Teachers can learn to design lessons around popular music in the target language. Each song should have one primary and several secondary vocabulary themes appropriate to level (i.e., city theme with vocabulary such as places in town/shopping vocabulary/transit vocabulary... etc);
At least 90% of the grammar and vocabulary should be on, or slightly above, level (songs are pedagogically problematic if they are "all over the map" grammatically or thematically);
Ideally, there be some repetition of structure (refrains, dependent clauses, etc.). This imprints the structure in memory, into which spontaneous or new utterances may be later created, and it is a great jumping off point for patterned writing/parallel sentences;
There should be pervasive and consistent use of verb tense (present tense only, preterit/imperfect contrast, or conditional/past subjunctive relationship, etc.); or gender/number agreement (a song that describes or lists people or things) etc.; other miscellaneous grammatical structures may be present only once, and can still serve as a springboard for lesson-writing (personal ‘a’, tener idioms, etc.)
The song must be agreeable to listen to. This applies to all grade levels, but especially for fifth grade and up, it must be something that they will respond to: it can't be too "kiddie", yet it must be melodic; it might be culturally "authentic", but it doesn't have to be. I've found that young people who listen almost exclusively to non-melodic music such as rap respond positively to melodic music as well. This is a wonderful opportunity to reinforce art and music in the schools.
The song should invite kinesthetic movement, dramatic interpretation, lend itself to illustration, and/or be rich in visual imagery.
Benefits of Using Melodic Song to Teach Language
• Presenting the target language through melodic music expands yet further the learning modality options you are providing for your students (aural-musical).
• Probably nothing imprints linguistic patterns better than words wedded to memorable music. Because of the unique impressive nature of melodic music, students will retain grammatical structures and vocabulary for the rest of their lives.
• Students’ inherently positive response to upbeat, melodic music makes them completely engaged in the activity.
• A correlation between music and improved academic performance really does exist. The currently debated question about the so-called “Mozart effect” deals only with the passive listening to music while studying or taking exams, which has nothing to do with the active learning of language through the lyrics of melodic music. Music is mathematical by nature, whose “terrain” provides a fertile place for language learning to take hold and develop.
• Music, being indigenous to its geographical place of creation, as well as to the cultural and social environment in which it arises, naturally transmits and reflects the culture in which it is created. Music is, of all sounds that exist, the most richly textured and interesting of sound.
• Creative culminating activities for proficiency take learning the language to the next level:
1) student-created booklets illustrating the lyrics
2) karaoke, sing-along, or lip-sync video performances
3) dramatic interpretations/mime/acting out performances
4) dance and choreography--moving hands, head, feet, and body to the music in creative ways
5) re-writing the song either altogether in an original and creative lyric (for those who can), or by substituting all the nouns, or adjectives, or other parts of speech so as to make a new songlyric, and much more.
• All of the (Howard Gardner’s) seven multiple intelligences are addressed when teaching language through music with the appropriate accompanying exercises:
1) kinesthetic (dance, clapping, stomping, body movement, percussion
2) musical (listening, singing, playing, distinguishing)
3) linguistic (interpreting lyrics while listening or through exercises)
4) logical/mathematical (music is math)
5) social (choral, dance, cooperative learning with the exercises)
6) visual (illustrations, dramatizations, video)
7) individual (the fallback for all of the written exercises, as well as with individual projects and culminating activities).
• Activities can be done in cooperative learning groups, thus promoting classroom cohesion.
• Songs and activities can be used either to introduce new material, or re-inforce previously learned material.
• MUSIC teaches LANGUAGE by way of ART. We need more beauty and art in our schools, and in our lives (yes, that is my opinion, and I’m proud to say it!). Many students today, especially in their teens, are listening to some not-so-pretty music; fortunately, in my teaching experience, those very same students respond to positive lyrics and melodic music!
Being a lover of catchy pop songs, and recognizing the extraordinary power of the marriage of melody and words as an aid in memorization (which is fundamental to language acquisition), I began introducing Spanish-language songs, and translating popular songs in English to Spanish, and using them to "spice up" my language classroom.
This activity, although fun and popular, had only a modest pedagogical effectiveness, since most authentic pop songs (in whatever language) are not written with teaching language in mind, and are almost invariably "all over the map," grammatically speaking, which does not lend itself to a focused lesson. Moreover, “rap music” (regardless of its current popularity among some teens) and “chants”--even if written with teaching in mind--lack the aid to memory provided by good melodies, which are naturally more interesting and therefore more memorable. Although rhythm by itself, in such chants, or in rhyme, is also an aid to memory, it would be helpful if the rhythm were interesting. Programmed beats on an electronic drum machine by an instant musician does not always inspire passion. Fortunately, I have found that melodic music appeals to everyone, even those who listen to "unmelodic" music.
I began writing songs specifically for the classroom, and re-writing the lyrics to my best songs written over the years, with the idea of teaching the language but at the same time creating songs that were appealing on their own, but just so happened to tidily teach a series of grammar structures or thematic vocabulary group.
Obviously, most teachers are not musicians, let alone songwriters. Lately I have been scouring for songs in Spanish that meet the criteria described above, to which I write lessons. The problem is that perhaps only one in a hundred meet this set of criteria (this is the fundamental reason why it is difficult to use music in the language classroom for more than “culture” or translation or cloze activities—most songs don’t meet the criteria, which would allow for a profound exploration of the language.
About Tom Blodget
Tom Blodget, M.A., is an accomplished musician/songwriter and veteran Spanish teacher. He has published three books and CDs that reflect the educational purposes of the title of this essay, both in Spanish, in a series entitled Musicapaedia.
Many thanks to Tom Blodget for permission to display this presentation.
© Tom Blodget. All rights reserved. Used with permission.