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The Benefits of Using Music to Teach English as a Second language

Can using music in our classrooms really help our young learners improve their English?

If you’ve landed on this article it says one thing about you: you love innovating in the classroom. You’re not content to just follow the textbook, give hand-outs and bark at your students to quietly do their work.

You’re curious about how you should be using music to teach English as a second language.

You’re curious to know what benefits it might bring to your students and how it can help them make deeper connections with the English language.

For that we applaud you!

Keep reading to see how music can transform your students’ learning experience.

(PS: We’ve even linked to some FREE music resources for young learners that you can get your hands-on).

So, let’s dive right into the benefits of using music in your ESL classroom.

Using music to learn English can improve memory recall

Writing is a relatively new method of keeping records and passing on information. According to the British library, we started writing around 5,500 years ago but the oldest music instrument ever found?
40,000 years old.

Before writing, we relied on passing down stories and inter-generational knowledge orally, but we needed some type of system that made it easier to remember and recall that information, which is why we turned to poetry and music.

Why would poetry and music be better for memory retention?

Rubin (1995) suggests this may be because of the multilayered patterns of rhythm, sound, linguistic meaning and emotional content functioning simultaneously through music. When we layer meaning like this onto the thing we are trying to remember, like vocabulary and grammar, we can improve our chances of remembering it later.

This might explain famous anthropologist Jack Weatherford’s theory that traditional poems and songs seem to have been used as mnemonic devices for sending messages accurately over vast distances during the era of Ghengis Khan.

The military were forbidden from sending written messages, and Weatherford thinks mnemonic devices were a likely method that helped them remember their important messages.

Fast-forward to the 21st Century and there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that music not only helps us “learn words and phrases faster,” but that it can even help elderly people afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease express themselves and improve their mood.

But why?

According to Harvard Medical school, “listening to and performing music reactivates areas of the brain associated with memory, reasoning, speech, emotion, and reward.”

This revelation can explain why music has been so instrumental (pun intended…) for passing down critical inter-generational information and why music should be used in the ESL classroom.

As two-time British Council award winning teacher Adam Simpson puts it

What makes music such a great teaching tool is its universal appeal, connecting all cultures and languages. This makes it one of the best and most motivating resources in the classroom, regardless of the age or background of the learner.

On a more anecdotal note, here’s what one of our team members has to say about her experience learning languages with music;

“I was learning Dutch for a while, but I ended up moving to Spain and not the Netherlands so I stopped learning.

I can do some very basic things in Dutch, but virtually nothing.

However, I learnt a beautiful Dutch song called Elke Trein wil naar Parijs and I can still sing and understand a lot of the lyrics years after I stopped learning Dutch.”

Our ancestors were certainly on to something when they started using music to transmit and retain information.

Music teaches updated English vocabulary and slang

Music is a reflection of the culture that it comes from and its lyrics, being much less restrained than in formal writing, is a treasure trove of updated vocabulary and slang.

Using modern pop songs allows you to expose your ESL students to real-world English that’s harder to come by in a text-book. This will serve them well in actual conversations with natives.

And, because pop songs “occur at roughly half the speed of spoken discourse” (Murphey, 1992) they also help your students understand what’s being said in comparison to regular, native-speed speech.

Even if your students have a basic level, you can find music with simple lyrics and go through them as a class.

If you’re using music with lower levels, make sure you have a copy of the lyrics so they can follow along without getting lost. With higher levels, you can choose songs that are a bit more complex, where the singer may sing faster or sing about a more complicated topic.

Teaching English with music can improve student motivation and create more harmony in the classroom

Everyone learns better when they are relaxed, but does music help put learners at ease and actually improve their learning experience?

The research seems to conclude that it does.

Scholars like Huy Le (1999) have suggested that using music in the classroom “enhances social harmony” because it helps create a safe space for learning collectively.

When you think about it, it makes sense.

When we learn with textbooks and via reading and writing, it’s usually a more solitary activity. Everyone in the class has to focus on their own book and their own notepad, however singing as a group means that everyone has to cooperate.

You have to sing at the same pace as the group and each student is producing a collective work, in this case a song, rather than focusing on an individual activity.

