Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Singing the Way to Conversation Success!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

So, there I was, tearing through the streets of Brussels, chatting away with my taxi driver in my halting French. He was telling me (if I understood correctly) that he had family in Quebec, and I wanted to tell him that even though I am from Canada, I have never been to Quebec. As I was trying to cobble together a grammatically correct negative, the lyrics from a French song suddenly popped into my head. Non, je ne regrette rien. Thanks to French songstress Edith Pilaf, I got my negative right! Je n’ai jamais visite Quebec. As a teacher, I have been using music in my English classes for a while, but this was the first time I had a personal experience that backed up my hunch that singing is a great language learning tool.

Several months ago another contributor to this site, Maria Spelleri, wrote an excellent blog about using songs to teach grammar. She highlighted our very own AzarGrammar.com’s Song Lessons, which suggests songs for specific target grammar structures as well as providing teachers with accompanying materials. However, songs needn’t be confined to only grammar lessons; music can also be incorporated into other skill areas as well. In this blog, I want to share some ideas I have for using songs in Conversation lessons.

Using Songs to Teach Chunks of Language

I have had great success incorporating music into lessons for lower-level learners. Specifically, my beginning students often need to enlarge their vocabulary in order to carry on a conversation successfully. Singing can really help them to do this because music helps transport words and linguistic chunks to students’ long term memories. For instance, “The Calendar Song,” by Boney M is a great way to help students remember the months of the year. (I challenge you to get the tune out of your head once you have sung along a couple of time!)

At the 2009 IATEFL Conference, I attended an amusing session lead by The Language Factory’s Carole Nicholl. She has songs (available for purchase on her website) that help students remember chunks of conversational language, like greetings or asking for and giving the time. Although her materials are aimed at children, I have used them with adults. My beginners especially liked her “What Day is it Today?” song.

Of course, when I use music in this way, the students have to actually sing. I have found teachers, myself included, to be much more reticent singers than students are. I warn my students up front that I have a terrible voice and ask that they sing loudly to drown me out. I also insist that they sing and threaten that non-singers will have to come up and sing a solo in front of the class. Usually this prompts a laugh from the students, and I have never had to actually enforce this “punishment”.

Musically Inclined Skits

I have also used music to spice up skit-writing activities I occasionally have students do in my Conversation classes. After putting the class into groups of 3 or 4, I play a short excerpt of a song and have them write a skit that “fits” with the song. Each group is assigned a different genre of music (country, jazz, heavy metal …), and the resulting skits are usually much more entertaining than when students are simply asked to write and perform a play. I get the clips by doing a quick search on iTunes (when I have internet access in the classroom, of course) as it allows listeners to hear a short excerpt for free. However, bringing a variety of CDs to class would also work.

Songs as Conversation Prompts

Songs can also encourage very interesting and meaningful conversation. For instance, The Dixie Chick’s “Good Bye Earl” can be used to introduce the controversial topic of crime and punishment. Also, Christina Aguilera’s song, “Beautiful,” can be played to introduce a discussion about cultural notions of beauty and the increasing popularity of plastic surgery. Jodi Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” is a great way to begin a lesson when the theme is the environment. And, for the truly brave, Metallica’s “One” can trigger a lively debate about euthanasia.

When using music to introduce a theme or prompt a discussion, I usually give students the words and have them listen once or twice to the song, and then give them a list of conversation questions or a specific task. For example, after listening to “Good Bye Earl,” I have students pretend they are the jury and have to agree on a sentence for the two women who have killed Earl.

Songs for Presentations

Giving a presentation in a foreign language is a daunting task. However, students often need the practice and confidence this class activity can bring. To make the experience more enjoyable for both the speaker and the audience, I often ask students to give a short presentation about their favorite song. They have a moment (and I really do limit it to a moment) before or after the presentation to play a clip of the song, and then they explain why this particular song is significant for them. I have had students speak about almost every kind of song, from lullabies their mother used to sing for them to pop songs they happen to be listening to at the moment. For some reason, this particular topic inspires even the most reticent of public speakers and, in my experience, students tend to pay closer attention to the other speakers when they have listened to a bit of the song first.

I would love to hear your ideas for using music in your Conversation classes, or other skill areas as well. Coming up in a future blog, I’ll share some of my ideas for bringing music into your Pronunciation lessons.


Comment from Sheila Margaret Ward
February 17, 2011 at 10:35 am

I absolutely agree with you. I’ve been teaching EFL for over forty years and I have always used songs in my lessons. It is particularly important when teaching young children. I have actually got some of my songs on Youtube under shemarward. There are also quite a few songs in the book Very Young Learners (OUP), of which I am co-author. If you would like some lesson plans either for children or teenagers, I would be happy to share.

Comment from Armel Diakanua
February 17, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Hello I really need your support dear Teacher.

Comment from Tamara Jones
February 21, 2011 at 3:44 am

This sounds fabulous! Please share! A lot of stuff that we use with children can be used with adults with a little tweaking, in my opinion.

Comment from oriel ortega
March 8, 2011 at 7:09 pm

I use songs like this. When I am working on Homophones I write the son but using an incorrect homophone for example: She was two busy, so my students laugh and learn. For listening activity I cut part of the song. The students listen to the song first, then they listen again but completing the missing parts (Chunks). This activity is also helpful for my grammar class.

Mr. “O”

Comment from Tamara Jones
March 9, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I like this! When you say “I cut part of the song” – how much do you usually cut? How big are the chunks?

Comment from oriel ortega
March 9, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Hi Teacher.

I worked with basic learners, so I cut parts of sentences (usualy the structure that I want my student master… for example; if I am working on prepositions I do like this.

Octopus Garden by the Beatles

I’d like to be_________________ (under the sea).

My students really enjoy this kind of activities.

P,D. I simple love the way you write.Many times I use what you write in my written and presentations. I am taking a master degree in Tesol.


Comment from Tamara Jones
March 10, 2011 at 1:16 am

Thanks for the example. So, I can see that you cut a short phrase or a couple of words. That is a great way to prompt students to listen for target structures. It can be a fun way to introduce a structure or to have them practice.

(Thanks for the compliment, too, by the way! Good luck in your Master’s! It can be hard work, I know.)

Comment from Carissa
June 27, 2012 at 7:43 am

Great suggestions! It is nice to see that you aren’t just doing clozes! I have a few ways to use songs here as well which are a bit more creative than your standard gap fill

Comment from Tamara Jones
August 26, 2012 at 2:56 pm

You have some creative ideas!

Pingback from Teacher Talk » Singing the Way to Pronunciation Success!
November 1, 2013 at 11:50 am

[…] of Edith Pilaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” (It’s the same song I mentioned in the other article and, unfortunately, the only French song I know.) Carole Nicholl of The Language Factory has […]

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