Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Teaching Grammar with Pop Songs: Ain’t No Reason Not To

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

Many teachers of grammar are reluctant to bring popular songs into the classroom, with good reason. Incorrect grammar is so rampant in popular music that one SAT prep guide actually has a section that gives test takers lines from pop songs and asks them to identify the grammatical mistakes. If you listen to popular music, maybe you’ve heard these lines in recent hit songs: “My mama don’t like you” (Justin Bieber); “You and me can make it anywhere” (Charlie Puth); and “It don’t matter” (Adele).

While there’s a lot that’s grammatically wrong in pop song lyrics, there’s a lot that’s grammatically right, too. Yes, Justin Bieber tells his ex, “My mama don’t like you,” but he also tells her, “You should go and love yourself.” Thank you for that reflexive pronoun, Justin! Charlie Puth assures a woman, “You and me can make it anywhere” and then vows, “I’ll be there to save the day.” Thank you, Charlie, for using the future tense with will to make a promise! And before she sings “It don’t matter,” Adele, bless her, sings, “I’m sorry for breaking your heart”—a perfect example of using a gerund as the object of a preposition.

What about the elephant in the room—the grammatically wrong phrase in the song? If there is one, you can quickly dispense with it, either by making a game out of spotting it in the lyrics, or by writing it on the board and asking students to correct the error. Then you can move on to building a lesson around the repeated phrase that is grammatically right. For example, when Adele’s “Hello” was ruling the airwaves last fall, I spun off a lesson on prepositions + gerunds. Here is a possible lesson plan for that song, for levels intermediate and up:

  1. Copy the lyrics to “Hello” from the Internet and make a handout. Students listen to the song while reading the lyrics.
  2. Call students’ attention to the phrase Im sorry for breaking your heart. (They could circle it on the lyrics handout.) Tell them they’ll learn more about phrases like this one.
  3. Students watch the Talking Heads video at AzarGrammar.com, which explains how gerunds work.
  4. Students complete the exercise on prepositions + gerunds that is posted on my site under “Grammar + Songs.” Because the worksheet requires students to fill in the correct gerunds, but not the correct prepositions, it is a little less challenging than the exercises below.
  5. Students complete the exercises on pages 302-306 in Understanding and Using English Grammar, Fourth Edition.

This plan begins with the song, but you could flip the order, beginning with Step 3 and using the song as a way to reinforce, rather than introduce a lesson on prepositions + gerunds.

I’ve been bringing songs into my classroom my whole career, but it’s only recently that I began using songs specifically to teach grammar.  Now I pair grammar topics with songs whenever I can—for example, reflexive pronouns and Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”; the simple past and Ruth B.’s “Lost Boy”; making wishes about the present and Twenty-One Pilots’ “Stressed Out.” I use both current and classic hits, and I often use worksheets and activities that are based on the topic, rather than on the lyrics, so that the materials can be reused with different songs.

The main benefit of teaching grammar with pop songs has been that my students seem to have no trouble grasping grammatical concepts that are not usually introduced at their level. Why does a song work that magic? Is it the repetition? Is it the fact that the target phrase is associated with a melody, or that it’s used in a meaningful context? Is it the relaxed atmosphere a song creates, which makes grammar seem less intimidating? I’m not sure. Maybe, to quote Adele, it don’t matter. This just works.


Comment from Heba altaher
March 13, 2017 at 8:03 am

I want to improve my grammar in english.

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