Using Songs in EFL Classes: Preliminaries

MA in ELT Programme
Graduate of the 2019 class of the Programme : Lingvistica aplicata – didactica limbii engleze, “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iasi


I will begin by presenting the huge impact of music on language learning, showing its place in the theory of multiple intelligences and discussing two well-known teaching methods. Then, I will present different learners’ response to music and its benefits during lessons, especially grammar ones. The last part includes different types of activities, at different stages of the lesson, focusing on different skills.

1. Introduction

Music is a form of art that students are very fond of due to its universal appeal. It is an essential part of a culture and students are interested in the cultures of the countries they learn about. Regardless of the learners’ age, music is fun and this is a very important aspect, because it can add interest to the classroom and improve student motivation. Songs reduce anxiety and increase the personal involvement of learners. They provide a change from traditional classroom routines, so they are innovative. The incorporation of music leads to a positive attitude to learning, which is a must nowadays, when it is a challenge to maintain learners’ interest throughout lessons.

2. Common features between music and language

Music is a means of communication, and there are some features music and language have in common.

First, the temporally organized acoustic signal is the starting point for both perceptions of speech and music. Second, both music and language have rhythm: systematic patterns of timing, accent, grouping. They both have melody: structured patterns of pitch over time.  Syntax is another common feature, both containing discrete elements like notes or words and principles of combination into sequences. The notes of a melody can be compared to the phonemes of a word. Last, but not least, both language and music convey emotion, so they both focus on affect.

3. The theory of multiple intelligences: the musical intelligence

Howard Gardner’s identification of musical intelligence as one of the basic eight has focused attention on music in a new way and helped bring it into vogue as a classroom tool. The other seven intelligences are: visual-spatial, linguistic-verbal, intrapersonal, interpersonal, logical-mathematic, bodily-kinaesthetic and naturalistic. He later added existential and spiritual ones to his theory.

He addressed different learning styles and suggested that the educational system be adapted to learning styles of all children, so that they are not forced to learn in a traditional way. He brought suggestions on various ways in which teachers might use his theory to teach and assess students. Gardner argued that the problem of academic failure is not due to student or teacher capacity, but to the system of measurement used to examine their capacity. Gardner’s theory had a great impact on education and professional orientation.

Musical intelligenceis one of the intelligences that are not valued as primary ones. The traditional view focuses on two intelligences only, verbal and mathematical, covered by the term IQ (Intelligence Quotient). Gardner defined musical intelligence as “the ability to enjoy, recognize, perform, and compose musical pieces; sensitivity to rhythm and speed”.

Musical intelligence has its own rules and reasoning structures, which are not necessarily connected to other types of intelligence. Music is an auditory language which uses three components: tonality, rhythm and quality of sound. Music is created through a simple symbolic system. The unlimited number of ways in which these three components combine gave birth to a remarkable variety of musical styles.

Out of all the intelligences, musical intelligence develops first. People have been exposed to sounds since they were in their mothers’ wombs. After birth, children get in contact with music at home and in their immediate surroundings, which is an important basis for the later musical experiences they will have in school. Musical learners are sensitive to melody and rhythm. They enjoy and appreciate musical performances, may play an instrument or sing, enjoy melodic speech and writing, may compose, may create and feel a rhythm to express a mood, may detect and analyse musical themes. They like to sing, hum tunes, listen to music, play an instrument, respond to music. They are good at picking up sounds, remembering melodies, noticing pitches/rhythms, keeping time. The students can be stimulated through activities that use songs, rhythms, sounds, clapping, stomping.

Nowadays, foreign language teaching cannot focus only on linguistic and communication competences. Gardner’s theory has as an advantage the fact that it recognises and values all types of human intelligence. The contemporaneous society needs multilingual individuals, able to find information outside the classroom too, prepared to work in teams and solve multiple tasks in any context.

4. Teaching methods that involve music

Two teaching methods that involve music are TPR, Total Physical Response, and Suggestopedia, often called Desuggestopedia.

Briefly, in a TPR activity children listen and physically respond to a series of instructions from the teacher; the songs used in this method are called action songs, as students perform the actions they hear. TPR is especially effective for beginners.

