Music is a great way to teach English but often we limit our activities to gap fill exercises. But there are many more ways to exploit music and song. Also we often limit ourselves to a repertoire of ELT classics (you know the ones!) – it’s time for a change and to let the learners’ preferences be heard.
1. Misheard Lyrics
One of the great joys (and sometimes disappointments) of listening to music is to find that the lyrics to songs you had been singing for years are not the real lyrics. Letting learners into this secret can encourage them to explore lyrics and language while also having fun.
Here is one possible activity.
i. Here are links to two adverts for cassette tape (you may need to explain this to younger learners or even ask an older teacher yourself!) from the 1980s – The Israelites by Desmond Dekker and the Aces and Into the Valley by The Skids. After you have listened for the first time replay the clips and ask the learners to listen for the real lyrics.
Show the learners the actual lyrics and ask which they preferred – often our misheard lyrics are better. Here are the original lyrics and songs without the distracting visuals.
ii. Ask the learners to think of lyrics in songs that they think they know but are not quite sure of. They could write the lyrics out and decide if their lyrics are grammatically correct and make sense (they may not and the originals may not either).
Learners then use the internet to search for the original lyrics – there are lots of sites. They should decide if they prefer the original lyrics or their own versions – sharing the information with the class. They can also investigate the vocabulary and grammar used in the original lyrics.
iii. You may follow up the activity by discussing ways in which listening to music with English lyrics may help learners improve their listening skills and linguistic knowledge.
There are plenty of other websites and you tube videos with misheard lyrics – just be careful because some of them contain adult content.
2. You look terrible tonight.
Personally I’m not a fan of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” (a true ELT classic if there ever was one) but my friend Graham Pritchard did something interesting with it back in the 90s. The following lesson could be done with any other song (please!!!!). This is what he did.
i. Change the lyrics by swapping key words or phrases in the song. The first verse could look something like this:
It’s late in the morning
She’s wondering what shoes to wear
She puts on her hat
And brushes her curly brown hair
ii. Learners work in groups to try and identify the incorrect words and suggest the correct version.
iii. Learners listen to the song and check their suggestions.
You can of course do this with any song – and hopefully make those in course books a bit more interesting for the learners. You could also ask learners to produce similar lyrics to their favourite songs.
3. Scenes from a film
Film music can be evocative and can be used to encourage learners to express themselves creatively. This example activity uses the present tenses to describe what is happening in the film.
i. Introduction. Explain that you will play the soundtrack from the opening scene of a film. The learners listen and imagine the scene.
Play the soundtrack to the beginning of the film Bladerunner (from 59 seconds) – do not show the picture. Elicit suggestions of the scene from the learners then watch the clip to compare the learners ideas with the film.
ii.Main activity. Explain that screenwriters create a screenplay for films that include both the dialogue and descriptions of the scenes. Show them the screenplay for the introduction to Bladerunner.
EXT. HADES – DUSK
We are MOVING TOWARD the Tyrell Corporation across a vast plain of industrialization, menacing shapes on the horizon, stacks belching flames five hundred feet into the sky the color of cigar ash. The CAMERA MOVES INTO a window in the large pyramid-shaped building. A man is sitting at a table.
You may ask them how the screen play reflects the actual images (this seems to be an earlier draft that doesn’t contain all the visuals in the film) and if they would add any more information.
Group your learners and give them a piece of music from a film (without the images*). Groups then listen to the music and as a group write a screenplay to describe the scene.
iii. When the learners have written their screenplays they can read them to the rest of the class with the music in the background (after some rehearsal). Then you can show them the scene from the film.
iv. Follow up. Hopefully your learners have enjoyed and feel good about their work so if you have a class blog or even a wall – post / stick them up.
*Your learners will need equipment to play the music on. There are programs that will convert you You Tube videos to mp3 sound files such as this one.
4. Reported songs.
In this instance I am using “Crazy” by Gnarls Barclay but you could use any other song that is sung in the first person. This song lends itself to the practice of reported speech but other songs will be applicable to other language.
i. Introduction – well you may wish to introduce the song with a gap-fill or even a listening but I’ll leave that up to you. The learners should have a reasonable understanding of the song’s meaning and have a copy of the lyrics.
ii. Main activity. Elicit the first line – then elicit what he (the singer) said using reported speech.
“I remember when I lost my mind” – He said that he remembers / remembered when he lost his mind.
Learners then work in groups to write the remainder of the song in reported speech. Alternatively assign parts of the song to different groups. Or put sections of the song on the walls – groups move around writing and then checking / correcting the reported sentences.
iii. Follow up. You may want to ask which of the sentences seemed suitable to use in reported speech. Did any seem odd or inappropriate?
5. What’s the story
Many songs tell a story for example David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (a proper astronaut’s version) or even Barry Manilow’s “Copacobana” both dramatic stories but maybe not the songs the younger learners wish to hear. So this activity asks learners to choose a song they like.
i. Introduction. Choose a song that you like that tells a story. Tell the story of the song to the class – use your own words (not the lines from the song) and make it as interesting and dramatic as possible. Once you have told the story play the song and elicit feedback from the learners.
ii. Main activity. Learners in pairs or individually choose a song they like that tells a story. The learners then rewrite the story using their own words then practice telling the story to make it interesting.
iii. The learners read their stories and then play the songs. The other learners may ask questions afterwards.
iv. Follow up. Again if you have a class blog this would be a great place to post them if not stick them on the wall.
This could also be a regular planned activity similar to number 6 (below).
6. Tell us about your favourite song
Giving your learners some time to talk about their favourite song or music is a nice way to make your classroom a more inclusive place. You may wish to set aside a regular slot for a student, or students, to present their song. Create a calendar so that the learners know when they will be presenting and have enough time to prepare.
As a class you can decide on the format. The learner may wish to give some information about the singer / group, the song and explain why they like the song. They may also create an activity to accompany the song – this could be a gap-fill, comprehension questions or even digital activity.
Before the learners present their songs model the task yourself by presenting your own favourite song.
7. Song Dictation
In the first activity we looked at misheard lyrics – this is a slightly different activity and one that is not as easy as it appears.
i. Choose a song that you think your learners will be able to understand reasonably easily (or ask for the learners to choose one).
ii. Group learners and assign one verse or chorus to each group if you have enough room and appropriate equipment. The groups listen to their section and try to transcribe the song. If you do not have enough room or equipment play the song in sections to the whole class. Groups can still work together to transcribe the lyrics they hear.
Once the transcription has finished ask the groups to spend some time focussing on the grammatical accuracy of their transcription and also to decide if it makes sense. They could compare their lyrics with other groups.
iii. The groups display or read their transcriptions to the class before you play show the original lyrics. Ask the learners which version they prefer.