Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone! Using songs with Teens and Adults.
Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone! Using songs with Teens and Adults.
By Stephen Tarbuck
It feels as though no VYL or YL lesson is complete without a song or two, and this feeling is supported by the wealth of songs and chants that come with coursebooks used with these age ranges. Many articles have been written about making the best use of songs with younger learners, and a look through the archives of the IH Journal will offer more than a handful.
I do find it odd though that there are a great number of articles that discuss the benefits of using songs with VYL and YL students while articles that discuss the benefits of using songs with teens and adults aren’t as prominent, if they are to be found at all.
I find this odd because, from motivation to language presentation, the benefits of using songs are the same for your ‘grown up’ classes too.
I wrote this article as an attempt to fill the gap I think exists in this area. I’d like to share some ideas that focus on the motivational aspects of song use with teen and adult classes and that highlight how transferrable the ideas are that go with teaching VYL and YL classes.
To that effect, I have focused on sharing some observations about three areas connected to song use: choosing songs, how songs can be used, and a recommended activity.
The most common reason to choose a song is the target language. After all, it only takes a quick internet search to find songs filled with a wealth of exploitable language. But there are other factors that could influence your choice of song.
Songs You Like
A teacher who likes the material they use will find more ways to exploit that material, and will find it easier to convince their students of the quality of that material. If you don’t like a particular song, don’t force yourself to use it in class - but, conversely, if there are songs that you like that carry clearly-spoken lyrics (and that don’t come with a parental advisory warning!) then by all means bring them to your classroom.
It doesn’t matter too much if the song only contains one or two examples of the target language - today’s students are no fools, and will feel slightly tricked if you play them a song that uses the present perfect form in every sentence. Besides, in real life, we tend not to recycle the same form over and over, so a song that offers real-world use of a particular piece of grammar and that does so in a balanced way is more likely to represent a worthwhile source of input for your students.
You will also find that introducing students to songs that you like helps increase engagement. Because, believe it or not, even that difficult class of teenagers are curious to know more about you - they just don’t want to admit it. A warning, though - don’t fake a preference for a piece of music just to score kudos points with your teenagers. Teenagers can tell if you’re only pretending to like Billie Eilish’s music…
Songs Students Like
On the other hand, using songs that students like is a simple way to lower affective filters and build rapport. If your students already like a particular song, they probably already know that song quite well, which will make understanding less problematic and will allow you to focus more on the language in the lyrics. Learning what kind of music your students like will also help you to learn more about your students, which will pay dividends when you seek to personalise future material for use with that class.
This information isn't difficult to obtain. You can simply ask your students what music they like, or make it a learning opportunity. As part of a get-to-know-you activity you can get them to ask their partners what music they listen to, or this could form part of an adult class’s needs analysis by asking: ‘How often do you listen to music in English and what songs/artists do you like?’
Be aware, though, that you will have to live with the information your students give to you. If you’re not a fan of Imagine Dragons but all of your students are, you might have no choice but to bring such music into the classroom.
Of course, it could be that none of your own choices fit, and that all of your students just happen to be wildly in love with hardcore gangsta rap. In that case, you’ll have to rely on other people’s recommendations, or on search platforms like Google. If that’s the case, I would recommend limiting your search to songs that fall within what we might broadly define the ‘pop’ genre.
There are reasons for this.
Firstly, teens and adults have more varied interests than young learners, and pop songs help because their lyrics and musical design are intended to be relatable to a wider audience.
Next, the speed of the singing is usually slower and the lyrics clearer than in many other genres, which eases listening comprehension.
And finally: choruses are often memorable, repetitive, and focused around the repetition of language structures; such repetition is to our advantage when it comes to the presentation of language structures.
How Songs Can Be Used
In the VYL/YL classroom we use songs for a multitude of reasons and here I would like to talk briefly about how these uses are equally applicable to our ‘grown up’ classes.
Maggoli (2014) lists potential song uses in the VYL/YL classroom as: welcome, transition, energy, reused, frame, action, timer, and farewell, and I'll use this listing to show you some ideas I’ve had for song uses with some examples based on my classes.
Judging how much time to set for an activity can be tricky but if you use a song it provides that timer along with a dash of novelty, especially compared to a ticking clock.
The time frame is simple enough as the students have until the end of the song to finish but the novelty here is the key point. It helps teens to disassociate your class from their normal school classes and helps your classes stand out from those of other teachers.
When organising lengthy discussions that require timed group changes I have found Kraftwerk’s back catalogue or any other tracks that are repetitive and lengthy to be usable. Sure, I might not add much to the students’ knowledge of language by getting them to remember the phrase Trans-Europa Express, but if my students feel more inclined to speak when there is music playing in the background then so much the better, and, as I have said, playing a piece of music will work better as a Timer. In terms of procedure, simply play the song and then pause when you want to draw the students’ attention - or, if you have told them already what to do when the music is paused, they can do that, whether it’s to change partners or move seats or anything else you want them to do. Then you resume playback of the song, and continue.
Transition is the movement between stages of a lesson. In YL and VYL classes you see them in our ready selection of standard welcome/goodbye/sit down/energy songs, and this idea is transferable to other classes as well.
An idea I’ve had for transitions is using a dramatic sound sample as a welcome, for which I personally use the introduction from The Adventures of Superman.
While for energy, or marking when we transfer from a stationary exercise movement, such as a mingle, I like to use Whigfield’s Saturday Night, though really any upbeat song would suffice.
Reuse is recycling a song for another purpose, and teens and adults, even if they complain about repetition, thrive on the already known. So when you are introducing something new, if possible, reuse a familiar song.
A recent idea I had for reusing was to use Technologic by Daft Punk to introduce technology-related vocabulary. The song had been used previously to elicit adjectives of feeling, without me focusing on the language used, so reusing here for a language focus was simple and natural.
When looking for song-based activities, two classics I continuously came across were gap-fill and lyrics strips. After doing these countless times in class I thought of combining the two into what I call: complete jumble and here are the steps to doing it yourself.
- Find a suitable song and make a gap-fill exercise of the lyrics by gapping your target language. Next you cut the lyrics into strips.
- The students listen to the song and unjumble the strips, organising the lyrics into the correct order and ignoring the gaps at this stage.
- After checking the answers, the students listen again and complete the gaps.
I hope these ideas encourage you to use songs more frequently with your ‘grown up’ classes and that you will find pleasure in experimenting with new ideas. Also, I am aware it goes against my own idea of using a song you don’t enjoy, but regarding experimentation with songs: if you try sometimes, well, you might find, you get what you need.
Maggioli, D, G. (2014) Play it, Sam! Songs and music in the EFL class. December. Available at: Gabriel Diaz Maggioli: Songs and Music in the EFL Classroom(Accessed: May 2023)
Stephen entered the TEFL world in 2015 and is currently teaching at International House Toruń. In 2023 he started writing articles on TEFL subjects and has been published in International House Journal and Humanising Language Teaching.
During the 2023/2024 academic year he will be studying the International House Teaching One-to-One course and finding a way to organise the awful mess that is his boardwork.