Activity 5: Writing New Song Lyrics

Create New Song Lyrics in 4 Easy Steps:

Step 1: Choose a song that is easy to sing and copy the lyrics from the Internet.

Step 2: Students listen to the song while reading the lyrics.

Step 3: Working individually, in small groups, or as a class, students personalize the lyrics to fit their own experiences, replacing some words in the song with new words, or replacing an entire verse with a new verse.

Step 4: The class sings the song with the new lyrics.

In his article “An Idea for Using Songs in the EFL/ESL Classroom” (on the website ESLemployment), Morris Kimura describes a fill-in-the-gaps activity that guides beginning and high-beginning students as they write new song lyrics. He gives as an example the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land.” After students listen to the song’s chorus (and complete other activities described in his article), he gives them the template below.

Example 1: Writing new lyrics to the song “This Land Is Your Land”

This is our classroom.
We’re learning English.
My name is ___________________.
I come from ___________________.
I like to ___________________.
I _________________________. (Students write a whole sentence.)
This class is made for you and me.

Students fill in the gaps with personal information and then sing the song with their new lyrics, adjusting the rhythm if necessary. (If students prefer not to sing, Mr. Kimura asks permission to sing their lyrics for them.)

A shorter version of Mr. Kimura’s lesson is an ideal follow-up to Unit 8 of True Stories Behind the Songs. The U.S. cities of New Orleans and New York are the focal points of the two stories in that unit, so “This Land Is Your Land” is an appropriate supplemental song. Begin by handing out the worksheet below.

1. This Land Is Your Land

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me

2. This Is Our Classroom

This is our classroom.
We’re learning English.
My name is ____________________________________.
I come from ____________________________________.
I like to ____________________________________.
I __________________________________________.

This class is made for you and me.

Explain that “This Land Is Your Land” is a famous song in the United States, one that children often learn at school. You can further explain that the songwriter wrote the song because he believed this country is for ALL people who live here. Then structure the lesson this way:

A. Sing the chorus of the song, Part 1 on the worksheet, and clarify new vocabulary. (Or, if you’re not comfortable singing, play a recording of the chorus.)

B. Students watch the YouTube video of the entire song with lyrics. (They need not understand every word in the song; the visual images clarify meaning well enough.)

C. Students watch the video a second time, but this time they are encouraged to sing the chorus.

D. Direct your students’ attention to Part 2 of the worksheet and ask them to fill in the gaps.

E. Using the information the students filled in, the whole class sings the new versions of the song’s chorus, changing the first-person pronouns and possessive adjectives to the third person. For example:

2. This Is Our Classroom

This is our classroom.
We’re learning English.
Her name is Ana.
She comes from Mexico.
She likes to dance.
She likes this English class.
This class is made for you and me.

In a small class, students can sing all of the new versions of the song without the activity becoming monotonous. In a large class, students can sing just some of the new versions.

It was with some trepidation that I tried this activity in my classroom. I often supplement the units in True Stories Behind the Songs and More True Stories Behind the Songs with current hits, and I wondered how my students would respond to this song from the 1940s. They seemed to really enjoy it. And I worried a little, too, about whether they would sing along. Again, not to worry–they sang along with gusto. Furthermore, the activity was, as promised, a community/team-building one. I give it two thumbs up!

The theme of Unit 7 of More True Stories Behind the Songs is “Great Escapes.” The featured song is “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” and the companion story is about escaped slaves who used the Big Dipper to guide them to the North in the pre-Civil War era of the United States. So a good thematic fit for this unit is the supplemental song “We Shall Overcome.”

Example 2: Writing new lyrics to the song “We Shall Overcome”

A. Students listen to the civil-rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” while reading the lyrics. Call students’ attention to the lines below and point out that each line has five syllables.

  • We shall overcome
  • We’ll walk hand in hand
  • We shall live in peace
  • We are not afraid

B. Ask students what changes they would like to see in the world. Write their ideas on the board.

C. Divide the class into small groups. Each group chooses one change they all want. That will be the theme for their new verse of “We Shall Overcome.” Each group writes a new five-syllable line about the change they want. The group writes the new line three times, tacking on the words some day the third time they write the line. For example, one group of students in my class, hoping for immigration reform, wrote this line:

They will have IDs
They will have IDs
They will have IDs some day

Another group, hoping for better working hours, wrote:

No more ten-hour days
No more ten-hour days
No more ten-hour days some day

D. Volunteers from each group sing their new verse for the class. (The whole group can sing, or just a few people, or just one person.)

E. After each new verse is sung, the whole class sings:

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day

There is a long history of people writing new lyrics to “We Shall Overcome” to fit their circumstances, so this song is an appropriate choice for an activity in which students write their own lyrics. It is a lesson that can build not only language skills but also a strong sense of community. (For a brief history of the song, please see my article in AzarGrammar.com’s Teacher Talk Blog.)

Teaching Tip: If your students seem daunted by the task of coming up with a five-syllable line, start by asking them to come up with just a few key words for the line and write those words on the board. Working together, the class will probably be able to supply other words to fill out the line.

Other songs with lyrics that lend themselves to rewriting:

  • “Renegades” (X Ambassadors, 2015) Students replace the line Running like we’re renegades with their own lines. For example, students in a low-intermediate class personalized the lyrics this way: I’m dancing like Shakira. I’m cleaning like Cinderella. I’m playing soccer like Messi. I’m working like a donkey. After each student says his or her line, all students sing Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. Below is an audio clip of a class doing this activity.
  • “We Shall Not Be Moved” (Mavis Staples) In the original song, only one line changes in each verse. Students write new lyrics for this line.