How to Teach English Through Popular Songs—For Middle School, High School and Adults

An effective and fun way to teach English to English language learners is through popular songs! Students are usually highly motivated to learn the lyrics of music they recognize and like. Songs are easy and effective ways to teach your students English vocabulary, idioms, and figurative language. They can also be used to help teach prefixes, suffixes, contractions, and parts of speech such as verbs and adjectives. You can even use them to teach English slang and jargon.

Sometimes I notice my middle school students humming or tapping along to popular songs that are played after our school’s morning announcements, but they often don’t have a clue as to what the words in the song are or mean. They just enjoy the beat and tune. I seize this opportunity to teach them English through the lyrics!

After they understand the lyrics, their appreciation for these songs reaches a whole new level. They can now not just listen to the songs, but also sing along. This pumps their confidence and motivates them to keep learning English!

Look for Songs with These Characteristics:

  • popular songs, especially ones you’ve noticed your students like
  • a catchy melody and rhythm
  • the singer sings at a slower pace (not too fast)
  • a clear message, such as “never give up” or “a real friend doesn’t walk away”
  • meaningful lyrics your students can relate to, such as feeling alone, loving somebody, or wanting to rise above your circumstances
  • rich vocabulary
  • repetition of words and phrases
  • English idioms and figurative language
  • appropriate content

Once I have selected a song to teach my class, I follow this process:

1. Find the Song Lyrics

I look for the song lyrics online.

2. Cut and Paste the Lyrics

After I find the lyrics online, I cut and paste them onto a Word document.

Tips:

  • enlarge the font as needed
  • leave sufficient space between the lines to facilitate students’ ability to follow along and to jot down notes if they want to
  • insert images for key words and phrases

See the sample below!

3. Find a Video with the Lyrics Written Out

I look for a video for the song on YouTube – preferably with vivid images and with the lyrics spelled out – and make sure the lyrics on the video match the ones I saved on my Word document.

4. Make Copies

I make enough copies for my class. If I can’t use a color printer, I use a light shade of colored paper so the words are clearly legible.

5. Hand Them Out

I distribute the paper copies to my students.

6. Teach Key Words

I point out and teach key vocabulary or phrases from the lyrics and allow students to locate them and highlight them on their copies, as I display my copy on the large screen with my document camera.

7. Engage Students in Dialogue

We talk about what the lyrics mean, line by line. Since we have already reviewed the key words and phrases, students are able to readily participate in dialogue about what the lyrics mean. I jot down additional words and pictures on my copy as needed – projected on the large screen – to help facilitate understanding.

8. Share Interesting Facts About the Singer or Band

I might give my students a little bit of background on the singer or band. For example, I may share that this song was already popular when I was in high school and that I used to listen to it. Or I might share that the singer is blind or taught himself how to play the piano.

9. Play the Song Video

I play the video of the song for students to listen and catch the melody and beat.

10. Replay the Song Video

I play the video again, this time for students to sing along!

Have Fun With It

It may sound like many steps, but once you get into the groove of it, it’s super easy and fun, especially if you enjoy being creative. I try to introduce a new song every Friday—my students really look forward to it!

The songs you choose and the key words/phrases you select within each song will depend entirely on your class.

I currently teach middle school students that are within their first few years of learning English, so I select songs with pretty basic vocabulary and with idioms and figurative language that aren’t too difficult.

I also upload all song videos with lyrics onto my school webpage so that students can watch them even from home.

If you haven’t used popular songs in your classroom to help your English language students learn English, I hope you’ll give it a try. Your students will surely be motivated to listen and follow along. Even if some of them don’t sing along, they are grasping the meanings of words in a way that is likely to register.

Your students will likely replay the lyrics in their minds as they leave your classroom, and even sing them aloud in the hallways and at home. This repetition helps them retain the words and phrases you’ve taught them, which is your ultimate goal!