I spend a lot of time listening to popular music—not originally by choice.
But I have an adolescent daughter, hence I spend a lot of time shuttling her to music and basketball practice and other commitments, and hence she has taken control of the car radio. She likes a specific local station that professes to “play all the hits,” which seems to be about ten songs—presumably the top ten—rotated in a constant loop. Therefore, I have memorized most of these songs and in fact have them stuck in my head—originally to my chagrin, but not only have I grown to like some of this music (I have a particular fondness for the group Maroon 5), but also I see some of the songs’ value as teaching tools. Much like poetry, these songs can teach rhyme and meter, complex vocabulary, and multiple meanings. The songs also reveal interesting aspects of not only popular culture but also deeper sociological issues: what is “pop” or popular with a culture at the moment, after all, speaks volumes about that culture. My daughter, of the same generation of most of my students, has served as a “guide” to this music through discussions about it.
How To Teach ESL with Popular Music
Most literature can be taken in more than one way. The songs “Misery” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together” show the messiness of relationships. “Misery” by Maroon 5 has the repeated lyric from the narrator “I’m going to get you back,” which I originally thought meant the speaker meant wanted to win back the affections of his loved one; on further analysis, however, the full lyric is “You got me good; now I’m going to get you back,” suggesting the song is really about “retaliation,” as my daughter put it. This demonstrates that idioms like “to get someone back” mean different things depending on the context. Similarly, in Taylor Swift’s “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together ” the narrator reiterates throughout her claim that she and her boyfriend will never reunite, get back together, after their latest breakup. But given the couple has this pattern of breaking up and then reuniting, is this really a kind of declaration of independence from a bad relationship, as it seems at first, or is it denial?
Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved,” the girl who will be loved is described as “the girl with the broken smile.” What does this lovely image mean? I’ve always taken it to mean the young woman has been in some way hurt by life, hence “broken,” yet she continues to smile. To other listeners the lyric will mean something else. In Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler” from an earlier generation the entire song is an extended metaphor of gambling for life as the older gambler gives some advice to the young drifter narrating the story. And metaphor is also a great way to teach vocabulary, in just taking a phrase like “broken smile” and coming up with associations with it: “hurt,” “bravery,” and so forth, and in that way building students’ vocabulary.
“The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers is also an example of music as pure storytelling, telling the story of the narrator meeting up with the gambler on a train one night and who “for a taste of my whiskey” offers some advice, which he does—the extended metaphor of cards as life: “You have to know when to hold them; know when to fold them; know when to walk away, and know when to run…” At the end of the song, the gambler “breaks even,” or dies, but leaves the narrator “an ace that I could keep.” A more recent example of great storytelling is Fun’s “Some Nights,” concerning the narrator’s experiences of going to war and youthful enthusiasm for it: “Boys, this is war! This is what I’ve been waiting for…” and subsequent disillusionment: “I sold my soul for this? Washed my hands of God for this...?” The story then turns to the narrator’s sister: “My heart is breaking for my sister and the con that she called love…” and concludes “But then I look into my nephew’s eyes and see what amazing things can come from some terrible lies.” The story suggests then that both siblings have been exploited, the boy by the lie of war and the girl by the lie of love, but that there is redemption in the end in the form of the narrator’s nephew.
Theme and Message
The recent song “Thrift Shop” concerns the narrator, with “only twenty dollars in my pocket,” forgoing the mall and fifty dollar t-shirts and going to the “thrift shop down the street,” where he and his friends buy used clothes—some of them their grandparents’ cast-offs—that look “incredible.” The song is meant in high humor, of course, but also carries a serious underlying message about the importance of living within one’s means—especially important for a nation and people who has repeatedly failed at that. An important note here is that the song is in a nonstandard dialect of English that may be hard to understand, a problem with many pop songs, even for native English speakers. A partial solution to the problem is online in the form of free websites that can be accessed through simply searching the song’s title and which will then give the printed lyrics for free. They are often a surprise, again even to native English speakers.
One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” Bruno Mars’s “Just the Way You Are,” and an earlier generation Sammy Kershaw’s “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful” all carry a theme of a beautiful woman who somehow lacks insight into her own physical beauty and which everyone else seems to be aware of. I personally have not met a beautiful woman who was not aware of the fact. As my daughter succinctly summarized it: she can look in the mirror like the rest of us; she’s likely been told by many that she’s beautiful, and she’s probably had a boyfriend or two. We also agreed on why this, the beautiful woman who doesn’t know it, would be a particular male fantasy. A beautiful woman is, it almost goes without saying, a kind of prize: not only can the male enjoy her beauty, but she also increases his status in having gained the affections of this beautiful woman. And if she doesn’t know she’s beautiful—well, that’s even better! That’s the jackpot. Because she’s insecure and unaware of the power she might hold, she’s unlikely to leave and more easily controlled. In summary, while such a song is on its surface simply a celebration of a specific woman, it also shows some of the inequalities rife in a patriarchal culture. Analysis like this of current popular culture can reveal some interesting sociological/psychological implications.
