Véronique Buffat is a secondary school teacher, the English coordinator for the schools of her region (French-speaking part of canton Bern, Switzerland) and a teacher trainer. Her current interests are material development incl. testing material and collaborative projects. She has an MEd TESOL from the University of Exeter. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Songs and videos Introduction
I enjoy using songs with students because they bring a special atmosphere in the classroom. I am not sure how to define it exactly, but it is one of those moments where school life feels the closest to “real” life because English from the outside world is brought in. What is more, this form of immersion has a deep impact on students as songs awake feelings and emotions. Thus, as part of my job as an English coordinator, I chose to develop activities around songs to complement our official teaching material. In these activities, songs – and sometimes their official videos - are used as resources to work on language objectives and/or broader aims (Maley, 2016) such as the development of creative and critical thinking, social awareness, self-esteem and autonomous learning.
My aim in this article is to share some activities I have used with 12-16 years old students (Beginners to B1 level). First, I will shortly list types of activities and their goals. Then, I will describe a few teaching sequences using songs and their official videos. Web links to the songs and videos are provided in the references section.
The importance of creating meaningful activities Songs are difficult to choose if the teachers only try to please their students’ music tastes. The music we like is part of our identities, linked to our memories and sometimes intimate. Therefore, listening to music with other people can create positive connections, but also enhance differences and lead to negative reactions. This is probably why some teachers do not feel at ease when using songs, especially with teenagers. However, according to my experience, even if students might question the teacher’s music taste, they will engage in the activity as long as it is meaningful. Here are some of the activities which work best for me and my classes.
Write your own the lyrics
I use this creative and collaborative activity to drill specific language structures and to practice rhythm. For example, we sing “Let it go” by Anna Rossinelli, a song in which the structure of past simple questions is endlessly repeated in the same rhythm. Then, in small groups, students have to write a verse using the same rhythm and structure. At the end, they perform it.
Listen and order the lines
In these short activities students have to recognise language features in authentic documents: written lyrics and audio recordings of songs. Students receive the lyrics cut up in lines and have to put them back in the correct order while listening to the song. This activity helps memorisation and makes specific language items more significant as it shows teens that even singers use them; i.e. irregular past forms in “Sunday with the flu” by Yodelice.
The objective of this task is to recognise and memorise chunks. Students listen to a song and try to write down as much of the lyrics as they can. As a class, we rewrite the whole song on the blackboard. Of course, the lyrics should not be too difficult as a further aim is to help students become aware of what they already know in English and so to develop self-confidence, i.e. “Love me do” by the Beatles. In order to go further and support autonomous learning, the website lyricstraining.com can be introduced in class. Using this website, students can practice this activity on their own with their favourite songs.
Mime the song
This activity helps the comprehension of the lyrics and the memorisation of a specific language structure supported by the acting out of the story told in the song. A further aim is the development of collaborative skills. For example, we listen to Suzanne Vega “Tom’s Diner”. Then in groups of 4, students work on the lyrics, take the role of one of the characters of the song and prepare the scenes. Finally, as we listen to the song, all the groups mime the story simultaneously in different parts of the classroom. With such a task, students become part of the song and the language can be physically memorised, in this example, the present continuous form.
In this activity lyrics are used as a reading and listening comprehension leading to a discussion about the topic. The language objectives can be to practice an area of vocabulary and to learn to express one’s point of view. However, broader aims are to develop social awareness and critical thinking. For example, “Too many friends” by Placebo can be used to introduce and discuss new technologies and friendship.
Fill the gaps
I use it only in short tasks to repeat specific language features and support memorisation. It is efficient and fun only if the number of gaps is appropriate to the level of students and if scaffolding is offered when needed. For instance, the song “Friday I’m in love” by The Cure is perfect to repeat days of the week. However, because of the spelling difficulties the first letter or parts of the missing words can be left in the gaps and in order to accommodate students’ writing speed weekdays words should not all be taken out.
This is quite obvious, but extremely useful to practice pronunciation, rhythm and tone. The combination of words, melody and rhythm, as well as the emotions linked to singing can also support memorisation; that is where the earworm phenomenon (Tim Murphey, 2010) can become useful. I once sang “Our house” by Madness with a class when students could never remember the pronoun our. When I met some of these students during a break a few lessons later, they were still singing the chorus. In schools where students are used to singing in their L1 with their class and teachers, singing becomes a form of expression accessible to everyone and which can be fun to do in groups. Therefore, it also enhances students’ self-confidence and brings some lightness to the learning process. Finally, singing is probably as physical as intellectual and can thus offer a relief to kinaesthetic students. For all these reasons, singing needs to be valued more and students should be made aware of its positive outcomes.
Activities using the official videos of songs Recently, I have started to work with the official videos of songs. This authentic material is extremely rich and often offers an interesting visual complement to the songs’ content. It is especially suitable for teenagers, since it comes from resources they use daily and often addresses them specifically. In some cases, videos show moments of teens’ life and bring images of English-speaking regions.
Song videos and creative writing
I started working with videos after watching “You belong with me”, Taylor Swift. This video shows a high school love story between two teen neighbours. I thought that it was a very stereotyped story between two blond, white and beautiful high school kids, so I wanted to see how my students would react to it. I prepared the following activity:
You belong with me – Taylor Swift Objectives: Write a love story;
Understand a song and watch the video
Language: Revise tenses: either present simple vs present continuous or past tenses.
Material: Copies of about 30 screenshots of the video on small cards
Time: 90 minutes
1st part: Listen to the song (without showing the video) and ask students what they understand or know about this song.
