How to Teach English Through Popular Songs—For Middle School, High School and Adults

Updated on July 20, 2019
gerimcclym profile image

Geri McClymont is passionate about education. She holds an MEd and has taught English language learners for over ten years.

Teach English Through Songs

An effective and fun way to teach English to English language learners is through popular songs! Students are usually highly motivated to learn the lyrics of music they recognize and like. Songs are easy and effective ways to teach your students English vocabulary, idioms, and figurative language. They can also be used to help teach prefixes, suffixes, contractions, and parts of speech such as verbs and adjectives. You can even use them to teach English slang and jargon.

Songs are easy and effective ways to teach your students English vocabulary, idioms, and figurative language!
Songs are easy and effective ways to teach your students English vocabulary, idioms, and figurative language! | Source

Choose Songs Your Students Like

Sometimes I notice my middle school students humming or tapping along to popular songs that are played after our school’s morning announcements, but they often don’t have a clue as to what the words in the song are or mean. They just enjoy the beat and tune. I seize this opportunity to teach them English through the lyrics!

After they understand the lyrics, their appreciation for these songs reaches a whole new level. They can now not just listen to the songs, but also sing along. This pumps their confidence and motivates them to keep learning English!

Students love listening to music, so try to select songs with lyrics they can relate to.
Students love listening to music, so try to select songs with lyrics they can relate to. | Source

Look for Songs with These Characteristics:

  • popular songs, especially ones you've noticed your students like
  • a catchy melody and rhythm
  • the singer sings at a slower pace (not too fast)
  • a clear message, such as “never give up” or “a real friend doesn’t walk away”
  • meaningful lyrics your students can relate to, such as feeling alone, loving somebody, or wanting to rise above your circumstances
  • rich vocabulary
  • repetition of words and phrases
  • English idioms and figurative language
  • appropriate content

Not a yes-sir, not a follower

Fit the box, fit the mold

Have a seat in the foyer, take a number

I was lightning before the thunder

— Lyrics from "Thunder," by Imagine Dragons

10 Simple Steps to Teach English Through Songs

Once I have selected a song to teach my class, I follow this process:

1. Find the Song Lyrics

I look for the song lyrics online.

2. Cut and Paste the Lyrics

After I find the lyrics online, I cut and paste them onto a Word document.

Tips:

  • enlarge the font as needed
  • leave sufficient space between the lines to facilitate students’ ability to follow along and to jot down notes if they want to
  • insert images for key words and phrases

See the sample below!

Here's a portion of the lyrics to  "Wind Beneath My Wings" by Bette Midler. I copied them onto a Word document and added images. Then I displayed them on my large screen as we reviewed them together in class.
Here's a portion of the lyrics to "Wind Beneath My Wings" by Bette Midler. I copied them onto a Word document and added images. Then I displayed them on my large screen as we reviewed them together in class. | Source

3. Find a Video with the Lyrics Written Out

I look for a video for the song on YouTube – preferably with vivid images and with the lyrics spelled out – and make sure the lyrics on the video match the ones I saved on my Word document.

4. Make Copies

I make enough copies for my class. If I can’t use a color printer, I use a light shade of colored paper so the words are clearly legible.

5. Hand Them Out

I distribute the paper copies to my students.

6. Teach Key Words

I point out and teach key vocabulary or phrases from the lyrics and allow students to locate them and highlight them on their copies, as I display my copy on the large screen with my document camera.

7. Engage Students in Dialogue

We talk about what the lyrics mean, line by line. Since we have already reviewed the key words and phrases, students are able to readily participate in dialogue about what the lyrics mean. I jot down additional words and pictures on my copy as needed – projected on the large screen – to help facilitate understanding.

8. Share Interesting Facts About the Singer or Band

I might give my students a little bit of background on the singer or band. For example, I may share that this song was already popular when I was in high school and that I used to listen to it. Or I might share that the singer is blind or taught himself how to play the piano.

9. Play the Song Video

I play the video of the song for students to listen and catch the melody and beat.

10. Replay the Song Video

I play the video again, this time for students to sing along!

Have Fun With It

It may sound like many steps, but once you get into the groove of it, it’s super easy and fun, especially if you enjoy being creative. I try to introduce a new song every Friday—my students really look forward to it!

The songs you choose and the key words/phrases you select within each song will depend entirely on your class.

I currently teach middle school students that are within their first few years of learning English, so I select songs with pretty basic vocabulary and with idioms and figurative language that aren't too difficult.

I also upload all song videos with lyrics onto my school webpage so that students can watch them even from home.

Interesting Fact

John Denver’s real name is Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. He changed his name to John Denver because of his love for the state of Colorado, where he was living before he died. Many of his songs make reference to Colorado.

Some of the Songs and Lyrics I Have Used in My Classroom

Key Words for "What a Wonderful World"

Key Words
Classification
Meaning
bloom
verb
to open up, flourish
wonderful
adjective
awesome, amazing
sacred
adjective
divine, holy
shaking hands
verb
greeting with your hands
How do you do?
idiom
How are you?

Key Words for "You Are the Sunshine of My Life"

Key Words
Classification
Meaning
You are the sunshine of my life
metaphor
You make me very happy
I'll always be around
idiom
I will always be near you
You are the apple of my eye
metaphor
You are the person I love most
I've loved you for a million years
hyperbole
I've loved you for a very long time
drowning in my own tears
hyperbole
crying a lot

Key Words for "Yesterday"

Key Words
Classification
Meaning
troubles
noun
problems
I'm not half the man I used to be
idiom
I'm not as strong or as good as I was before
There's a shadow hanging over me
personification
I feel very sad
I long for
verb
I wish for
Love was such an easy game to play
idiom
It was so easy to love

Key Words for "Happy"

Key Words
Classification
Meaning
take a break
idiom
rest
I'm a hot air balloon
metaphor
I am rising up in the sky
like a room without a roof
simile
there is no limit above me
happiness is the truth
metaphor
I believe in happiness
with the air, like I don't care
idiom
with the attitude that I don't care

Key Words for "Lean on Me"

Key Words
Classification
Meaning
lean on me
idiom
depend on me
carry on
idiom
keep going
swallow your pride
idiom
don't be afraid to ask for help
call on me, brother
idiom
let me know you need help, friend
need a hand
idiom
need help

Key Words for "Wing Beneath My Wings"

Key Words
Classification
Meaning
content
adjective
happy, satisfied
glory
noun
attention, fame
my hero
noun
somebody I admire
I could fly higher than an eagle
idiom
I can do great things
You are the wind beneath my wings
idiom
You give me strength

Key Words for "Thunder"

Key Words
Classification
Meaning
young gun
idiom
kid
quick fuse
idiom
easily angered
uptight
adjective
tense
wanna let loose
idiom
I want to be free
fit the box, fit the mold
idioms
be the same as other people

If you haven't used popular songs in your classroom to help your English language students learn English, I hope you'll give it a try. Your students will surely be motivated to listen and follow along. Even if some of them don't sing along, they are grasping the meanings of words in a way that is likely to register.

Your students will likely replay the lyrics in their minds as they leave your classroom, and even sing them aloud in the hallways and at home. This repetition helps them retain the words and phrases you've taught them, which is your ultimate goal!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Geri McClymont

    Comments

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      • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

        Geri McClymont 

        7 months ago

        Thank you, Dora. Sometimes a student will approach me with the name of a favorite song they want to sing in class, and this helps guide me in selecting the songs.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        7 months ago from The Caribbean

        Great idea! Thanks for taking us through your teaching method which seems effective and fun. Much appreciation for your devotion to teaching.

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