How to exploit the full learning potential of an L2 song in the language classroom

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How to exploit the full learning potential of a target language song in the L2 classroom

As Robert Lafayette wrote in his 1973 article ‘Creativity in the foreign language classroom’, ‘songs are often sung the day before a vacation, or on a Friday afternoon or when we have a few extra minutes’.

This resonates with my experience, and there is nothing majorly wrong with it – why not having a bit of fun for fun’s sake every now and then, especially when your students’ are tired or in festive mode? It can help create a nice buzz in the classroom, a sense of conviviality and breathes a bit of L2 culture into our lessons. And, who knows, some incidental learning might actually happen, with minimal preparation.

On the other hand, research does show that simply singing along to a song mindlessly, whilst being enjoyed by most students, doesn’t really do much in terms of learning enhancement. For instance, Carlsson (2015) found that, although the vast majority of her informants enjoyed singing songs, rather than benefiting from this activity in terms of pronunciation, some of them actually got worse in some problematic areas (e.g. ‘th’ in English) at the end of her experiment, whilst the majority made no progress at all

In 30 years’ experience I have observed many lessons in which classic or contemporary songs were used. However, I have rarely come out of those lessons feeling that the full learning potential of that song had been exploited. In fact, I often felt that very little was learnt at all in terms of the lyrics’ key vocabulary or structures.

This article attempts at providing a principled approach to the ‘linguistic’ exploitation of a song. This should not be taken, of course, as the only or best possible blueprint for exploiting a song as a learning enhancement tool. I am sure there are many other ways that I have not explored yet.

A nine-step framework for the exploitation of a song

Step 1: select the ‘right’ song

These are the most important principles one should heed when selecting a song for optimal learning enhancement:

(1) Comprehensible input – choose a song which you believe is linguistically accessible – with some support – to the target students.

(2) Flooded input – the song will ideally be ‘flooded’ with the target linguistic features, be them sounds, lexical items, and/or grammatical / syntactic structures. This is key.

(3) Linguistic relevance – select a song which is relevant to the linguistic goals of the curriculum, i.e. that contains lexis and grammar which is related to what the learning outcomes of the lesson and/or unit-in-hand are. Ideally the song should introduce, model, recycle or reinforce linguistic or culture features you have been teaching or planning to teach. It shouldn’t be a ‘pedagogic island’, as often happens, exposing students to language or other information that is not going to be revisited later on.

(4) Socio-cultural’ relevance and sensitivity – by ‘cultural’ here I do not mean the culture of the country, but rather the relevance to the sub-culture of the students they ‘belong’ to. For instance, if the group you are teaching is mainly composed of teen age rugby players ‘with an attitude’ you would not choose a romantic song stigmatized in their sub-culture as a ‘girly’ song. By the same token one must be careful not to choose a song whose lyrics and/or official Youtube video contain culturally insensitive material.

This is crucial when working in an international school or other multi-ethnic environments. It may be useful, before using a song in class, to play it to two or three students of the same age as and similar ability to the ones you are going to work on that song with. Their feedback might be a lifesaver!

(5) Surrender value – the song should contain vocabulary which is worth learning, i.e. that has high surrender value. This will include mainly high frequency vocabulary and phrases;

(5) Availability of relevant multimedia resources – it is practical to choose a song whose lyrics, L1 translation and video are available online and free. The lyrics available on the internet should always be checked thoroughly as they more than often contain spelling errors or small omissions.

