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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Application of Popular English Songs in EFL Classroom Teaching

Wang Baoan, China

Wang Baoan is an associated professor in the College of Foreign Languages of Henan Agricultural University, Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, P. R. China, where he has taught English ever since his graduation from Zhengzhou University in 1989 with a BA of English Literature. He did his master’s degree in Henan University in 2002. He has published a textbook Practical English. His interests are EFL teaching theory and Chinese-western cultures. E-mail:


Advantages of using English songs
Selection of English songs
Techniques of teaching English songs
Further Discussion


English songs are regarded as a unique teaching tool. It is acknowledged that more time and attention to pop music in an English curriculum would increase students’ motivation and their involvement in EFL learning; that learning through English songs is more effective than memorization in isolation; and that song lyrics contain rich linguistic and cultural knowledge. English songs are vital in communicative language teaching. Some teaching techniques about applying English songs are put forward in this paper.


Most young students nowadays are engaged in a range of popular cultural forms (both from the east and the west) outside school. Their experiences with films, television, popular music and computer games are very motivating. But we often find no place for popular cultural forms within official curriculum, where Chinese students are usually restricted to conventional forms of teaching.

English songs, whether classic or popular, pour into China and attract audiences of different ages. With exotic flavor, they play a key role in both advertisements and films; they are a staple of radio programs and blare out from the doorways of shops in every major street, so that students may bring to school rich musical experiences which are rarely recognized within the official curriculum. As learning English is growing more necessary for Chinese students, their interest in western cultures increases accordingly. Many are crazy about foreign pop stars and western music, like country songs, classic music, jazz, rap, rock’n’roll, etc, and some even become devoted fans.

Since most students are fascinated with pop songs and stars, an increasing number of EFL teachers begin to take interest in the use of popular culture in foreign language teaching and learning. The value of English songs in motivating students to learn English and enhancing their involvement is universally acknowledged by those teachers. In their language classes, many EFL teachers have adopted richly meaningful English songs which take up the whole class period instead of only being used as warm-up activities, time-fillers or games.

Advantages of using English songs

  1. Popular English songs are motivating

    Popular songs touch the lives of students, and grow out of their natural experiences and interests. All popular songs are eternally occupied with variations on the same themes of Love, Friendship, Joy, Sorrow, Dream, and the rest, which are the common feelings of humans. Therefore, more time and attention to pop music in an English curriculum would increase students’ motivation because classroom activities would use their knowledge, their music, and their language.

    English songs offer a change from routine EFL classroom activities by providing fun and creating an active atmosphere. Singing English songs is entertaining and relaxing. Learning English through songs also provides a no threatening atmosphere for students, who usually are tense when speaking English in a formal classroom setting. In this way, students have strong motivation to be involved in the classroom activities. Meanwhile, English songs supply authentic and real-life materials, which help Chinese students understand native speakers of English. As cited by Domoney “While meaningful context and background are provided for communicative activities by various English songs, students are encouraged to engage in using their knowledge to express their own opinions”. And the teacher is able to insert more substance into the class and build relationships with his students as well.

  2. English songs contain linguistic information

    According to the Communicative Language Teaching theory, the primary units of language are not merely its grammatical and structural features, but categories of functional and communicative meaning as exemplified in discourse (Widdowson, 1978). Students can benefit a lot from English songs if they learn to appreciate them because good English songs can teach them the language, the culture as well as art.

    Therefore, pop song lyrics can serve as entertaining contexts for English learners to master the usage of some language points and acquire some cultural background.

    Songs not only can motivate students but also contain rich linguistic information, including pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, rhetoric and language sense. Here is a parallel structure using the familiar oak tree symbolism.

    Why did you fall, oak tree,
    Are there no other trees to fall?
    Why did you die, dear brother,
    Are there no other people to die?

    Looking at the text of the song ‘Because You Loved Me’, teachers find so many parallel sentences. Teachers can teach the students ‘parallelism’ with the help of this song.

    As stated above, songs contain rich linguistic knowledge. According to the theory about learning, learning takes place in many ways and all sorts of learning are going on all the time. Sometimes, it is intentional, as when students acquire information presented in a classroom or when they look something up in an encyclopedia. Sometimes, it is unintentional, as when they listen to music. Therefore, it is advisable that English teachers use pop songs because the lyrics may help students acquire those language components through unintentional learning.