In short, Suggestopedia refers to the use of musical accompaniment in the teaching process which is meant to help learners relax. On the subconscious plane, music suggests that learning is easy and pleasant. Classrooms for suggestopedic teaching are specially equipped and designed in order for students to feel comfortable there.

Both music and movement, the key elements of these two methods, reinforce the linguistic material.

5. Age: an essential factor

There is no doubt that age plays an essential role in the language acquisition process. Up to ten years old, children are very curious to know and understand, they can adapt easily, they are spontaneous and flexible from a cognitive point of view. The intonation and stress system of a second language is assimilated up to this age, as many specialists affirm. The intrinsic motivation is strong up to this age, and the pupil is open to a multitude of learning activities.

 On the other hand, the older students and the adults manifest various degrees of “linguistic anxiety” (Johnstone 12). They are afraid to make their language knowledge public, because they know they are imperfect, they don’t want to be ridiculous or to be criticised. Language learning can be traumatic and frustrating for them. Learners very often suffer from acute anxiety which affects acquisition and leads to fossilization. Anxiety depends on the language learning situation students encounter. It is situational and depends on a multitude of factors. For example, in some classrooms competition and games may be seen as “anxiety producers” whereas in others, they may be a very beneficial way to foster language acquisition. It was found that anxiety and achievement are negatively correlated. Teachers should plan appropriately and focus on making a positive classroom environment. This can be made by: no negative evaluations, less error correction, no ranking, less test focus, allowing students to express their own views. However, teens are able to express their language anxiety whereas the younger ones (if they have it) are not.

“Modern techniques of magnetic imaging do indeed indicate that when language is being processed, young children differ from adolescents in the parts of the brain which appear to be activated” (6-7). This may be valid at least for speech, as most of researchers say, but others claim that it is valid for other aspects of language competence too, such as grammar.

Researchers have different opinions on this matter. Age is not the only factor that has to be taken into consideration. It depends on the context: a child who goes with his/her family abroad and gets in contact with people through that specific language cannot be compared to a child who learns the foreign language only as a school subject. It also depends on the environment conditions (teacher’s attitude and knowledge; number of students in class; frequency of the classes): a negative experience at an early age may harm children’s attitude to language learning. In the end, each age brings its own advantages and disadvantages.

Young learners’ positive attitudes to learning English derive mainly from their enjoyment of classroom language-games, but teen learners perceive their classroom activities as ‘learning’ rather than as ‘playing’ and their still positive attitudes are linked to this new perception. In other words, they develop an explicit concept of themselves as language learners and take pleasure from this.

Regarding motivation, young children are intrinsically motivated because it seems associated with pleasurable activities, while teens start to develop instrumental and integrative motivation. An example of instrumental motivation is learning a foreign language in order to prepare for a good job or to have an impressive CV. An example of integrative motivation is learning it in order to become more closely involved with its speakers and their cultures. It can be concluded that adolescents form clearer views as to their particular needs and interests than young learners. Teenagers learn language because it is meaningful to them. Children learn language because they have a natural affinity and also there is evidence of a deep need.

If they have the appropriate conditions for learning, young learners have a number of advantages over older beginners when learning a second language. The sound system is more accessible to them, both in terms of the pronunciation of individual sounds and of the patterns of intonation. They are less affected by language anxiety than older learners. They are likely to have more time available overall. An earlier start enables productive links to be made between first and additional languages, which can have important benefits for a child’s language awareness and literacy. They benefit from two types of processes: largely intuitive processes at an early age, complemented by more analytical processes later. There can be a positive influence on children’s general educational development (e.g. cognitive, emotional, cultural) and on the formation of a multilingual and intercultural identity (12).

On the other hand, education often has compensatory features for older learners, such as making up for missed opportunities, meeting people and maintaining or developing social contacts. Older learners may possess some advantages over younger beginners, too. They can relate to the concepts they have already come in contact with when learning their native language, so vocabulary acquisition and making inferences are developed easily due to this. They handle better the discourse of conversations and other language activities, so they are able to gain feedback and negotiate meaning with native speakers and teachers. They are likely to have acquired a wider range of strategies for learning. They may have a clearer sense of why they are learning a foreign language, so they may be able to work purposefully towards the objectives of their own choosing.

