How to Use Popular Music to Teach ESL

How to Use Popular Music to Teach ESL

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 152,364 views

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

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    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?

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    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.

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    “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.

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    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.

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    Cultural/Psychological Analysis

    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.

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