(7) Memorability -The following are factors that usually affect the memorability of a song:

  • the lyrics are repetitive and patterned;
  • the music is ‘catchy‘;
  • it’s packed with sound devices such as allitterations, rhymes and pararhymes;
  • it is distinctive, i.e. there are specific features of the song (and/or in the video that accompanies the song) which make it stand out;
  • its content is socio-culturally and/or affectively relevant to your students. In this term, much consideration must be given to gender differences;
  • the speed and enunciation must allow the students to clearly hear the words;
  • the song tells a ‘story’ which is fairly linear and predictable;
  • the linguistic content is high frequency, which means that the chances of the students having encountered those words previously and of encountering them in the future, is higher

Step 2 – Pre-listening activities for schemata activation

In order to activate the learners’ prior knowledge and the language related to the themes and semantic areas the song taps into, the learners should be engaged in a series of tasks which, whilst recycling vocabulary they have already processed in previous lessons, engage them on some kind of reflection on the song’s themes. For instance, on a lesson centred on Kenza Farah’s song ‘Sans jamais de plaindre’, which deals with the theme of parent’s daily sacrifices for their children, in the first activity I staged (see my worksheet here) I asked the students to:

  1. Brainstorm and write down in French, working in groups of two, five sacrifices parents usually make for their children;
  2. Think about three people in their own families and list the sacrifices they have made in recent years to help them;
  3. List the qualities of the ideal father, mother and sibling.

Just as I have done in this lesson, this kind of activities should elicit language, in their execution, which is very relevant to or even equivalent to the one in the song.

In this phase you may also want to develop the all-important desire to listen. You could do this by:

(1) displaying a slideshow featuring photos of the singer and captivating images you will have found on the web which refer to the content of the song;

(2) showcasing lines of the song which are shocking, funny, witty or ‘cool’;

(3) playing on the classroom screen the most enticing parts of the song’s official videoclip on silent;

(4) (if they don’t know the singer) relating interesting facts about them that may arouse their curiosity;


Step 3 – Pre-listening activities to facilitate bottom-up processes during the in-listening phase

At this point, the teacher may want focus on facilitating the students’ understanding of the text through activities which involve working on the key lexis included in the song’s lyrics. These activities will involve semantic analysis of that lexis through split sentences activities, gapped sentences, odd one outs, matching exercises, etc. In the example given above, for instance, I took key sentences from the lyrics and recycled them (see the second page in the hand-out) through five vocabulary building, reading skills and semantic/syntactic analysis activities which focused on lexis, morphology, and syntax.

Step 4 – Listening to the song for pleasure

You should let the students listen to the song for pure enjoyment the first time around; then ask them to do any in-listening tasks.

Step 5 – Recognizing and noticing

Get the students to listen to the song again. This time ask them to note down any words they recognize and any words they don’t know but they noticed (maybe because they kept re-occurring) – spelling doesn’t matter.

After the students have jotted down the words, get them to pair up with one or more peers to compare notes.

You could then ask the students to throw the words at you and you could list them on the board, explaining their meaning in the L2 or translating them in the L1.

Finally, ask them what they think the song is about (this can be done in the L1 with less proficient groups)

Step 6 – Promoting selective attention and further noticing

At this stage the learners are given a gapped version of the lyrics of the song, where the words are provided aside. In order not to overload the students, I usually place a gap every two or three lines.

You will gap the words or chunks you want the students to pay particular attention to, because of their linguistic, semantic or cultural value.

If I want to emphasize a specific sound pattern I usually draw the students’ attention to it by removing words that rhyme, chime or alliterate with one containing that sound. After listening to the song three or four times, show them the complete version of the lyrics on the screen and ask to check and correct/fill in any missing gap

Step 6 – Working on specific phonemes

Explicit learning

After the students have filled in all the gaps, produce or play a recording of a specific sound that you know they struggle with (e.g. [œ]), then play the song again and ask them to  highlight/circle the words which contain that sound. Do the same with other key phonemes, making sure that they use a different highlighting/coding system for each sound. Then play the song again asking them to focus on the specific letters they highlighted.

Inductive learning

Write on the whiteboard two or three combination of letters (e.g. diphtongs) or syllables which recur a few times in the target song. Then ask your students, working in pairs, to underline all of the occurrences of the target item in the lyrics of the song. Finally, ask them to listen  to the song and work out how those letter combinations/syllables are pronounced in the target language.

