Using songs in a speaking class
A guest blog by Neil
As this is my first dreamreader.net blog, I’ll tell you a little about myself and what I’m doing. I teach at a university in Japan, and I’m originally from the UK. My job has its frustrations, like any teaching position I guess, but on the whole I thoroughly enjoy my job. One of the things I like the most is that I have complete autonomy over what I teach. I get to write my own syllabus, prepare my own materials, and teach on topics that I think will be interesting and beneficial to my students.
During the last semester break, when I was preparing syllabi for my spring semester classes, I came up with the idea of teaching a speaking class based on contemporary and popular music. My idea was to let this class be student driven. During the first week, students would make suggestions of artists and groups they were interested in, and I’d go away and prepare lessons based on songs these artists had sung. I’d also sprinkle in a few songs of my own that I thought might get the students thinking and talking! I would choose two artists each week, and focus on one of each of the artist’s songs.
I’m now at the half-way point in the semester, and my feeling is that it has been quite successful. We’ve covered a range of artists from Bruno Mars and Avril Lavigne to Perfume (a popular Japanese girl group) and The Police. Each week the students have been participating in the lesson and commenting that they were learning a lot, and the music seemed to create a really pleasant and relaxed atmosphere. In week five, I turned the onus onto the students, and they were asked to prepare a poster about a song from an artist they liked. I asked them to talk for five minutes and then use their smartphones to play some of the song. They were asked to sit with a partner, and when they had both talked about their song, they’d find a new partner and do the same thing. I felt this class went really well. For 90 minutes they talked with their classmates, and I just observed. It was nice teaching moment for me as my talk-time was 0%!
Last week I wanted to try something a little different. Jason R Levine (Fluency MC) shared one of his songs called ‘Get a Life’ in the Facebook group Innovative Teachers of English. I checked it out and I really liked it. I’m a big fan of what Jason does, and I wondered if my class would like it too. The song is about a boy from a tough environment who manages to succeed against the odds. The song contains 112 phrases with the word ‘get’. I thought it was an awesome idea. Jason kindly sent me the lyrics to the song, and I set to work preparing a lesson based around it. I made a two page worksheet and printed out the lyrics for the class.
Here is a brief summary of what I did. I started by explaining that Jason was an English teacher who uses music and rhyme to teach English. I explained that this song contained a lot of collocations using the word ‘get’. I explained what collocations were and we went through a few examples. I then highlighted the benefits of learning words in chunks (rather than individual words) and the advantages of doing so. I then chose five or six of the phrases from part 1 of the song and the students discussed which of them knew and which they didn’t. This sparked some really interesting discussion. Particularly the phrases ‘get grief’ and ‘get on somebody’s case’. They were fascinated when I demonstrated the two! We then listened to the song, and the students followed the lyrics on their printout. The students talked about what they thought of the song and its story. Finally the students worked in pairs to analyze the lyrics and practice them. This really worked well. Very often, Japanese learners are reluctant to ask the teacher questions, but they were really excited about the message behind the song and wanted to know what the phases meant. I frantically moved around from pair to pair explaining and sharing other examples.
As we are at the halfway point in the semester, I wanted a little feedback about the class, and about using ‘Get a Life’. I asked the students to anonymously write me some feedback. What I got was incredible! The 15 students in the class were really enjoying using and analyzing songs, the lyrics, the videos, and the meanings of songs. They also loved ‘Get a Life’. In fact, all of the class commented on how useful this would be for them. One student wrote, “It’s difficult for me to remember collocations, but I think it’s easy to remember collocations using this song. Another wrote, “Really, really great song. I like it! I can learn a lot of collocations and the lyrics are good. Students should know this song”. One more student wrote that they will share this song with their friends and use it to study outside of class, but favorite comment was, “AWESOME. I think it’s one of the best ways to learn idioms and collocations”.
Of course, I didn’t intend this to be a serious piece of research. I just wanted some feedback, but I think it’s pretty clear that the song was very well received. I’ve been using contemporary pop and rock music in class, and the students are enjoying it. I think what Jason does is take that enjoyment of music and work it into something students can use to learn real spoken English. Japanese students spend a lot of time learning grammar and the rules of English, but they’re seldom exposed to spoken English as it is actually used. The lyrics from regular pop, rock, R&B, and rap are interesting, but they are often beyond the comprehension of my students. Jason has provided the fun and enjoyment that these songs bring, but made it accessible. Even better, he has turned the song into a resource that students can enjoy using. I’ve no doubt that my students will go away and listen to parts two and three of ‘Get a Life’. I didn’t set it as homework, but from the comments I got, they’ll do it anyway! That for me is the best homework!
I’ll end with a big shout out to Fluency MC. If you haven’t checked out his work, I recommend you do (http://www.colloandspark.com/ and https://www.youtube.com/user/collolearn). I left the class today feeling good, and I know 15 others did too. They now have a resource to go away and learn spoken English by themselves, and even better, they have the motivation to do so!