Updates on Facebook: This site has a companion Facebook page, where I post notifications of newly added lesson plans, songs, and activities.
Story Behind the Song and Lesson Plan. The song “Wichita Lineman” was in the news recently when Glen Campbell’s recording of it was chosen by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation for future generations. I hadn’t heard the song for a long time, and when I listened to it I was struck by its suitability for language learning–clear diction, opportunities for follow-up activities in discussion and grammar, as well as a good backstory. (The song was inspired by an actual lineman, although he wasn’t from Wichita.) The story and a grammar worksheet are in the Lesson Plan. 7/30/2020
Story Behind the Song and Lesson Plan. Recent events have prompted renewed interest in Sam Cooke’s song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” One commentator on YouTube described it as “a powerful song that reflects times past and present.” I have brought this song into my classroom several times over the years. Students have always been moved by the song, especially when it is paired with the story behind it. 6/21/2020
Lesson for Students. Adult English classes in my school district have been canceled indefinitely because of the pandemic. I’ve been trying to think of a way to continue song-based lessons with my students online. As an experiment, I’ve posted an informal lesson that my students (high beginning and up) can do on their own. (The last step in the lesson is “Share,” which we’ll probably do via group text.) The lesson—titled “Sunny”—is under the new “For Students” tab on the navigation bar.
This lesson is based on Billie Eilish’s performance of “Sunny” on last Saturday’s OneWorld TV concert. It was wonderful to be reminded of this great song—I can’t count how many times since Saturday I’ve listened to the original Bobby Hebb version. 4/24/20
Lesson Plan. I decided to bring Alicia Keys’ new song “Underdog” into my classroom partly because there are official lyric videos in many languages, including Spanish and Japanese, the two languages represented in my classroom. My students have just begun studying the simple past tense, so we focused on examples of that form in the lyrics. I posted the gap-fill exercise I prepared for my class on the Grammar + Songs page. The exercise is also in the Lesson Plan, along with more teaching suggestions. 2/2/20
The song “Someone You Loved” has repeated examples of infinitives and infinitive phrases used as adjectives (somebody to know, somebody to heal, no one to save me, etc.), so I decided to focus my intermediate-level students’ attention on that construction. The worksheet we did in my classroom, as well as annotated lyrics, are on the Grammar + Songs page under “Infinitives as Adjectives.” (Previewing the lyrics of this song is recommended; some content may not be appropriate for your class.) 11/7/19
Based on the melody of Pachelbel’s Canon, Maroon 5’s new song “Memories” was written in memory of the band’s manager and close friend, who died in 2017. The song has a few grammatical mistakes (mainly dropping the final s in third person singular) that can be exploited for a grammar lesson. A lyrics worksheet is on the Grammar + Songs page under “Third Person Singular.” The song also works well as a springboard for a discussion about people that were important parts of our lives. Some ideas for structuring the discussion are in the Lesson Plan for the song.
Note: The lyrics mention “drinks,” but not specifically alcoholic drinks. Teachers who avoid songs that refer to alcoholic beverages may find this reference vague enough to be acceptable, but only individual teachers can make this judgment. 10/28/19
Links to Videos
When I first started bringing music videos into my classroom a couple of years ago, I discovered pretty quickly the necessity of carefully previewing them. Sometimes the song was appropriate for the classroom, but its music video was not. I had some time over the summer, so I updated the List of Songs by Theme and added dozens of links to classroom-friendly videos. 10/1/19
Worksheet, Present Perfect Progressive Tense
I noticed that the students in my advanced class were using the present perfect progressive tense interchangeably with the present perfect tense. So we did an activity with lots of examples of the present perfect progressive tense being used when the speaker wants to emphasize the duration of an activity that began in the past and continues into the present. I posted it on the Grammar + Songs page. Goes well with OneRepublic’s song “Counting Stars.” 9/19/19
Link to Video
This new performance of the Beatles song “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” from the 2019 movie Yesterday, has lots of instances of “want to” being pronounced “wanna”—a pronunciation rarely included in grammar books or practiced in the classroom, but common in spoken English. An interactive activity that gives students practice using “wanna” is on the Grammar + Songs page. 9/8/19
Lyrics Gap-Fill Worksheet
Sometimes while looking for music videos for my students, I come across something unexpected–like this 2018 cover of the old Willie Nelson song “Crazy,” recorded in what appears to be someone’s living room. The vocabulary is simple, the tempo is slow, and the diction is clear–plus the song is loaded with gerunds! In other words, it’s a great video to bring into the classroom. I added a lyrics gap-fill exercise on the Grammar + Songs page under “Gerunds as Objects of Prepositions.” 7/14/19
The song “I Don’t Care” has many verbs in their simple form. A lyrics gap-fill exercise targeting those verbs, followed by an interactive activity in which students use the verbs, was added to the Lesson Plan for this song as well as on the Grammar + Songs page. A link to Sheeran’s simple acoustic version of the song was also added to these pages. 6/28/19
Bruce Springsteen has just come out with a new album called Western Stars. When classes resume in the fall, I’m going to use the song “Tucson Train” to review verb tenses with my intermediate-level students. A lyrics gap-fill exercise targeting five of the tenses in the song is on the Grammar + Songs page. It’s the last item under the “Verb Tenses” category. 6/24/19
On the Facebook page for Songs and Activities for English Language Learners, Kathryne Lyons suggested this follow-up activity for the song “Tom’s Diner”: For homework, she had her students pretend they were sitting in a public place (restaurant, library, park, etc.) and write their observations in the present progressive tense. She also suggested Suzanne Vega’s a cappella version of the song, which was posted to YouTube last summer. Both of these great suggestions were added to the Lesson Plan for “Tom’s Diner.” Thank you, Kathryne! 6/12/19
The song “True Colors” has 10 adjectives. The worksheet is a lyrics cloze exercise, suitable for levels beginning and up. The worksheet was added to both the Lesson Plan for “True Colors” and the Grammar + Songs page. 6/7/19
A recent positive development for English-language teaching is that record companies have begun providing their own “official” lyric videos for hit songs. The advantage of licensed lyric videos is that they don’t have misspellings, and they aren’t taken down from YouTube, as unlicensed videos often are. Cyndi Lauper just released a lyric video for her 1986 song “True Colors.” I’ve posted a few lesson plans ideas (including one for the end of the school year), but this video would also work well just on its own. 6/5/19
The phrase “should have” + past participle is used to express regret for past mistakes. Perhaps no song expresses that sentiment better “Always on My Mind,” which repeats the phrase several times. The interactive worksheet on the Grammar + Songs page gives students practice using the construction. Follow up with Willie Nelson’s performance of the song. 5/21/19
Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber have collaborated on a new song, “I Don’t Care.” The song is about being anxious at a party, so in my intermediate-level class of adults, I followed up with the topic of making small talk in social settings like parties. I posted some ideas for activities. (Some language in the song might make it inappropriate for your class. Previewing the lyrics is recommended.)