2nd part: Put the students in groups of 2-3, give them the screenshots. Ask them to choose 15-20 pictures and order them to create their own story.
3rd part: The students write a love story based on the sequence of pictures they have chosen. If necessary, ask them to write at least one sentence per picture. Depending on what was studied in class, ask them to tell the story in the past or present tenses.
4th part: Groups visit other groups and tell each other their stories.
5th part: Watch the official video clip. Students can compare their stories with the “official” one.
Discuss which of the stories was their favourite and why
Follow-up: Show the lyrics, discuss High School life in the US and teach some words linked to this world.
Or discuss typical love stories in TV series and films.
I did this with students who have difficulties in writing, but each group wrote a complete love story without complaining. The topic, the collaborative task and the pictures motivated them and caught their attention. Most stories were similar to the original one, however discussion within the groups were interesting, i.e. a group discussed why the teens in the video were blond and asked if they could give their characters Arabic nicknames. Such a creative and collaborative activity helps raising awareness of clichés and gives the possibility to express a different voice.
Song videos to introduce social issues The stories shown in some song videos also offer interesting content to introduce social issues. I used the video made for the song “A-Team” by Ed Sheeran, because even if the song was a hit, I’m not sure my students know what it is about. The video, showing the story of a homeless drug addict in the streets of London, makes it very clear.
The A-Team – Ed Sheeran
Objectives: Listen to a song;
Retell the story;
Read a text giving facts about a song;
Understand the lyrics and discuss the topic (drug addiction).
Language: Introduce new vocabulary
Practice the use of tenses
Material: Copies of the screenshots on small cards
Time: 45 minutes
1st part: Listen to the song (without showing the video) and ask students general questions:
Do you know this song? Who sings it?
What is it about?
2nd part: Give out the screenshots and ask students (in pairs or small groups) to find an order.
Watch the video clip.
Ask again: What is this song about?
3rd part: Introduce vocabulary linked to the topic: ask students to name things they can see on the pictures and write the words on the board.
For example: a drug addict, addiction, homeless, a shelter, living on/in the street, sleeping on a bench, begging, a beggar, pedestrians/passers-by, pavement, prostitution, a prostitute, coins, notes, underground, make up, …
4th part: In pairs and using the pictures, students retell orally the story of Angel (name given to the girl by Ed Sheeran).
5th part: Students read the text “Facts about The A Team” (http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=23240) and answer the following questions:
1. When did Ed Sheeran start to write songs?
2. What’s the title of his first album? Was it a success?
3. What inspired Ed Sheeran to write the A Team?
4. What is the song about?
5. How much did the video cost? Why was it so cheap?
6. What does the title A Team mean?
Any time during the sequence: according to students’ reactions discuss:
Why do some people live on the street/do drugs?
How does it make you feel?
During this sequence, students practice language, but at the same time, they might learn more about a song and a social issue. They are also given the opportunity to express their feelings and point of view.
Song videos and CLIL Songs’ videos can also be interesting to introduce content linked to another subject. As I am also teaching geography, I often look for links to this syllabus. Here are two videos I am planning to work on.
In the first one, Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, performs a cover version of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” abroad the International Space Station. He adapted the lyrics to his own situation and describes his near return to Planet Earth. A possible activity would be to compare his lyrics to Bowie’s version and discuss the differences with students. Additionally, on his Youtube playlist, Hadfield offers a series of short videos called “An astronaut guide to life in space”. These videos describing life on a spaceship can be used as lead-in activities in lessons about space.
The second video – Aloe Blacc “Wake me up” - is about human migration. It shows the story of a South American immigrant family in the States. This video was made in collaboration with an immigrant right group and real life immigrant activists act in it. The story in the video is not told in the lyrics and offers the opportunity to discuss illegal migration, deportation and the fight for one’s rights. It can lead to a discussion about the freedom of some to travel the world – here the singer Aloe Blacc – whereas others are stopped at borders.
Using songs in the classroom brings an interesting break from the coursebook. Moreover, it gives opportunities to introduce more content, develop students’ social skills and support their personal growth. In my experience, teenagers are curious about discovering new songs and interested in learning more about the world, so most will find these activities motivating and get involved. This can only make the language needed to achieve the tasks more significant and worthwhile learning.
References Engh, D. (2013) Why use music in English language learning? A survey of the literature. English Language Teaching 6(2), 113-127. (accessed on June, 15 2016)
Maley, A. (2016) ‘More research is needed’ – a mantra too far? Humanising Language Teaching Magazine. Year 18, Issue 3, June 2016 (accessed on July, 10 2016)
Millington, N.T. (2011) Using songs effectively to teach English to Young learners. Language Education in Asia 2(1), 134-141. (retrieved on June, 15 2016 from http://www.camtesol.org/Download/LEiA_Vol2_Iss1_2011/LEiA_V2_I1_11_Neil_Millington_Using_Songs_Effectively_to_Teach_English_to_Young_Learners.pdf)
Murphey, T. (2010) Song and music for language teaching. National Foreign Language Resource Centre, University of Hawaii. (retrieved on August, 7 2016 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvJxkenhU2s&index=9&list=PL274902FC5BDAAA30)
Murphey, T. (1992) Music and song. Oxford University Press.
Zermoskaite, I. (2014) The potential role of music in second language learning: a review article. Journal of European Psychology Students 5(3), 78-88. (accessed on May, 30 2016).
Songs and videos Aloe Blacc Wake me up https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_o6axAseak
Anna Rossinelli Let it go, http://www.annarossinellimusic.com/de/videos.html