Teaching with songs and music revisited

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“Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.” –Ludwig van Beethoven

I recently attended and presented at a seminar for teachers at Dickens Institute, Montevideo. There were two presentations which involved the use of songs and that got me thinking about how we use music and particularly songs in the classroom. Much has been said and written about using songs for language teaching specially about the types of tasks that can be implemented with them, but certainly it is worth reviewing the reasons why and the principles that frame their introduction to the classroom.

Songs and music can take central stage in our lessons and need not to be just a fun activity for the last 5 minutes of class provided we have a clear aim for their use and have devised a clear sequence of tasks to make the most of it.

We can identify three distinctive group of reason for using songs in the classroom. From a linguistic point of view:

  • Songs provide a context for language. Even though there are liberties song writers take with the language, there are millions of songs that can be used as presentation text for a certain target language.
  • They are theme-based so they can be the starting point for discussion and debate.
  • They are particularly useful to highlight and practice pronunciation and intonation.
  • They can be used as basis for a listening lesson to develop gist listening and detailed listening.

From a cognitive point of view, songs and music focus attention and aid memory as well as facilitating multisensory learning.

Finally, from a socio-affective perspective, songs can set the mood and atmosphere of the class as well as mark the tempo and rhythm of work.

My principles when using song

  • Popularity: I try to avoid songs that are too popular since students, mainly teens, know the lyrics by hard so the scope of work may be restricted.
  • Sensitization: I use songs that allow me to work on certain sensitive issues that need to be addressed. Normally I choose songs that tell a story that springs board discussion. Recently, I have been working with the song Kaching by Shania Twain that deals with the issue of consumerism.
  • Language standard: I try to work with songs that represent a standard version of the language, especially when working with teenagers since they are still struggling to understand the notion of register and tend to overuse the expressions and language seen in music and videos.
  • Meaningful learning: When used for language learning, songs provide that memorable experience that makes language learning meaningful. We all certainly remember which song taught us specially certain idiomatic expressions.

Why and how do you use songs and music in the classroom?

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On Language Learning and technology

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It is only logical that the first official blog post is related to language learning and technology. I´m currently taking a course called exactly like that and several issues come to mind when thinking about the use of technology in the classroom.

There is no doubt that the learners in our classrooms today are completely different from those we had 10 years ago. What seemed to work then flops now.  These changes stem from the revolution in communication and information technology that, even though has failed to catch up in mainstream educational practices, has meant a significant change in the way the brain gathers, processes and uses information.

In my humble opinion, using technology for the sake of technology does not make sense. The use of technology in the classroom or for learning objectives needs to address that fundamental issue, which is if it is the most effective way to carry out that particular learning task or to approach an area of knowledge.

As with every activity we do in the class, it needs to be cost-effective. There needs to be a balance between the time we spend on the activity and the output generated by it.

The use of technology needs to be easily accessible for the teacher and for the learner in the institution. If teachers and learners need to spend most of the time just getting access to that particular piece or require extensive permissions to be used, then it would probably be more efficient to tackle that learning aim in a different way.

Related to the above and also as a consequence, using technology in the classroom needs to be flexible. That is to say, teachers cannot be forced to use it and render it senseless, but also it means that students should have the choice to use it if it facilitates their learning process. Particularly, I´m thinking of the use of dictionary apps versus traditional printed dictionaries. Most teenage students simply give up due to lack of appropriate dictionary skills but with the use of a simple dictionary app on their smart phones or tablets, they are able to do so.

Bottom line is technology in the EFL classroom makes sense if it aids and facilitates language learning.