Hitting the Right Note: Extending the Theme of Your Song / General Tips

2013_Heyer_SandraSandra Heyer

One way to extend the lessons in True Stories Behind the Songs and More True Stories Behind the Songs is to follow up each unit with a supplemental song that connects to the theme of the unit, plus an activity to go with the supplemental song. Each month, I’ve shared a song-based activity that has worked well with my beginning and high-beginning students, for a total of six activities. Last month, we considered the idea of using a checklist to quickly find an appropriate activity for a song. This month, in the final article in this series, I’ll share some general tips for using songs in the classroom.

Tip #1: If you copy song lyrics from Internet, check them for accuracy before distributing them to your students.

Song lyrics on websites are sometimes riddled with mistakes. My experience with Internet lyrics for the Buddy Guy song “Meet Me in Chicago” can serve as a cautionary tale. The two stories in Unit 8 of True Stories Behind the Songs are centered on U.S. cities – the first story is about New Orleans, the second about New York. My students and I are two hours from Chicago, so I considered supplementing the unit with the tune “Meet Me in Chicago.” On an Internet lyrics website, the line cold wind comin’ off the lake was transcribed as call where, call ‘em off too late. Comisky Park became Comiscapot, and South Wabash Avenue became, incredibly, some calgash that’ll do.

Most errors, of course, do not pop out as those in “Meet Me in Chicago” did. More typical are mistakes like they’re being transcribed as there, or you’re as your. These, of course, are words that English language learners often confuse, which makes it all the more important to proofread Internet lyrics carefully.

Tip #2: Punctuate song lyrics, adding periods, commas, question marks, and quotation marks to make complete sentences.

Compare these two versions of the same verse from Adele’s “Someone Like You,” one without punctuation, and one with punctuation:

Version 1: Unpunctuated
Never mind I’ll find someone like you
I wish nothing but the best for you too
Don’t forget me I beg
I remember you said
Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead
Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead

Version 2: Punctuated
Never mind, I’ll find someone like you.
I wish nothing but the best for you, too.
Don’t forget me, I beg.
I remember you said,
“Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”
“Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”

Adding punctuation to song lyrics takes just a few minutes, but those are minutes well spent. In general, punctuating lyrics makes them easier for beginning and high-beginning students to comprehend.

Tip #3: Stick with songs that have staying power.

It’s wise to choose songs of lasting quality – songs that topped the Billboard charts for weeks; were nominated for an Oscar or a Grammy; or have historical or cultural significance. That makes it more likely that you’ll be able to use the songs, and the activities you’ve created for them, in future semesters.

Tip #4: When clarifying vocabulary in song lyrics, identify words that students should probably not memorize.

In the poetry of song lyrics, we often find words that are important to the meaning (or rhyme scheme) of the song, but that students will probably never encounter again. Reassure students that not every new word in a song is worth memorizing.

The first time I clarified the meaning of a new word and then quickly added, “But don’t learn it!” my students seemed taken aback: a teacher presenting material and then telling students not to learn it? But now they seem relieved when I identify new vocabulary they should probably not memorize–for example, the words longin’ and anew in the song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” (We focused instead on the word overdue, along with due, which my class of adult learners might encounter again in the context of expected babies, library materials, bills, medical check-ups, and inoculations.)

I wish I could give
All I’m longin’ to give.
I wish I could live
Like I’m longin’ to live.
I wish I could do
All the things that I can do.
Though I’m way overdue,
I’d be starting anew.

Tip #5: Consider using songs that are thematically related to your lesson.

Often songs are brought into the classroom only incidentally. For example, a teacher might enliven a class with music when students’ energy and interest are flagging–and then get back to the “real” lesson. Although there is certainly nothing wrong with using music in this way, you can more fully exploit a song’s potential as a learning tool when you make music an integral part of the lesson. One way to do that is to choose songs that are related thematically to the course content, and then to spin off songs-based activities that build on skills covered in class.

In the past newsletters, we’ve taken a look at six activities that generally work well with beginners and high-beginners, as well as a technique for efficiently matching a song with an activity. Finally, let’s consider the task of finding a song with a specific theme.

If you teach beginners or high-beginners, finding a song that has comprehensible lyrics, language that is at least “PG” rated, a universally appealing melody, AND a theme that is related to the lesson is a pretty tall order. I know the challenges only too well! Searching the Internet for “songs about __________ (friendship, the environment, etc.)” usually yields a lot of results; unfortunately, the vast majority of songs that fill the bill thematically do not fill the bill linguistically. Searching ESL or ELL sites yields mixed results: you’ll find more songs that are suitable for the language classroom, but fewer popular songs. For example, you’ll find original compositions written to reinforce a particular grammar point, or children’s songs, which are great if you teach K-6, but not so great if you teach adolescents or adults.

For the past several years, I’ve been building a list of popular songs suitable for beginning and high-beginning English language learners, organized by sixteen themes. The songs coordinate with the themes in True Stories Behind the Songs and More True Stories Behind the Songs, but could be used to enhance other theme-based curricula. This summer I hope to have a blog where teachers can view the titles of the songs I’ve vetted (so far I have over 150), and perhaps add some to the list. I’ll also post all the activities and tips you’ve read here, plus many examples of song + activity pairings that work well in the beginning or high-beginning classroom. When the site is up and running, I’ll share the address in the Pearson newsletter. So (pardon the inadvertent pun) stay tuned!