Why I think songs make sense in ELT

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

Songs Tell Stories

Songs often tell a story of one kind or another and they are often a more meaningful and poignant source of history than the text books of classrooms. This is a simple plan for a lesson that tells the tale of a soldier’s experiences of the horror of Gallipoli in the First World War. I’m using the song ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ performed by The Pogues for this.

A year from now we will be commemorating a hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War (WW1). I remember as a young child at school when a very elderly veteran of the Battle of the Somme came to talk to us about his experiences as a stretcher bearer. I will never forget his words when he told us that the British forces alone had lost 20, 000 men ‘before breakfast’. With the ongoing war in Syria I’ve been wanting to create some kind of lesson plan that tells the story of the horror and futility of war from a personal and humane perspective.

The lesson shape is as follows:

  1. What do you know about WW1?
  2. Watch video, listen to song and read song lyrics
  3. Explore topic words and phrases from the song
  4. Song Interpretation and discussion through guided questions
  5. Reconstructing song as a summary
  6. Creative writing options

In more detail …

  • Ask the students what they know about WW1 – dates, countries, causes and so on.
  • Introduce the song, listen and watch the video with subtitles.
  • Students highlight all the words & phrases on printed lyric sheets that describe the war experience and the feelings of the narrator e.g.

When I was a young man I carried my pack

And I lived the free life of a rover

From the Murrays green basin to the dusty outback

I waltzed my Matilda all over

Then in nineteen fifteen my country said Son

It’s time to stop rambling ’cause there’s work to be done

So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun

And they sent me away to the war

And the band played Waltzing Matilda

As we sailed away from the quay

And amidst all the tears and the shouts and the cheers

We sailed off for Gallipoli

How well I remember that terrible day

When the blood stained the sand and the water

When how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay

We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter

Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well

He showered us with bullets, and he rained us with shells

And in five minutes flat he’d blown us all to hell

Nearly blew us right back to Australia

And the band played Waltzing Matilda

As we stopped to bury our slain

And we buried ours and the Turks buried theirs

And it started all over again

Now those who were living, did their best to survive

In that mad world of death, blood and fire

And for seven long weeks I kept myself alive

But the corpses around me piled higher

Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over tit

And when I awoke in my hospital bed

And saw what it had done, Christ I wished I was dead

Never knew there were worse things than dying

And no more I’ll go waltzing Matilda

To the green bushes so far and near

For to hang tent and pegs, a man needs two legs

No more waltzing Matilda for me


So they collected the cripples, the wounded, the maimed

And they shipped us back home to Australia

The legless, the armless, the blind, and insane

Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla

And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay

I looked at the place where me legs used to be

And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me

To grieve and to mourn and to pity

And the band played Waltzing Matilda

As they carried us down the gangway

But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared

Then they turned their faces away

And now every April I sit on my porch

And I watch the parade pass before me

And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march

Reliving the dreams of past glory

And I see the old men all twisted and torn

The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war

And the young people ask me, “What are they marching for?”

And I ask myself the same question

And the band plays Waltzing Matilda

And the old men still answer the call

But year after year their numbers get fewer

Some day no one will march there at all

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda

Who’ll go a waltzing Matilda with me

Elicit meanings of phrases and help where necessary. Use these chunks of language to help in interpreting the song through the use of guided questions such as:

  • How did the narrator feel before his life as a soldier?
  • Did he volunteer to fight?
  • What were his memories of leaving for the war?
  • What are his memories of battle?
  • What happened to him in the end?
  • How does he feel on his return to Australia and how can we account for his feelings?
  • What are his attitudes to the annual parades, and what will happen to them in the future?
  • Why is he unable to answer the children’s question?
  • What do you think is the significance of the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in the song lyrics?

Having spent some time interpreting the song perhaps in small groups with a list of questions as above, students prepare simple ‘summaries’ of the song, starting as follows:

The song The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ tells the story of an Australian soldier from WW1 who …

This summary activity can be followed up with several creative writing options, for example;

There are lots of possibilities and variations and of course this procedure can be used for all kinds of songs that tell stories. After all some people say that all songs tell a story.

