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:

A chilling revelation

The Sagrada Familia in 1928. Spot the tourist.

There was an interesting article in El País newspaper on Sunday by José Ángel Montañés. Basically the article confirmed that The Sagrada Familia never obtained planning permission for the building and that the land on which it’s built figures officially as an empty plot of land.

The first plans for building on the site date back to 1886. The original architect was Francisco de Paula del Villar who planned to build a simple church. When he left the project one year after work had commenced in 1882, his place was taken by Antoni Gaudí who had grander plans. Although planning permission was sought, it was never approved.

This isn’t really breaking news.  Neither is the silence that the construction committee has maintained on the matter. It has always appeared to work on the assumption that it can carry on building regardless. What is news, to me anyway, is that the committee hasn’t sought approval of any kind for the building work that’s going on. In other words, they can build pretty much anything they want without anyone else’s say in the matter. Even when it was discovered that they’d built outside the designated plot area in 2007, no-one said anything.

As the article points out, back in 1994, it was assumed that it would take 100 years to complete the building. That changed to 50 years in 2000 and now work is expected to be completed in 2026, thanks to new construction techniques and the 25 million euros that tourists invest in the building works each year. So isn’t it time something was done to sort out the paperwork?

For those of us who live in the dark shadow of the Sagrada Familia, the article makes for depressing reading. As José Ángel points out in his conclusion, the decision-makers inside the committee only see one possible future – to demolish all the buildings that stand in the way of completing its project. And, chillingly, no-one seems prepared to do anything about it.

A star is born

These are the plans that were published in La Vanguardia newspaper this week showing the different options being considered for the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The basilica is due to be completed in 2026 and the final phase of the construction includes building the main façade. Unfortunately, there's a block of buildings right in front of that façade. For years there have been rumours about what will happen to those buildings and to the people who live there but nothing has ever been confirmed.

The plans from La Vanguardia.

The options that appeared in La Vanguardia include pulling down two whole blocks to make way for the entrance, a park, an underground car park and a shopping arcade (option 5). There are several variations on the same idea including the option to leave things as they are (option 2 - not likely). The biggest surprise was seeing Gaudí's original (in both senses of the word) idea of creating a four-pointed star-shaped area around the basilica, allowing it to be seen from the most dramatic angles (option 7). The newspaper encouraged people to vote for their preferred option and on the first day a majority chose Gaudí's idea.

The other amazing thing about Gaudí's idea is that it saves our flat from being demolished. Over the years, I've occasionally written letters to newspapers complaining about the way in which the construction of the Sagrada Familia has affected those of us who live in its shadow. The 'patronat' who oversee the building have never shown any interest in having a dialogue with their neighbours or in sharing their plans for the future.

Judging from the work that's been done to the basilica over recent years, I doubt if Gaudí's wishes will be respected. The need to accommodate the tourists, souvenir shops and restaurants is bound to take preference.

My brother-in-law, Michael Duncan, made the drawing below which neatly shows how our home is on the point of being devoured by the Sagrada Familiasoros. It'll be interesting to see when a representative of the Sagrada Familia will finally acknowledge that people have their homes here and have lived here for 30+ years. A cynic might think that they're waiting for us to abandon all hope... or die. Merry Christmas!

The Sagrada Familiasorus by Michael Duncan

An amazing thing happened ...

An amazing thing happened this week. Suddenly everyone was going back to the cinema. There were queues at box offices around the country and 'House Full' signs were going up. Box office staff and members of the public wrote to newspapers saying that cinema wasn't dead - it's just too expensive. (Why is there still a 21% tax on cinema tickets? Does the Spanish government really want to kill off cinema?)
For three days this week, cinemas around the country reduced their prices to €2.95 to encourage people to go to the cinema and it worked. Not only was it exciting to go to a packed cinema, some of the films on offer were exciting too. Captain Phillips was terrific. It didn't matter how much of the story you knew already, watching the Somali pirates take on the container ship was breathtaking. And I'm warming to Tom Hanks. He gives a great performance. A lot of critics don't seem to like the first dry-land part of the film but I thought it was right to start off on solid ground before setting off to sea. Gravity was the other film that sent me out of the cinema feeling dazed. There was definitely no solid ground here. OK - so the script has some weak parts especially at the beginning. But it's such an amazing ride (which has to be experienced in 3D). And I'm warming to Sandra Bullock too. We hoped to make it an edge-of-your-seat trilogy and see Rush but it was sold out. I can't remember the last time I watched a film in a full cinema. 

48H Open House Barcelona

48H Open House Barcelona is a weekend event when you can get to see inside some of the city's most interesting buildings like Casa Planells which is just round the corner. I've walked past this building countless times and always wondered what it was like inside. Created by the Catalan architect Josep Maria Jujol, it's amazing what he managed to do in such a small space. For many years, the apartment we visited was a brothel. Now it's an architects' studio.

The other highlight of the day was the Teatre Principal at the bottom of the Ramblas which has many Lorca connections and features in the Lorca musical. The building is about to be re-opened as a multi-purpose venue (= nightclub). But the real discovery was the enormous Basque pelota court built on top of the theatre. Take a look ...

Above the Teatre Principal

Casa Planells