The song “Be Alright” was a #1 hit in Australia. Now it’s becoming popular in the U.S.—it’s one of the most-played songs on adult pop-music stations. I’ve posted some lesson plan ideas under “Lesson Plans.” (Caution: The official licensed videos for this song–including the official lyric video–contain language that is inappropriate for most classrooms. There are, however, clean versions on YouTube–search “Be Alright clean/radio edit.”)
Songs for Valentine’s Day
You might want to bring one of these songs with a love/romance theme into your classroom. All have minimal-prep lesson plans. 2/11/19
“As Long As You Love Me” (high beginning and up)
“Something Just Like This” (high beginning and up)
*NEW* “Ring of Fire” (high beginning and up) This lesson plan includes the story behind the song.
“Make You Feel My Love” (intermediate and up)
*NEW* “You’re Beautiful” (low intermediate and up) This lesson plan includes the story behind the song.
Grammar Activities, Present Progressive Tense
My beginning-level class is studying the present progressive tense, so I searched “songs with present progressive tense.” I found “Tom’s Diner,” which is loaded with present-progressive verbs. The 45-min. lesson we did in my class, for levels beginning and up, is on the Grammar & Songs page. The lesson includes two reproducible activities. 1/23/19
The climate in most of my students’ home countries is sunny and warm all year; the climate where they live now can be cold and cloudy at this time of year. So in the winter, I try to work in a lesson about the sadness some people feel in winter and the importance of getting outside in natural light. I use the Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun” as a starting point for the lesson. Included in the Lesson Plan is a link to an audio recording of the story behind the song and the audio recording of a follow-up story about a Guatemalan man having trouble adjusting to a New York winter. 1/6/19
Online Audio Recordings
Audio recordings of all the stories in True Stories Behind the Songs (a beginning reading textbook) and More True Stories Behind the Songs (a high-beginning reading textbook) are now online–no access code, password, or registration required. Go to the Pearson catalog site and, at the top of the page, click on “Stories Behind Songs Audio.” Lessons based on these newly available recordings to follow. 1/3/19
At the start of a new year, many people think about changes they’d like to make. The Kelly Clarkson song “Breakaway” and her personal story are good starting points for a class discussion on making changes. In the Lesson Plan, you’ll find several ideas for introducing and structuring the discussion. 1/3/19
Shawn Mendes’ song “In My Blood” was just nominated for a Grammy Award for best song of 2018. This song repeats the phrase “sometimes I feel like giving up.” I’ve added a worksheet in which students practice using “feel like” to mean “want to.” It’s on the Grammar + Songs page. The official music video is classroom friendly.
This song is autobiographical. Advanced learners can listen to Shawn Mendes talk about struggling with anxiety for the first time in a interview. (Listen until about minute 2.)
Teachers’ Song Suggestions
At the end of my webinar, “Teaching Grammar with Popular Songs: Ain’t No Reason Not To,” I asked teachers to share songs that have worked well for them. The suggestions came in so fast, I’m not sure we got them all. But here are many of them. Thank you!
“Where Have You Been?” (Rihanna) Present perfect
“Lemon Tree” (Fools Garden) Present continuous
“Hero” (Enrique Iglesias) 2nd conditional
“Love of My Life” (Queen) Present perfect
“Every Breath You Take” (The Police) Future continuous
“Hello, Goodbye” (Beatles) opposites (good for low-beginning level)
“Mirrors” (Justin Timberlake) Personal pronouns I and you; possessive adjectives my and your
“Through the Years” (Kenny Rogers) Present perfect
“Count on Me” (Bruno Mars) 1st conditional
“Tears in Heaven” (Eric Clapton) Past tense
“Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd) 2nd conditional with wish
“Every Breath You Take” (The Police) Future continuous
“If I Were a Boy” (Beyonce) 2nd conditional
“If You Were a Sailboat” (Katie Melua) 2nd conditional Note: The singer sings “if I was,” which is generally regarded as incorrect (the correct form is “if I were”), but it’s fairly common in informal speech.
“Never Been to Spain” (Three Dog Night) Present perfect
Note: The singer doesn’t pronounce the “ve” in “I’ve never been…”
“Old Blue Chair” (Kenny Chesney) to encourage students to speak and sing along
Tip from a teacher: Search on the Internet for “songs that use _____” (for example, “songs that use present perfect”) to get ideas for songs.
Webinar, October 17, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
The topic is “Teaching Grammar with Popular Songs: Ain’t No Reason Not To.” The one-hour presentation, sponsored by Pearson Education, is free. You can register at www.pearsoneltusa.com/eltwebinars.
Links to YouTube videos for every song on the Grammar + Songs page (to make it easier to preview songs)
Improved direction lines in grammar exercises on several pages
I recently revised six books in the True Stories reading series (called the Silver Edition) and had the good fortune of working with an editor who is skilled in designing exercises, particularly in regard to writing clear direction lines. I’ve revised the direction lines in some of the exercises as a result of what I learned working with him. The content of the exercises remains essentially unchanged.
Story + YouTube Video
James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke with Paul McCartney, posted on YouTube June 21, has quickly gone viral. Here’s a possible lesson plan to go with a 3-minute segment of that video, for levels beginning and up:
1. Read the story behind the song “Let It Be.”
2. Find the lyrics to the song on the Internet and distribute them to students. Listen to the song while reading the lyrics.
