Almost everyone enjoys listening to songs, but often English language learners in Japan are not acquainted with many of the most well-known English songs, and if they do listen, they may find these songs difficult to understand and talk about.
We can solve this problem by using easy-to-understand and culturally relevant songs, and we can introduce these songs with compelling stories. Stories can be about a musical genre, a musician, or a theme in the song for the day. These stories can inspire interest in the songs, genres, and artists they introduce.
As we choose popular or significant songs for lessons, we can do a vocabulary profile of the lyrics to check the difficulty of the text and to provide vocabulary support for learners as they interact with the song.
After choosing a song, we can prepare a lesson using a set format of materials. For our algorithmic activities, we can include an introductory story, a conversation starter related to the song, lyrics with a gap-fill, a short dialog for practice, and a problem solver activity that helps students engage with the ideas and cultural themes in the song.
In what follows, I present sample lessons of stories and songs. I have used them in full 90-minute English language and culture courses. However, if time is an issue, teachers could use parts of these lessons as a supplement to a general English course, or they could use lessons like these over a period of a few weeks.
Before looking at the sample lessons, I will provide a brief rationale for using songs in language classes, and I will assume that we do not need to review the rationale for using stories as a part of this approach. For additional information regarding this topic, see Poulshock and Menish (2014).
A Brief Rationale
Though people have wildly different musical tastes, music is a cultural universal (Brown, 1991), and we would be surprised to meet a person who said, “I hate all music.” There are many reasons for the universal appeal of music, but perhaps we can just say that music is good for us. Neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin (2008, p. 74) sums up research about music and song, saying:
Music — and particularly joyful music — affects our health in fundamental ways. Listening to, and even more so singing or playing, music can alter brain chemistry associated with well-being, stress reduction, and immune system fortitude.
But music isn’t just enjoyable and healthful; it is also memorable. Levitin (pg. 154) also says that the information in music is schematized. We may easily remember song lyrics because they are embedded in the grammars of melody, rhythm, and rhyme.
To a degree, these ideas may justify using songs in language classes, but we still face a basic question. Can we use songs in classes as effective tasks for promoting language acquisition? The answer appears to be positive. For example, Kanel (1997) compared listening comprehension for two separate groups of over 300 students.
One group practiced listening with traditional non-musical materials. The second group practiced listening with gap-fill exercises using songs. Kanel showed that “both groups improved equally and made significant progress,” but the song group gave “higher approval for the time spent on the tasks and increased interest in English.” (Kanel 1997, pg. 217).
If students in both groups improved listening equally, but the music group enjoyed the process more, then perhaps we need to use music and song more in our English language, culture, and communication classes.
Now that we have seen a preliminary rationale for using songs in language classes, below are two sets of classroom materials that use stories and songs. The first introduces blues music and a classic blue song, and the second introduces Nobel Prize-winning songwriter Bob Dylan and one of his early songs.
Note: A version of this section was given at the JASEC Twenty-Sixth Annual Convention, October 14, 2017 at Kinki University