Bank Holidays

Bank Holidays is a simple activity you can use for helping learners to practise ordinal numbers i.e. first, second, third and so on for talking about public holiday dates. Some of you may know that in the UK people refer to public holidays as ‘bank holidays’. Goodness knows why but I’m sure Google will have an answer :).

In the UK we don’t have so many bank holidays, we only have 8. I write the dates on the board as follows (the examples are for 2013)

2013-06-08 10.40.12

I ask the students if they know the names for these holidays – they are;

New Year’s Day
Good Friday
Easter Monday
May Bank Holiday
May Bank Holiday
August Bank Holiday
Christmas Day
Boxing Day

The students now practise the dates as follows:

New Year’s Day is on the first of January.
Good Friday is on the twenty ninth of March.
and so on for all the dates …

We can pay attention to problems with the dates and pronunciation here, for example ‘th’ at the end of the word is a problem for many learners. After practising this I ask the students to write down the dates for holidays in their country as I did for the UK. I provide calenders to help the students do this.

After that they write the name of the day against the date. They can use dictionaries to help with translation here. Now the students can work in pairs and practise saying the dates to their partner.Now we come back together as a group and I give the students more information about what people in the UK often do on these holiday dates. I let the students ask questions about the holidays and we have a discussion. 

Extension: with higher level students we can talk more about what people do on the bank holidays and perhaps the significance of the dates and why they are important. I did this activity recently with a student from Columbia. It was really interesting, they have 13 bank holidays and many of the dates are religious festivals. I learnt a lot about Columbia :)

Sign It

Sign It is a lesson activity inspired by the relatively new performance art form of  ‘signing’ songs. I’m using the song My Valentine sung by Paul McCartney and signed in American Sign Language (ASL) by Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp. This is a truly wonderful video and song that you could integrate into any lesson on Valentine’s Day or discussions about sign language.

1. Watch and listen to the video as many times as you want

2. Watch the video again and discover how the following phrases are signed

What if it rained?

We didn’t care

She said that someday soon

The sun was gonna shine

And she was right

This love of mine

My valentine

I’ve chosen these ones as they are repeated twice at the beginning and end of the song. Also the signing actions are quite clear, but you could choose any other phrases from the song.

3. Practice the actions for each phrase above until you are happy you can remember them

4. In class play the song with or without video and sign the song together.

If you have time you could watch this video of Jayne Fletcher signing the same song in British Sign Language (BSL) – Are any of the signs made by Jayne different to the video signed by Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman?

Ain’t Got No …

Ain’t Got No  is an activity where one half of the class is listening for the answers to one question while the other half of the class is listening for the answers to another question. I’ll demonstrate it with a great song – Ain’t Got No, I Got Life by Nina Simone.

  1. Listen to the song all the way through once
  2. Elicit from the class – what ‘aint got’ means
  3. Ask the students if they can remember any examples of what Nina Simone says she ain’t got.
  4. What is the opposite of ‘ain’t got’ – have / has got (I got)
  5. Elicit from the students any examples they can remember of what she has got
  6. Split the class into two groups A and B.
  7. Group A listen for what she ain’t got while group B listen for what she has got.
  8. Encourage the students simply to listen and not to write down as the words come very quickly.
  9. After the songs each group pools all the words they can remember.
  10. As a class take a look a the lists and then listen to the song again.
  11. As the students hear the words, they tick them off on their sheets and note any they missed.
  12. If you want you could try the live version which comes with further lyrics.

MusicEnglish is Back in Class

I’m really excited today for two reasons. Firstly tonight is the big night where I start my MusicEnglish classes in York. I’ve no idea if anyone will turn up yet but I’m hoping word gets around soon enough. I’ve been doing a big promotional push this week. Not through social media as you might expect but good old knocking on doors and talking to people. I’ve spent a lot of time in cafes, bars and libraries this week handing over my leaflets and business cards to people in places where I’d expect to find learners of English. I’m really starting to enjoy this :) I’m thrilled about the idea of taking the music back into the classroom where it came from in the first place. I’ve also got a few ideas lurking around on what is going to happen in class. I’ve been speaking to local musicians Plaster Knuckle and Glass Caves and have invited them to come into class and play some songs and talk about them with the students. I hope they agree that will be really great.

