If you’re anything like this writer, you’ll remember some of the foreign language lessons you took in school.
Fine, you might not know how to ask for coffee, where the bank is, or how to start a conversation that isn’t about going swimming on Saturday. However, you’ll probably remember a few songs. ‘Frere Jacques’ might inspire fond memories of learning French – or send shivers down your spine.
Whatever language you learned, chances are there’ll be a song or two entwined in those lessons. As it turns out, there’s a reason for using music in the foreign language classroom; it can improve vocabulary, writing fluency, listening abilities, phonetic skills and other linguistic attributes.
So, get your sheet music out and start taking notes: we’re going to dive into the world where TEFL meets music.
It should go without saying that nursery rhymes are particularly useful for younger learners. Even in our own native languages, we’re taught nursery rhymes at a young age, and they help to define words and phrases, deal with syllables for the first time, and even develop a taste for melody.
However, it doesn’t necessarily just need to be young learners. Nursery rhymes are extremely useful for learning words and phrases at any age. Fine, a class of adult learners is unlikely to need to know the phrase “and on that farm, he had a cow”, but the point remains.
Giving language a sing-song element can really improve punctuation, pronunciation and other key foundational elements of a language. Whether you’re teaching 5-year-olds or 55-year-olds, any new learners will benefit from having simple phrases spelt out through song.
Using songs that are currently popular works in a few different ways. For one thing, it’s a way to connect with students and shows you have an understanding of culture that might be relevant to them.
Another advantage is the ability to study lyrics: what does today’s hit song actually mean? Learning the lyrics with a class (provided they’re appropriate for the age group!) can deepen an appreciation for the song(s) you’re covering, and it adds an extra layer for people learning English to understand what for example, Taylor Swift, is talking about.
Additionally, like nursery rhymes, studying pop music can have hugely beneficial learning outcomes. Lyrics often use phrasings which appear commonly in conversational language or use turns of phrase/idioms that crop up in other listening exercises. What’s more, combining something cultural that students like with the actual study of language can only have a positive impact, in the same way that a football fan listening to foreign commentary might have the urge to pick up certain phrases.
Does it have to be a current pop song? No, of course not. If you want to use the Beatles, use the Beatles. If you want to use the Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Protect Ya Neck’ to make a point about slang phrasing, then go ahead. Again, that is, if it’s age appropriate. Trust common sense on this one.
Using your own songs
If you’re currently imagining Jack Black in School of Rock teaching maths with his Gibson SG, you’re actually not that far away.
Using your own songs, or coming up with little ditties while trying to get across a linguistic point is far from a terrible idea. The catchier, the better; just as long as it teaches something of value, then you’re off to a flyer.
Take, for example, Fluency MC. In this video, which has racked up hundreds of thousands of hits, Fluency MC explains irregular verbs in a way that’s instantly memorable. Other TEFL teachers might choose to use different genres, but the point remains the same – if you’re able to write melodies that contain lessons, your students are likely to pick up what you’re putting down for them.
Fine, not everybody has musical talent. However, with music software so widely available, anyone can put a chord sequence together and make up a little song about a quirk of the English language. Why not try it?
Encouraging students to write lyrics
Now, this might sound far-fetched, but is it?
Consider your early English lessons at primary or elementary school. You’re likely to have been tasked with writing a poem, or short fiction. Is an exercise that involves writing lyrics so different? Pick a song that students will naturally know, and see if your pupils can be creative.
Admittedly, this can be a risk with more anxious students, but we’re not suggesting everyone take turns singing to the class. No; this can be a homework assignment, or something that’s done in class.
Most pop song lyrics are in the form of verses, a bridge and a chorus. If you pick an easy song template (sorry if you’re into Grateful Dead or Tool) and ask students to use the vocabulary they have to put together some lyrics.
This can be particularly useful in learning the flow of a sentence and finding words that rhyme in a different language. Long-term, that can absolutely help in retaining vocabulary – rather than struggling for a word or phrase, your student might remember something from the song lyrics they wrote.
Worst-case scenario, you’ve gotten your students to attempt writing in verse in a foreign language. That can’t be a bad thing.
Playing music in the classroom
If none of the previous options apply or aren’t tempting enough for you, there’s a failsafe: playing music in the classroom.
Background music can have stimulating effects, and aid classroom performance. According to a 2022 study into background music and classroom performance at California State University, “students were surveyed and asked if they felt music helped their productivity and every single one answered that it either always helped or sometimes helped”. Music in the classroom can have positive effects on attention, and in some cases, help focus and reduce wayward behaviour.
It also works on a subconscious level. Playing English-language music in the classroom while students are working on a task can filter in phrases and words that students mightn’t have exposure to elsewhere.
The music doesn’t need to be studied, as such. However, you can introduce certain artists, themes and phrases while students are focusing on other tasks.
It’s also – let’s face it – a great way to justify playing the music you like while you work! Again, make sure what you’re playing is age-appropriate and has at least some educational value that goes beyond “Well, why wouldn’t you benefit from hearing Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’?”.
Music and TEFL: A Winning Combination
We’re not saying every teacher has to know their minor from their major, their pentatonic from their chromatic, their Mozart from their Mariah Carey. However, for the musically inclined TEFL teachers amongst you, rejoice: there are benefits to combining the two!
Whether it’s getting students to write lyrics, or just playing background music during classes, music is a great way to communicate language ideas, including puns, metaphors, wordplay in general and sentence structure.
So, regardless of whether you play the triangle or just have something to say about a lyric, consider using music in your TEFL classes!
Interested in using music in the TEFL classroom? Then get inspired and listen to the first episode ‘I Taught English Abroad’ Season 2 with Fluency MC!