How Music and Song Facilitate Language Learning

By Anna Kuśnierek

Adapted by Anna de Vincenz

 

keyThe passion for music is deeply rooted in human nature and music has always played a significant part in people’s lives. According to McDermott and Hauser (2005, 29), music is found in every human culture. Music is a rich language in and of itself, nonetheless, using songs for classroom teaching, specifically teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) is not particularly popular. For most people, listening to music is associated with leisure, not working, or learning activities (Murphey 1992, 7).

There are numerous reasons for incorporating music into the classroom. These include: to encourage a positive attitude toward learning; to develop automaticity; to engage and motivate students; to facilitate learning about a culture; to enable learning of vocabulary and grammar; to introduce the rhythmic and colloquial aspects of the language; to ease the burden of teachers’ workloads; and to maintain discipline in the classroom.

According to Krashen, cultivating a positive attitude toward learning is accomplished through the “affective filter hypothesis.” “For effective learning to occur, the affective filter must be weak. A weak affective filter means a positive attitude to learning is present” (Krashen 1982, 45). Music may be a good method for creating a weak affective filter (Kurtoğlu-Eken 1996, 46). A weak affective filter means less learning anxiety, less negativity, increased self-confidence, and increased receptivity. In particular, playing quiet, background instrumentals in the classroom can make students feel more secure while they work on assignments (Griffee 1992, 4).

Automaticity and Language

Once a positive attitude to learning has been facilitated, it is important to develop automaticity. Automaticity is the “component of language fluency which involves both knowing what to say and producing language rapidly without pauses” (Gatbonton and Segalowitz 1988, 473).  When one learns language through singing, there is a natural rate, rhythm, and flow to the expression, and much of the struggle to find words, produce correct grammatical constructions and perfect one’s pronunciation is eliminated.

Popular songs express students’ interests and experiences. Many popular songs convey universal themes of friendship, love, dreams, and sorrows and therefore they can be a motivating and unique teaching tool. Use of popular music in the classroom can increase students’ motivation when classroom tasks reflect their knowledge, experience, musical taste, and the vocabulary they know from the songs (Baoan 2008). A further advantage of using songs in the classroom is that they teach linguistic information, such as vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, enabling students to acquire this knowledge with minimal conscious effort.

Motivation is important in learning all school subjects and it plays an even bigger role for those studying a foreign language (Williams and Burden 1997; Siek-Piskozub and Wach 2008, 144).  Learning a language is a long-term process and students need to maintain their efforts over a long period of time, overcoming numerous failures and difficulties (Dorneyi 2007, 727–728). Since people usually identify songs with fun, learning through songs becomes enjoyable.

Listening to songs is an excellent way of learning about the culture of a specific country. Music is not universal; it reflects the time and place that produced it (Griffee 1992, 5).  European Christmas carols, for example, tell the history and geography of their time and place of origin. Many songs about cities tell of their famous sights, feelings and sounds (Griffee 1992, 5).

Sensitivity to Rhythm

Sensitivity to rhythm is a fundamental first step in language learning. When music and songs are used in the classroom, the students are exposed to the rhythms of the language (Griffee 1992, 4). In addition, popular songs include many colloquial expressions, as opposed to the artificial language used in many textbooks. They are, therefore, a good way to incorporate “living speech” into the classroom (Griffee 1992, 5). The song, “My Best Was Never Good Enough,by Bruce Springsteen, incorporates examples of colloquial English (Schoepp 2001), such as “every dog has his day” and “every cloud has a silver lining.” As students studying EFL will ultimately encounter the informal language of conversation outside the classroom, studying songs can prepare them for the authentic language they will eventually need to understand and use.

Not only are songs appealing to students, they are often attractive to teachers. Many songs are short and self-contained and easy to use in a lesson. In addition, the supply is almost infinite and there is a broad range of titles from which to choose (Griffee 1992, 8).

When young students are disruptive, music can be used as a means of discipline. Singing a song is a lockstep activity, in which all the students are engaged in the same exercise at the same time (Szpotowicz and Szulc-Kurpaska 2009, 196). A song may also be a reward for good behavior. Singing is a nice departure from traditional in-class language tasks and may provide a break from the monotony of a typical lesson.