3. Watch the segment of the video from minute 4:50 to 7:35.
Song + Grammar Worksheet
Singer Meghan Trainor says her song “No Excuses” is about respect. “I don’t disrespect you—don’t you disrespect me,” she sings. The line “You must have confused me with someone else” is repeated many times. The worksheet on the Grammar + Songs page targets the construction “must have + past participle” to describe past actions that almost certainly happened. For levels high intermediate and advanced. 6/1/18
Song + Writing / Discussion Activity
Millions heard the song “Stand By Me” when it was sung at the Royal Wedding on 5/19. The discussion activity asks students to first write about someone who stands/stood by them and then share their writing with classmates. This was a powerful lesson in my class. For levels beginning and up. On the Class Discussion on a Song’s Theme page. 5/21/18
Song + Grammar Worksheet
In the song “Meant to Be,” a man asks a woman to ride with him in his car—to relax and put her feet up on the “dash” (the dashboard). She is reluctant because she wants to know where they’re going—that is, where their relationship is going. In the end, they both decide to take the ride, singing “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be.”
The song repeats the contraction it’ll many times. On the Grammar + Songs page, you’ll find a worksheet that targets the contractions I’ll and it’ll. Students use the two contractions when writing about their dream vacation. For levels beginning and up. 5/17/18
Song + Class Discussion / Grammar Worksheet
During the second week of November, Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” was the #1 downloaded song in the United States. The singer thinks back on his younger self, someone who was laughed at for having big dreams. But just as lightning precedes thunder, those big dreams led to a successful career. The song’s theme invites students to share what their dreams are. To structure the discussion, there’s a new worksheet at the end of Activity #3: Class Discussion on a Song’s Theme. The worksheet serves two purposes: it’s both a springboard to conversation and a subtle introduction to gerund phrases. (You don’t have to even mention the term–lower-level students can successfully complete the exercise. For higher levels, you could follow up with the “Gerunds as Objects of Prepositions” worksheet on the Grammar + Songs page.) 11/15/17
Song + Grammar Worksheet
At first listen, Selena Gomez’s “It Ain’t Me” comes across as a light-hearted pop song. But when you listen carefully to the lyrics, you realize that it’s a serious song about a relationship ruined by alcoholism—about having the resolve to walk away from an unhealthy relationship. The song repeats the phrase who’s gonna many times, so it could be used to practice using gonna in informal spoken English. The song was added on the List of Songs page and on the Grammar + Songs page, which has annotated lyrics and an interactive worksheet that gives students practice forming questions beginning Who’s gonna.
Links to YouTube videos
I’ve gotten feedback that the links to YouTube videos on the List of Songs page are helpful; for many teachers, YouTube is the only practical way to bring recordings of popular songs into their classrooms. So I’ve added dozens of links to YouTube videos, all of them, to the best of my knowledge, legally licensed. Most are designated “Recommended,” meaning they are appropriate for the vast majority of classrooms. (I’ve also gotten feedback that teachers find this vetting helpful.) I’ve added links to the first half of songs on the list. More links will follow at a later date. 10/1/17
This is a companion to the lesson below; it’s also on noun clauses and is for levels high beginning and up. (You can do either lesson first.) This lesson culminates with the song “As Long As You Love Me,” which has three simple noun clauses in its chorus. My students had a great time singing along with the Backstreet Boys. 9/28/17
The topic of noun clauses is usually not addressed until the intermediate or advanced level. Yet the reality is that lower-level students encounter noun clauses regularly in everyday speech, in sentences such as Do you know where my keys are? This lesson gives students practice using noun clauses without making it necessary to go into lengthy explanations or even using the words noun clause. The song that culminates the lesson,”Wonderful World,” has clear, classroom-friendly lyrics with a few simple noun clauses.
Some record companies have revived interest in older songs like this one by making lyric videos for them. The 2015 lyric video for this song works particularly well in the language classroom. Historic scenes flash on the screen while the music plays. You’ll find a link to the video in the lesson plan. 9/22/17
I added a link to a news release for English language learners on the VOA (Voice of America) Learning English site. The article is about the music video for “See You Again” surpassing “Gangnam Style” as the most-watched YouTube video–it has 2.9 billion views. The link is now in the lesson plan for this song. The lesson plan includes the poignant story behind the song and a grammar worksheet on it’s been vs. it was, which is also on the Grammar + Songs page. 7/14/17
Song and Lesson Plan
The song “Another Day of Sun” is from the opening scene of the movie La La Land, which was recently released on DVD. The scene, filmed on a Los Angeles freeway ramp, has inspired performances all over the world. I’ve posted links to some of them in the lesson plan, which also includes annotated lyrics, a lyrics cloze exercise, and spin-off grammar and discussion activities. The grammar worksheet is also on the Grammar + Songs page. Because of the song’s fast tempo, the lesson plan works best for levels intermediate and up. Added on the List of Songs in two categories, “Sunshine” and “US Cities.” 7/1/17
Song and Lesson Plan
Rolling Stone magazine named The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the greatest album of all time. It’s been in the news recently because it is the 50th anniversary of the album’s debut, and a deluxe edition has been released. One of the songs on that album–”She’s Leaving Home”–works particularly well as a teaching tool. A grammar lesson can be built around the eight participial phrases in the song, and it’s a great springboard for writing and discussion activities. A lesson plan for “She’s Leaving Home” has been added under the “Lesson Plans” heading. 6/8/17
Song and Lesson Plan
It’s not easy to find a contemporary song that works for beginners. The song “Down,” about a woman who wants to go dancing, worked well in my class of adult learners. I told my students not to worry about understanding every word of the song. Instead, we focused on the grammatical structure of the repeated line “Are you down?” (meaning: “Do you want to do this?”) I invited two higher-level classes to join us for the lesson, and it worked well as a multilevel activity.
Under the “Lesson Plans” heading, you’ll find a “Find Someone Who” activity that requires students to ask questions beginning Are you, an annotated lyrics cloze exercise focusing on the rhyming words in the song, and links to classroom-friendly videos. My students especially enjoyed watching the Apple commercial that made the song famous.
