4 Dynamic ESL Activities for Pop Songs


Go beyond the traditional gap-fill when using songs to teach ESL. Here are four surefire ways to use music effectively in the ESL classroom. - By Lindsay Herron. 

Photo courtesy of Photosteve101.

After teaching for many years, first at a high school and now at a university in Korea, I finally came to a painful conclusion: I don’t like using songs in the classroom. I find the entire procedure quite tedious: gist task, gap-fill, language analysis, sing. Even when my students choose and teach the songs, everyone enjoys singing, but the listening part tends to suck the energy out of the classroom. But we need to do listening tasks and explain the language, right?

I think my ideas about how to teach songs have just changed.

You see, at the KOTESOL National Conference on May 26, I saw an exciting and inspiring presentation by Nico Lorenzutti of Chonnam National University: “Music and Song Beyond the Gap-Fill: 8 Dynamic Activities for Pop Songs.” In it, Nico outlined nine easy ways to make listening tasks more active and engaging. Here are four of my favorites:

1. Modified gap-fill. I love this idea! It’s so simple, I think Nico forgot to count it among his titular eight activities. Basically, you create a gap-fill as you normally would, but you leave TWO blank spaces instead of one. The first space is for the student’s guess as to what the missing word is, to be completed pre-listening; the second gap is for the actual word, to be filled in while listening and then checked as a class. Nico suggested helping students predict the missing word by providing some clues, Mad-Libs-style. I might try this next year with Westlife’s “You Raise Me Up,” which could look something like this:

“You raise me up so I can stand on (something tall) (G)_______ (A) _______. / You raise me up to (verb) (G)_______ (A) _______ on stormy seas. / I am strong when I am on your (body part) (G)_______ (A) _______. / You raise me up to more than I can be.”

I like this idea because it allows students to read, ponder, activate their background knowledge, and examine the language in order to make a prediction. It gives them greater investment in the song, letting them actively construct the song by using their own ideas to complete the lyrics. It also provides an opportunity for pair discussion and possible peer teaching.

2. Draw the song. This seems simple enough: listen and draw whatever you hear. Some teachers already do this, but here’s the cool twist: after drawing, students switch drawings with a partner. Each then describes to their partner their partner’s drawing (not their own)—often with head-scratching or hilarious results. I like this idea because the graphic prompts help the partners reconstruct the lyrics and interpret their meaning together.

The only problem (as I discovered firsthand) is that it’s easy to get so focused on getting a doodle just right that you miss other lyrics in the song and then are completely stumped by your partner’s illustrations. To avoid this, I think I’d let students listen twice before trading, or possibly just listen again while looking at their partner’s drawing, so they can mentally map each image to the lyrics, including some they might have missed the first time.

3. Changing the text. In this activity, the teacher gives students the lyrics to the song, but he/she has changed one word in each line. (Nico chose words that sounded similar to the original words; for example, he substituted “strange” for “change” and “blue” for “true.”) Before listening, students read the lyrics and guess which word is wrong; they then listen, check their guesses, and write the correct word. I like this idea because it naturally incorporates some language analysis; and like #1 above, it gives students greater investment in the song by piquing their curiosity and letting them decide what sounds odd before they receive the “official” version.

4. Definitions. For this, the teacher doesn’t initially give the students the lyrics; instead, each student receives a list of definitions. Before listening, the students guess what word might suit each definition, then they listen to the song and write the actual word they hear that matches each meaning. (For example, if the definition is “early time of day,” a student might guess “dawn,” and the actual word in the song might be “morning.”)

I’m really excited to try these activities next semester. I know my uni students will find them engaging, and I suspect the activities would be easy to adapt to lower levels and younger learners. Now I just need to choose the songs!

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Lindsay Herron has been a visiting professor at Gwangju National University of Education in Gwangju, South Korea, since 2008; prior to that, she taught English on a Fulbright grant at Seogwipo High School in Jeju-do, South Korea. She has a master’s degree in cinema studies from New York University and bachelor’s degrees in English and psychology from Swarthmore College, has worked at several top publishing companies in the United States, and recently finished her CELTA-YL Extension.


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