  3. English songs contain historical and cultural knowledge

    In many parts of the world, pop music is a primary leisure resource for young people. Pop music features in young people’s lives in a variety of different ways and in a diverse range of contexts: from campus studios, cinemas and TV commercials to what Japanese music theorist Hosokawa (1984) refers to as the ‘autonomous and mobile’ form of listening facilitated through the invention of the personal stereo such as Walkman, tape record and so on. Listening to pop music can make students more aware of the culture they are involving.

    Popular songs carry rich historical or social knowledge with them. Pop songs ten years ago may sound out-dated to modern students’ ears while today’s pop songs will be regarded either classics or rubbish in the future. Exploration of the reasons why some certain kind of music is popular at a certain time and deserted at another time can provide much background knowledge for both teachers and students. Therefore, pop songs can also be used to introduce social changes as well as cultural notes to students.

Selection of English songs

English songs can provide rich and varied resources in EFL classrooms, however, the song-based lessons do not easily go well. Thus, to select suitable materials seems very important for teachers. English songs considered suitable must meet the following criteria:

  • he melodies should be simple and beautiful so as to be excellent pedagogical devices for motivating students.
  • The style of music should be to students’ taste, taking account of the social and cultural norms of Chinese society.
  • The lyrics of the song should be easily understood and the song can serve specific teaching purposes.

Techniques of teaching English songs

Communicative language teaching(CLT) emphasizes finding meaningful tasks which can engage students in real communication and requires the use of such process as information sharing, negotiation of meaning, and interaction. When English songs are used in the classes, teachers can conduct them as a cohesive whole, consisting of several related tasks - listening, reading, storytelling, free talk and writing. This type of lesson is always following a tightly structured framework. However, teaching techniques of different teachers may be slightly varied depending on their own teaching purposes. Some teachers try to improve students’ listening and spoken abilities by using the lyrics of English songs, while others organize their song-based classroom activities by storytelling (narrative songs are suitable for this activity) and letter writing (songs revealing social problems are the best choice for it) to improve students’ oral and written English. There are also some teachers preferring teaching culture through messages the songs carry.

Although all the different kinds of communicative approaches have been employed, teachers still didn’t maximize students’ role in their classes. Students are very passive recipients of knowledge and play only a minimal role in the selection of learning materials. Such under involvement impedes successful language learning. To activate learners’ involvement, teachers should encourage learners to take part in developing materials for themselves.

Task design

Here I just present one typical classroom activity using English songs as the chief materials for language teaching. It combines the efficient exploitation of songs and materials development by students to show how engaging students in meaningful task design can maximize students’ involvement. The activity consists of two sessions. One is that the teacher’s session during which the teacher assigns some tasks like: 1) asking the students to read the lyrics of a song that the teacher has selected before class; 2) asking them to try to understand the meaning of it; 3) asking them to answer some questions about the theme of the song; 4) playing the song and asking them to sing along. The other is the students’ session. On completion of the teacher’s session, students are asked to construct similar tasks in groups, using songs of their own choice, then to do a mini-presentation of their work to the class in this session. They should state clearly which language skills their tasks are designed to practice. The tasks in the teacher’s session can take more forms to suit the students’ learning styles. The task in the students’ session, however, is restricted to only one or two simple exercises depending on the ability of the students. This makes the construction task easier, more manageable, and enjoyable.

This activity aims at developing the students’ ability to comprehend the literal meaning of the song and at the same time to analyze the implied message. It may be more suitable for more advanced students and can be done in groups. The song used in this activity is “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” (Carly Simon, 1987), which is about the fear that dream of a happy marriage could turn into a nightmare (see the appendix).