The second reason I’m excited this week is because on Friday I’m doing the first in a series of workshops on using songs in ELT. Even better, I’m going back to my old workplace – Leeds City College to talk about using songs with ESOL learners. So this afternoon I’m busy jotting down my song ideas for the session.

I remember a few years ago when I did my first teacher conference and I was feeling a bit anxious. I was with a representative from a publisher and she said to me

Don’t worry, if you are talking to teachers about teaching, they’ll love it

That is the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given about doing talks with teachers. Teachers want ideas, practical activities, materials and they want to imagine how they could work with their learners. And they also appreciate a glass of wine too, but this is a day session, so not likely for this one. I’ll let you know how I get on. :)

10 Reasons Why Songs with Subtitles make Sense

  1. Breaking the Ice, warming up and filling in – I’ve found that songs are a great way to help develop routines in teaching. For instance you could kick off with this song at the beginning of a week, or equally finish off with this one. Learners become familiar with the routines and look forward with anticipation to the next song you are going to do. And they can be great homework activities too.
  2. Notice and Practise Grammar – Grammar doesn’t have to be dull. Try these songs out for going to, had better, infinitives, will, 2nd conditional and many many more. The songs could be used at any stage in the students’ learning, i.e. for presentation of language, practice or recycling from previous work.
  3. Collocation Rich – All songs are rich in collocations (words that commonly occur together). There are some obvious ones for instance for verb + noun collocation, and perhaps this song for say, tell and a few phrasal verbs thrown in for good measure. Try this song for collocations with ‘out of”- my favourite.
  4. Develop stress and rhythm – Raising awareness of stress and rhythm is very important and perhaps under-emphasised in ELT generally?  Weak forms become really easy to illustrate through songs where for instance ‘I have got a’ becomes ‘I gotta’ and so on. There are some really good examples of the use of ‘gonna‘ and ‘wanna‘. All songs can help develop awareness of word stress and rhythm. I get my students to listen to songs with printed songsheets and get them to underline or highlight the really stressed words, and then sing back together as a class with emphasis on the stressed sounds.
  5. Pay attention to Sound and Spelling - Subtitles are splendid because they really do help learners to relate the words they hear to the written forms, for example I use this song to illustrate the written form of words with ING or this one for working on the ‘P’ sound as some learners find difficult to distinguish and articulate from the ‘b’ sound.
  6. Improve reading skills – Taking a Pop-Lexical Approach to music, we might consider that we articulate language in chunks, and I think that the same goes for reading. We don’t consciously read every single word, we are aware of the chunks and skip along. But second langauge learners and equally students of literacy will benefit from the subtitles in becoming more familiar with reading along to the audio tracks. I used to have a student in my class who had never been to school as a child and struggled to read and write in both first language. She did, however, know many Beatles songs off by heart (and use to sing them in class), so I’ d give her Beatles songsheets to read while listening to a song at the same time.
  7. Connect with learners - This is the most important point, I think. Students are only going to learn the words to the songs they like listening to. You could get your students to construct a class survey to find out about everyone’s music interests and habits. Then you could use the songs they like – don’t forget you can request songs to be subtitled here on MusicEnglish.
  8. Action songs – These are especially good with young learners e.g. The Skeleton Dance. If you teach very young learners I really recommend keeping your eye on MusicEnglishKids.
  9. Prompts for topic discussions – You might to want to use music as a way of addressing current issues, in particular for difficult topics like homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence / abuse, alcohol abuse and so on.
  10. Integrate with other creative expression e.g. drama, storytelling, poetry – I’ve recently been attending some storytelling sessions through creative play for very young learners. For instance in the telling of the story ‘The boy that cried wolf’ – The children start by making a sheep from a paper cup, cotton wool, and so on, then they sing a song about sheep – guess which one? The sheep live on a mountain with the boy shepherd, ‘She”ll be coming round the mountain when she comes’ … And then a few party games like ‘What time is it Mr Wolf?’ It’s tea-time and now I’m going to eat you. At the same time the story is building up – fantastic. What about teenagers though – how about design a film poster for this song, or write a film review?

