Click below to link to find a number of classic songs to which I have given the symbolsong treatment. Also included are the full lyrics, plus a link to a video of the performance of the song (NB, the lyrics are for the original disc versions and may differ slightly from the video versions).
I doubt if I am the first to use semiotics in song lyrics, representing some of the words with symbols, shorthand, emojis, dingbats and whatever comes to mind; and for this technique I have coined the term symbolsong.
The symbolsong technique is an alternative to the gap-fill activity that often accompanies a song. The sturdy gap-fill activity is tried and tested, and works well with many songs. A symbolsong is simply an alternative technique to utilize songs in the classroom. Some songs seem to lend themselves better to gap-fill and others better to symbolsong, and some to both.
My MO is as follows:
Students are given a handout of the symbolsong sheet which represents the song. At first they have no idea what the symbols mean, but slowly you will hear gasps of delight as some students start to guess the words and, after trying to decipher as much as they can, they then listen to the song and compare with their ideas (NB for obvious reasons the actual songs cannot be included here, though they are all available from the usual sources).
The full lyrics can be shown to the students before they listen a second time, and finally they can be treated to watch the song’s video.
Why use songs in the classroom?
While there is no conclusive evidence of songs helping language learning I think most teachers would agree they probably do.
Indeed research shows Broca’s area of the brain is concerned with both language and music, and a symbiotic, and even syntactic, relationship has been suggested between language and songs.
The use of authentic language in the classroom is a concept fraught with perplexities. For example, no-one can seem to agree the definition of authentic language (the best definition I have heard is: language not intended for the classroom). And whether authentic language is actually of any value in the classroom can also be argued. However it would seem logical to suggest authentic language be used from time to time. And what better source of authentic language than a song?
And there are other good reasons for using songs. Songs are fun. Songs add an extra dimension to the lesson, something of beauty, culture and emotion. Songs really hit the heart of society. Classic songs are embedded in the fabric of culture, and familiarity with these songs will enable students to further integrate into the English-speaking world. And on top of all this, the rhythm of songs surely helps the rhythm of spoken English.
What kind of songs should be used?
There are songs and there are songs. Careful selection is needed, but it is just a matter of common sense.
For example, for children simple, wholesome songs are obviously best. Lyrics should be clear (not drowned by a thumping beat), and topics such as love, beds, death, sorrow and cruelty should be avoided.
This cuts out a huge body of songs, but millions still remain. I start with ‘Hello, Goodbye‘, by The Beatles, for teens, followed by ‘Sing‘ by The Carpenters, and continue in this vein. Naturally, more mature students can handle more mature songs.
I prefer to use well-known, classic songs which students may well encounter in their daily life eg in a mall, on commercials, in movies. I feel an obscure song, even though it may be a really nice song, is far less useful.
Don’t symbolsongs take too long to prepare? Perhaps, but they can be used over and over (and many are provided for free on this site).
Do the students get tired of symbolsongs? Not in my experience.
What about copyright issues?
I am not sure of all the implications here, but I believe if you use the songs and lyrics solely for educational purposes within the classroom, then I doubt whether anyone will come knocking at your door. You never know but somewhere down the line a student may even be inclined to purchase something by the artist or perhaps sing the song in a karaoke lounge (for which royalties are paid). In fact it could be said you are promoting the song and artist; how could any record company object?
Songs rarely fit in with the other parts of my lesson.
Since a song is not written with a certain language item in mind the chance of it dovetailing perfectly with the particular linguistic aim of your lesson is remote. So why not treat a song as an independent part of the lesson, a stand-alone activity. Or better still, use the song as a springboard to the next part of the class eg reading and discussion of the life of Karen Carpenter.
In conclusion, the power of music is strong and memorable. Ignoring songs in the language classroom would seem an enormous missed opportunity. The bottom line is symbolsongs work.
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