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Using Songs as Instructional Materials in Beginning Level Classes

Mnemonic devices. There are so many and they are so helpful when learning a second language. One that really helps students is using songs, and not as supplemental materials, but as the primary text. Many students find the beginning level texts to be childish, non-motivating and boring. Students at this level generally strive to gain as much communicative competence as they can, while at the same time learning basic reading and writing skills.

To successfully use songs as an ESL text (instead of a regular, mundane text), a teacher needs to create a master tape and then create copies for each student. The master tape should contain all the songs that the students will study during the term. While this is time-consuming, it is well worth the investment as the students will have access to the music and listen to the songs over and over. Thus, they will memorize the language and gain a great deal of communicative competence. Moreover, if a teacher records the various styles of American music, this can be a great introduction to American culture.

Songs should be selected based on several factors. One factor should be whether the lyrics make sense or whether the song tells a story 

Furthermore, when choosing songs, you must be sure that the song is sung clearly. A song with harmonies or interwoven choruses or one that is overly produced is not a good choice as it is very difficult to listen to. Also, a song that has long instrumental sections is also not a good choice as when you are presenting the song in class and the instrumental part of the song comes on, the students tend to lose focus.

Using a great variety of musical styles will also enrich your class. Students can be introduced to such cultural icons as Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Nelson or Aretha Franklin and such genres as musical theatre, jazz, country music or folk music. Generally, it is difficult to use rap as it is very rapid and difficult to understand.

When preparing the tape for the students, the songs should be recorded so that the easiest and clearest songs are first. Usually, the students will listen to the whole tape over and over and by the time you present the song, the student has heard it many times. It is quite important that the student has a master tape with all the songs even though this requires a lot of planning on the part of the teacher.

Before presenting a song as text, a lot of work needs to be done. First, a teacher needs to listen to the song carefully as what is printed on the lyric sheet is not always what is sung. Moreover, the song needs to be transcribed exactly as it is sung to avoid confusing the students. Once the song is transcribed, the teacher can prepare several cloze exercises based on the song. Vocabulary, reading comprehension and other exercises also should be prepared.

When presenting a song, a teacher should first play the song and have the students listen to it. After hearing it, you can ask comprehension questions to the class. Then, a cloze exercise should be distributed and the song should be played a few more times while the students try to complete the exercise. Afterward, the student should be given the lyric sheet and be asked to correct his/her errors. The song then can be played again, and then it should be sung. Now, it may seem like an exercise in futility to have your class sing, but after a few tries even the shyest student warms up to the idea. This is great pronunciation practice and helps the students to develop communicative competence.

After the song has been sung, more cloze exercises can be presented and then vocabulary and other exercises can be assigned. Because the song is so motivating, students tend to be very motivated to complete the exercises. It is also very easy to have students write dialogues, and do other role playing activities.

One of the things that can make your song lesson run smoother is to create a tape with that song repeated over and over again so that when you are playing the song in class, you don't have to waste instructional time rewinding.

Although it might seem like a lot of work to do this, it is very enjoyable to present. It allows you to share your musical tastes with the students, and it allows them to learn in a very fun atmosphere. Moreover, the results are astounding. Most students will become fairly oral rather quickly and others will become even more oral. Their reading and writing skills will improve vastly due to an increased vocabulary, a better ear for English, and a better ability to decode what they are reading.


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