A Pop-Lexical Approach in ELT

Language can be understood as consisting of a series of patterns or building blocks. To learn a language means to learn these patterns, these ‘chunks’ of language by:

  • Firstly ‘noticing’ the pattern(s)
  • Then making use of or ‘personalising’ such patterns
  • Becoming more confident in their use through practice over time

In our first language(s) this is perhaps more subconscious and occurs over a long period of time but more challenging when it comes to learning a second or other language, and particularly after childhood.

Pop songs can help in this learning process because:

  • They are so rich in everyday language
  • Provide plenty of repetition of key patterns / chunks of language
  • The combination of the words with melody, stress and rhythm can make learning more memorable
  • Learning the words to songs is engaging and fun (if we learn the words to the songs we like)

If we combine listening to the songs and reading subtitles as on the videos at MusicEnglish then the words to the songs become so much more accessible: creating opportunities for students of English to learn the words to the songs they listen to and in the process helping them along the way in their becoming speakers of English.

She’s a Speaker of English, She Speaks English

This blog post is a response to a discussion on Facebook in the Students of TESOL and Applied Linguistics Group.

In the video we listen to a Japanese person who speaks English but one who struggles with her identity as a speaker of English. As with many people who speak English as another language besides her first language(s) she attributes her identity crisis to her English language use and in particular her pronunciation and accent. Learners and teachers of English will be extremely familiar with this situation – and as a teacher of English I want to reflect on how we can better understand this issue and more importantly seek to find solutions.

The title of this blog post is of course deliberate and the focus of this brief piece of writing. What’s important is the front-loading of ‘Speaker’ in the title. Here the perspective is on the person and I ask this question of the person in the video - Who are you? This is in contrast to  ‘She speaks English’ where our interest is in the language, the way she speaks it and to what degree of accuracy and fluency. In the video the speaker’s focus is very much on the latter and she is ashamed of her perceived ‘mis-use’ of English and her confusion about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the different usage contexts.

‘Identity’ is complex because people are! Learners of English are not bacteria in test tubes, nor Skinner’s performing rats. How people understand themselves as speakers of English is important. I see identity as a narrative, a story, one that has both a past and a future. Identity is a story that is preceded by other stories and anticipates the next. Moreover, the plots, the storylines are in part socially constructed and we seek to meet the expectations, to align with the plot. These stories are shared culturally and through language and other means but the problem for the speaker in the videos is that her audience is not familiar with her stories, nor she theirs.

In communication with others we draw on all our shared language, experiences, knowledge and so on – we are somebody in those stories, we are the actors. But when people are not familiar with the plot or the story doesn’t go as we might expect, it all breaks down and our identity is at stake – I would argue that migrants often experience these tensions and seek to resolve through aligning with the norms of language and cultural expectations.

Three examples to illustrate my take on identity:

A Story : Young beautiful princess meets handsome prince, they fall in love, have lots of children, live happily ever after in their big castle – a fairytale – Yes, but a plot a story that many people live and understand themselves by. Identity is a story.

History - I was moved by a recent television documentary about a woman who was the daughter of a Nazi concentration camp commander. She was only a baby when her father was executed for his crimes - and now she spends her whole life coming to terms with this terrible legacy. She tries to resolve this by meeting a survivor of the camp. But again she becomes the target of the survivor’s anger and herself a victim. Identity has a history.

A Future - I’ve had the pleasure over the years of teaching young adult ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) learners aged 16 – 19, we talk in class about their aspirations, their plans for their careers in the UK, what they want to do and BE – Identity has a future.

The speaker in the video is following a story, she has a history (one that precedes her narrative) and she has a future. Her story is not necessarily going to plan and she blames herself for it. So what can teachers do about this?

Of course there is no magic solution nor methodology but more a case of being human and developing the classroom as a community and as place where we all want to be and feel good about ourselves. Now as I said I don’t have an answer but I want to draw on a personal classroom experience that will help.

I used to teach in a church that also operated as a hostel for homeless people and as a classroom space for a local college of adult education. This particular classroom space was used for learners who were really hanging in there on the edge of local ESOL provision. These learners in this class had not been to school as youngsters and struggled with the literacy demands of ESOL provision that is on the whole funded by ‘test’ results – you get the picture I’m sure. There was one lady in my class, she had never been to school, never been to ESOL classes but had been living in the UK for a few years. She had many children all of who could speak English and a husband who worked. She looked after her family. She was put in the ‘pre-entry’ ESOL class (who thinks of these horrific labels? So she’s less able than a beginner?). There is plenty of methodological debate about how to teach language and literacy to such learners but it is one I abandoned a long time ago.

Mariana (not real name) in my opinion was stripped of her identity the minute she walked into that classroom in the homeless hostel as a pre-entry learner. She became labelled by others, very much the way the ‘Japanese’ speaker of English labels herself (and by others) in the video. Mariana’s main identity was as a mother to her children of whom she was very proud. Of course this identity wasn’t at stake in the classroom but why not use it as a means on which to build langauge / literacy teaching? And that’s exactly what we did in class at every opportunity. I would ask questions of her children, their names, ages, what school they go to and so on. She would proudly reply and tell me all about them with a smile on her face. The ‘breakthrough’ in her literacy development came one day, through a very simple exercise. I said to her jokingly one day that she had so many children that I was struggling to remember who was who – so I asked her for ‘homework’ if she would write down a list of all of them for me and bring to class. She did so the following week. She read them all back to me from the list, she told me that her daughter had helped her write the list. I suggested that it was a good idea to let her children help her with her reading and writing. She was very pleased with this.

As a teacher my suggestion is to always try and find ways of enabling students to draw on who they are as people, to use their identities as a resource in the classroom. Let them tell you their stories and share yours with them. Chiaki in the video not only speaks English but she is a speaker of English (and not ‘just’ a Japanese one) – her identity is the most important thing – After all, it is who she is.

What you can and can’t say in class

This blog post is kind of a follow on from the previous one inspired by the film ‘Blackboards’. Watching it again brought back memories of the many Kurdish students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching during my time as an ESOL tutor. I want to tell you a story about one of those students.

I was teaching a ‘typical’ ESOL class, a group of people bringing with them their rich cultures, languages and life experiences to the classroom but at the same time a feeling of the weight of the world’s problems resting there, and often on the shoulders of the teacher, or at least it felt that way at times. As always I was attempting to conduct a fine balancing act between allowing students to say what they wanted to, while guarding against causing offence to others.

I found it hard at times, and there were always cracks appearing all over the place with arguments breaking out here and there but nothing too worrying. I recall once saying to the class ‘we shouldn’t speak about politics’ – quite a ridiculous thing to say really, but I was at a loss with how to deal with the on-going political discussions that seemed to cause such division among the learners.

One day in class, the students were having to carry out some exam preparation with a rather banal task of ‘describe a past event in 150 words’ (yawn). No idea where these rubric writers get their ideas from – How about ‘tell me a story’ – the students had plenty of those, and were good at telling them too. Anyway the students started their writing in class and then finished it off for homework. One Kurdish student who we shall call Hamed (not real name of course) handed me his essay by hand at the beginning of the next class. I put the carefully written and presented piece of writing on the desk next to me and started class. But I was intrigued by it, the way Hamed had personally given it to me at the beginning of the lesson. So I waited impatiently for the break so I could read it.

Now this is how the story went (in my words from memory)

I will describe my past event – I remember one day. It was a terrible day. I was ten years old. We were running away. It was terrible, people were crying and dying. We were in the mountains, it was cold, very cold. We were frightened of soldiers all the time. Sometimes we stopped to have a rest. We didn’t have any food or water. Sometimes we stopped to bury people because they were dead and we buried them there. I was very sad but my life is better now. I know I shouldn’t talk about politics, I’m sorry Mr Richard.

What do you do? I’m a teacher.

From wikipedia: Blackboards (Persian: تخته سیاه‎, Takhté siah) is a 2000 Iranian film directed by Samira Makhmalbaf. It focuses on a group of Kurdish refugees after the chemical bombing of Halabja by Saddam Hussein’s. The screenplay was co-written by Makhmalbaf with her father,Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The dialogue is entirely in Kurdish. Makhmalbaf describes it as “something between reality and fiction. Smuggling, being homeless, and people’s efforts to survive are all part of reality… the film, as a whole, is a metaphor.

The story:  Kurdish teachers, carrying blackboards on their backs, look for students in the hills and villages of Iran, near the Iraqi border during the Iran-Iraq war. Said falls in with a group of old men looking for their bombed-out village; he offers to guide them, and takes as his wife Halaleh, the clan’s lone woman, a widow with a young son. Reeboir attaches himself to a dozen pre-teen boys weighed down by contraband they carry across the border; they’re mules, always on the move. Said and Reeboir try to teach as their potential students keep walking. Danger is close; armed soldiers patrol the skies, the roads, and the border. Is there a role for a teacher? Is there hope?

I was very taken by this film on first watching and have been ever since. It tells many stories, and this short clips says so much. As the article on Wikipedia points out, the film is a metaphor, but there are many here, depending on interpretation. I see metaphors of identity, of people’s endless searching for themselves among the stones and debris of conflict and inequality. The teacher’s promises of empowerment through literacy are rejected and embraced in the film respectively by the two children. The first boy who doesn’t need the ‘stories’ as he already has ‘a hundred’ of his own, while in contrast the second boy ‘Reeboir’ seeks to discover himself through learning to write his name. Isn’t this where education begins, a border crossing between being ‘called’ a name and to putting it down in words for yourself, where what remained unseen, somehow becomes visible?

But at stake here are not only the identities of the children but also those of  the teacher’s In the film we see the teacher’s struggle to ply his trade among the endless shifting to and fro across the border region. “What do you do?”, asks Reeboir. “I’m a teacher” comes the reply. I often feel like Reeboir the teacher in the film. As a nomad searching for that identity, that teacher-self, in a forever changing landscape, always moving backwards and forwards across borders, in a kind of no-man’s land where nothing stays still for too long.

Do you make this journey all the time? Aren’t you feeling tired?

Why are subtitles so important?

It’s October 2012 and three months have passed since I started MusicEnglish. During that time I’ve been scratching my head trying to write an ‘ABOUT’ section for the site. I’ve never been able to find the right words as to why I believe so strongly that the use of subtitles (captions) are so useful to language learners.

My initial inspiration for subtitling music videos came about through my experiences as a language learner living in Spain. I simply found watching TV with Spanish subtitles made it all so much easier for me to understand Spanish. Of course that is not surprising really, is it? So then, why is it that the use of video and audio media in English language teaching is often reduced to ‘listening comprehension’ exercises alongside gap-filling exercises – I mean having subtitles on videos, or reading the tapescript while listening to an audio CD would almost amount to CHEATING! Subtitles give you the answers too easily – true but why the questions in the first place? Surely we can use subtitled video for teaching, not just for testing? But when they (the learners of English) watch English programmes on TV, what do they do? Well they tell me rather sheepishly that they use the subtitles.

Watching music videos with subtitles is indeed a different media experience, yes it’s a richer, fuller one. And one that we should be seeking to exploit more regularly in language teaching when and where the technology is available. There is no doubt that many people the world over love learning the words to songs they like, with subtitles these words can be enjoyed and appreciated alongside the music and imagery on-screen. That is what MusicEnglish is all ABOUT.

I recently came across a fascinating blog that is devoted to the subject of subtitling. Dawn Jones the author of i heart subtitles relates her experiences of subtitles as a person who is hard of hearing. Importantly for me though is that she picks up on the fact that subtitles are not just for people with impaired hearing but for everybody. This is what she says;

Hard of hearing since birth,  subtitles being available on TV played an important role in being one of many things that helped me cope in a hearing world (and still does today).  Most popular programmes had subtitles and so I didn’t miss a single word of what was being said – brilliant – better than real life!   This is just one example of how subtitles have had a positive influence on my life.  People at school also wondered why I knew all the lyrics to songs in the charts – the reason – I always watched  Top Of The Pops (bring that show back please BBC) with the subtitles on! My point here is that same language subtitles in my mind isn’t always just a resource for the deaf or hard of hearing – ever sung at karaoke? The words you sing along to are a form of subtitling too, and sometimes subtitles can used in creative ways for entertainment and to educate.

Thanks to Dawn for finding the words for me.

#ScarySeason on #MusicEnglish – it’s #HALLOWEEN

To be quite frank with you, Halloween is something I’ve never bothered with in my teaching English. But last night while I was busy carving out the kid’s pumpkin and adding a final layer of blood dripping out of its mouth (the pumpkin that is), I kind of got imaginative. Perhaps with my new music site there was a chance to do something creative and fun this year, instead of being all humbug about this most gross of festivals?

Sparked by a request on MusicEnglish for ‘The Cult’ I searched for one of their great hits ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ on YouTube. The video was a bit of a blast from the past – did I really like that band all those years ago? Well the tune still shines in my opinion, and my memory was jogged to back when I was a fourteen-year-old with a mate teaching me the guitar intro. Still one of the few riffs I can manage today in fact. Okay the music is great but as for the image, don’t really need to take that too seriously, I think – but at least well suited for a Halloween appearance.

And so The Cult have become my first music video feature for this #scaryseason. Have you got any ideas for scary bands or songs? If you do then please make a request on MusicEnglish or tweet with the hash tag #scaryseason and @RichGresswell

Hideous Halloween wishes to all of you in this season of evil and bad will >:)

Talkin’ Music

I’m blogging music language tasters for learners, trying to find ways of exploring meaning through paraphrasing song lyrics, perhaps with a language focus each time. So why not sample the menu below? And if you can’t find anything to your taste then do make a song request and see what the chef can rustle up.

For starters: Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton


It’s late in the evening

She’s wondering what clothes to wear

She’ll put on her make-up

And brushes her long blonde hair

And then she’ll ask me

Do I look all right?

And I’ll say, yes

You look wonderful tonight

Will + verb
is used in these song lyrics to express a characteristic of behaviour of somebody the singer knows very well. As Eric Clapton writes the words to this song he imagines the situation clearly as he has seen it so many times before. From these words we can imagine the situation too. He is obviously still deeply in love with her, probably after many years.

For the main course: Kathy’s song (Eva Cassidy version)


I hear the drizzle of the rain
Like a memory it falls
Soft and warm continuing
Tapping on my roof and walls
My mind’s distracted and confused
My thoughts are many miles away
They lie with you when you’re asleep
Kiss you when you start the day
And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and die
I know that I am like the rain
There before the grace of you go I

Eva is looking through her window at the rainy day outside. She listens to the rain falling gently on her house. Maybe she is trying to work, but she can’t concentrate. The rainy day is making her feel sad and she is missing someone she loves. She wants to be with her loved one but she can’t. She feels like the rain, as it falls slowly down the window, tired and helpless after its long journey. All she has are her thoughts and a wish to be together again.

And for dessert: Imagine by John Lennon


Can you imagine if there’s no countries? You know, it isn’t hard to do. We would have nothing to kill or die for. Can you imagine if people didn’t have any possessions? There would be no greed or hunger and people could share the world and live in peace. Now isn’t that something to dream about. But I wonder if you can?

In this song John Lennon uses there’s to talk about things that exist, but through his words he lets us imagine that they don’t exist. There is and There are, are often used in this way to talk about things that exist and don’t exist, for example there is (there’s) an apple tree in my garden, there are many people here today. But very often, as in this song, there’s no countries the singular form (there’s) is used rather than there are: This is very typical of informal speech and in songs. It is not a mistake, just the way people speak (and sing) English!