1.  If you copy song lyrics from Internet, check them for accuracy before distributing them to your students.

Song lyrics on websites are sometimes riddled with mistakes. My experience with Internet lyrics for the Buddy Guy song “Meet Me in Chicago” can serve as a cautionary tale. The two stories in Unit 8 of True Stories Behind the Songs are centered on U.S. cities–the first story is about New Orleans, the second about New York. My students and I are two hours from Chicago, so I considered supplementing the unit with the tune “Meet Me in Chicago.” On an Internet lyrics website, the line cold wind comin’ off the lake was transcribed as call where, call ‘em off too late. Comisky Park became Comiscapot, and South Wabash Avenue became, incredibly, some calgash that’ll do.

Most errors, of course, do not pop out as those in “Meet Me in Chicago” did. More typical are mistakes like they’re being transcribed as there, or you’re as your. These, of course, are words that English language learners often confuse, which makes it all the more important to proofread Internet lyrics carefully. (On Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day blog, he recommends several sites with accurate lyrics and no pop-up ads. Lyrics on some of these sites are punctuated.)

2. Punctuate song lyrics, adding periods, commas, question marks, and quotation marks to make complete sentences.

Compare these two versions of the same verse from Adele’s “Someone Like You,” one without punctuation, and one with punctuation:

Version 1: Unpunctuated
Never mind I’ll find someone like you
I wish nothing but the best for you too
Don’t forget me I beg
I remember you said
Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead
Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead

Version 2: Punctuated
Never mind, I’ll find someone like you.
I wish nothing but the best for you, too.
Don’t forget me, I beg.
I remember you said,
“Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”
“Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”

Adding punctuation to song lyrics takes just a few minutes, but those are minutes well spent. In general, punctuating lyrics makes them easier for students to comprehend.

3. Stick with songs that have staying power.

It’s wise to choose songs of lasting quality–songs that topped the Billboard charts for weeks; were nominated for an Oscar or a Grammy; or have historical or cultural significance. That makes it more likely that you’ll be able to use the songs, and the activities you’ve created for them, in future semesters.

4. When clarifying vocabulary in song lyrics, identify words that students should probably not memorize.

In the poetry of song lyrics, we often find words that are important to the meaning (or rhyme scheme) of the song, but that students will probably never encounter again. Reassure students that not every new word in a song is worth memorizing.

The first time I clarified the meaning of a new word and then quickly added, “But don’t learn it!” my students seemed taken aback: a teacher presenting material and then telling students not to learn it? But now they seem relieved when I identify new vocabulary they should probably not memorize–for example, the words longin’ and anew in the song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” (We focused instead on the word overdue, along with due, which my class of adult learners might encounter again in the context of expected babies, library materials, bills, medical check-ups, and inoculations.)

I wish I could give
All I’m longin’ to give.
I wish I could live
Like I’m longin’ to live.
I wish I could do
All the things that I can do.
Though I’m way overdue,
I’d be starting anew.

The page of lyrics I handed out for the song “Renegades” had so many strike-throughs in verses 3 and 5 that it looked like a top-secret document that had been redacted! I told my students not to worry about the meaning of the words that were crossed out, yet they got the gist of the song just fine.

Long live the pioneers
Rebels and mutineers
Go forth and have no fear
Come close and lend an ear
And I say hey
Hey, hey, hey
Living like we’re renegades
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey
Living like we’re renegades
Renegades, renegades
So, all hail the underdogs
All hail the new kids
All hail the outlaws
Spielbergs and Kubricks

5. Consider using songs that are thematically related to your lesson.

Often songs are brought into the classroom only incidentally. For example, a teacher might enliven a class with music when students’ energy and interest are flagging–and then get back to the “real” lesson. Although there is certainly nothing wrong with using music in this way, you can more fully exploit a song’s potential as a learning tool when you make music an integral part of the lesson. One way to do that is to choose songs that are related thematically to the course content, and then to spin off song-based activities that build on skills covered in class.

For the past several years, I’ve been building a list of popular songs suitable for beginning and high-beginning English language learners, organized by sixteen themes. The songs coordinate with the themes in True Stories Behind the Songs and More True Stories Behind the Songs but could be used to enhance other theme-based curricula. On this site, under Songs, I’ve posted the list of songs I’ve vetted so far. I’ll be adding songs to the list as I find them, so please check back from time to time for the latest additions to the list.