Monday, April 27, 2009

TOP 2O ESL Teaching Songs

As you many of you already know, I have been associated with ESL teaching for quite a while (20+ years).
I have always been a great advocate of music in the classroom. A shout out to Mark & Jeff, my usual partners in crime in all my crazy musical teaching adventures. Of course, almost any pop, country or rock song could be used for cloze exercises, fill in the blanks, comprehension and discussions. However, these are the songs I have used more often in classes... the ones that have worked best for me - either as part of an activity or task or as the task itself, and I´m throwing in a short description of how I used each song. You are encouraged to contribute and let us know what other songs have worked for you.

1. Instrumentals

I usually select 10 or 20 instrumental segments of songs and play them in class. For each segment, students need to answer a question while listening. For example, "what or who does this selection remind you of?", "where you would hear this music?", "How does this selection make you feel?", "Think of a verb that best describes this selection", etc. Students then share their answers in small groups and then with the rest of the class.

2. The Beatles - A Day in the Life

The middle part (the part sung by McCartney) is perfect for describing past events ("woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head")... First, I give the students strips of paper or drawings or pictures with each event, and ask them to put them in order. The first ones are obvious, the last ones not so much. Then, we listen to the song and see how many they got right. Then, I ask them to describe their own past events in the same fashion.

3. Don McLean - American Pie

This is a research song. We listen to the song in class and discuss it. Students then go home and go on-line and find out the many theories regarding the obscure meanings of this song. They can also do some reseach on Buddy Holly and other musicians directly or indirectly mentioned in the song.

4. Alanis Morrissette - Hand in my Pocket

This is a song for adjectives. You can give your students an alphabetical list of the adjectives in the song, and then they are supposed to put them in the right place. Also, you can have several discussions regarding the meaning of the song ("why does she have one hand in her pocket?").

5. Terry Jacks - Seasons in the Sun

Here, a dying young man says goodbye to his best friend, his dad and Michelle - who, depending on the interpretation, could be his girlfriend/wife or his daughter. The idea is that students choose one of these characters and write a response to him.

6. Mike + Mechanics - In the Living Years

Students discuss their relationships with their parents, and write a list of the things they would tell them before they (if they are still alive) or that they wish they could have told them (if they are already diseased).

7. Supertramp - The Logical Song

Another "adjective" song. First, I give them the lyrics of the song with all adjectives blanked out, and a list of adjectives. In groups, students are supposed to place them in the proper position (without listening to the song). Then, we listen to the song and they find out how many they got right.

8. Billy Joel - We Didn't Start the Fire

At some point, I divided the song among the students in my class and each group had to research the names in their part of the song. Later, I asked students to finish writing the song. You see, the song ends in the mid 80's. So, the students' task was to write the paragraphs for the 90's and the 00's. Some groups could write the 90's and some the 00's, then we choose the best ones. It's a very challenging but fulfilling activity.

9. John Lennon - Imagine

I ask students to close their eyes... hey, I like Suggestopedia, OK?... and ask them to imagine themselves ten years from now... imagine the sky.. imagine the people... etc.. and then we go into the song (their eyes still closed)... afterwards, you can use that as a springboard for a wonderful discussion.

10. Pearl Jam - Jeremy

I prefer to use the video of this song because it's more powerful and students get a better understanding of the what happened and how it happened (the original not this alternate version).

11. Stevie Wonder & Babyface - How Come, How Long

Just listen to this song, and the song will give you everything you need for a rich class discussion - even the discussion questions.

12. Don McLean - Vincent (Starry Starry Night)

Use this song to talk about art and Van Gogh. Students can choose their favorite painting and share with the class.

13. Weird Al Yankovic - Midnight Star

I love using Weird Al in class. It´s fun. This song contains lots of funny tabloid news. Students can write their own following the patters given in the song.

14. Les Crane - Desiderata / Norman Rose - Deteriorata.

Desiderata is a great medival poem, and Deteriorata is its parody. Students can write their own parody of Desiderada following the patterns from Deteriorata. It's a lot of fun.

15. Monty Phyton - Galaxy Song

This is a great song for teaching numbers and about space. It's also very philosophical, and, if used wisely, could lead to a very interesting class discussion.

16. Rent - Seasons of Love

How do you measure a year in the life? Students can come up with lists of everything they did in the last year.

17. Meat Loaf - Paradise by the Dashboard Lights

Best song for idioms. Teach baseball-related sports idioms, teach baseball-related sex idioms (going all the way, going to first base), talk about teenage sex and responsibility.

18. Abbott & Costello - Who's on First?

Yep, I know this is not really a song, but this is a great routine to use in class for pronouns and structure.

19. Rush - Red Barchetta

Great story. I have used this song to talk about formal vs informal language, and to ask students to describe a similar adventure they have had.

20. Eagles - Hotel California

Just play this song, and ask students "what is this song about?". That's your lesson plan right there.


  1. Such a nice nice collection of the teaching recourse.That a great thing for learner..
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  2. Really very fantastic! I think students enjoy your music as well as ESL programs too. What a combination and way to go well as learning...volunteer programs in canada

  3. What a great collection of songs and teaching ideas!

    Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Excellent collection. Keep up helping ESL teachers to improve their skills and their ways of working.

  5. I am a fashion journalist for a foreign newspaper, and I am writing in my next article about yours post, and also about this blog. I think they are youthful, art inspired and simply lovely.

  6. Thanks a lot! I've been looking for good songs for teaching all afternoon and you saved me.