Activity 2: Summarizing

Just as a story can be summarized, so can song lyrics–as long as the song tells a story. Once the summary is complete, it can be the basis of further spin-off activities, such as the Disappearing Summary or Pair Dictation.

Create a Summarizing Exercise in 4 Easy Steps:

Step 1: Choose a song that tells a story, and copy the lyrics from the Internet.

Step 2: Read the lyrics with the students, clarifying new vocabulary.

Step 3: Students listen to the song.

Step 4: Students summarize the story. They can write the summary individually or as a group, in a paragraph or in single sentences.

The theme of Unit 1 in More True Stories Behind the Songs is “Finding a Lost Love,” and the featured song is “You’re Beautiful,” about seeing an old love on the London subway. So the Tom Waits song “Martha,” about a middle-aged man trying to reconnect with an old girlfriend, is an appropriate supplemental song. Read through the lyrics with the students (outdated terms like “long distance” shouldn’t present a problem), and then have students listen to the song. Finally, working as a class, students summarize the story while you write their summary on the board. Below is the summary my students wrote.

Example 1: Summarizing the song  “Martha” followed by a Pair Dictation or a Disappearing Summary activity

His name is Tom Frost.
He calls Martha.
She was his girlfriend forty years ago.
He wants to meet her for coffee.
She has a husband and kids.
He got married, too.
He is still in love with her.

Writing the summary as a list of single sentences makes it easier to use as the basis of a Pair Dictation or Disappearing Summary activity. For the Pair Dictation, have half of your students turn their desks or chairs so that they can’t see the summary on the board. The remaining students find a partner and, facing the board, dictate about half the sentences to their partner. Then students switch roles. After the dictation, all students face the board and check their work.

For the Disappearing Summary activity, you erase the text line by line, a few words at a time, and ask students to read the summary after each erasure. Ultimately, students will be reciting the entire summary from memory. More detailed instructions for the activity are on page 84 in the To the Teacher sections of both True Stories Behind the Songs and More True Stories Behind the Songs.

After the summarizing activities, you can ask students, Will Martha meet Tom for coffee? What do you think?

Thanks to: Penny Ur and Andrew Wright for the disappearing text idea

In some songs that tell a story, the singer addresses someone. As a variation on the summarizing exercise, students can write their summary as a dialog between the singer and the person addressed. For example, in the song “Martha,” we hear Tom’s side of the phone conversation with Martha. Working as a class, students imagine what Martha’s responses to Tom are and then write their summary as dialog between Tom and Martha. Once the dialog is written, pairs of volunteers can come forward and act out the dialog for the class. A conversation based on “Martha” might begin something like the one below.

Example 2: Summarizing the song in dialog form

Tom: Hi, Martha. This is Tom.
Martha: Tom?
Tom: Tom Frost. Do you remember me?

Thanks to: the authors of the article “Teaching with Music

Next, let’s look at a yet another variation of the summarizing exercise: telling the story from the point of view of someone in the song.

The theme of Unit 6 in More True Stories Behind the Songs is “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.” The first story in the unit is about Susan Boyle, and the second is about a Ugandan king who worked as a nurse’s aide in the U.S. for 22 years. The Avril Lavigne song “Sk8er Boi,” about a girl who rebuffs a boy because of the way he looks, fits the theme nicely. After students read the lyrics and listen to the song, tell them, Imagine you are the girl. Tell your story to a friend. Working together, my students wrote the summary below.

Example 3: Summarizing the song “Sk8er Boi” from a different point of view

I knew him in the past.
He loved me.
I loved him, too.
He was a skater boy.
My friends said, “He’s a bad boy. He doesn’t have nice clothes.”
I listened to my friends.
I said “Bye” to the skater boy.
Now he’s famous.
I feel sad.

Most songs that tell a story can be told from a different point of view. The song “Martha,” for example, could be retold from Martha’s point of view. You could ask students to imagine Martha is telling a friend about the phone call from Tom.

Tip: Search under “songs that tell a story” for online lists of songs that tell a story.

Thanks to: Tamara Jones, who presented the summarizing idea in her presentation “Singing the Way to English Success” at TESOL 2012, and alessandra.edublog, where you will find the lyrics to “Sk8er Boi” and more activities for this song. (Tamara Jones’ articles–in fact, all the articles–on the “Teacher Talk” blog at are recommended.)

Other songs that tell a story:

  • “And We Sang La Da” (Cynthia Chitko, 1996) The activity below works well as an introduction to summarizing and as an introduction to the simple past tense. You can listen to the song free at Reverbnation (click on “all music”)  and purchase it from iTunes.

Hand out paper and markers to 12 student volunteers, and ask them to illustrate these lines in the song:

  1. I drove up to your house.
  2. I saw the lights were on,
  3. And so I parked my car
  4. And walked up to your door.
  5. As I stood outside,
  6. I heard your voice.
  7. And we sang La Da.
  8. You looked out your window, your face full of surprise.
  9. You opened the door
  10. And pulled me in.
  11. As I caught the look within your eyes, you caught the look in mine,
  12. And we fell into a dance across the floor.

As you play the song, the student artists come forward when they hear the line they illustrated. Holding their drawings in front of them, they line up in the correct order.

i-heard-your-voiceIf you have the ability to project documents in your classroom, you could play the song again while projecting the students’ drawings on a screen one by one, creating an impromptu musical slide show. This created a lot of interest and chuckling in my class, as the drawings were short on finesse (but big on creativity!).

You could also follow up by asking students, working individually or together, to change the 12 lines from the first person to the third person. (For example, I drove up to your house. > She drove up to his house.) These converted lines could then be the basis of the Disappearing Summary activity or Pair Dictation.

  • “Another Day of Sun” (the cast of La La Land, 2016)
  • “Love Yourself” (Justin Bieber, 2015) The official video for this song tells a story. It features dancers who are married in real life and is appropriate for most classrooms. Working together, my low-intermediate students wrote this summary of the video:

A couple is having a difficult time.
She thinks only of herself.
He tries to fix the problem.
He tries to communicate, but she doesn’t care.
She doesn’t love him.
He recognizes it’s not a good idea to be together.
She wakes up.
He’s gone.

  • “Mighty Ocean” (David Wilcox)
  • “One Call Away” (Charlie Puth, 2016) The official video tells a story. Working together, my high-beginning students wrote this summary of the video:

He is in love.
But she has a boyfriend.
Her boyfriend is mean.
He thinks about her, but he doesn’t say anything.
He gives her a surprise.
It’s a movie especially for her.

  • “Remember When” (Alan Jackson)
  • “Rude” (MAGIC!) The official lyric video is recommended.
  • “Same Old Lang Syne” (Dan Fogelberg).
  • “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” (Tony Orlando)
  • “Travelin’ Soldier” (Dixie Chicks)
  • “Tucson Train” (Bruce Springsteen)
  • “You Belong with Me” (Taylor Swift) The official video for this song tells a story. In his article “Beyond the Gap Fill: Dynamic Song Activities for Song in the ESL Classroom,” Nico Lorenzutti describes a summarizing activity called “Pair Watching” (Activity 7) and uses this song as an example. His lesson plan is on his website, ROH Press, as a PowerPoint.
  • “We Danced” (Brad Paisley)