Step 7 – Working on segmentation skills

Segmentation, i.e. the ability to identify words boundaries is a key micro-listening skill.

1. Break the flow – Give your students a version of a portion of the song’s lyrics (e.g. the first two stanzas) from which you eliminated the spaces in between words. Their task is to listen to the song and mark with a line the breaks you deleted;

2. Spot the intruder – insert as many small function words (e.g. articles and prepositions) as you can in between the words in the lyrics and ask the students to delete the ones they don’t hear when they listen to the song;

3. Complete the beginning / endings – delete the beginnings and/or the endings of every single word in a stanza / section of the target song. The students will have to complete the ‘mutilated’ words.

Step 8 – Working on general GPC (grapheme-phonemes correspondence)

GPC refers to the print-to-sound correspondence in a language. You could do any of the following activities, depending on your focus:

(1) eliminate all consonants or vowels from a few words or even lines of a song;

(2) eliminate specific syllables;

(3) jumble up the letters in specific words;

(4) split words in half (one or two per line max);

(5) (in French) underline the endings of specific words and ask your students to underline which letters are silent;

(6) write a few words on the whiteboard and ask your students to listen to the song and spot as many words in the song that rhyme with them;


Step 9 – Reading comprehension : Lexical level

At this point get them to work on reading comprehension through deep processing activities such as the following classics

(1) Word hunt – the students are provided with a list of lexical items / chunks in the L1 and the students are tasked with finding their L2 equivalent in the lyrics;

(2) Categories – identify the key semantic fields the key words in the song refer to, e.g. relationships, weather, time, and ask the students to spot and note down as many words as possible in the lyrics under those headings.

(3) Near synonyms/antonyms – give the students a set of phrases/sentences which are near-synonyms of phrases/sentences found in the song and ask to match them up

(4) Chronological ordering – provide a list of main points from the song in random order and ask the students to arrange them in the same order as they occur in the song

Step 10 – Grammar level

When the learners have been acquainted with most of the vocabulary and the intended meaning of the song, it will be easier for them to process the grammar. Thus, at this stage one can get the students to engage with this level of the text by asking them to:

  1. identify specific linguistic features. For instance, give them a grid with metalinguistic labels as heading, e.g. Adjectives, Verbs, Nouns, Prepositions, Connectives and ask them to find in the lyrics as many words that refer to those categories;
  2. work on grammatical dichotomies within a specific category: regular vs irregular adjectives, masculine vs feminine nouns, imperfect vs perfect tense. The students must note down items from the song that falls under either category;
  3. ask metalinguistic questions (e.g., in French or Spanish: why is an imperfect used here rather than a perfect tense?; which form of the verb is ‘Comieron?’);
  4. rewrite a set of sentences lifted from the lyrics incorrectly, deliberating making a grammar mistake your students usually make and ask them to compare it to the original version in the song and correct it;

Step 11 – Syntactic level

  1. Write the literal L1 translation of a few sentences in the song where the L1 sentence structure is different from the L2’s. The task: for the students to notice the differences between the two languages and extrapolate the rule.
  2. Write a sentence structure using a shorthand/symbols you have used your students to, e.g.: SVOCA (subject + verb + object + complement + adverbial) or “Time marker + personal pronoun + verb + preposition + article + noun’; your students are tasked with identifying sentences that reflect that structure.
  3. Write a list of subordinate-clause types your students are familiar with on the whiteboard, e.g. : time clauses, final clauses, modal clauses, etc. Then ask your students to identify as many clauses in the song which refer to those types.

