The Use of Songs in the Language Class

by Giuliano Iantorno & Mario Papa

From “Rassegna italiana di linguistica applicata”, Anno XI, n.1-2, Bulzoni Editore, Roma, 1979, pp.179-185

'An ounce of motivation is worth a pound of pedagogy’, said one of the participants at a meeting at the Foreign Service Institute in the U.S.A.; 'Make that a ton! An ounce of motivation is worth a ton of pedagogy', added another colleague. (1) Perhaps these statements are overenthusiastic but most of the people who work in the field of ELT nowadays agree that pupils’ motivation and interest are essential to learning. Therefore, rather than discuss this point any longer, we think it would be better to talk of a particular kind ol material which is often neglected by most teachers but offers a splendid opportunity to stimulate the interest of pupils: songs. As a matter of fact, songs are materials that reflect young people’s concerns. They represent the kind of material that pupils want to learn. Through songs it is possible to introduce a considerable part of the youngsters’ world into the classroom and to establish friendly relations with pupils. Moreover, songs provide an amusing and relaxing break in the usual routine of classroom activity. It would of course be absurd to claim that all the problems concerning motivation can be solved by introducing songs in the classroom, but singing is certainly one of the activities which generates enthusiasm.

Moreover, we should bear in mind that most of our pupils have not many chances to come in touch with the foreign language outside the classroom. Only a few of them will establish personal relations with native speakers or see films and plays in the foreign language, or read books and newspapers,

while almost all will be able to listen to foreign songs. For some of the pupils this could be the only possible contact with the foreign language outside the classroom.

Learning songs has undoubted advantages even on the ground of language learning in general. Traditionally listening comprehension has not been practised through songs because it has been considered too difficult for the average pupil. It is true that it can be difficult to understand a song not only for a pupil, sometimes even for a native speaker himself. In fact comprehension can be affected by the interference caused by the accompanying instruments, by the speed with which single words or whole sentences are uttered, and by the fact that many singers do not use a standard English or American pronunciation.

Today, on the other hand, FLT methodology stresses the importance that authentic language must be presented to pupils in order to train them in listening comprehension: dialogues recorded with different voices having different regional and social accents, dialogues containing the characteristics of spoken language, such as hesitation fillers, falses starts, and so on, fìlms,

broadcasts and lectures. (2). We think, therefore, that songs should be used to improve pupils' listening comprehension because they are another kind of authentic linguistic material that the students are familiar with.

Learning a certain number of songs leads not only to the coverage of the whole phonological system of the language but also helps develop the ability, which is so difficult to obtain, especially at the earlier stages, to pronounce whole sentences or phrases smoothly and fluently. The need for singing following the tune of the song helps fluency because pupils get used to

sound elision and assimilation, and learn to avoid glottal stops before words beginning with vowels. As far as suprasegmentals are concerned we must remember that the rhythm of the lines of a song is different from the rhythm of spoken language, therefore we cannot teach this through songs, while intonation is completely substituted by the melody.

Songs are also the basis for additional classroom practice. New structures can be presented in a memorable context or structures already learnt ca be used again in new contexts. We have experienced that songs specially constructed for the teaching of particular structures have failed to arouse pupils’ interest and have often proved to be boring and artificial. Young people enjoy folk and pop songs much more because of their authentic cultural content.

Songs help in the building up of vocabulary both passive and active. The lexical content of the songs is easily memorized because it is learnt in a particularly stimulating context. Items are not easily forgotten because they are repeatedly recalled every time pupils sing the song again. Of course the teacher will pay particular attention not to choose songs with obsolete vocabulary or a variety of language which is not useful for purposes of communication.

Songs offer a splendid opportunity to present some of the most importanat aspect of the foreign culture. This is particularly true of folk songs, easily available today, such as sea-shanties, western songs, working songs, drinking songs, Christmas carols, spirituals, blues, children’s songs, counting songs, etc. (3)

Finally we should not forget that singing is an exceptional teaching tool: in fact, students will take songs outside the classroom and will go on performing them long after the lesson has finished, purely for their own pleasure. Songs are unforgettable. Unlike drills, which usually slip from pupils’ minds as soon as they leave the classroom, songs can last a lifetime and become part of one’s own culture.

Bearing all this in mind, we have been using songs in the classroom for a considerable period of time with satisfactory results both in the ‘scuola media’ and the ‘scuola superiore’.

We describe here the procedures we have adopted in choosing and exploiting songs. Of course we have paid particular attention to the choice of the songs. We have tried to select songs which can be sung in chorus and which can be easily grasped by the pupils because of their catchy tunes. It is

important that the tunes appeal to the students, and the musical arrangements are modern, and lively. As far as the presentation of the songs is concerned, we think that every teacher should follow the procedures most suitable to him and his class. It often helps if the teacher sings the song and encourages all the students to join in. It is up to him/her to fix the time to be devoted to singing. A whole session can be dedicated to the learning and exploitation of one song or, on the other hand, the whole activity can be sprad over a number of sessions, devoting to it only a part ot the time.

Songs can be exploited in many ways. We give here some examples of exercises we have used successfully with our classes. Songs which contain lines and choruses that focus on grammatical patterns and are repeated many times (Where have all the flowers gone? We shall overcome, Blowing in the wind, Kumbaya and many others) can be used to practise grammatical items in a lively way.

