iterate. You’re now ready for round two, your next project!
Perhaps the best aspect of singing your way into the Spanish language is that no matter the current month or weather, there is never a “repetitive routine” to bore you since you are continuously learning and growing!
Spanish Artist Recommendations Based on Grade Level
I’ll close with a few artist recommendations based on grade level, though I hesitated to offer any suggestions at all. That’s because the interview stage will match you up with the best artists and songs for you and your students, so these are loose recommendations.
Lower: Shakira, Juanes, Los Lunnis, Ricky Martin, Maria Isabel
Middle: Juanes, Shakira, Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Maria Isabel, Luis Miguel, Gypsy Kings, Joan Manuel Serrat, Lolita Flores
Upper: Shakira, Juanes, Julieta Venegas, La Oreja de Van Gogh, Mecano, Paulina Rubio, Pastora Soler, Bebe, Chambao
Again, these are just starting points for you and your students. Searching for new songs can also be a great way to teach critical thinking while searching on the internet. ¡Buena suerte!
And One More Thing
I know what you’re thinking.
This is great—but where am I going to find these videos?
And where do I find the lyrics and vocab lists for them?
You’re in luck.
On FluentU, you’ll find lots of music videos that are leveled, and are carefully annotated. Words come with example sentences and translations. Students will be able to add them to their own vocab lists and even see how the words are used in other videos. It’s guaranteed to get your students excited about Spanish.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach Spanish with real-world videos.