Incorporating Music Into the ESL Classroom

May 16th, 2014 | By | Category: In the Classroom, Intensive English Programs, Levels
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Grace Reece

Grace Reece


—In an IEP classroom, time and delivery of content is precious. We have agendas, calendars, and set curriculum. As useful as textbooks are, though, students are in need of integration of real social interaction, relevant media, and useful communicative strategies. The most ubiquitous medium is music. No matter what country my students are from, they have heard songs in English. They may not understand 100 percent of what they hear, but familiarity with artists and important cultural icons is important to many of them.

Recently, I assigned my intermediate students a project as homework. Here were my four basic instructions:

Step 1: Find an English song and identify two metaphors or similes in the lyrics.

Step 2: Explain the difference between the literal meaning and the metaphorical meaning.

Step 3: Speculate about the author’s reason for each metaphor or simile in the song.

Step 4: Teach the class about what you learned and share a 10-second clip of the song with the class.

These instructions were a bit precarious, I’ll admit, and initially I feared profanity-ridden, explicit content. So, I was honest with my students about my views of appropriate language. (I nimage of eighth notesever hide my expectations from my students, as I believe that transparency fosters rapport and effective communication.) Even with that limitation, my students excelled and blew me away. They brought in music from various genres, including folk, rock, metal, and pop. Without my directive, my students used PowerPoint, Google, and multiple iPhone apps, with beautiful explanations, poignant song choices, and thoughtful suppositions about purpose. They reflected upon the metaphors and similes they learned and similar language in their native tongues. But, the best result was their degree of enjoyment and involvement in their work.

Since this incredible experience, I have engaged students in researching verb tenses, vocabulary, and themes, all through the medium of music. In fact, I have attempted to take one unit or topic each week and incorporate music. One week, I will do listening exercises in which they have to fill in the blanks while listening to a song. Another week, I have them find a YouTube music video about a particular topic. The possibilities are endless. Consequently, what we are learning has become more relevant, more memorable, and more personal. They feel less and less like outsiders looking in on American culture. I believe that music has such untapped potential in the classroom. While it may be challenging at first to find where activities such as these fit into your schedule, I guarantee you that it will be a rewarding experience for all.

A Few of My Favorite Websites

English Club: This website offers many ideas about teaching using music, including benefits, techniques, and activities:

Agenda Web: Hundreds of prepared activities for all aspects of grammar are on this site:

ESL Through Music: With teacher-designed lesson plans, materials, and articles, this website is chock-full of resources that are ready to use:

Mondos: Song Lessons: Here, learners can listen to songs and practice pronunciation and vocabulary in a fun and interactive way:

Grace Reece teaches at ELS Language Centers.


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