How to Use Songs when Teaching English as a Second Language

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When teaching English as a second language, whether to children or adults, you have to be very creative in ways to keep their interests. Since the best way to learn a second or foreign language is total immersion, even if you do know the native language of the country where you are teaching, you will still want to minimize its use. So what is left are different tools to teach conversation, vocabulary, English grammar, and concepts. Using music and song is one of the tools you can use to teach English to your class, regardless of the age of the learner. Music is a tie that binds all cultures and languages and therefore, one of the best ways to make learning English fun.

Things You'll Need

  • A CD player or laptop with CD playing capabilities
  • CDs or downloaded songs
  • If you do not have the technology you can sing the song yourself.
  • ACCESS THE AGE AND ENGLISH LANGUAGE SKILL LEVEL OF YOUR CLASS. This will determine not only what songs you use, but also what games or exercises you will use to teach the English lesson.

  • DETERMINE WHAT IT IS THAT YOU WANT TO TEACH YOUR ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE CLASS TO LEARN. Is this going to be a lesson in vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, or concepts.

  • IF YOU HAVE YOUNG LEARNERS, USE SONGS THAT ARE REPETITIVE AND EASY TO UNDERSTAND. For example, one of the best songs to teach a young learner with few basic English language skills, is "Old McDonald." This not only teaches children the different animals in English, but also helps them with pronunciation and grammar. You can also use easy to understand and G-rated Pop songs.

  • FOR TEENAGERS, USE CURRENT OR FAIRLY CURRENT POP AND ROCK SONGS TO IMPROVE THEIR ENGLISH SKILLS. There is hardly a corner in the world where American, British and other English language popular music isn't listened to. This is absolutely one of the best ways to keep teenagers interested. Assuming the teenagers have some English language skills, the music can be more difficult to understand and with more difficult vocabulary and concepts. This will test their listening skills, language and conversational skills.

  • FOR ADULT LEARNERS WHO MAY HAVE A MORE IN DEPTH KNOWLEDGE OF ENGLISH, USE SONGS THAT ARE AGE APPROPRIATE AND INTERESTING TO THE GROUP. Adult learners may be more subdued about the concept of honing their English language skills by listening to songs, but once they get started you will see that they enjoy it. You can use a song that tackles a difficult concept or social dilemma. For example, you could use Alanis Morissette's song "Ironic." This has a great deal of vocabulary and good illustrations of what irony is, which can be a difficult concept to teach when using the English-only rule in class.

  • USE VOCABULARY WORD FORMS, FILL IN THE BLANK FORMS, AND SING ALONGS. For young learners, have them stand up and use total physical response to underscore the words they are hearing in the song. Make it a game. For example, write the main vocabulary words on a blackboard or whiteboard if you have one. Otherwise, tape up individual sheets of paper with the words on them. Explain each vocabulary word to the class so that they understand what it means. Have the class listen to the song the first time with only you pointing to the vocabulary word as it comes up in the song and you acting out the song as much as possible. The next go round, have the class split into teams and play the song again. This time whichever team hears a vocabulary word and can be the first to identify it on the blackboard, gets a point. The next time you play it, have the class try to sing it and act out the words.
    For teenagers and adults split them up as teams of two, or singles, and play the song through once. Then pass out the song lyrics with the vocabulary words blanked out. If your English class is not advanced, you can put a vocabulary list on the board and explain each word so everyone understands what it means. Play the song again and have the class try to fill in any blanks they can. Get a show of hands to see how many words they got. Keep replaying the song until all, or most, of the class fills in all the blanks. Answer any questions that your class has about the meaning of the words or the concepts, and play the song again and have those who want to sing it, sing along. Everyone else can just follow along with the lyrics. The repetition reinforces your English lesson.

Tips & Warnings

  • Make this a fun class participation exercise and encourage everyone to participate.
  • Make sure that you know the words to the song and that you choose songs that are not inappropriate for the age or culture of your TESL OR TEFL class.

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