Although incorporating music in EFL teachings has many benefits, some factors must be considered.  Playing songs loudly may disturb neighboring classes or cause excess excitement and lack of discipline among students (Murphey 1992, 8–9). Another issue is taste in music; what some students like, others may not. Teachers often complain that when they introduce songs in class, students want to listen and do not want to work. Songs may be unintelligible to students if they contain many colloquial expressions or if the lyrics are sung quickly or unintelligibly. Finally, songs that explore charged topics, like violence and sexism, may be inappropriate for some ages and in some school settings (Siek-Piskozub and Wach 2006, 91–97).

No Explicit Rules

There are no explicit rules for selecting a song for the classroom, but several factors should be weighed. First, teachers should take the students’ age into consideration, as young students may not be able to understand songs with difficult or sophisticated concepts. In addition, each age group has its musical favorites, which should be given preference. An additional factor is the time of the day at which the song is played. Students may be tired in the late afternoon or evening and music can be used to energize them. When students are restless or undisciplined, music can be used to calm them (Griffee 1992, 6–7). Certainly, the most important criterion is that the song further the teaching of a language goal. The song should have clear instructional value, such as a teaching a specific grammatical structure or vocabulary set.

A teacher may also use music to set a mood, or play music while students are doing routine activities. Background music may be used to create a particular atmosphere while students work on specific tasks, for example, “space” music while discussing life on other planets. Finally, music may be used for relaxation between demanding activities (Scrivener 2005, 339).

Songs are traditionally presented in three stages: pre-study, study, and post-study. The purpose of the pre-study stage is to prepare students for the thematic, linguistic, educational, and psychological goals of the activity (Davanellos 1999, 14). At this stage, the students are introduced to the subject matter, key vocabulary, and any other important linguistic information. An essential element of the pre-study stage is to create a reason and motivation for the students to want to listen to the song.

The second or study stage is the focus of the lesson, during which the students complete activities and tasks that directly concern the song. For instance, while listening to “An Englishman in New York” by Sting, the students might identify the subject matter of the song. Other tasks might involve listening to or reading the lyrics and noting whether sentences are true or false, or underlining specific parts of the text (Davanellos 1999, 14).

The third or post-study stage involves activities that practice the productive skills of writing and speaking. For example, post-study activities for “She’s leaving home” by the Beatles, might involve the students either writing the letter the girl wrote to her parents, or role-playing the dialogue between the girl and her parents. At this stage, the activities include the assimilation of previously taught language with new language and ideas introduced through the song (Davanellos 1999, 14).

Multiple Uses in the Classroom

Songs may be used in the classroom in many ways. The students might listen to a song then discuss their reactions and interpretations.  Printed lyrics may be distributed to students to help them take part in discussions (Scrivener 2005, 338). A well-known exercise is “gap filling”: Partial lyrics of a song are distributed to students and their task is to fill in the missing words as they listen to the song.

A variation on this task is to change it into a pre-listening activity where students predict the missing lyrics (Scrivener 2005, 339). A song jumble has the students order the jumbled lines of a song in sequence then compare their answers. This activity can also be done with pictures that illustrate the lyrics of a song. Action movement is a song activity for students at beginner levels. Students listen to one verse at a time and perform mimed actions to accompany the lyrics. They then present their pantomimed versions to their classmates. In a more challenging task, students can be asked to compose their own lyrics to a tune (Scrivener 2005, 339).

To conclude, use of music in the classroom is a valuable pedagogical tool for encouraging foreign language learning. Listening to music is enjoyable, engaging, motivating and can make learning English as a foreign language less daunting and effortful, while at the same time helping students acquire the building blocks of the language.

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Anna Kuśnierek is a faculty member at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland in the Faculty of English. The article is based on her MA Thesis “The Role of Music and Songs in Teaching English Vocabulary to Students” at the Department of English Language at the Higher School of Foreign Languages of Samuel Bogumił Linde in Poznań.

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