Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Can we do a song?

“A song is not just a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down”.

Yesterday one of my students in grade 4, came up to me with a CD in her hands and said “Enric, can we listen to this song, please?”

It was a really well done request, very spontaneous and, what’s more, with a perfect grammar construction. I felt very proud! But behind this polite question, I had to take a decision. How should I respond?

And then, I remembered an article written by Bob Hastings entitled Can we do a song? 
I couldn’t find the reference in Internet. But, here you are a summary of it.

Can we do a song?
Bob Hastings

...”You could, of course, explain that you have far too many important things to get through this term, and suggest politely that if she wants to listen to music, she can do it at home. But is that really the best way to respond to your student's enthusiasm for one aspect of the English language? Might it not reduce her motivation?

Alternatively, you could say, 'What a great idea!' and put the song on immediately. I mean, you do want to keep your students happy and motivated, don't you? But this is a risky course of action. What if the lyrics are totally unintelligible? What if they are all too intelligible but consist almost entirely of foul language and fouler thoughts? What if you play the song only to discover that it isn't even in English? Or worse, it's an instrumental, and you all spend three and a half minutes waiting for words which never come!

So perhaps the best response is to find the lyrics, listen to the song and decide if and how it could be used to help your students improve their English.

After all, there are some very good reasons for using songs in class.

Songs are memorable.
The words in songs stay with us. Even songs we don't particularly like lodge themselves in our memories, and we find ourselves singing them months later, complaining that we can't get them out of our heads. As for songs we like and consciously listen to, most of us still remember their lyrics years after first hearing them.

Songs motivate.
If a student asks you to play a song in class, it is because he is motivated by something about the English language. And if our students are motivated, they learn better and work harder.

Songs are enjoyable.
Of course, not everyone likes the same kind of music. One boy's meat is another girl's poison, and it is unlikely that those students who ask for a song by Green Day are going to be tapping their feet along to Britney Spears' latest. However, most students will still enjoy a song more than another reading text or grammar exercise. And disagreements among students can lead to some interesting speaking practice. "Britney can sing a lot better than Eminem!" "Yes, but at least his lyrics mean something!"

Song lyrics contain all sorts of grammatical structures and vocabulary.

Very often song lyrics are texts which tell stories or provide interesting topics for conversation.

Songs can help improve your students' pronunciation.

Without doubt, there are some good arguments against using some songs in class.

You can't make out what they're singing.
This is typical of heavy metal and grunge in particular. Now thanks to the Internet, we don't have to listen to songs until our ears bleed in order to work out the lyrics, but is there any point in using a song in class if it sounds as if it was recorded in a high wind near a motorway?

Maybe not, but check out the lyrics anyway. Even lyrics which are mumbled, grumbled or yelled in rage can make excellent reading material.

The lyrics don't seem to make sense.
Of course they don't. This is because very often they don't make sense. However, this is not necessarily an impediment to using them. We don't always understand every aspect of a poem, but that doesn't stop us from speculating on its meaning.

The grammar is not even correct.
Songs are authentic. They show English as it is really spoken, with all its irregularities and imperfections, not as some artificial sanitised model. They allow students to learn about the varieties of English and may even prepare them for the shock of hearing a native Londoner say "He don't know nothing". (anything)

Anyway, isn't incorrect grammar ideal for error correction exercises?

It's full of slang words no one's ever heard of.
This is especially true of rap songs. Again, this can be an opportunity - to show students that you don't need to understand every word to understand a text, and to give them practice in the skill of working out the meaning of words from the context.

It's full of taboo words.
Obviously "bad language" must be dealt with carefully. You must take into account the school where you work, the age of your students, and the feelings of both your students and their parents. But remember that swear words are ubiquitous in song lyrics, in films, on the Internet, and in real language use. So, rather than pretending they don't exist, we should perhaps give our students some guidance about when they are appropriate and when they are not.

It's full of taboo ideas.
Many songs deal with controversial topics, and rap songs in particular can be homophobic, misogynous and racist. Great care must be taken so as not to reinforce prejudices or to offend students' sensibilities. But perhaps some students, for example those in “Batxillerat”, can benefit from discussions on such provocative topics as domestic violence, terrorism or drug abuse. Those issues are prevalent in the media, on the Internet and in conversations in the playground at school, so should we ignore them? Or try to talk about them in a responsible way?

Of course, it is not recommendable to indulge every musical whim of your students. Some songs may be totally inappropriate for use in the classroom. Sometimes you might have to tell your student that you'd rather not do the song she loves in class. However, rather than dismiss her request out of hand, thereby killing a little bit of her enthusiasm for English, why not check out other songs by the same artist or ask if there is another artist whose music she enjoys? And other times?

Well, find the lyrics, play the song, motivate your students, and let them learn with music.

And remember: “a song is not just a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down”.

Bob Hastings is the author of Take Note (Pearson Longman, 2004), has previously written material for Fun English and English Zone and has more than 20 years of experience in ELT and teacher training in the UK, France and Spain.

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