Doing boring things with songs
If you want to bring songs into your class but are not sure what to do with them, the first thing you can do is all the boring stuff that students usually hate. If you just add the music element they will happily indulge in exercises that usually make them groan and learn language points that usually scare them off. This is also great practice for exams, for example the FCE Use of English paper. Examples of ‘doing boring things with songs’ are:
- Gap fills (Open cloze)
- Match the sentence halves
- Error correction
- Put it into order- Words and lines
- Put words into the correct form
- Pronunciation work
Gap fills (Open cloze)
Remove single words from the text, by tippexing them out on the page or replacing them with gaps in a Word document. Students try to guess what the missing words are and then listen to check. DO NOT remove random words and ask students to listen to fill the gaps without having even read the lyrics through first. As popular as this ‘random gaps with random songs’ task is with students and some teachers, it has no actual teaching aim. To make sure your activity does have an aim, make sure that:
- you treat the text as a text, and have some kind of gist question before you move on to students filling the gaps, e.g. ‘What is the relationship between the person who is singing and the person they are singing about?’
- the words you remove from the text are guessable, meaning there are only 1 or 2 possible words that can go in each gap. This generally means removing ‘grammar words’ such as articles, auxiliary verbs and prepositions, but you can also test fixed expressions such as proverbs for higher level groups (e.g. every cloud has a ______ lining) and collocations such as ‘make’ or ‘do’ at any level.
- the song matches your general syllabus in terms of topic (‘She’s leaving home’ by the Beatles when you are doing the topic ‘family’) or grammar point (‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ by U2 for Present Perfect).
- you have some kind of post-text speaking task such as discussion questions- about the meaning of the song, the students’ opinion of the song musically or the students’ opinions on the issues raised in the song (e.g. their opinions on drugs for ‘Sorted Out for Es and Whiz’ by Pulp).
To make the cloze task easier for students, you can list the missing words at the bottom of the page and just get them to put them back in the correct place. A (much more difficult) variation is to list the missing words but not show the gaps in the text where the words have come from (‘I can see clearly now rain has gone’- the), which is good for auxiliary verbs (e.g. passives) and articles. The words can be listed at the end of the text or the end of each line.
Match the sentence halves
Split each line of the song into halves (e.g. If I had a hammer/ I’d hammer in the morning) and mix up the second halves of the lines. Students then try to put the lines back together, using grammatical and vocabulary clues, before listening to check. This is great practice for linking expressions and exam tasks where you need to put missing information back into a reading text. Again, make sure you have a lead-in and a post-text speaking task.
Add errors into the text (‘Pleased to meet you, hope you to guessed my name’) and students try to correct it, then listen and check. DON’T randomly change things into other correct possibilities (e.g. When I’m 74), another totally pointless but popular classroom activity. At much higher levels (e.g. Proficiency), you can get students to correct the actual grammar the songwriter has used (‘I ain’t got nothing’) – leading onto a discussion of the differences between informal and regional English and actual grammatical mistakes.
Put it into order- Words and lines
As long as you make sure students have some context in which to do the task (e.g. predicting the rest of the song from the first verse), you can ask them to either put the rest of the lines of each verse into order (‘I really shouldn’t care/ Who’s in the flurry of her first affair/ Lord knows I’m not a fool, girl/ Lord knows I’m not a schoolgirl’) or put the words of each line into order (‘the can now I rain has gone see clearly’). The first is good for exam reading tasks, and the second is good for adjective and adverb word order.
Put words into the correct form
This is usually the most boring grammar task of all- put the words in brackets after each gap into the correct form. Again, add the song element and spend some time on what the song means and they will hardly notice the grammar. This is good for tenses (e.g. ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer _______ (have) a very shiny nose’), verb patterns (‘Kept ______ (think) I could never ______ (live) without you by my side’) and parts of speech (‘Bye bye Miss _______ (America) Pie’).
Deeply unfashionable though it is, dictation really can be good occasional practice of listening and spelling. You need to set it up very carefully, but it can be done with songs, as long as they are very slow indeed (e.g. Mad About the Boy) or very repetitive. Alternative dictation techniques can also be done with songs, for example grammar dictation (also known as Dictogloss) or the activity where alternate students take down different word classes (e.g. one student listens for all the nouns and the other for all the verbs) then try to reconstruct the lyrics together.
If you put the gaps at the end of each line, students can use the fact that the words rhyme to put the correct words in the correct places. You can either list all the words at the end of each verse, or (more difficult) leave the end of each second line blank and let them think of possible rhyming words.
Once students are used to doing activities like those above in class, you can involve the class more by asking them to bring suitable songs in for a particular task, or even ask them to prepare tasks themselves to test the rest of the class with.
Specific songs for specific points – some suggestions
(click links to open song lyric pages)
- Sailing – Rod Stewart: Present Continuous
- Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor: Present Perfect
- I still haven’t found what I’m looking for – U2: Present Perfect
- Hand in My Pocket – Alanis Morissette: Adjectives (esp. of personality and feelings)
- The Logical Song – Supertramp: Word formation
- I will survive – Gloria Gaynor: Future
- When I’m 64 – The Beatles: Future