  1. While Reading

    The teacher first hands out the entire lyrics to the students with a set of comprehension questions. The teacher gives them some time to do the silent reading, focusing their attention on questions geared toward the surface understanding of the song. Students may work out the answers in groups in order to produce more conversations in English. The teacher then plays the songs to the students. Questions used in the activity are like these:

    1. Who is talking in the song?
    2. To whom is she talking?
    3. What is the quality of the parents’ relationship?
    4. In the second stanza, who does “you” refer to?
  2. Further Reading

    Students should have a general understanding of the song after they have completed the comprehension exercises. The teacher then discusses the answers with the students and focuses on the development of the story in the song. The theme may be introduced to the students, drawing their attention not only to the literal meaning of the song but also to the messages it carries. This can be done by reflecting on the guiding questions like:

    1. In the song, the singer says “she forgets how to dream”. What do you think she dreamed about when she was young?
    2. Explain the phrase “close the wound, hide the scar”.
    3. There are two viewpoints on marriage expressed in the last stanza, what are they? Which one do you prefer?
  3. Follow-up

    This work is a creative writing and translating task. First, the teacher may ask students to imagine themselves to be the singer of the song and write a letter to their friend describing their feeling of being frustrated. For the students’ session, they may follow the same procedure of reading a song by first comprehending its surface meaning and then analyzing its hidden message. Students may construct the comprehension questions to look at the literal meaning of the song, while the teacher focuses on questions that examine the underlying meaning and creative writing task. The activity described above might be termed as ‘learner-centered’ one, helping create plenty of teaching materials through teacher-student collaboration. It offers a good many of advantages in promoting the learning of English. The greatest advantage is stimulating students’ interest and enhancing their involvement. Through the designing task, students become experts in their own areas and hence are more familiar with the language items they are learning. They show strong interest in learning English through songs, particularly those chosen by themselves. They are very enthusiastic in designing exercises for their peers and pride themselves on that.

    Second, the teacher asks the students to translate the lyrics of the song into Chinese. This task requires the students to have a higher language skill. On completion of this task, the students are asked to compare their peers’ work with that of their own. This task helps to make the students aware of their own strengths and weaknesses in language learning so that they can reinforce certain exercises in their later English study. Thus, the activity greatly facilitates the learning process.

Further Discussion

Although the value of English songs in EFL classrooms is widely acknowledged by most teachers, there is one thing that needs mentioning when teachers conduct English song-based classrooms in China. That is, don’t attempt too much. This type of class should be employed occasionally together with other types of language classes, aiming at making classes varied. Overusing English songs in class may weaken students’ interests, and abate their absorption of systematic knowledge.


It is proved that popular English songs can be applied in EFL classrooms in China. Task-based activities can play an important role in this type of lesson. Popular English songs can serve as a stimulus not only to increase students’ interest, motivation and self-confidence in language learning, but also to maximize their involvement (involving themselves in classroom activities), interaction (talking to each other), production(using their own language).


(The lyrics of That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be)
My father sits at night with no light on;
His cigarette glows in the dark.
The living room is still, I walk by, no remark.
I tiptoe past the master bedroom where
My mother reads her magazines.
I hear her call “sweet dreams”.
But I forget how to dream.
But you say it’s time we moved in together.
And raised a family of our own you and me.
Well that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be.
You want to marry me, we’ll marry.
My friends from college, they’re all married now;
They have their houses and theirs lawns.
They have their silent noons, tearful nights, angry dawns.
Their children hate them for the things they’re not.
And yet they drink, they laugh,
Close the wound, hide the scar.
You say that we can keep our love alive.
Babe, all I know is what I see;
The couple cling and claw and drawn in loves debris.
You say we’ll soar like two birds through the clouds.
But soon you’ll cage me on your shelf;
I’ll never learn to be just me first by myself.


Domoney, L. (1993). Justified and ancient: pop music in EFL classroom[J]. ELT Journal, 47/3: 234-41.

Hock, M. W. (2001). Sing along with the Internet: Making use of the Internet in the language classroom[J]. Fremd Sprachen Unterricht, 6/2001, 411-15.

Hosokawa, S.(1984). The Walkman effect[J]. Popular Music, 4,165-80.

Murphey, P.T. (1992). Music and Song[M]. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weiner, B. (1990). History of motivational research in education[J]. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 616-22.

Widdowson, H. (1978). Teaching Language as Communication[J]. London: Longman.


Please check the Teaching through Art and Music course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Secondary Teaching course at Pilgrims website.

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