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20 ways to use a song

One of the great things about the Innovate ELT conference in Barcelona last weekend was the group work. At the start of the conference we were assigned a group and a room for the group to meet in. Having to spend part of the time completing tasks in groups gave everyone the chance to get to know other people they probably wouldn’t have spoken to otherwise and share the conference experience. In one of the final group sessions, conference speakers went from group to group, answering questions about the talks they’d given or anything the group members wanted to ask. As I went from room to room, it was interesting to see how the different groups wanted to talk about different things. I was asked about writing material, self-publishing, the story of iT’s and whether or not it was true that I’d once been a rock star. Another group asked me about using songs in class. ‘What’s the best way to use a song?’ they asked. I remembered that I’d once written a piece about using songs for the magazine so I promised to include it here.

The article makes reference to a song I wrote called ‘Pepe’s Song’. You’ll find it in the songs section at this site. At the end of the article you’ll also find a link to download the song and a complete lesson plan that uses the song. The lesson includes teaching notes and printable worksheets with illustrations by Piet Luethi (see above) who was also at the conference last weekend. So apart from getting to know new people, it was a great opportunity to see old friends again. Here’s the article ...

20 ways to use a song in the classroom

Here are 20 different things you can do with a song in class. Next time you want to use a song, choose the task you think suits it best. I’ve used some lyrics from the first verse of a song called 'Pepe’s Song'. Please note that this song includes references to crime and drug use. Check to make sure the themes are appropriate for your students before using it. You’ll find a link to download the song and a lesson below. You can also listen to the song here and read the complete lyrics here.

Pepe emptied his pockets
Had no money for the train
Stood on the crowded station concourse
Thinking – I’m never ever going home again

1. Take out the verbs and list them at one side. The students then put them into the correct place and correct tense. Or remove some of the more interesting vocabulary and encourage students to speculate on what the missing words are. Then listen to the song.

2. Make two copies of the lyrics and create an information gap activity. Student A has the text: "Pepe emptied his __________ ". Student A has to ask student B "What did Pepe empty?" to complete the text. Student B then has a missing word to find etc. Then listen to the song.

3. Before showing the complete text to the other students, choose 6 or 7 words from the lyrics and write them on the board: Pepe, pockets, money, station, never, home etc. The other students then speculate about what the song is about. Give them the whole text with the 7 words missing. Can the students place them correctly? Then listen to the song.

4. If the song has a strong story, cut up the verses (or the lines in a verse) and ask the students to put them into the correct order. Students then check the order by listening to the song.

5. Cut the text down the middle. Leave the first halves of lines as they are but jumble the second halves. Students have to match the half lines and build the complete text. They check their work with the song.

6. Ask the students to translate the lyrics into their own language. This works particularly well with songs that have bad lyrics! When the translation's done, play the song.

7. Write comprehension questions using the song lyrics as you would use any piece of text. Where was Pepe standing? On the station concourse etc. Finally, listen to the song.

8. If the song contains a lot of obscure vocabulary then create a dictionary activity. Remove the obscure words and write a sentence for each word. Half of your sentences use the words correctly and half incorrectly. The students use dictionaries to find out whether or not the sentences are correct. They also discover the meaning of the words which they will be able to place in the text. Finally, listen to the song.

9. If you don't want to use the song lyrics then there is often other reading material you can use that is linked to the theme of the song or the artist. Play the song while they are doing the work.

10. If the song tells a story then ask the students to predict what happens next or what happened before. Why does Pepe want to leave home?

11. If the song includes an interesting situation you can role play a scene from the song or use the other students' speculations (see 10) as the starting point for a role play.

12. Perhaps there's a writing link in the song such as a letter. In this case maybe Pepe left a note for his parents at home. The other students can write the note.

13. Your students can write about the artist or the theme of the song. They can also write a blog post or tweet about the artist. In both these cases, the song is an excuse for other work.

14. If you're very lucky then you might be able to use the song to look at some specific language. Songs are a good way to learn new or difficult language because they stick in the mind and are not easy to forget.

15. Use the song to start or end a discussion a discussion on a particular theme. In this song there are lots of themes to talk about. Maybe there's a song related to something you're working on in the course book. 

16. Song lyrics usually include rhyme. Copy the text and take out one of the rhyming words. Other students think of possibilities and check with the song. Or play the song, pausing the track before the rhyming word. The other students then speculate.

17. If there's a video for the song then maybe you can use it without doing any work on the actual song at all. Write visual questions for the others to answer during or after the video.

18. If the song has a video that isn’t well known, get the students to listen to the song and come up with an idea for a music video. They could create a storyboard for a video and then compare their ideas with the actual video. 

19. Ask your students to react to the song. What do they think of it? Encourage students to ask each other what they like or don't like about the song. Don’t forget to give your own opinion.

20. A listening activity! Write 3 questions on the board based on the lyrics of the first verse. The other students listen to the first verse (they don't see the text) and answer the questions. Go through the song in stages and only listen to the whole song at the end.

Finally, why not use the song for background music. Play it while you are doing some writing or group activity. Playing music while students are arriving for class or doing certain tasks is a great way to create a positive and relaxed atmosphere.

Follow these links to access the lesson plan for Pepe’s Song: