Exploring songs for language and creativity
How can we use music as the basis of a lesson to explore language and creativity? Gerhard explains how mining the song for language and creativity can massively increase engagement and looks at things to consider when using music in the classroom.
In many teacher rooms where I have worked, there is always a bank of song gap fill worksheets. Sometimes they focus on a language point, sometimes on vocabulary, and sometimes around a theme, but too often, they are exactly what the name says. A bank of gap fill worksheets. Now, I am not saying this is necessarily bad. In fact, I have used the following songs often to focus on certain language points:
- This Love (Maroon 5) – past tenses (there is present perfect, past simple, and past progressive)
- Lemon tree (Fools Garden) – Present tenses
- Call me maybe (Carly Rae) – Switching between present and past tenses
Sharing a list of songs that contain certain grammar points could probably be a blog post in its own, but I am sure that has been done.
Another alternative to incorporating music in the classroom could be as background while students are doing a task, and I have actually used music as a timer in the classroom. For example, if there are three groups and I want them to finish something in about 10 to 12 minutes, I let each group choose a song, I make a playlist, and when the songs are done, the time is up.
As much as these ideas are good ways of working with songs, the purpose of this blog post is to explore language and creativity from a point of view where the song (or songs) is the basis of the lesson, rather than something that gets added to highlight a language point.
What is the song actually about?
If you are going to use a song as the basis of the lesson, start with what the song is about and highlight this to the students. Think about how you felt when you heard a song that really spoke to you. If you want that level of engagement, then try to create the same level of connection in the students. In a recent Trinity Cert lesson, a trainee wanted to use 7 Years by Lukas Graham. After hearing the reason, I asked him if he actually liked the song. He confirmed that he really liked the song because it made him realise how scared he is of being lonely when he grows older, and how important it is to spend time with his parents. I replied by stating that he was teaching an adult group that might have the same fears, and the same concerns, and that by just highlighting a few phrases or grammar points in the song, he wasn’t doing the song or the artist justice. He reworked the lesson and it ended up being a very successful lesson. Here are some key areas where I thought he really got the students to be creative and focus on language with the song as a basis:
- Examining why he is singing this song and who he is singing it to.
- Referencing specific phrases in the song and eliciting a deeper meaning. For example, he says ‘My brother I’m still sorry.’ Why do you think he says that? Students then speculated about how his drive for fame might have impacted his decision making.
- Questioning why does the song end at 60? The answer is his father died at 61 and the song was written for his father.
The students listened to the song twice in the lesson, once for gist and once for fun. The best part of this was at the end, students were sharing other songs with similar themes in the chat on Zoom, and it was clear the song had hit a nerve with them. When asked if they would listen to the song again, all of them said yes. And that is an indication that it worked much better than a gap fill.
What themes can you use to link songs?
Songs often have underlying themes that can be exploited in the classroom for discussion. One thing that seems to put teachers off this is that the themes could be difficult to discuss, or that the songs might feel dated. I have never really had that as an issue, and even teens that I have done some older music with enjoy the additional level of comprehension that comes from exploring the theme rather than just the words in the song.
Examples of songs that are tied together by a theme and that I have personally used:
- Zombie by the Cranberries and Sunday, Bloody Sunday by U2 – Both songs are about war, on Irish soil. Discussions about war and war atrocities, which we then use to help us identify language in the songs, had a much more memorable effect on retention.
- Big Yellow Taxi by the Counting Crows (or the original by Joni Mitchell) and Where do the children play by Cat Stevens – Both songs talk about the destruction we are causing the planet. I actually used this in one of my observed lessons for my PGCE many years ago. I pre-taught vocabulary like deforestation, urbanisation, loss of biodiversity, etc., and students then identified examples of all these terms in the song lyrics.
For both examples above, students were required to produce a product that summarised the theme. The best one I got was from the high school students where I did my PGCE practical, who did a 90 second video on reducing reliance on printed materials in the school. That did happen in a following period and wasn’t an observed lesson, but what really stood out for me was how they engaged with the lyrics of the songs, the theme, and the project, and also how they helped and taught each other skills like video editing on their laptops and IPads.
- Forever Young by Rod Stewart and Daughter by Pearl Jam (Contrasting different childhoods)
- Cats in the cradle by Harry Cradin (Or Ugly Kid Joe) and The Living Years by Mike and Mechanics (discussing relationships between fathers and their children)
A project around a song
A key point I want to stress here before talking about a project running over several lessons is to let students listen to the entire song as soon as you can. For this project, it is broken up into several lessons, but they have to listen to and identify with the song first. Depending on the size of the class, this could take a few lessons or several more. The project is called Song Doodle. For each line (or two) in the lyrics, students produce an image that represents what the lyrics mean. They can also be abstract. For example, for the song Demons by Imagine Dragons, students drew the following for the first four lines:
- ‘When the days are cold’ – Just a cold day with snow and a snowman
- ‘And the cards all fold’ – Random cards on a table (they opted for a white table to link to the snow)
- ‘And the saints we see are all made of gold’ (both lines one image) – Saint statues made of gold
At the of the lesson, or at the start if it was for homework, students explain the line in the lyrics and how their drawing represents that line. They can also describe their choice of image or colour if they are artistically inclined. This is repeated for several lessons until you have a drawing for each line (or two lines). Scan all the drawings and make a folder for the students. They then access their drawings and make a ‘music video’ by using their images. They can also add the lyrics to the video or additional comments. The images change with the lyrics and students end up with their own ‘music video’ but also with much more engagement with the song lyrics.
How do I come up with my own ideas?
There are several different ways to get started.
Think of a few songs you like and why you like them. Then think about how you can generate the same feeling towards the song in the students by letting them experience the song. This means starting with the song and the emotion and meaning attached to it, rather than trying to find a song that fits a specific language point. Let the song be the basis of the lesson.
Look online for facts (or fun facts) about the songs and include these into your lessons. This could also be done with music videos, for example, in You Belong with Me by Taylor Swift, she plays both the nice girl and the mean girl in the music video. These facts allow for an additional hook that could get learners more interested in the song and song choice.
Let learners suggest songs they like and use these in your lessons. One of my students suggested using Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and in the end, we had a long discussion about Elton John and his partnership with Bernie Taupin. This led us to question whether when Elton sings ‘I should’ve stayed on the farm,’ or ‘I’m not a present for your friends to open’, is he singing his words or Bernie’s words. Looking at the history of the pair just before that song came out puts the entire song in a different context.
In terms of looking forward, I can summarise the blog post in one sentence. If you really want to mine language and increase creativity and engagement, let the song be your starting point. Music is a huge part of our lives, and we don’t do it justice if we only use songs as an afterthought or an additional extra in our lessons. Make it the lesson.
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