Singing the Praises of Songs:
Ideas for Using Music with your EFL Students
by Gabi Bonner
''Songs are like an EFL teacher's Swiss Army Knife: portable, multi-purpose, handy, easy to use, and really just fun!'' (Murphey: 2002).
We hear songs on the TV, on the radio, in the supermarket, in the restaurant, at the pub, at concerts. We sing songs at religious services, in our head, in the car, under our breath (hopefully) when walking down the street, and even in the shower. Songs and music pervade almost every part of our lives and thus provide us with rich and invaluable examples of authentic material which can be easily exploited in the EFL classroom, with wonderfully positive results.
Why Use Songs?
The reasons to use songs in language teaching and the benefits of this are numerous and span all areas of language processing, from cognitive and linguistic to affective.
Using songs as part of language learning can be theoretically supported by Steven Krashen's affective filter hypothesis and it can also aid automaticity (Gatbonton and Segalwitz: 1988). Krashen's affective filter hypothesis postulates that optimum learning takes place in a non-threatening, low anxiety environment with high stimulation. According to Krashen, the learner's emotional state (his/her inner feelings and attitude) acts like a filter that can be adjusted and either impedes or welcomes input needed for language acquisition. Negative emotions, such as anxiety, demotivation or lack of confidence act like a filter and can prevent the learner from responding to the linguistic input from his/her environment. Music helps create and sustain an environment which evokes positive emotions, lowering the affective filter, and thus facilitating language acquisition. Songs also provide a break from classroom routine, and learning through songs develops a non-threatening classroom atmosphere in which the four skills can be enhanced (Lo and Li: 1998).
The main cognitive reason for using songs in the language classroom is that they help learners develop automaticity, which is 'a component of language fluency which involves both knowing what to say and producing language rapidly without pauses' (Gatbonton and Segalwitz: 1988). The ability to memorise is critical to the language acquisition process, since it would be virtually impossible to acquire language without memory. The repetitive nature of songs helps students to memorise and thus automatise chunks of language.
Songs can be used to help learners acquire vocabulary and grammar, improve spelling and develop the linguistic skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking (Lalas and Lee: 2002). Other reasons why using songs is advantageous in language acquisition are that it provides authentic examples of the target language and target vocabulary, grammar and patterns are modelled in context, and it's an enjoyable experience for learners and teachers alike.
Which Songs Should I Use?
Now that we've seen how useful songs are for language acquisition, let's have a look at how to use them effectively in the classroom. I've found it most motivating to use songs that the students are already familiar with, or songs of a genre that I know my students like. How do I find out what kind of music my students are into? Simple: ask them! Set aside five or ten minutes of a lesson near the beginning of the semester and do one of the following things:
a) Just have an informal whole class discussion about favourite music, singers and groups.
b) You could give students a few minutes in pairs or groups of three to brainstorm and try to reach a consensus on the most popular genre of music or group or singer and then have a whole class discussion.
c) You could set students a writing task for homework in which they are required to write about their favourite music/group/singer etc.
d) You could ask one student every few weeks to bring in a song that they like with the lyrics and possibly some background information on the singer or group, and then you can take it away and prepare some activities for the next lesson. Easy.
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