The song was added on the List of Songs page under the “Taking Chances” category. 5/21/17
In his book The Poetry of Pop, Adam Bradley points out that the chorus of the song “Say Something” is a poem written in dactylic trimeter—a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, repeated three times in every line. That predictable stress pattern makes the chorus ideal for reading aloud. I posted the chorus, with the accented syllables in bold, at the end of Activity #6: Singing or Speaking the Chorus. In my class, we broke the activity into 3 parts: We read all the lyrics while listening to the song (audio only version by A Great Big World), then practiced speaking the chorus, and finally watched the video of the Pentatonix cover of the song. At the end of the lesson, I asked my students, “What did you think of the song?” Their answer: “Beautiful.” 4/13/17
Grammar-focused Lesson Plan
If you’re looking for a song with a lot of participial phrases, “Don’t Stop Believin’” would be the one to pick. A bonus is that the song’s upbeat chorus (Don’t stop believin’ / Hold on to that feelin’) infuses the lesson with positive energy. Although over 30 years old, “Don’t Stop Believin’” continues to be one of the most downloaded songs in the U.S. My students loved the song—some were looking for it on their smart phones even before they left the classroom. Added under “Lesson Plans.” 4/5/17
The lesson plan for “Don’t Stop Believin’” (see above) includes a story about Journey’s new lead singer, who is from the Philippines. The story is particularly powerful when combined with the music video of Journey’s concert in Manila. You’ll find the story, as well as a link to the video, on the navigation bar under “Stories.” After we read this story in class, one of my students asked, “Is it true?” To the best of my knowledge, the story is true. 4/5/17
Song and Lesson Plan
The new song “Something Just Like This” by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay is climbing the charts worldwide; it is currently one of the top downloaded songs in the U.S. It’s about a woman who says her boyfriend (the singer) doesn’t need to be a superhero—she likes him as he is. I decided to bring the song into my class because it repeats the contraction wanna—a pronunciation of want to that is rarely included in grammar books or practiced in the classroom but is common in informal spoken English. You’ll find an interactive activity that gives students practice using wanna, a discussion activity, annotated lyrics, and links to suggested music videos under the “Lesson Plans” heading. The song was added on the List of Songs page under the theme “Falling in Love.” 3/16/17
On February 12, the Grammy Awards took place in Los Angeles. Three of the five songs that were nominated for Best Song are appropriate for most classrooms. They are “Hello,” “Love Yourself,” and “7 Years.” Lesson plans for these songs, including annotated lyrics, are on this site. Click on the song titles for the lesson plans. If your students don’t know which song won, you could play the nominated songs while students read the lyrics. Students could try to guess which song won. (It was Adele’s “Hello.”)
Song suggestions for Black History Month
February is Black History Month in the United States. Some songs you might consider bringing into your classroom this month are:
1. “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. Teaching suggestions are under the Lesson Plans heading.
2. “We Shall Overcome.” This song was an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. The story “I’m Not Moving” describes how the song is connected with Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery city bus. An activity in which students write their own lyrics to the song is under Activity 5. (It is Example 2.)
3. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” This song, sung by jazz legend Nina Simone, was also an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Teaching suggestions are under the Lesson Plans heading.
4. “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” According to legend, this song helped guide escaped slaves to the northern United States. The story and song lyrics are in Unit 7 of More True Stories Behind the Songs. 2/9/17
Song and Lesson Plan
Ed Sheerhan’s latest single, “The Castle on the Hill,” is about his childhood home (which he says is “in the middle of nowhere”) and his old friends. So the song works well as a springboard for discussion on those topics. You’ll find activities to structure the discussion, as well as annotated lyrics and a lyrics cloze exercise targeting the past-tense verbs, under the Lesson Plans heading. The song was added on the List of Songs page under two themes: “Memories” and “Friendship.” My students (adults, mixed levels) responded well to this song and the spin-off activities. 1/25/17
Song and Spin-off Activities
The song “This Town” by Niall Horan was added to the List of Songs under the theme “Lost Love” (subheading: “Songs About the End of a Romantic Relationship”). The singer/songwriter Niall Horan says this poignant song is about “that one individual you end up seeing when you go home.” I chose this song for my class partly because of this phrase: the words I never got to say—a perfect example of using got to meaning had the opportunity to. I’ve posted an interactive activity that gives students practice with the construction “to get to do something” at the end of Activity #4: Building a Lesson Around a Repeated Phrase. An annotated lyrics cloze exercise targeting the six past-tense verbs in the song is at the end of Activity #1: Targeted Cloze. Please see the List of Songs page for official video recommendations. My students (adults, mixed levels) responded well to this song and the spin-off activities. 1/10/17
Sometimes teachers hesitate to bring Bob Dylan songs into the classroom because his lyrics can be complex and difficult for all but the most advanced learners to understand. But the Dylan song “Make You Feel My Love” has worked really well with my students, perhaps because many of them were familiar with Adele’s cover of the song. On the Lesson Plans page, you’ll find lesson plan ideas for this song, including a lyrics cloze exercise, two spin-off grammar lessons, and a one-page, high-beginning reading titled “Lyrics or Literature?” about Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. 12/20/16
Last month I taught a “Songs” class for university students from Mexico who were in the U.S. for an intensive English program. My class, which was the “fun” class, met once a week for 4 weeks. I blogged about we did in each class and how it went. You’ll find the blog at the bottom of the Lesson Plans page.
New activity: The One-Question Interview on Music
If you’ve never used popular songs as a teaching tool, this is would be a great introductory activity. It’s an efficient, low-prep way to get a snapshot of your students’ musical preferences and experiences. 11/4/16
“When I’m Gone” (Anna Kendrick, 2012). Added on the List of Songs page under the “Lost Love” theme. A reference to whiskey in the lyrics may make this song inappropriate for some classes; otherwise, both the song and its YouTube video are classroom-friendly. (The video is highly recommended.) The song repeats the phrase you’re gonna 20 times. Please see the Grammar + Songs page for written and oral activities that give students practice with this informal pronunciation of going to. 11/6/16
Activities with a baseball theme
In the U.S. there is a lot of interest in this year’s World Series, played by two teams who haven’t won the championship in a long, long time. My class sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (we sang along with a YouTube video) and then sampled Cracker Jacks, the treat mentioned in the song. (Available on Amazon, about $13 for 24 small packs.) To get a snapshot of your students’ experiences with baseball, try the “One-Question Interview” activity, using the questions about baseball on the Internet TESL Journal’s Site. In addition, there are two stories about baseball in More True Stories Behind the Songs: “Baseball Fever,” about the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and “Three Strikes–and the Pitcher’s Out?,” about a female pitcher who never makes it to the major leagues, perhaps because she’s too good. In More True Stories, “Love or Baseball?” is about a guy who fakes a broken leg so that he can watch the World Series instead of taking his girlfriend to a dance. (That doesn’t work out well for him.) Little known fact: The song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” actually has many verses–only the chorus is sung at baseball games. The full lyrics are in More True Stories Behind the Songs; Carly Simon’s recording is on YouTube.
Teacher Talk blog article at AzarGrammar.com
Pop songs model correct grammar; they also infamously model incorrect grammar. Do the benefits of using songs to teach grammar outweigh the risks? In my opinion, yes. In a blog article at AzarGrammar.com, I list some of the benefits I’ve observed in my own classroom. The article, posted October 4, is titled “Using Pop Songs to Teach Grammar: Ain’t No Reason Not To.”
Drawing activity for the song “And We Sang La Da”
In this activity, 12 students illustrate lines from the song. You play the song, and the student illustrators come to the front of the room with their drawings when they hear their lines. I had come across this activity a long time ago, but hesitated to try it with adults, thinking that perhaps it was more appropriate for younger learners. I was pleasantly surprised that it worked great in my class of adults, partly because there was only one person among us (an architect) who could actually draw. But while our pictures were short on finesse, they were big on creativity, and there was a lot of good-natured chuckling when we viewed them. The activity created a lot of interest, and the bonus was that it gave students even more exposure to the song’s past-tense verbs. Please see the Grammar + Songs page for the 12 lines my students illustrated. 10/19/16
Lyrics Cloze Exercise
I first heard the song “And We Sang La Da” by singer/songwriter Cynthia Chitko on the radio while driving, and I liked it so much that I downloaded it for my personal library. While listening to it one day, I realized the song is ideal for language learning: The lyrics are straightforward and clear, the tempo slow. But the big bonus is that the song uses 16 verbs in the simple past tense—6 regular and 10 irregular—to tell a story. (The story has a “reconnecting with a lost love” theme.) With Ms. Chitko’s permission, I’ve posted a lyrics cloze exercise that asks students to fill in the past-tense verbs. The exercise is in two places—on the Grammar + Songs page, and at the end of Activity #1: Targeted Cloze. You can listen to the song at Reverbnation (click on “all songs”) and purchase it from iTunes. 10/8/16
I sometimes pair the songs on this site not only with stories in the True Stories Behind the Songs textbooks but with other stories in the True Stories reading series. For example, Bruce Springsteen’s “Pay Me My Money Down” works well with the story “The Last Laugh” in True Stories in the News, about a waitress who is promised a Toyota as a prize for being the top employee and gets, ha, ha, a toy Yoda instead. (When she takes her boss to court, she gets the last laugh.) You’ll find more ideas for pairing songs with thematically related stories under “Teaching Tips” on the List of Songs page. 10/3/16
New Page: Grammar + Songs
I’ve been bringing songs into my classroom my whole career, but it’s only recently that I began using songs to teach grammar. Now I pair grammar topics with songs whenever I can. On this new page, you’ll find activities, worksheets, and songs to pair with specific grammar topics. For example, the song “I Will Remember You” is paired with an activity that gives students practice forming sentences in the simple past while imagining how their descendants will remember them. 9/7/16
Lyrics Cloze Exercises
- The exercise targets the many adverb clauses beginning with the word until in the song “Baby, I’m Yours.” If you use Azar’s Understanding and Using English Grammar, this song would work well with Chapter 17. The exercise is for levels high intermediate and advanced. Please see Activity #1: Targeted Cloze. Scroll to the end for the worksheet. 9/5/16
- The Beatles’ song “Can’t Buy Me Love” uses the simple future tense (will + a verb in the simple form) to make promises (I’ll buy you a diamond ring, I’ll give you all I’ve got to give, etc.). For a lyrics cloze exercise focusing on this construction, please see Activity #1: Targeted Cloze. Scroll to the end for the worksheet. This song was added under the “Living Simply” theme on the List of Songs page. 9/4/16
- If you’re looking for a song with lots of verbs in the simple past, it doesn’t get much better than “Because You Loved Me.” It has 19 past-tense verbs, 5 regular and 14 irregular. (The irregular verbs are: was, were, brought, could, found, gave, had, held, let, lost, made, said, saw, and stood.) Please see Activity #1: Targeted Cloze for a chart of the past-tense verbs and a lyrics cloze exercise targeting them. Scroll to the end of the page for the exercise. The verbs are repeated throughout the song, so students will write the past-tense forms a total of 66 times. 9/1/16
“My Girl” (The Temptations, 1965). Added to the List of Songs page under the theme “Being in Love.” While listening to musicians sing this song on a street in France last spring, two things struck me: that “My Girl” has held up really well over the years, and that the lyrics are appropriate for English language learners. Later I realized that the song has another quality: It repeats the phrase I’ve got. For an interactive worksheet that gives students practice saying I’ve got it and I’ve got ’em, please see Activity #4: Building a Lesson Around a Repeated Phrase. Scroll to the end of the page for the exercise. 8/22/16
This interactive activity gives students practice pronouncing “I’ve got to” as “I gotta” in informal spoken English. Accompany the exercise with the song “You Gotta Be” (Des’ree, 1994), which repeats the title phrase 37 times. Please see Activity #4: Building a Lesson Around a Repeated Phrase. Scroll to the end of the page for the exercise. Added 8/15/16.
- “Lost Boy” (Ruth B.). Added on the List of Songs page under the theme “Friendship.” (The songwriter says her song is about being lonely and needing a friend.) The song is appropriate for all classrooms, as is the official video. You’ll find lesson plan ideas on the Lesson Plans page. The lesson plans include the story behind the song (the songwriter is a Canadian college student who shared the song line by line on the Internet as she wrote it), as well as a chart of the 14 simple past tense verbs in the song. Added 7/25/16.
- “Can’t Stop the Feeling” (Justin Timberlake). This song is the #1 pop song in the U.S. and many other countries. Added on the List of Songs page under the theme “Happiness.” It is appropriate for most classrooms, but previewing the lyrics is advised. You’ll find annotated lyrics and lesson plan ideas on the Lesson Plans page. Added 7/5/16.
Additional Category on the Lesson Plans Page: Lesson Plans for Classic Hits
Here you’ll find activities for these songs:
A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke, 1964)
I Will Remember You (Sarah McLachlan, 1999)
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (Nina Simone, 1967)
The Sound of Sunshine” (Michael Franti, 2010)
I have learned not to overlook these older songs; Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” for example, is one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever used with adult immigrants to the U.S. 6/23/16
An interactive worksheet that gives students practice using gonna to talk informally about the weather forecast. The worksheet goes nicely with the song “I Can See Clearly Now” (Johnny Nash, 1972, or Jimmy Cliff, 1993), an upbeat, energizing song that has held up well over the years. (It’s on the List of Songs page under the theme “Sunshine.”) The song repeats the phrase It’s gonna be a bright sunshiny day six times. Please see Activity #4: Building a Lesson Around a Repeated Phrase and scroll to the end for the worksheet. The worksheet pairs well with the activity for “I’m Gonna Love You.” (See below.) 6/15/16
Song + Activity
“I’m Gonna Love You” (Meghan Trainor with John Legend, 2015). Added on the List of Songs page under the theme “Being in Love.” This song repeats the phrase I’m gonna 21 times. Please see Activity #4: Building a Lesson Around a Repeated Phrase and scroll to the end for an activity that gives students practice using gonna in informal speech. Added 6/14/16.
An additional activity for the song “Stressed Out.” Students practice the construction wish + simple past to make wishes in the present by playing the Memory Circle game. On the Lesson Plans page. Added 6/8/16.
- Lesson plan ideas for the song “I Will Remember You.” On the Lesson Plans page. The lesson plans include a pre-listening lyrics cloze worksheet, practice using the future tense with will, and discussion activities based on the “remembering” theme. Nice song for the end of the school year.
- Lesson plan ideas for the song “The Sound of Sunshine.” On the Lesson Plans page. The lesson plans include the story behind the song (it was written in a hospital bed), annotated lyrics, and a worksheet for a Walking Dictation. Nice song for the start of summer.
Lesson plans for “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, a song chosen by the Library of Congress (the U.S. national library) for preservation because of its historical, cultural, and aesthetic importance. The lesson plans are on the Lesson Plans page. They include the story behind the song, annotated lyrics, a grammar worksheet on it’s been vs. it was, and a culminating discussion on changes students want to see. The students in my class of adult immigrants were visibly moved by the 2016 official lyric video for this song.
A worksheet contrasting the use of the grammatical forms it’s been vs. it was. You’ll find the worksheet at the end of Activity #4: Building a Lesson Around a Repeated Phase. Pair with these songs: “See You Again” (repeats the phrase It’s been a long day without you, my friend); “A Change Is Gonna Come” (repeats the phrase It’s been a long time comin’); or “Here Comes the Sun” (repeats the phrase it’s been four times). If you use the textbook True Stories Behind the Songs, you can also tie the worksheet in with Story 1, which relates that Harrison wrote “Here Comes the Sun” in February, when it was still winter. The story underscores his use of it’s been in the song to describe a situation that began in the past and continues into the present.
“One Call Away” by Charlie Puth. This song is currently on the list of top 25 songs in the U.S., ranked by radio airplay. During a recent visit to France, I heard it often on the radio there, too. (Other songs I heard often there were “7 Years” and “Love Yourself.”) Added to the List of Songs under the themes “Being in Love” and “Friendship.” You’ll find activities for this song on the Lesson Plans page.
New Category: Lesson Plans for Recent Hits
If you want to bring a recent hit song into your classroom but aren’t sure how to use it as a teaching tool, you’ll find classroom-tested ideas on this new page. The lesson plans are for the following mega-hit songs:
Fight Song (Rachel Platten)
Love Yourself (Justin Bieber)
One Call Away (Charlie Puth)
Renegades (X Ambassadors)
See You Again (Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa)
7 Years (Lukas Graham)
Stressed Out (Twenty One Pilots)
When We Were Young (Adele)
“7 Years” by Lukas Graham. This song by a Danish singer/songwriter topped charts in Europe earlier this year and is just catching on in the U.S. It was the #1 downloaded song for the week ending March 10. The lyrics are fairly straightforward and clear, although one line–By eleven, smoking herb and drinking burning liquor–may make the song inappropriate for some classrooms. Added on the List of Songs page under the theme “Memories.” There are two official videos for the song. The video with the montage of family photos is recommended.
You will find annotated, punctuated lyrics for “7 Years” on the List of Songs page under the theme “Memories.”
The activity “4 Corners” would be a nice warm-up to the song “7 Years.” On four pieces of paper, write the numbers 11, 20, 30, and 60. Post one number in each corner of the room. Ask students, “Which is the best age?” Students stand next to their answer. Students in each corner make a list of reasons why that is the best age. One spokesperson for each group reports the reasons to the class.
In “7 Years,” the songwriter reflects back on when he was 7, 11, and 20 years old, so the song invites a discussion about “Important Years.” Please see Activity #3: Class Discussion on a Song’s Theme. Scroll to the end for a reproducible interactive activity for levels high-beginning and above. I found the idea for this activity on the website of the Minnesota Literacy Council under “Tutor Tips” for volunteers, a great resource for practical, creative ideas.
Pre-reading animated drawings on YouTube for the story “I’m Not Moving,” about Rosa Parks and the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the song “We Shall Overcome.” (For a rationale for previewing reading selections with pictures, along with examples from my classroom, please see my article “Picture It: A Drawing-Based Pre-Reading Activity,” published last month in Pearson’s online newsletter.) For a lesson plan for this song, please see my article on AzarGrammar’s Teacher Talk blog.
Adele’s “When We Were Young.” Added on the List of Songs page under the theme “Finding a Lost Love.” There is no official music video for this song, but the live studio performance on YouTube is recommended.
Annotated, punctuated lyrics for “When We Were Young” are on the List of Songs page under the theme “Lost Love.”
In her song “When We Were Young,” Adele uses the word like to make a comparison 14 times. For a high-beginning activity to practice this construction, please scroll to the end of Activity #4: Building a Lesson Around a Repeated Phrase. Permission is granted to reproduce the worksheet for classroom use.
A reproducible worksheet that gives students practice with the construction wish + simple past to make a wish in the present. The intermediate-level worksheet would be an ideal follow-up to the song “Stressed Out,” which repeats the construction ten times. (I wish I had a better voice, Wish we could turn back time, etc.) It would also be a perfect as a follow-up to Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” a song that is appropriate for February, Black History Month. Go to Activity 4: Building a Lesson Around a Repeated Phrase and scroll to the end for the worksheet.
Song + Lyrics
“Stressed Out” by Twenty One Pilots, the second most downloaded song the last week in January. Students at the intermediate level and above should be able to understand the song if they have the lyrics. Unfortunately, the lyrics on most lyrics websites are inaccurate. You will find punctuated, correct lyrics on the List of Songs page. Look for this song under the theme “Living Simply.” The classroom-friendly music video on YouTube is recommended.
Pre-reading drawings for the story behind the Grammy-nominated song “See You Again.” The poignant story behind this song brought tears to the eyes of some of my students.
A reproducible worksheet on reflexive pronouns, ideal as a follow-up to the song “Love Yourself.” Go to Activity 4: Building a Lesson Around a Repeated Phrase and scroll to the end for the worksheet.
Pre-reading drawings for the story behind the song “Renegades” by the X Ambassadors.
Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” the top music download for the week ending January 7, 2016. Added on the List of Songs page under the “Lost Love” theme. One word of caution: The line “And now I know: I’m better sleeping on my own” might make this song inappropriate for some classrooms. The song’s chorus, repeated four times, is easy and fun to sing. Please see Activity #6: Singing or Speaking the Chorus and scroll to the end for the lyrics to this verse, as well as an audio clip of my class of adult learners singing it. The official video, which features dancers who are married in real life, is appropriate for most classrooms, although previewing is advised. The video tells a story that could be summarized. Please see Activity #2: Summarizing. Scroll to the end of the page for the summary my students wrote.
An audio recording of the story “I’m Not Moving.” The story, written at the high-beginning level, is about Rosa Parks and the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the song “We Shall Overcome.” (For a short history of the song, and some teaching ideas, please see my article in AzarGrammar.com’s Teacher Talk Blog.)
Original animated drawings on YouTube that introduce the stories behind the songs “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten and “Hello” by Adele. (The videos are titled “Fight Song by Rachel Platten: The Story Behind the Song for English Language Learners” and “Hello by Adele: The Story Behind the Song for English Language Learners.”) Students should view the videos before they read the stories.
- Audio recording of the story behind the song “Hello,” titled “Hello, Adele.” You will find the recording beneath the story.
- Audio recording of the story behind the song “Fight Song,” titled “Everybody’s Fight Song.” You will find the recording beneath the story.
The story behind Adele’s new song “Hello.” The song is about a woman who is trying to reconnect with an ex-boyfriend. But Adele has said in interviews that for her, the song is about trying to reconnect with herself. What did she mean by that? The one-page story behind the song, titled “Hello, Adele,” is at the beginning level. It is under “Stories” on the navigation bar.
Audio recording of the story behind the song “See You Again,” titled “The Prediction and the Promise.” You will find the recording beneath the story.
Audio recording of the story behind the song “Renegades,” titled “Two Brothers and a Band. You will find the recording beneath the story.
An activity to go with the song “Renegades.” Students replace the line in the chorus Running like we’re renegades with their own lines. After each student says his or her line, the whole class sings Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. For examples and an audio clip from my class, scroll to the end of Activity #5: Writing New Song Lyrics. This activity was a lot of fun in my class of adult learners. My students, who come to our evening class after a full day’s work, especially appreciated the way one student personalized the song with this line: Working like a donkey. They gave him a rousing Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.
After their song “Renegades” became hit, the band X Ambassadors made a music video for the song. In the video, physically disabled people do amazing things: A one-armed man boxes; a blind woman lifts heavy weights; a man missing most of his arms and legs climbs a mountain. Sam Harris, the band’s singer, said the video was “personal.” What did he mean by that? This one-page, high-beginning story behind the song, titled “Two Brothers and a Band” is under “Stories” on the navigation bar and is reproducible for classroom use.
Another activity to go with the song “See You Again”: Activity 3: Draw-Write-Share. As a follow-up to this song and the story behind it, I asked my students to imagine they hadn’t seen their best friend in a year. When they see each other again, what will they tell their friend? They drew pictures of four events that happened in their lives during the past year and wrote a sentence about each picture. Then they shared their drawings and their writing with a partner. This activity is highly recommended. You’ll find a ready-to-go worksheet in two places on this site: with the story behind the song and with Activity #3. (Scroll to the end of the page for the worksheet.)
- Activity #8: A Minimal-Prep Lesson. This effective activity takes only minutes to prepare. All you need is a recording of the song and copies of its lyrics. The example given for this activity is Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” Because the song has clear, comprehensible lyrics, it makes an ideal minimal-prep lesson.
- Activities to go with Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”: Activity #3: Draw-Write-Share and Activity #6: Speaking the Chorus. Both activities worked well in my low-intermediate class, as did the story below.
Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” has become the anthem of people struggling though a difficult time–it is played in hospital wards, for example, and in rehab centers. Although Rachel is pleased that the song encourages others, she wrote it to encourage herself. What personal struggle prompted her to write the song? This one-page, high-beginning story behind the song, titled “Everybody’s Fight Song,” is under “Stories” on the navigation bar and is reproducible for classroom use.
Category on the Navigation Bar
Even after the textbooks True Stories Behind the Songs and More True Stories Behind the Songs were published, I continued to write new stories for my students. I’ve shared some of the stories on this site, now all together under “Stories” on the navigation bar. The stories are at the beginning or high-beginning level and are available only on this site. Permission is granted to reproduce for classroom use.
The poignant story behind the song “See You Again,” titled “The Prediction and the Promise.” It is written at the high-beginning level and is under “Stories” on the navigation bar. Permission is granted to reproduce for classroom use.
- “See You Again” (Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth, 2015) Added under the theme “Friendship.” The chorus is fairly easy to speak. (Please see Activity #6: Singing or Speaking the Chorus.)
- “Fight Song” (Rachel Platten, 2015) Added under the theme “Survivors.”
- “Baby, I’m Yours” (Arctic Monkeys, 2006) Added under the theme “Being in Love.” This song has many adverbial clauses beginning with the word until and lends itself to a targeted cloze exercise. (Please see Activity #1: Targeted Cloze. Scroll to the end of the page for a teaching suggestion.)
Activity #7: Walking Lyrics-Dictation. This variation on the classic dictation is interactive and gets students up and out of their seats.
- “I’m Not Moving,” a high-beginning story to complement the song “We Shall Overcome.” Added under “Stories” on the navigation bar. Permission is granted to reproduce for classroom use. This story, along with the song “We Shall Overcome,” would be an appropriate lesson for Martin Luther King Day.
- The story behind Michael Franti’s “The Sound of Sunshine.” This high-beginning story, titled “Sunshine in a Song,” was added under “Stories” on the navigation bar. Permission is granted to reproduce the story for classroom use. If you live in the Northern hemisphere, the song “The Sound of Sunshine,” along with the story behind it, might be a welcome winter lesson. It would be a nice complement to Story 2 in True Stories Behind the Songs, “Victor’s Private Guatemala,” which touches on the topic of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
- Link to an interview with Michael Franti in which he recounts the origin of his song “The Sound of Sunshine.” Students at the high-beginning level should be able to understand the interview if they read the story (see above) first.
- “My Son, John” (Tom Paxton) Added on under the theme “Peace” on the List of Songs page. This song has clear lyrics and tells a story that students could summarize. (Activity #2: Summarizing)
- “Thinking Out Loud” (Ed Sheeran, 2014) Added under the category “Falling in Love” on the List of Songs page. This song, which expresses hope for love that lasts a lifetime, would be a great follow-up to the story “Return to Borovlyanka” (More True Stories Behind the Songs), about a couple who are still in love after being separated for 60 years.
- A lesson plan to accompany a heartwarming video from the CBS Evening News, perfect for this time of year. Added as a Teaching Tip on the List of Songs page under the theme of “Friendship.” Play the video and pass the tissues!
- An activity to accompany two songs presenting different views of New York City. Added as a Teaching Tip under the theme “U.S. Cities” on the List of Songs page.
- “Keep Holding On” (Avril Lavigne) This song was added under two categories, “Friendship” and “Survival.”
- “The Sound of Sunshine” (Michael Franti) Added under the theme “Sunshine.” This song has an easy-to-sing chorus (in one live performance, the Michael Franti invites the audience to sing along), so it was also listed in Activity #6: Singing or Speaking the Chorus. The official video is recommended for most classrooms, although previewing is advised. The live performance, without the beach scenes, is appropriate for all classrooms.
- “Rude” (by the band MAGIC!, 2014) I followed up “The 6,000 Steps, ” Story 4 in True Stories Behind the Songs, with this new song, and my students loved it. The song is about a young man who asks his girlfriend’s father for permission to marry her, only to be rudely rebuffed. Nice follow-up exercises are Activity #2: Summarizing and Activity #6: Singing or Speaking the Chorus. The official lyric video is recommended. Added under the theme “Falling in Love.”
- “We Shall Not Be Moved” (Mavis Staples or Joe Glazer) This powerful song has been adapted to fit various causes–mainly the civil rights movement and the labor movement– so it lends itself to Activity #5: Writing New Song Lyrics. In the Staples recording, the song applies to the civil rights movement; in the Glazer recording, it applies to the labor movement. Added under the themes “Freedom” and “Work.”
- “We Just Come to Work Here, We Don’t Come to Die” (Anne Feeney) This song about work safety (more specifically, about failure to enforce safety regulations) may resonate with students who do physical work. Added under the theme “Work.”
- “You Got It” (Roy Orbison) I heard this classic love song while exercising and realized that in three of the verses, the singer pauses just long enough for students to say the phrases he sings–sort of like the classic “Listen and Repeat” exercise, only more fun. My students loved saying the phrases, so I added this song in Activity #6: Singing or Speaking the Chorus and included an audio clip from my class. The song is on the list under the theme “Being in Love.”
- “Beg Steal or Borrow” (Ray LaMontagne, 2010) I added this song about growing up in (and wanting to leave) a small town under the theme “Taking Chances.” Like Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” it invites a Draw-Write-Share exercise. (Please see Activity #3: Personalizing the Song’s Theme with Draw-Write-Share and scroll to the end for a teaching suggestion.)
Thanks to: Rick Kappra I discovered the song “Beg Steal or Borrow” on the blog of Rick Kappra, who teaches an advanced class titled “ESL Through Song Lyrics” at San Francisco Community College. He makes one song the focal point of each class, spinning off lessons in vocabulary, phrasal verbs, metaphor, etc. For the list of songs he’s used in his class, please visit his blog at http://esl2014.blogspot.com.
- “Empire State of Mind,” Part II (Alicia Keys, 2009) Added under the theme “U.S. Cities.”
- “New York City’s Killing Me” (Ray LaMontagne, 2010) This song offers a contrast to the rosier views of New York in songs like “New York, New York” and “Empire State of Mind.” Added under the theme “U.S. Cities.”
Summarizing in dialog form. In some songs that tell a story, the singer addresses someone “off camera,” so to speak, which invites an activity in which students write a dialog between the singer and that person. (Students have to imagine what the person might have said.) I found this idea, along with many other good suggestions, in a pdf file titled “Teaching with Music.” I added the idea in Activity #2: Summarizing.
I couldn’t find the lyrics to the song “We Do the Work” on the Internet and advocated transcribing them–worth the effort if you teach working adults. But recently I stumbled across the lyrics on the web site of the Smithsonian as a pdf file. So I added the link. No need to transcribe!