Step 12 – Meaning building and discourse reconstruction tasks

After all the work on lexis, grammar and syntax, the students should be able to approach the meaning level – arguably the most important – with much confidence. Once removed the lyrics and other worksheets you have used with so far, you could stage any of the following classics:

1. Jigsaw reading / listening – give the students a jigsaw version of the song lyrics and ask them, working in groups of 2 or 3 to rearrange it in the correct order. Then the students listen to the song and confirm or rearrange;

2. ‘True or false’ tasks (as reading or listening comprehension)

3. ‘Comprehension questions’ tasks (as reading or listening comprehension)

4.  Summarising content in the L1 or L2

5. Bad translation (pair-work) – provide a translation of the song lyrics which contains a number of fairly obvious mistakes. The students are tasked, under timed conditions, with spotting and correcting the mistakes

Step 11 – Enjoy the song

Now that you are confident the student understand the meaning of the song and most of the words in it, get them to sing along.

Step 12 – Recycling and consolidating

This step is crucial, as you do want to secure a strong retention of the linguistic material your students have processed. Here are some tasks you could use:

1. Spot the differences – doctor the lyrics by making a few grammatical or lexical changes to the song and ask the students to identify them. The students will have no access to the original text; they will have to do this from memory.

 2. Gapped lyrics – the students are tasked with filling the gaps from memory

3. Disappearing text – The teacher writes a stanza on the blackboard. Usually the text should contain about 50 or 60 words, but this depends on the ability of the class. She asks a learner or two to read it. Then she rubs out some of the words – it is usually best to rub out function words like a, the, in, of, I, he, etc. at the beginning. Then she asks another learner to read it aloud. The learner must supply the missing words as they read. Then some more words are rubbed out, another learner reads, and this continues until there is nothing at all on the blackboard, and the learners are saying the text from their memory. It is best not to rub out too many words each time so that many learners have a chance to read the text.

4. Mad dictation

Mad dictation is a dictation in which you alternate slow, moderate, fast and very fast pace. This is how it unfolds:

1 – Tell the students to listen to the text as you read it at near-native speed and to note down key words

2 – Tell them to pair up with another student and to compare the key words they noted down. Tell they are going to work with that person for the remainder of the task.

3 – Read the text a second time. This time read some bits slowly, some fast and some at moderate pace. The purpose of these changes in speed is to get the students to miss some of the words out as they transcribe

4 – The students work again with their partner in an attempt to reconstruct the text

5 – Read the text a final time, still varying the speed of delivery.

6 – The students are given another chance to work with their partner.

7 – They are now given 30 seconds to go around the tables and steal information from other pairs

5. Dictogloss – the students listen to the song twice, each time noting down as many words as they can. They they pair up with another student and reconstruct the lyrics together.
6. Guided summary – Give them a list of words/chunks taken from the song lyrics and ask them to write a summary of the song including those items.
7. Substitution task – Underline key items in the song lyrics and ask the students to rewrite the song replacing those items creatively but in a way which is grammatically correct and semantically plausible
8. Deep processing tasks – you will stage classic vocabulary building tasks eliciting deep processing such as odd-one out, categories, find the synonym/antonym, split sentence, ordering, etc.
9. Quizzes to ascertain how much has been retained in terms of vocabulary, grammar, meaning, etc.

10 – Thinking-about-learning tasks – these may include any of the following:

  • Reflecting on the value of using songs for learning – Ask them to reflect on how songs, based on what you have just done with them, can be valuable for language learning and ask for suggestions on how they could benefit by listening to them independently. You can follow this up by providing them with lists of singers/songs they might enjoy or by giving them the task to find a French band/solo artist they like (to share with the rest of the class in the next lesson);
  • Noting down what was challenging about the song and the tasks performed;
  • Making a list of the new items learnt and rank them in order of usefulness for real life communication or reading comprehension purposes.


7 thoughts on “How to exploit the full learning potential of an L2 song in the language classroom

  1. I would put step 4 as step 1 . But glad you mentioned it.

    All the rest very good suggestions but I would also recommend for “full value” having student remix the song, make it their own through a rewrite of the chorus and singing / sharing their own version with their classmates. Creating their own product is a fundamental step in getting Ss to personalize language and identify with it, acquire it.

    Liked by 1 person

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