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How to Teach Songs to ESL Students

It probably comes as no surprise that here at ELT Songs, we’re fans of using music in the ESL classroom! But the thing is, many teachers aren’t sure how to actually use songs in their lessons and how best to teach great songs to their students.

The last thing you want is to map out what you think is a great song-based lesson plan only to be met with awkward silence.


So we’ve dug out all of our best pieces of advice when it comes to teaching songs to your students. The focus of this article is mostly young learners, but some of the techniques we discuss here can even be used for adult learners too.

Here’s what we’ll be covering;

  • Why you should be using music in your classes
  • How to choose the RIGHT songs for your students (this is crucial)
  • Fun activities that’ll help you teach songs to your students (and get plenty of enthusiasm!)
  • A guest expert video on how to plan a great ESL lesson with songs (ELT Songs exclusive!)

We’ve got a lot to cover. Rev your engines and let’s take off.

Why you should be using songs in your ESL class

Did you know that many teachers have avoided using music in their classrooms because they’re not sure if it really has any educational benefits? To top it off, 89% of teachers that we surveyed struggle to find engaging ESL music resources (ELT Songs, 2021). So, even if many do believe in its benefits, they can’t find good songs to use anyway!

However, using music in your ESL class has a wealth of benefits and it should be a tool in every teacher’s toolbox.

So why is music so great for teaching English?

Music helps improve memory recall

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

The study showed that people suffering from memory disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease, benefitted from listening to music, especially music from their youth that triggered their memory.

Music helps us learn new words and phrases

That same Harvard Medical school study also highlighted 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.”

Music is repetitive which helps memory

Music has repetitive choruses and lyrics which reinforce the vocabulary and what we’re learning. We dare you to NOT sing the entire “Baby Shark” song now that we’ve mentioned it. (Sorry!)

Or tell us what’s next if we write “If you like piña coladas….”

Told you so 😉

Music has updated vocabulary

One major benefit for any ESL student is that lyrics are normally very colloquial and are a great resource of natural language. You can get really deep on this and let your students listen to genres like rap and hip-hop to get a feel for the range of expressions in English.

Music can help create classroom harmony

Who doesn’t want a little classroom harmony? 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.

We hope that’s convinced you of the need to use songs in your classroom, but if you want more advice on the benefits of music for ESL teaching check out this post.

It’s really important to note one thing though: using music to teach English will only work out well for you if you choose the right kind of music.

Which brings us on to….

How to choose the right songs for your ESL students

There’s a big problem in our ESL world right now: children no longer want to sing 18th century nursery rhymes or watch 2D animations, but that’s exactly what the ESL market is giving them.

Choosing the right songs to use in your class can make or break the lesson, so you need to choose wisely.

How to choose awesome songs for your lessons

  • Use modern music: you want to play music that your students would actually want to listen to if they weren’t in English class. Modern pop or rock music should be your first port-of-call. However, you should make sure that the song is age and level appropriate, which isn’t always easy to find.
  • Choose age & level-appropriate songs: make sure to screen any lyrics for swear words or anything else that wouldn’t be appropriate for class time. Using the Top 40 songs can be a great way to engage students, but they can also confuse them pretty quickly.
  • Find music designed for ESL students: if you can find engaging, modern music that’s actually designed for young learners, then you’ve hit the jackpot! You want to make sure the songs you’re using actually complement what they’re learning. That’s why all our songs are aligned to the Cambridge Young Learners curriculum.
  • Find songs that have actions: this has the added bonus of harnessing your students’ natural high energy and channelling it into something positive. As the British Council points out, listening to songs and performing synchronised actions is especially important for young learners who are helped by being physically involved with the music.

Now time for the fun bit: Activities that’ll help you teach songs to your students

Here are some of our favourite song-based activities that’ll turn your students into rockstars.

These activities are perfect for young leaners, so if you teach elementary aged students we think these will be great activities to have in your back pocket.

