An evaluation of the place of music and song in TEFL teaching today.


By Viv Quarry


The extent to which music had become an international entity became apparent during the 'Live Aid' concerts in the 1980s, when billions of people, diverse geographically, culturally and linguistically, were brought together by their appreciation of, or interest in, music. Especially amongst young people from non-English speaking countries, there exists an interest in modern British and American music which stimulates their desire to learn English and forms a cultural bridge between nationalities. When travelling in France, Italy and Greece, I often found that music was a common area of interest that brought me closer to young people there. Because they enjoyed and identified with songs sung in English, they wanted to learn more from someone from England, who they felt would know more about their favourite pop stars or bands.

Music doesn't have to involve the human voice to be of use in the TEFL classroom today; relaxing classical music played when a class of new students meet for the first time may provoke discussion and create an atmosphere amenable to conversation. If this is done before the lesson starts, then when it is in progress the students will probably feel more at ease, and thus are more likely to participate in the learning process.

If a TEFL teacher can play a musical instrument, this is a valuable asset, as doing so would make a lesson more memorable and promote a good rapport  between teacher and students.

The musical score to many popular songs can be downloaded from the internet without infringing any copyright laws, and these 'templates' can be used for singing songs in class, for example Viv has created an exercise where students analyse the words to the song 'Girl from Ipanema' then sing the song while listening to an instrumental version.

Why are songs useful to the teacher of EFL? Primarily because most people enjoy listening to songs and singing them, so songs provide a learning method that is both pleasurable and memorable. Songs that were taught to me in a completely alien foreign language at primary school ('Frere Jaques' and 'Alouetta') and have seldom been heard since, have been retained in my memory, where the vast majority of other items taught to me, although frequently used since leaving school and during later learning, have either not been retained in my conscious memory at all, or can only be recalled sketchily. Associating learning with music, aids long term retention in a student's memory. Introducing music and song into a lesson also makes for a welcome break in routine and pace for both teacher and students, and provides that spaced repetition of new items necessary for learning, in a form that is far more interesting than formal drills. Songs are useful in the learning and consolidation of vocabulary and idioms, syntactical items, pronunciation, rhythm, intonation and stress. Songs and music also often offer background cultural information that gives an insight into particular features of the British or American way of life.

Songs can be seen in two broad categories - commercially produced songs accompanied by music and presented through the media of radio, television, the internet, CDs or MP3s, and traditional ballads and rhymes where the emphasis is on participation - singing the verse as a group activity involving everyone in the group.

Popular songs from the wider environment should be chosen by the EFL teacher according to his/her particular language teaching aims and the interests and level of the learners. Authentic material can be especially effective for learning new vocabulary and as an interesting alternative to dialogues and narratives in listening comprehension activities. Great interest in a commercial song can be generated when the students are familiar with the melody from being exposed to it in their own countries, and the students will get great satisfaction from actually learning the meaning of the words that previously they were most probably mimicking without comprehension. If music that is currently popular is used as a learning aid then its language and structure will be reinforced when the students hear the  song outside the classroom on the radio, television, at a discotheque, party or friend's house. The appropriacy of the music chosen must reflect the nature of the class though. Playing punk music to a group of middle aged Japanese businessmen, for example, may not be a helpful teaching technique!

There is a range of songs with and without music which have been produced particularly for the teaching of EFL. These usually have a simple and repetitive structure and melody, and are often best used at the beginner or elementary levels in order to illustrate structure or vocabulary in novel way. Recorded songs played in class have the advantages of immediate and exact repetition, and the possibility of stopping at intervals for explanation or comprehension, checking line by line.

Perhaps the most effective use of songs in the learning process is when they become a group activity. This can be particularly rewarding for both the teacher and the students. They are an act of cooperation that helps to break down the barriers of reserve that sometimes hinder language learning. They also present repetition in a meaningful way that keeps learners motivated more effectively than drilling.


There are six main categories of songs:


1. Special occasion songs

These are sung in at specific events or times of the year and often give students an insight into a particular cultural aspect. Examples of these songs include birth songs, Christmas carols, 'For he's a jolly good fellow' and 'For auld lang syne'.


2. Sports and games songs

These accompany certain games and are usually for children e.g. 'Here we go round the mulberry bush' and football songs.


3 Action songs

These can be the most enjoyable and memorable and require the singers to perform actions to individual words. This makes the meaning of the words clear by giving then concrete actions. Action songs include 'Underneath the spreading chestnut tree', 'One finger, one thumb keep moving', 'If you're happy and you know it clap your hands' and 'Hokey cokey'. Almost any song can have actions devised for it and doing this give their presentation and memorability far more force. A variation on this type of song are those that require the imitation of musical instruments or animals, such as 'Old MacDonald had a farm' and 'The music man'.


