Music is great, it was one of the things that first drew me to Spanish as a beginning language learner. I loved the rhythms and melodies and I would imagine that I could understand all the words. I couldn’t, I still can’t, even though I am fluent in Spanish at this point, but hey, I can’t understand all of the words in English and that is my first language. I remember as a child every Christmas I would loudly and happily sing “one-horse soap and sleigh!” while singing Jingle Bells until one year I stopped and listened to myself and thought, that makes no sense. Why am I singing about soap? There are whole articles devoted to misheard lyrics and they are hilarious!  Here is one about the 40 most misheard song lyrics in the UK. I particularly like the one in which people hear “farting carrots” instead of “14 carat”.  

So if most people can’t understand all the words in songs in their first language, why is music such a great thing to use when teaching beginners?   

  • Motivation– music is a great way to connect with the culture. The desire to know what a song it about is a fantastic way to stay motivated to learn a language.  I have found that I am most successful in learning when I fall in love with the things the language does, and what language does best is sing.  
  • Music is meant to be listened to over and over again. How many times have you listened to your favorite song? I would be willing to bet it is a lot more times than you have watched your favorite movie. Music can be listened to in a focused way for learning, but it can also be listened to while walking, riding the train, doing the dishes etc.  Music doesn’t need a desk and a chair the way writing or serious focused study often does, it can be enjoyed on the go and that can greatly expand the about of time a student can spend being exposed to English especially in an EFL setting.
  • Music contains the rhythms of the target language (if you listen to music that was composed for that language). Many songs are covered in languages other than the original ones they were composed for, and you probably wouldn’t want to use those to teach rhythm, but songs that were written in a particular language often contain the rhythms and stresses of that language. While most people who learn a language past puberty have an accent, many people can sing completely accent-free regardless of when they started learning and what level they have achieved. This article in The Guardian describes how the author improved his pronunciation in Spanish and Portuguese by singing along to songs he loved.
  • Language stimulates different parts of the brain than speaking does. The more parts of the brain you get involved in learning the better. Music also stimulates emotion which in turn stimulates memory, both great things for learning language. According to Elizabeth Landau for CNN, “Brain regions involved in movement, attention, planning and memory consistently showed activation when participants listened to music”.
  • Music is universal. All cultures have at some point in history produced music and most of them produce it prolifically. People listen to it during  most important celebrations as well as the everyday events in their lives.   Music brings us together, even in a language class.  

7 Things you can do with Music in Beginning  ESL Classes.

1. Listen for the word. Even if your students can’t hear every word in the song, they probably can hear one or two words. Have students listen for specific vocabulary, how many times do they hear it? Then have them talk to a small group who listened for other words. Together figure out the most to least heard words.

2. Cut up the lyrics to a simple song, listen to it, put it back together, and then act it out. Music makes us move our bodies and moving our bodies helps us to remember things like grammar and vocabulary so get your students up and moving.

3. Song and Video match. Put up listening stations around the room using QR codes. Let each group listen to 1 or 2 songs and write any words they can hear. It is important that they only listen, don’t watch the video yet. Then play the first minute of each video without sound. After each minute, have the groups discuss if they think the video went with their song or not. They have to have a reason that they think yes or no. After going though each song, play the rest of the songs with sound and listen to hear if they were able to match the song with the correct video.

4. Make your own songs. Give students a short list of vocabulary words and then give them a choice of different kinds of music (classical, rap, rock, heavy metal etc.) Ask them to pick 2 different kinds and create lyrics for both using the vocabulary words. 

5. Introduce students to 5-10 vocabulary words in a song before listening. Then give them either picture cards that represent those words or written words. They must put the word cards in the order that they heard them. Then have students compare what order they heard and see if they can recreate any of the other words.  Then give the students the lyrics to check if they put them in the correct order or not.  

6. Choose an easy song and then play like Weird Al Yankovic and change the subject of the song.  Create a funny music video to go with it. You could show students the Micheal Jackson Beat it and Weird Al’s Eat it for inspiration. 

7. Use music to teach pronunciation. The brain processes music differently than it processes speech. For a list of 11 songs that will help your students with pronunciation, check out this blog from Pearson. You can look at where the stressed parts of the words are and how that changes the way they sound. I have found that one of the biggest problems in pronunciation is on the stressed syllable. If someone puts the stress on the wrong syllable it is almost impossible to figure out what they are trying to say.

Resources that will help you use Music in your Beginning ESL Classes

Simply Ieva has a wonderful blog in which she shares lots of ideas on how to teach ESL including how to use music in the classroomShe also has a post on where to start when teaching ESL to beginners.

JasonFluency MC uses music to help students learn all kinds of English.  Check out his YouTube channel.

Beginners can be so much fun to teach.  I feel that one of the biggest jobs a teacher of beginners has is to inspire a love for the language they are teaching.  Music is a fantastic way to do that.  Visual images are also very important so be sure to check out this post on How to Teach ESL to Beginners Using Photography.

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