Before you start any of these activities, it’s a good idea to introduce any vocabulary/topics before you play the song. This can be done with flashcards or the textbook you’re using in class.

If your students are a little older, you can also introduce the topics with some open-ended questions to get the conversation going.

Once they’ve been warmed up, then you can introduce the song. Let them listen once to get the general gist, then you can move into the activities that we’ve outlined below.

Activity #1: Lyrics Gap fill

When your students first listen to a song they probably won’t understand all the lyrics. That’s why giving them a lyrics sheet can be really useful in helping them improve their comprehension.

However, we don’t want to make it too easy.

You can download the lyrics of whatever song you’re using in class and with some correction fluid, erase some of the words and make photocopies for your students.

Play the song once, without the lyrics sheet, so they can listen for the gist.

Then, hand out the worksheets that you made. Ask them to listen and fill in the words that are missing on their worksheets.

Don’t want to make your own lyric gap-fill worksheet? We’ve made one for you from a song that teaches kids about describing people.

Activity #2: Lyric Swap!

Continuing with the lyrics-based activities, this one is a great way to make sure your students are paying attention and honing their listening skills.

Once the students have filled in the gaps from the missing lyric activity, get them to cut up lines or couplets of the lyrics into strips.

Next, ask them to mix up the order of the strips.

Now play the song again and the students have to correctly rearrange all the lyrics before song ends.

Activity #3: Vanishing Lyrics

Now it’s time to go to the whiteboard.

Depending on how long the song is and how big your whiteboard is, write out the song lyrics on the board (or just the first verse/chorus etc).

Now, ask your students to read through the lyrics (or sing them together as a class with the recording).

Next, start erasing some lyrics and get the class to sing the song (without the music) and fill in the gaps as they go along.

You can do 2-3 rounds and erase more lyrics with each round.

Activity #4: Karaoke

You might just uncover the next Justin Bieber in your class by having a good, old round of karaoke!

The previous activities were more for working your students’ listening and reading skills, but now it’s time to get them to produce the language.

If you can find a karaoke version of the song you’re using it’s a great opportunity to give your students some speaking practice.

All of our songs come with a karaoke version for this very reason. To make things more interesting, you can get them to sing in the style of their favourite pop stars, or ask that they sing like a chipmunk, or that they whisper the lyrics as they sing.

Get creative! Here’s an example karaoke video from one of our units that you can use.


Activity #5: Bust some moves!

Earlier we touched upon the importance of incorporating movement into your music-based lessons, but what does that actually look like?

One activity we’re really fond of is breaking your students up into two groups and getting them to do a vocabulary dance-off.

To do this, you need a find a music video that has dance moves (or make up some dance moves yourself).

Your students learn the song, learn the dance moves, and then break off into two groups.

You play the song again and one group has to sing & dance, then it’s the next group’s turn.

The group who manages to best remember all the lyrics and dance moves can be considered as the winner, but you can also give prizes for the group who dances with the most enthusiasm etc.

The idea behind combining movement with lyrics is that it adds an extra layer of kinaesthetic learning for your students, meaning they’re more likely to remember the vocabulary from the song later.

Because we’re reaaaally nice, we’ve gone ahead and included one of our own vocabulary rap videos which includes some key vocabulary and associated dance moves.

Learn from an expert: Katherine Bilsborough on using songs with your students

We’ve been incredibly lucky to have renowned ELT author, Katherine Bilsborough produce content for our viewers.

In this video, Katherine is outlining (in just 6 minutes!) how to plan a whole lesson based around one of our song-filled units .

Now you’re ready to teach songs to your ESL students 👏

We hope this article has been useful to you, truly we do. We know everyone says that at the end of a blog post, but music & ESL is what we’ve built our company on, so we want to make sure as many teachers as possible are able to use songs in their class.

We’d also love to help you find music for your class that’s not only age and level-appropriate, but complements what you’re already teaching.

Teachers can get in touch with us to receive FREE access to ELT Songs content until the start of the summer holidays to see if our content is the right match for you and your students.



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