Speaking in verse: Music in the ELT classroom


As a music graduate, a former EFL teacher and now a fairly nerdy editor, I’ve long been intrigued by the relationship between music and language learning.

According to science boffins, sensitivity to music begins in the womb, with children up to a year old able to recall melodies they heard whilst in utero. Research also suggests that exposing children to classical music, in particular Mozart, can make them ‘smarter’. So it’s no huge surprise that language learning conducted in lyrical verse often sticks in the memory better than reciting it on a monotone.

Let me give you some examples. On a personal level, I can’t remember the exact moment that I learned how to count to 12, but thanks to the marvellous Sesame Street putting a tune to it, the ditty with the pinball animation lives strong in my subconscious. However, I’m ALMOST CERTAIN that my ability to remember the months of the year in French is down to the song ‘Quelle est la date de ton anniversaire?’(I couldn’t find any recording on the web, I’m afraid.). Likewise, despite absorbing very little German after two years’ study, I am CONVINCED that my party trick of reciting the alphabet at speed is due the rhythmic method in which it was drilled by Miss Ross*. Completely useless in my life so far, but true.

Of course, on onestopenglish, we provide a vast array of music for youngsters, including M Tunes videos, and ideas of how to exploit songs both for children and for teenagers. We do offer some fun jazz chants, which are suitable for all ages, but why is it that presenting learning through lyrical content is more prevalent in primary classrooms than in adult ones? When did we grow out of singing along?

Research tells us that music as a means of language learning should not be age specific, and experts in cognitive psychology have performed tests with enlightening results. For example, when introduced to made-up words repeated at random, student volunteers managed to recall the words set to music far better than when they were read out flatly. I won’t blind you with science so click here to read this blog detailing Dr Schon’s findings.

There are now tools in the language learning marketplace that play with these theories. A range of Apps called Earworms offers a sophisticated approach to music to aid learning (my colleague, Sarah Milligan, actually shared a link to this site many months ago so I can’t claim the credit for finding it. Thanks Sarah!). These are available in 13 languages including Spanish, Polish and Arabic. Although, rather than singing the words, Earworms delivers simple phrases in English followed by the direct translation over some inoffensive background music. This may well unlock the key to learning a language for some, but is it as much fun as listening to an actual song?

As far as introducing music into the ELT classroom is concerned, I’ve personally found it to be shaky ground. When I was teaching at a school in Hove about seven years ago, I was assigned a group of upper intermediate/advanced level Russian 18-19-year-olds for a couple of weeks. We had been revising ‘I wish …’, so, as a ‘fun’ final task for the day, I devised a gap-fill exercise based around listening to a song related to the construction. Let’s just say the hip-hop beats of Skee-lo’s ‘I wish’ didn’t quite go down as well as hoped. Of a class of around 15 students, I received only two positive responses, 11 bewildered ones and two of utter contempt, as if I had started breakdancing right there in the classroom. When quizzing the most surly of my students at the end of the lesson on whether he had enjoyed the final activity, he replied simply ‘I like rock music’. Fair comment, but I left with a heavy heart.

So, have you used music in the adult EFL classroom? What are your experiences?

*This may or may not be her name; it was a long time ago!



  • My mum is learning English with music and one of her favourite songs is the ‘irregular verb rap’. She even dances along! She’s also got the whole family to do ‘I you’re happy and you know it…’ and we loved it (although we didn’t admit it at the time!).

    Posted by Kerstin Schneider on August 04th 2011

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