Using Music in Second Language Instruction

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Using Music in Second Language Instruction

Mark Mallinder and Hsiang-Ni Lee, Taiwan

Mark Mallinder is an English instructor at National Changhua University of Education. He has been teaching a variety of college-level courses to Taiwanese EFL learners. His research interests include reading instruction and using multimedia in language classrooms.


Hsiang-Ni Lee is a professor at National Taitung University. She is interested in children’s literature, family literacy, literature-based reading instruction and material development. In the future, she also wishes to explore the multiple possibilities of utilizing technology in language education. E-mail:




Strengths in aspects of language learning
Potential downsides

Classroom practices




When carefully planned and implemented, music can effectively promote one’s second language proficiency, including listening comprehension, speaking skill, grammar knowledge and intercultural understanding. To maximize such strengths, teachers need to select music that matches students’ learning needs and current linguistic development. They are also advised to avoid songs which are sung at an extremely rapid speed, use incorrect grammar or contain profane language.


Music is widely utilized to teach content courses and promote language learning. Profound research has discovered that ESL/ EFL learners welcome such intervention because English songs not only use authentic language, which yet often are simplified, rhymed and repeated, they are also presented usually at a much slower speed. Drawn on the discussion of strengths and limitations of using music in the classroom, this article will attempt to recommend a number of potential activities for fostering students’ overall language competence.

Strengths in aspects of language learning


One’s listening skill is likely to improve when s/he listens to songs. Possible listening comprehension activities can be:

  • Teachers can create a handout in which key words or phrases are left out from the lyrics. Based on what they hear, students are required to fill in the blanks.

  • Teachers can ask students to write down as many key words or phrases as possible while a song is playing. Later, they can work in groups to try to reconstruct the entire song.

  • Instead of catching single words or phrases, teachers can ask students to summarize, either verbally or in writing, the main ideas of a song. This listening exercise can even take place in the form of a quick quiz.


When one sings or talks about a song, s/he is practicing speaking in terms of pronunciation, intonation and word stress. Some speaking exercises are quite fun:

  • Students can sing individually or as a class.

  • Students can take turns to sing part of the song in groups.

  • Students can put on a formal singing performance using props and costume.

  • Students can initiate a discussion about the lyrics or particular singers/songwriters.


Owing to the nature of rhyming and repetition, songs serve as a friendly reading material for beginning or struggling learners. Different activities can be:

  • Teachers can cut lyrics into individual sentences and then, while the song is playing, ask students to put the lyrics back in the correct order.

  • Before playing a song, teachers can give students the lyrics with some words missing. They can have students guess the possible missing words based on the remaining lyrics they are reading. After the song is played, the students will discover if their predictions are correct.


Songs can be used in a number of ways to assist students with their writing:

  • Teachers can ask some factual questions about the song being played.

  • Students can write thought pieces in response to the story told in the song.

  • Students can change lyrics and create their own songs.

Cultural information

Intercultural understanding plays an essential role in one’s language development. Properly utilized, music can be a window to world cultures.

  • Teachers can teach about Christianity through use of Christmas carols. In a non-stressful fashion, students can gain knowledge of western customs, e.g. mistletoe kisses, Frosty the snowman, gifts in stockings for well-behaved children, etc.

  • Songs dealing with specific cultural or historical events can also be educational. American Pie, for instance, introduces many of the pop icons back in the 1960s in the U.S.

Vocabulary and grammar

Through music, students can acquire more vocabulary and grammar. Some songs, according to the website “Helping you Learn English”, teach about essential grammar knowledge:

  • If I had a million dollars focuses on second conditional. For example: If I had a million dollars, I would buy you a house. (If + past..............would + infinitive)

  • If I were a boy introduces phrasal verbs like throw on, stick up and turn off.


Teachers can simply have a fun time with students listening to or singing songs that have nice melodies. “Silly songs” sometimes can successfully build class rapport and promote students’ motivation to learn.

  • Songs like All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth and Twelve Days of Christmas are quite amusing.

  • Lady Gaga’s music is popular among the younger generation. In Bad Romance, the humming appearing at the beginning of the song can be fun for the class to try to mimic.
Potential downsides

Problematic songs can be those which are sung too fast for the listener to understand, such as Rap and Dance music. Additionally, songs in which the words are not clear would not be a sound choice in the classroom; many singers “stretch” lyrics, or mumble, or combine words so they become difficult to understand. Next, songs using too much slang or incorrect grammar can be harmful. Finally, songs dealing with violence, sex, or racial bias are potentially offensive to certain cultural communities. Madonna’s Erotic, for instance, might cause great embarrassment in the classroom.

Classroom practices

Speaking about “Yesterday”

Possible discussion questions are:

  • Do you have regrets in life? What is it that you wish you had/ had not done?

  • Why do you feel that way? Can you fix it?

Cultural information about top pop music icon The Beatles

Hey Jude is a song which Paul McCartney wrote for John Lennon’s son, Julian. John divorced his son’s mother and married another woman. Paul was speaking in “Hey Jude” to Julian, telling him to learn to get along with his father’s new wife.

Using “Hey Jude” as a discussion starter, students can study Beatles music and take a quiz:

  • What were the names of The Beatles?

Ivana, George, Peggy, Paul, Remus, Ringo, Florence, John.

  • Which country or city were The Beatles originally from?

Paris, America, New Zealand, England.

Writing about “Tears in Heaven”

Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton reveals the singer’s feelings about his young son’s tragic death. Students can respond to the singer in the form of a condolence letter.


In summary, music plays a favorable role in facilitating all aspects of one’s second language development. As the modern technology has made it possible to access songs and lyrics freely online at any time, teachers are highly recommended to incorporate music in their curriculum design so that students can gain a deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, English language.


Beasley, R. E., Chuang, Y., & Liao, C. C. (2006). Determinants And Effects Of English Language Immersion In Taiwanese EFL Learners Engaged In Online Music Study. The Reading Matrix, 6(3), 5th Anniversary Special Issue-CALL Technologies and the Digital Learner.

Bonner, G. (2007). Singing the Praises of Songs: Some Practical Ideas for Using Music with your EFL students. Developing Teachers. Com.

Brown, H. D. (1980). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. New Jersey. Prentice Hall, Inc. (pp.129-144).

Lems, K. (1996). For a Song: Music across the ESL Curriculum. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. Ed 396 524)

Lems, K. (2001). Using music in the Adult ESL Classroom. ( ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. Ed 459 634)

Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Teaching English Through Multiple Intelligences course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the CLIL: Content and Methodology for Secondary Teachers course at Pilgrims website.


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