Not only this, but because music is so embedded in our daily lives, from pop songs to football chants, experts like Mishan (2005) have suggested that it can be a highly motivating activity for language learners in the classroom.

However, we think it’s important to note that not all music is created equal.

To properly engage and motivate young learners in the ESL classroom we need to play music that matches their expectations of quality.

With YouTube, video games and modern pop music, kids have high expectations for their audiovisual content, and the plague of 18th century nursery rhymes in the classroom just won’t cut it when it comes to engagement.

One ESL teacher living and working in Japan, Stew Sensei, summed it up perfectly when he said;

When I first started my current role, kids between the ages of 0-12 were being told to sing “The Wheels on the Bus”. I could see straight away how uncomfortable this made the kids and went on to completely change the schedule to meet their needs. As I speak to more and more people, I realise that this is a situation happening throughout many Asian countries.

I think your content hits a market, especially in Japan, that is really blossoming at the moment. With the rise of KPOP and JPOP groups, who show off their synchronised dance moves, more programmes are being released that show students how to dance.

That’s why we’re dedicated to producing high quality ESL music for young learners that not only entertains them, but educates them.

Lots of language games can be played with music

Music can be a great help in creating ESL listening activities creating ESL listening activities for kids (and older learners too!) The extra benefit is that they usually don’t take any preparation time, or if they do it’s really not too much.

The extra benefit is that they usually don’t take any preparation time or if they do it’s really not too much.

For instance, imagine if your lesson has finished ten minutes early and your young learners are getting antsy to leave. You can choose an appropriate song, arrange the class chairs in a circle and play a quick game of musical chairs.

Zero prep-time and a lot of fun guaranteed!

TEACHING ENGLISH WITH MUSIC IS EASY WITH ONLINE ZOOM CLASSES

These days a lot of classes have moved online due to the global pandemic. Many teachers have been forced to adapt their teaching to an online context and they aren’t sure how to make these lessons as engaging as face-to-face lessons.

However, thanks to the screen and audio sharing options of Zoom, you can incorporate music easily into your zoom class.

Check out our article about how to teach kids online with zoom to get some ideas about how to easily incorporate music into an online lesson.

USING SONGS AS CONVERSATION STARTERS

One of the biggest joys of using music to teach English as a second language is how easily you can use it as a springboard for conversation.

You can have your students listen to a song, go over the vocabulary and then ask questions about what the song is about.

Let’s take an example.

Imagine your class are all young learners who need to practice body parts. You could play them this video from the ELT Songs library:

And ask them the following questions:

  • What is the girl singing about?
  • What does she say about the boy’s ears?
  • What does she have on her face?

But let’s say your class is older and more advanced. Maybe you have a class of fifteen year olds and you want to expose them to some real-world English and have a discussion.

You could use a song like George Ezra’s “Shotgun” and ask them what they think he means when he says “I’ll be riding shotgun”?

Once you identify the main vocabulary from the song you could open a debate about road-trips and where they would like to visit and why. They could even pair up and plan out their own road-trip that they have to present to the class (and decide who’s going to ride shotgun!)

You can find a lyric version of the video on YouTube and sing it all together as a class at the end.

READY TO START USING MUSIC TO TEACH ENGLISH IN YOUR CLASSROOM?

If you teach young learners and want to inject some life and dancing into your classroom, then we invite you to sign up for a FREE ELT Songs Account.
You’ll get instant access to 3 full units of our music video resources designed specifically for young ESL learners. We don’t just do music videos – we have grammar and conversation videos also to help build upon your students’ vocabulary.
You can create a free account and you’ll have instant access!
We’ll see you on Planet Pop!

Sources & further reading about the benefits of music for teaching & learning English:

Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel, and Peter C Brown (2014). Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

Rubin, D. (1995). Memory in Oral Traditions: the Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mishan, F. (2005). Designing Authenticity into Language Learning Materials. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Murphey, T. (1992b). The Discourse of Pop Songs. TESOL Quarterly, 26(4), 770-774. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3586887

Huy Le, M. (1999). The Role of Music in Second Language Learning: A Vietnamese Perspective. Paper presented at Combined 1999 Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education and the New Zealand Association for Research in Education: LE99034.

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