According to Ellis (1994), the differences between young and older learners can be seen from separate, but related points of view. Regarding the rate of second language acquisition, it was proved that older children learn more rapidly than younger children. In terms of the acquisition of native-speaker proficiency, there is a tendency to state that older learners of a second language rarely achieve the native-like fluency that younger learners display, despite often progressing faster than children in the initial stages. This discussion is closely related to the critical period hypothesis, which needs a separate analysis. Regarding the learners’ second language achievement, Singleton said:

Concerning the hypothesis that those who begin learning a second language in childhood in the long run generally achieve higher levels of proficiency than those who begin in later life, one can say that there is some good supportive evidence and that there is no actual counter evidence (Singleton 137).

The effect of age on the process of second language acquisition appears to be minimal in the case of grammar, but possibly more significant in case of pronunciation. However, “in principle it is never too early to begin, but equally it is never too late to begin. Given a suitable context and support, learners of any age can benefit greatly from their attempts to learn an additional language” (Johnstone 13-14).

6. Benefits of using songs in class

Songs have a multitude of benefits in EFL classes. First, songs can be used in all phases of a lesson. Second, they are an opportunity to provide meaningful, spaced repetition. Moreover, they reinforce learning. They are also a great tool to modify the atmosphere, mood, and energy of the lesson. These are only a few examples of the advantages of songs in general. I mentioned these ones because they are also valid for teaching grammar.

7. Examples of activities for the four skills

Some useful activities in grammar lessons with songs are changing the lyrics, guessing games, correcting the lyrics, translating the title. Changing the lyricsisa great exercise for practising various grammatical structures and word classes, for example students have to change the Present Tense into Past Tense. A guessing game entitled Who am I? can be a good opportunity to practice questions.

The listening skill is probably the most frequently associated skill when talking about songs. Pre-listening and post-listening exercises mostly develop other skills than listening. Most of the pre-listening and post-listening activities are communicative and therefore develop speaking skills, but writing and reading should not be neglected.

While-listening exercises are completed by students during the actual listening. They are usually strictly related to the text. Gap filling is the most widely used technique in the listening stage.

It is recommended that the skills the teacher aims at during an activity to be integrated. Skills integration has many advantages. It is very hard to say about an activity that it practises only one specific skill and it completely neglects the others.

For activities focusing on the reading skill, it can be quite interesting to introduce a text to students, not telling them it is a song, but presenting it as a poem or a story. Teachers can play the song later at the end of the lesson. Asking questions, finding key words, missing words or phrases, ordering the lines of the lyrics are only a few examples of reading activities.

Writing can be used in all the stages, but it is the most frequently used in the post-listening stage, to enable students to use their imagination and give a personal response to the song.

Speaking can be used in any stage, for teacher-student interaction, student-student interaction, group discussion or whole-class discussion. Questions can be used before or after the song. Opinions involve bringing arguments. Students can interview the singer (pair work) or students can plan a video in groups, as video directors.

8. Conclusion

The importance of using songs in the teaching-learning process has been proved through their many benefits, for both young and older learners. Although children have an innate ability to learn any foreign language, they do not learn it properly if they find their lessons boring. In fact, children learn better through interesting activities. Their intelligences must be taken into consideration, because the musical one can be exploited in many ways.


  • Ellis, Rod. The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind. 1983. Basic Books, 2011.
  • Griffee, Dale T. Songs in Action, Prentice Hall International (UK), 1992.
  • Johnstone, Richard. Addressing ‘the age factor’: some implications for language policy. Guide for the development of Language Education Policies in Europe from Linguistic Diversity to Plurilingual Education. Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 2002.
  • Larsen-Freeman, Diane and Marti Anderson. Techniques & Principles in Language Teaching. Third Edition. Oxford: University Press, 2011.
  • Moon, Jayne. Children Learning English. Macmillan Books for Teachers, Macmillan, 2005.
  • Murphey, Tim. Music and Song. Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Patel, Aniruddh. “The Music of Language and the Language of Music.” YouTube recording. Library of Congress Music and the Brain Lecture Series. November 7, 2008. Web.
  • Singleton, D. M. and Lisa Ryan. Language Acquisition. The Age Factor. Second Language Acquisition, Multilingual Matters, 2004.
  • Scott, Wendy A. and Lisbeth H. Ytreberg. Teaching English to Children. Longman Keys to Language Teaching, Longman, 1990.

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