4. Songs involving continual repetition of structure or lexis.

These songs are especially relevant to the teaching of children and beginners. Examples of this type are 'Ten green bottles', 'One man went to mow, This old man' and 'She'll be coming round the mountain'.


5. Narrative songs

These songs tell a story and are suitable for adults and more advanced students. Examples of this type of song are: 'Those were the days my friend' and 'Tie a yellow ribbon'. Comprehension of the theme can be checked after the song has been learnt and perhaps consolidated by written work.


6. EFL songs

Specially created for language learning, these songs have the disadvantage that they will be totally unknown to native speakers. However, they do have a place when teaching lower levels and children. An example of this type of song is 'The alphabet song'.


The teacher should evaluate a song carefully before using it in class. Many songs have unusual word order, false rhymes, archaic or dialect words, unnatural stress patterns, and pronunciation adapted to fit in with the tune. This brings us to the question of whether traditional songs should be adapted or corrected by the language teacher. There are drawbacks to this procedure; changing one word may well disrupt the rhythm of the song. Also, the teacher may slip back to the original form during practice so confusing the students. Tampering with the words may also alter the cultural value of the song, and with songs sung on special occasions and communally sung songs, changing words for grammatical or lexical reasons may well invalidate their usefulness outside the classroom or even cause embarrassment for the student.

For the English language teacher abroad, a useful technique is the construction of lyrics to fit locally recognised melodies. This enables the learners to concentrate fully on learning syntax and vocabulary without having to learn a new tune.

The first consideration when choosing songs to use in English language teaching is that it is appropriate to the class being taught. The basic guideline here is that simple melodies and rounds are easier to teach children, and incorporating dance and mime where possible will aid the child's learning.

Teenagers will probably be interested in the latest singers and bands which have become famous internationally, whereas for adults, songs that bear more relation to the adult world should be used, for example past pop songs, folk songs, love songs and songs that narrate storylines relevant to the learner's age group. The complexity of grammatical structures and vocabulary will determine its suitability for elementary, intermediate or advanced students. However, even the most complicated songs can still be used with lower levels. Grade the task, not the material! For example, beginners can still complete a 'jigsaw' task, where a song is printed in verses on cards and students listen and put the verses in the correct order.

Having chosen a song relevant to the learners age and ablility, the song should be checked to make sure that the words naturally fit the tune and that stress is in the appropriate place. This is particularly important when teaching students whose first language has syllable timed rhythm as opposed to the English stressed based rhythm. Many foreign languages stress syllables more or less equally, so in effect exchanging a word with two syllables for one of four or five syllables means that the sentence will take longer to say. In spoken English, stressed words determine rhythm, which is maintained even if the number of syllables varies. Therefore, songs should reflect the natural rhythm and stressing of spoken English to be of most value to the foreign learner attempting to lose their characteristic foreign accent.

Next, the stage of the lesson in which to most effectively introduce music should be considered. Songs presented towards the end of Friday afternoon are an effective way of reviving flagging attention. After work that has taken a high level of student concentration is also an ideal time for music and song, for example following some particularly demanding grammatical or written exercises.

Before it is sung, any new vocabulary and idioms can be pre-taught, then the theme paraphrased and contextualized using pictures or drawings. The whole song can then be sung or played to the students, then the words are repeated chorally. Having the words unveiled line by line using the board or tablet concentrates the learners attention line by line, and karaoke type lyrics with a bouncing ball showing which word is being sung may help students improve their fluency. Rhythm can be shown by "la, la, la's", clapping or tapping and words fitted to the tune by underlining stressed words in different colours then pointing to them with a baton. If there are words that have been adapted to the rhyme and rhythm  of the song and are mispronounced, time should be taken to explain these features after the song has been learnt - or higher level students can be put in groups to try to identify them.

Both music and song, although mainly associated with the teaching of children, can be usefully utilized in the teaching of EFL to all ages and levels. Both listening to and participating in music and song are pleasurable activities, and the greater learners enjoy the subject, the greater is their enthusiasm and the more effectively an item or structure will be retained in memory. Music and song are an integral part of all cultures from the simplest tribes to complex industrial nations, often reflecting the traditions and values of society, so there should be a place in all TEFL courses for a form of teaching that is memorable, stimulating and enjoyable. Music and songs fit these criteria and so have a justified place in TEFL today.