Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Singing in the Classroom — When Less is More

heyer_picBy Sandra Heyer
ESL Teacher and Author of the textbooks True Stories Behind the Songs and More True Stories Behind the Songs
Songs and Activities for English Language Learners

Not long ago, I was flipping through radio stations in my car when I came across an oldies station playing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” the song that accompanied the iconic scene in the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I began to sing along, a little surprised that I knew the words. But the bigger surprise was that I wasn’t singing in English — I was singing in German. Ach, du lieber Himmel! Where did that come from? I had probably memorized the lyrics when I was teaching German in the early 1970s. There they were, pretty much intact, over four decades later.

Language learners and teachers know that singing popular songs in the target language and memorizing their lyrics can be a powerful learning technique. However, if you teach beginners, as I do, your attempts at having students sing along with recordings may have had mixed results. For the activity to work, the planets have to be perfectly aligned: The song’s lyrics have to be simple, the tempo not too fast, the rhythm predictable, and the melody universally appealing. That’s a pretty tall order.

After several disappointing experiences with sing-alongs in my beginning class, I had pretty much abandoned the activity. Then came the “Ah ha!” moment — or perhaps more aptly, the “Duh!” moment, as in retrospect the solution seems obvious. If it’s difficult for beginning students to sing a whole song, why not ask them to sing part of a song — the chorus, for example, or only part of that part?

I started with Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Pay Me My Money Down.” I asked my students to sing just the chorus:

Pay me, pay me.
Pay me my money down.
Pay me, or go to jail.
Pay me my money down.

Bingo! My class of adult learners sang along, and one woman, who had come to class after an eight-hour workday, continued to sing solo after the recording had ended. More successful lessons singing just parts of songs followed, and I couldn’t help but think of the old adage: “More with Less.”

Then I came across an article that opened up even more possibilities. In “Using Music to Promote L2 Learning Among Adult Learners” (Tesol Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1), Marilyn Abbott recommends having students read song lyrics aloud, maintaining the rhythm of the song and emphasizing the syllables that are accented when the song is sung. With some skepticism, I tried it. It worked. For example, my students probably wouldn’t have been able to sing this line in the Pharrell Williams song “Happy”: Clap your hands if you feel like a room without a roof. But they loved saying it while he sang it.

I like to think that decades from now, a line in a song my students have sung or spoken in class will spontaneously come to them out of the blue. Maybe after getting good news, he or she will say, “I feel as happy as a room without a roof,” and then wonder: “Where did that come from?”


Comment from Belquis Kamel
November 5, 2014 at 2:32 pm

I liked your article and I do agree with your point about singing. My experience with singing in class is that I tried that once. I was teaching Short Stories Analysis in Sana’a University one of the stories was titled ” Mother” at the end of the discussion with my students I could not help it but to sing a song about mothers . My students were shocked, could not believe what they are listening to and they loved it very much . The story’s events were stuck in their minds.

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