My interest in using songs in class stems from working with young adult learners of English in ESOL in the UK. Many of these youngsters were learning to read and write for the first time on account of the limited access they had had to school as children. The reasons for their lack of schooling were typically as a result of war, poverty or for having been born a girl. Education is something that many of us take for granted, but while working with these youngsters I became aware of the devastating impact that having no or limited access to school has on people for the rest of their lives.
At the time my role as an ESOL teacher was primarily to help these learners improve their English to enable them to access further or higher education or employment. To gain entrance though to such institutions was of course dependent on achievement in tests of one form or another. The issue here is that the learners’ knowledge and use of English is primarily assessed through written exams. Literacy had become their gatekeeper. Passing these tests was a major obstacle for them without significant improvements in their reading and writing skills and moreover in a format required by the assessment tasks. They were in effect being denied an education for a second time!
I remember with fondness a student from Laos who would sing Beatles songs to herself while working in class. I asked her about the songs she was singing. ‘Oh, I love the Beatles, I know all the songs’, she replied. This gave me the idea to make some song lyric sheets to use in class. There was no task design as such, the students simply listened to the songs and tried to follow the lyrics on the sheet at the same time. I used only very familiar songs to the learners. I also paid attention to matters such as the font type, size of lettering and so on, all very important factors when working with literacy learners. My intention was that such an activity would help the learners build their confidence in reading and perhaps to some extent aid them with word recognition, but I wasn’t being over ambitious.
These early beginnings progressed from paper to screen when we started a music sharing project on a class blog. The initial task was simple, the students searched for music videos they liked on YouTube and then embedded them as a post on the class blog. Then they wrote a few words or lines about the music video, whatever they could manage, and then we talked about the songs. Needless to say this was a very popular activity, it was a ‘literacy’ task they enjoyed and could manage. I had found something; after all they were youngsters who like most others loved music and could handle most digital technologies you threw at them.
A while later I moved to Valencia, Spain for a year after winning a European Union Grundtvig award to work as a language assistant in Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (state language schools). As part of my scholarship application I had promised to develop a school online discussion forum as a communal ‘writing’ space for the many students in the school. This seemed like a good idea, given that the school had over a thousand students and little time for English practice. With the design help of a very kind student in the school this idea was developed. The forum itself was moderately popular, plenty of lurkers but with only a few active participants. Nevertheless, one topic that got the most attention was music. I noticed that the students were sharing videos on the forum, and mainly lyric videos to boot. At the same time I started taking songs into class with me, perhaps ones associated with the topic or grammar point being studied. The students at the school were on the whole were well educated, and they were learning English in a completely different context to what I had experienced in the UK. But of course they still loved music; they still wanted to know the words to the songs and what they meant.
By this stage I was not only starting to see the benefits of drawing on songs in ELT but gained an interest in using video and subtitling (captioning). I set about looking for a way to subtitle music videos. I did plenty of googling and finally stumbled across Amara: ‘the most powerful and flexible subtitling platform in the world’ – a participatory foundation dedicated to improving access to the language of online video media. At Amara http://www.amara.org I joined the Music Captioning Team, a group of music video captioners and translators, all doing it for free. I was soon hooked myself and busily subtitling music videos. Having collected several videos I was in need of a place to house them (the videos are embeds from other platforms such as YouTube, no downloading takes place), and that’s how MusicEnglish http://www.musicenglish.co.uk came about!
About two weeks after setting up the site I was in Belfast doing a crash course in TESOL for English language assistants about to head off around the world for a year. At the time I had about 12 videos on the site and at the end of the session we played ‘Greatest Day’ by Take That, a kind of feel good song before their departure. A bit cheesy, yes, but it went down well. I was getting really good vibes about MusicEnglish, and the numbers of views on the site was steadily growing. Now there are over 400 subtitled music videos on MusicEnglish and I’m adding song quizzes (which were so popular in Spain) and song lesson plans as well as biographies of the artists. The number of visitors to the site is growing rapidly with on average 3, 500 – 4000 per week. Most of the visits are coming from English language classrooms around the world.
Now perhaps I haven’t answered my question yet, but I’m not the only one who thinks that songs make sense in ELT!
*MusicEnglish http://www.musicenglish.co.uk is a not-for-profit resource for learners and teachers of English featuring music videos mainly performed in English with subtitles and translations into many other languages. There are also song quizzes and a growing collection of lesson plans available too. If you use and appreciate MusicEnglish please LIKE ME on FACEBOOK http://www.facebook.com/musicenglishpage