As a long time ESL teacher, I have found that one of the most effective and fun methods of engaging my students is the use of songs in my classroom. I love the fact that music is universal. Though musical styles may be different across generations and cultures, songs can be used to break down cultural barriers and create connections, no matter the ages or abilities of the students. Simply put, using song to teach ESL is fabulous!
Here are some helpful tips to incorporate music into your English classes, whether online or in a brick-and-mortar school.
Choose songs that are appropriate to the ability level of the students, not necessarily their ages
Don’t worry too much about using children’s songs with adolescents or high schoolers as long as you put out a disclaimer to them about using the songs for memorizing. I even tell my students that it is time to bring out the hidden inner child they all still have. They appreciate that I do not treat them like small children and that we can all be silly and vulnerable together.
My ninth-grade students especially loved using a song about the days of the week, because they said it helped them immensely in the memorization and translation in their minds. The lyrics to the song are nothing more than the seven days of the week, repeated at least five times. The melody is catchy, one that sticks in your head once you have sung it. The audible groans once a student starts to quietly sing the song when challenged to answer with a day name is cause for much laughter and joking in my high school class, since we all know that song will be repeated in their heads all day.
If you are teaching young children, you do not need to be concerned about them acting like little kids and making the motions. The challenge as a teacher is to be silly and engaging along with the music. I often create actions for the songs and get up and dance with my online students. It helps us all have a good time and remember the lyrics as well. “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” has been acted out and sung in my classrooms more times than I can count, and the little ones especially get into making the spider get washed out.
Know your objective and make sure the students know what they should be learning through the song
As teachers, we should always state our lesson objectives to our students at the beginning of each class. In my regular classroom, I write the objective on the whiteboard for the students to see and to keep us on track. In my online class, I state it to the students at the beginning of the lesson. “Today we will learn…”. This will also help you to remind yourself of the grammar, vocabulary, syntax, comprehension, or other objectives or combinations.
When teaching ESL with music, it is also important to tell the students why they are listening to the song and what to listen for. If they are beginners, it could be as simple as saying, “This song will help us learn to count!” If they are more advanced, you could tell them what grammar structure to listen for, or what vocabulary words are covered in the lyrics.
“It is important to tell the students why they are listening to the song and what to listen for.”
If my lesson objective is farm animals, possession, simple past tense, or even animal noises, I could use Old MacDonald Had a Farm, and state at the beginning of the song to pay attention to either the grammar or the vocabulary, whichever is my objective. After the song, I could expand on the song by asking the students to add their own lyrics.
Use music or songs as a reward for students
At times, I have had classes in which all of my students adore music and enjoy songs so much that song time is used as a reward for them. The reward can be letting them choose the song or just playing a song itself. If I have already allotted time in my lesson for a song, then I will give my students a choice between two or three songs. This helps me to keep my students on task by knowing there is a reward at the end. Sometimes I also give points for correct answers during a class, and the student with the most points at the end can choose the song. If it is my high school class, they know that the song they select must be school appropriate and subject to my approval.
Utilize music as a warm-up activity
There are times when our students need to get into the flow of listening to and speaking English. I have found that asking warm-up questions is a great way to make the switch, but so is singing a song. The important thing here is to consider the mood of the students and the ambiance I would like to create that day.
In a few of my online classes, the students come in tired from hours of school and studying. They have been sitting almost all day and need some movement and upbeat music to get their blood and brain flowing. In other classes, I have students who come to class stimulated from various activities, such as a PE class or recess, and it is helpful to play a more soothing song for them to help their focus. Either way, music is an excellent tool to use to set the mood and create a good learning environment.
Teach natural rhythm and informal conversation speech using songs
If you are using complex lyrics while teaching an advanced class, I suggest having the lyrics visible to the students to enable them to read along with the song. This will also help them as they listen. In my experience, this helps them comprehend the words as they listen. This may be due to different learning styles, but it also may be because the pronunciation in music is different from speaking pronunciation.
“Comprehension is better when students can read along with the song.”
Gap Fill is an engaging technique to use in ESL classrooms. It involves having the lyrics written or printed, with various words erased or blacked out. The student should try to write the correct word in the space while listening to the song. Depending on the language level, a teacher may decide to have most of the lyrics blacked out, or only key vocabulary words or sentence structures. You may choose to listen to the song various times according to time availability, and then have the students reveal what they heard. I enjoy using this method because the students have to use their grammatical knowledge as well as their comprehension skills to fill in the blanks.
Lyrics training is a fun and engaging website that involves using gap fill for songs. The students can use this in their spare time, or you may choose to use it in a classroom where everyone has a computer and headphones. The videos may be selected according to British or American English. The difficulty level can also be chosen by the students or teacher.
I am always looking for different ways to engage my students to keep them interested, thinking, and enjoying my classes. Music can provide all of this by including a variety of different genres, varying rhythms, and thought-provoking lyrics. Enjoy discovering how your students will react to the moods, the beats, and movements created by this excellent educational tool.
Jan Millsaps has been an advocate for the improvement of education models in Latin America for the last fifteen years. She is making a difference one classroom at a time. Jan became an online tutor with ALO7 in late summer of 2017 to help pay off medical bills and to provide for future retirement, if there ever will be such a thing in her life.
Jan has a B.S. in Education, concentrating in Reading (K-12) and Math (6-9). However, she has taught every subject and grade level throughout her 25-year career. The last fifteen years have been dedicated to teaching ESL the majority of the time. She also continues to teach math and reading.
Jan believes education is the key to societal development and works hard to make a difference in the lives of her students both online and offline. She is passionate that her students reach their full potential and become world changers.