Choosing Tunes to Use in ELT

The article below was written by Martine Ashmore of, and first published in English Teaching Professional magazine, Issue 72; February 2011.

Choosing Tunes

Martine Ashmore has suggestions for selecting songs for students. Songs are a ready source of authentic language. They can be exploited in countless ways to practise any of the language skills, and students enjoy learning through them. But how do you go about choosing from the millions of recorded songs available, and what should you keep in mind when selecting a song for your lesson?

Why are you using the song?

Having a clear purpose in mind, and not just ‘doing’ a song to fill a spare five minutes, is essential. Adult classes may see a song as a waste of their time if you don’t choose and plan your material carefully. You’ll find interesting teaching points in most songs, so if you’re looking for something to kick-start the week or bring a bit of life to a lesson after a weekly test, you might consider choosing a song based on a recently-covered topic, or a topic you’d like to introduce next. Alternatively, you might want to present or revise a grammar point, in which case you might have to search a bit harder to find something fitting. Search engines are a useful place to begin in most cases. The language skill you want your students to practise will also affect your choice of song: a slower tune will be often be preferred for listening tasks; longer songs are well suited to practising reading; repetitive lyrics are great for teaching structures and pronunciation.

Are the lyrics grammatically correct?

Many native speakers use non-standard forms of English, and songwriters are no exception, so lyrics may be grammatically incorrect’. There is debate over whether this is actually important. It may be an issue when teaching lower-level students who are still trying to learn basic structures correctly. At higher levels, however, although reinforcement with correct forms remains necessary, as long as the students are made aware of the ‘mistakes’, this can actually become part of the learning process. For example, you could ask the class to spot and correct the errors, and say whether they’ve heard them before. Students can also consider why the lyrics were written that way. Was grammar sacrificed for rhythm or rhyme? Is it something to do with the artist’s background or culture?

Is the content appropriate?

Native speakers often express themselves thorough expletives, so songs are likely to contain them. As long as you know your class well enough to be sure they won’t take offence, there shouldn’t be a problem using songs that include a little lewd language. If you feel it’s at all inappropriate, choose another song. But how about discriminatory language? Again, context is key. Consider the messages students receive in the following alternative ways of presenting a gangster rap song with racist or homophobic language: 1) A discussion lesson on the influence of popular music in promoting discriminatory beliefs; 2)‘Doing’ the song as a gap-fill at the end of a lesson for a little extra listening practice. The first would be an appropriate use of such a song, giving a clear anti-discrimination message; the second would not.

Are the words clearly enunciated?

It’s important to listen carefully to a song before deciding on its appropriateness for the classroom. Skimming through the lyrics alone could mean you overlook something, such as an overpowering backing track that obscures the words, or a singer who doesn’t enunciate well. Remember, it isn’t always easy even for native speakers to make out song lyrics. The clearer the lyrics, the better; although, as always, appropriateness for the language classroom often depends more on the task set. For a reading activity this wouldn’t be an issue, but it could spell disaster if students are attempting to complete a cloze. However, using songs that students perceive to be more ‘difficult’ can build confidence. As long as the words you choose to delete for the cloze can be clearly heard, those around them will be less important because the students have a copy of the lyrics to follow.

Are there any long instrumental passages?

Another reason why it’s essential to listen to a song before using it in class is so that you can check for long instrumental breaks; – in the middle of a song, these can cause students to lose focus and become bored. But if the track is perfect in every other way, there are ways around this. One idea is to have a question prepared, such as Which instruments can you hear now? Another possibility is to tell the students about the break beforehand and give them a non-language activity to do when it comes along, such as playing air guitar/piano/drums. Just make sure you know when to get them back on task in time for the remainder of the song! Instrumentals in song introductions or lead-outs are easily skipped through or chatted over with the volume reduced.

Will your students be into the song?

Bringing songs you personally enjoy to class might mean you’re more enthusiastic about the lesson, but it’s not necessary for you or the students to like the songs you use. Being able to understand songs in another language is a great achievement for most learners, no matter what the genre, or who the artist. If you’ve carefully designed challenging and interesting tasks around the song, your students will always appreciate the lesson – even if they (or you) wouldn’t personally listen to the music outside of class. Discussing opinions of the song also makes for an interesting conclusion to the lesson, so in a way it’s better if not everybody agrees they like it. Having said that, you’ll be flavour of the month with a class of teenagers if you create a lesson around what happens to be one of their favourite songs!

Copyright 2011 Pavilion Publishing Ltd


So how exactly should you go about including songs in your lessons? Most importantly, remember that to maximise the benefits you must keep standard language teaching methods in mind. Perhaps one of the most popular ways of using songs in class are cloze (‘listen and fill the gap’) activities, but there is so much more you can do with songs in the classroom… Why not browse our other articles for more tips and information. Or take a look at the complete ESL song lessons here on Tefl Tunes for inspiration.


Tefl Tunes does not grant you permission or licence to use any songs or song lyrics in a classroom or elsewhere. Before using any of the lesson plans or lesson ideas on you must ensure you have permission to use the relevant songs and song lyrics.

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