The linguistic material cantained in the songs is very useful for activities which represent an alternative to the usual classroom routine:

I) Sung dramatization

Sea-shanties and working songs lend themselves to dramatization.

As they have a strong rhythm and were originally sung by sailors and workmen to accompany their work, pupils can sing these songs while pretending to hoist a sail or weigh anchor. At an elementary level the dramatization of the song can be useful to express through gestures, the meaning of some actions. For example, If you're happy is particularly suitable for this purpose and is always a success.

2) Comprehension and repetition exercises

The verses of some songs consist of only one line which is repeated several times. Once the pupils know the tune, the teacher calls out the first line, and all the class sings the whole verse, as usually happens in a folk concert. This way of singing is useful because it encourages the pupils to try to understand and to repeat the line suggested by the teacher so that they can

all sing together. Particularly suitable are, for example, We shall overcome,

Glory, glory, hallelujah, Where have all the flowers gone?, She’ll be coming round the mountain, I’m on my way.

3) Reconstruction of the song

When the students know the song moderately well, they can try to reconstruct it in two ways:

(a) By listening to the sung version on the tape-recorder. During this exercise it is necessary, of course, to stop the tape-recorder after each line, thus allowing the pupils time to write. The whole procedure should be repeated two or three times.

(b) By referring to 'key words'. The teacher should write the most important content words on the blackboard and the students should try to write all the lyrics. They should also be encouraged to feel that any change in the words of the song is acceptable provided that the change makes sense and fits the melody.

4) Summary of the song

When the song has a well-defined story, pupils can be invite to retell or rewrite the story in their own words.

5) From direct to reported speech

Some songs are written, entirely or in part, in direct speech. Pupils can retell or rewrite them in reported speech.

6) Dialogue writing

Pupils can convert the story of the song into a play creating a dialogue based on what they imagine the characters say to each other, as suggested by the story.

The exercises we have described up to now are entirely based on the linguistic content of the songs. They can be easily done in class at any time because the teacher need not prepare them in advance. On the other hand, the linguistic content of a song can be employed in the construction of new exercises which should best reflect the environment and the situation in which pupils live. Here are some examples of this type of exercises we have devised for our pupils in Salerno starting from lt’s a long way to Tipperary.

Exercise (a)

The aim is not only to practise the structure ‘Is it a long way from … to …?’ but also to train the pupils to ask and give information about distance. The techer asks the pupils: 'Is it a long way from here to London?’ eliciting “Yes, it is’. Then he asks ‘Is it a long way from here to Amalfi?’ eliciting ‘No, it isn’t’. Then the two exchanges can be written on the blackboard as models.


A: Is it a long way from here to London?

B: Yes, it is.

A: Is it a long way from here to Amalfi?

B: No, it isn't.

At this point pupils are invited to provide names of other places near or distant from the town where the school is. These are written on the blacboard in two columns.


Distant Places             Places nearby

London                       Amalfi

Paris                          Positano

Tokio                         Paestum

New York                    Ravello

etc.                            etc. (We live in a splendid place, don’t we?)

Looking at the models on the blackboard, pupils can build new exchanges using the names of the towns suggested by themselves.

A further development of this exercise is the following: the distances between Salerno and the other places nearby are written on the blackboard.


Salerno - Amalfi Km. 25

Salerno - Positano Km. 35

Salerno - Paestum Km. 40

Salerno - Ravello Km. 2l


Following the model given by the teacher, pupils can create new exchanges of this type:

I) A: Is it a long way from here to Amalfi?

   B: Oh no, it’s not a long way. It’s about 25 Km. (or It's only 25 Km,)

II) The structure 'How far is it from... to..'? which is common when you want to ask information about distances, can be introduced at this point.


A: How far is it from here to Amalfi?

B: It's about 25 Km. (or lt's only 25 Km.)

Exercise (b)

The exercise aims not only at having the pupils practise the

structure 'How far is it from... to...? but at giving them confidence in using maps written in the foreign language.

A map of Britain is shown to the class and Tipperary and London are circled in red. Pupils should find the distances in miles between Tipperary and London and other towns in Ireland or Great Britain. Once they have these data pupils can write or practise orally these exchanges:

l) A:Excuse me, how far is it from Landon to Liverpool?

   B: I think it's about 200 miles.

II) A: Excuse me, how far is it from London/here to Liverpool?

     B: Er...let me see,..ah yes, (it) must be about 200 miles.

(1) J.E.Alatis, The Urge to Communicate vs. Resistance to Learning in English as a Second Language, ‘English Language Teaching Journal’, XXX (1976) n.4, p.266.

(2) W. d'Addio, Lingua straniera e comanicazione. Problemi di glottodidattica

Bologna, Zanichelli, 1974, p. 35.

(3) We give here a short list of collections of song which have been published recently or are forthcoming:

M. Papa - G. Iantorno, A song-book. of Folk and Pop Masic, Bologna, Zanichelli, 1977.

M. Papa - G. Iantorno, Famous British and Ameican Songs, London, Longman, 1979.

A. Lomax, The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs, Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1974.

J Dakin, Songs and Rhymes, London, Longman, 1968

S. Titra, Be nice to spiders, be kind to snakes, Northbrook, Hubbard Press. 1973.

R. Vaughan Williams- A.L.Lloyd, The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, Great Britain, Penguin Books, 1973.