Popular music, like most things “popular,” or “of the people,” can seem at first blush trivial and not worthy of the time of the serious language learner.
However, Shakespeare was also a “popular” writer—he wrote for the general population of London, not its elite. Is some study of music to turn our classes into conservatories? Of course not; much of this music is almost impossible to sing by anyone besides a professional. The point is to study and perhaps even enjoy it. Popular music in a language class, in a way that more serious literature often doesn’t, can speak to a young audience and also reveal volumes about contemporary culture—the one it is derived from.
Dr. Stacia Levy teaches writing and reading skills at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California to both native and nonnative speakers of English. She also has taught academic and creative writing at the University of California, Davis. However, she began her teaching career twenty years ago as an instructor ESL in adult education programs and still primarily defines herself as an ESL teacher. Publishing credits include two academic works based on her dissertation, several short stories, and a novel, California Gothic, a story of romantic suspense. Google+
I enjoyed this article a great deal, and I love using songs to teach; they provide a welcome break from the monotony of 'teacher-talk,' and students find them very engaging. Certain songs can also help with specific grammar points, which is brilliant.
The only part of this article I'd disagree with - admittedly, completely off-topic - would be your example in point 5. I have met far too many beautiful people - women and men - who think of themselves as unattractive. It's a shame! I can certainly see, though, your point about how a manipulative man would see a beautiful woman with low self-esteem as the ultimate prize. And there we have exactly the sort of in-depth discussion that can be achieved through using songs in the classroom!
I have been using your reasoning for some time and forgot to add citation, I am very sorry. Thank you for your kind remainder. "Music can be used in the classroom to create a learning environment; to build listening comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing skills. We also are able to increase vocabulary, and to expand cultural knowledge. Using Songs in Instruction Most classroom music activities focus on lyrics. They contain common, short words and many personal pronouns. The language is conversational time and place are usually imprecise (except for some folk ballads); Students sing the lyrics at a slower rate than speak the words with more pauses between utterances, and there is repetition of vocabulary and structures. These factors allow learners to understand and relate to the songs. A further benefit of pop song lyrics is that their meanings are fluid, and, like poetry, allow for many different interpretations. Through songs, students discover the natural stretching and compacting of the stream of English speech. Students may summarize verbally the action or theme of a song or give oral presentations about a song or musician, playing musical selections for the class. Many songs tell a story, and these stories can be rewritten or retold to practice narrative or or summarizing Pop songs are written to be easily understood and enjoyed. As discussed above, they tend to use high frequency lyrics that have emotional content. This makes them strong candidates for word study or for reinforcing words already learned through written means. If a series of songs is to be used, students can be team up and given a song to teach the class. However, the songs may also have idioms in them that might be difficult to explain, depending on the level of the students. Songs can be used in discussions of culture. They are a rich source of information about human relations, ethics, customs, history, humor, and regional and cultural differences. Selecting Music 1. Song lyrics should be clear and loud, not submerged in the instrumental music. 2. The vocabulary load for the song should be appropriate to the proficiency level. 3. Songs should be pre-screened for potentially problematic content, such as explicit language, references to violent acts or sex, or inappropriate religious allusions. Teachers will show care and effort when presenting songs they are especially fond of, their favorites are also good. Finally, students are often strongly motivated to learn the lyrics of a new pop song or an old favorite they have heard and never understood, so their choices for classroom music should not be overlooked."
ESL Resources > Digests
Using Music in the Adult ESL Classroom Kristin Lems National-Louis University December 2001
Hi there! Teaching English with songs is an inviting activity to get students participate and learn new vocabulary. I think it's a great resource to get students to work on comprehension as well. I've always liked using music to encourage them talking about feelings, for example. Very interesting article indeed. Thanks for sharing!
Hi there, I think using songs that appeal to the students can be an invaluable tool for teaching, in a way that it becomes fun for them. If a lesson is interesting and classes are versatile, it's easier to get the students to participate and concentrate without even realizing that they're actually learning! Next lesson I'll find out about their favourite music and prepare accordingly. Thanks for the tip. I'm so glad someone recommended this site to me. I'm English and based in Spain. At the moment I have a group of primary school children attending my classes to help them along with their school work.
Songs are an excellente resource for foreign language teachers. They can be used for a variety of activities. Songs provide a great material for foreign language teachers. Even if they might seem only a pleasant lesson break, they can be much more effective than any other exercises aimed at practicing different language skills.
Hello! I think that using songs in ESL classes is GREAT! My teen students love songs from Miley Cyrus! Last time I used a song called "I wont let you go" by Jonathan Clay from the movie LOL - and my students were so in love with the song! Moreover, they were surprised I know the song and brought it for them:) Next time I am going to play for them a song by Alicia Key - New York and later a song by Lil Wayne - Mirror - very understandable and great for teens - do get inspired:)
Btw!!! - many thanks for materials and everything you offer here! You are such a helpful website! ---
Katarina, all the way from Slovakia, Europe.
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