Teacher Development Through Songs

July 27, 2009

After apparently looking at some of the song-based activities on my materials page, a teacher that is currently taking a language awareness course with us asked me an interesting question – “How do you decide on the kinds of activities to do with a song other than filling the gaps?”

It was a question that got me thinking and then made me realise that perhaps I don’t always have learners’ needs or interests at heart when I’m planning classes!

Or, to put it another way, I have selfishly exploited songs in order to further my own teacher development without a care for the needs or interests of my learners!

Anyway, in response to the teacher’s question, after thinking for a few seconds, I made a rather bold statement: “You can do anything with a song!”

Such a statement needs to be qualified, so here goes…

Filling in the gaps
Now, as good EFL practitioner, supposedly well-read on contemporary methodology, I should stress the importance of basing decisions about content on learner needs – and that of course holds true for songs that we choose to use in class and types of task that we plan and design use with them. In an ideal world we should ask ourselves what our students are going to get out of doing these tasks with this song and how is it going to help them.

But, how many teachers working in EFL/ESL live in an ideal world?

So…first of all, let it be said that there is nothing inherently wrong with simply filling in the gaps and talking about the lyrics. That is perfectly acceptable – particularly if the song has been requested by students because they like it. Indeed, by letting students choose a song to do in class you will be making your classes more learner-centred and David Nunan will be very happy. It also gets you dogma brownie points. Filling in the gaps is okay too when the song is being used as a bit of light relief…a change from the monotony of the coursebook (the it’s Friday afternoon, let’s do a song syndrome).

Second, the lyrics of some songs naturally lend themselves to work on particular grammatical structures –I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2 and Should I Stay of Should I Go by the Clash come to mind as obvious examples. Meanwhile Where The Wild Roses Grow by Nick Cave and Kylie is great for focusing on cohesive devices (although, when I did that one, a couple of my students complained to the school’s owner about the song being too depressing and I was told that I could only use songs suggested by students from then on and after being coerced into doing a class on a Savage Garden song, I stopped using songs until I changed jobs).

It’s all about me, me, me!
But for me, regardless of learner needs or interests, or indeed syllabus content, using songs has been just another way to put what methodology stuff that I’ve read into practice – a means of self-directed teacher development.

Here’s a specific example – after reading Mario Rinvolucri’s More Grammar Games I was really keen to try out some of cognitive activities inspired by Caleb Gattegno (yes, those Silent Way activities that were dismissed as pure hippy nonsense on my CertTESOL course). So what did I do? I downloaded the lyrics of The Importance of Being Idle, which at that time was one of the most played tracks on my iTunes and got to work and set about eliminating the final two words of each line of the first verse and removing the gaps between words in the chorus. The results of that particular endeavour can be found on the teaching materials page on this blog.

A similar thing happened when it occurred to me one day that I had been shamelessly neglecting to do work on diphthongs with my Mexican learners and that it was probably because I didn’t feel confident enough with my knowledge of phonology to do it. So, I chose a song that I liked, identified words in the lyrics that contained diphthongs that I perceived to be problematic for my students and before you could say tlacoquemecatl, I had a lesson ready to go.

Not very student-centred but a great way for me to a) provide some light relief and b) try out something new.

Most songs contain, to varying degrees, a variety of grammatical structures, collocations, slang, idioms, cohesive devices and most if not all English phonemes so I stand by my original assertion – you can do anything with a song!

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