Learning a language through singing

How to choose and use the songs

Results of the RU materials piloting



Nowadays multilingual Europe is a fact but we need greater efforts and work to ensure real linguistic and cultural integration among the European citizens and the people living in neighbouring countries.

To promote the study of foreign languages and cultures, the European Community is issuing extremely important documents to inform and advise people working in the field. The European Commission provides financial support for the most innovative and interesting projects to assist the promotion of language and cultural diversity and encourages learning foreign languages among Europeans, following the policy of transparency and democracy in linguistic education.

 The ideas of the LIS project appear when promoting multilingualism in intercultural communication and integration of all European citizens is crucial. The project aims at developing an innovative didactic approach to foreign language teaching, at facilitating both the integration of migrants of any age and cross cultural understanding by incorporating songs in language classrooms.

 The favourable impact of songs on the learning process in general and specifically on language learning has been noted by many researches.

 Studies of motivational psychology and language teaching methods (Rheinberg, 1997, Titone 1976, Ciliberti 1994, Caon 2006, etc.) have stressed how helpful intrinsic motivation, tied to pleasure and curiosity, is to favour steady and lasting learning. There is no acquisition without motivation, which has three sources: pleasure, need and duty.  All teachers of foreign languages know that students’ usual reaction to a song is pleasure.

From a neuro-linguistic point of view songs are extremely useful in language learning as they start both hemispheres in a person’s brain by exposing it to music and words at the same time and in an alternate way, that is, in a global and analytical way.

 Everybody knows what great influence music has on our heartbeat and breathing rhythm, on our behaviour and emotions. Saul (The Bible, 1 Sam. 16-23) found peace of mind again thanks to David’s cithara; Pythagoras said that music had a healing effect; some recent studies show that music helps plants to grow (if it is classic music, though; they don’t like  rock music and wither in case they are made to listen to it).

Lozanov’s suggestopaedia considers music as having positive effects and uses it at various stages in the lesson, as some types of music made memorization quicker.

 Beside the importance of the music element, songs are useful in teaching foreign languages because of motivation. As songs are linked to emotions (who hasn’t got a favourite and beloved song or a song that recalls a particular moment or feeling?), they help intrinsic motivation, also known as endogenous or self-directed.

 As far as the acquisition of language skills is concerned, the lyrics of songs are among the best texts to improve listening skills.

 Usually, among the four basic skills, teachers privilege the oral production as if learning language only meant speaking. In the same way most teaching materials in use are written texts (literature, newspaper articles, commercials, etc.) because they can be easily found and, apparently, more useful.

Instead, it has been shown that the time we devote to listening in a day is more than double the time we devote to speaking. It has also been proved that listening skills are acquired little by little and need a good teacher/student relationship especially where the teacher is the only source to exploit for the listening. (Beretta M.- Gatti F., (1999) Abilità di ascolto, Torino, Paravia Scriptorium;Santeusanio N. in Impact of the Tempus project CD_JEP-16118-2001 on the Albanian Universities, Comodi A. et alii, (2006), Guerra, Perugia).

The use of a song allows the teacher to combine conscious and unconscious processes, to involve all the students, no matter their type of intelligence, (Gardner H, Formae Mentis) to exploit an integrated type of teaching.

 Further follows list of the potential exploitations of a song in the process of language teaching, obviously an incomplete one.





 2.1.1 Why songs work?

Songs present a powerful tool for language learning. No wonder that the idea of using music in a language classroom receives more and more attention by both researchers and practicing language teachers.

 The most obvious reasons for integrating “musical lessons” in language teaching process would be such advantages as easy memorizing and consolidation of vocabulary; implicit practicing of pronunciation; mastering language patterns through their repeated use and building motivation through emotional involvement. Furthermore, they help to improve our listening skills, influence our behaviour and emotions, and have positive effect on motivation. Also:

However, let us think about the affective component which music and songs add to any kind of teaching. Keeping in mind that the best teaching results occur in the relaxed learning environment with minimum anxiety and maximum stimulation, the usefulness of music can scarcely be exaggerated. Music helps the teacher to create a positive emotional state in the learner.

As far as the language learning is concerned, a song can be regarded as a valuable means of internalizing of the target (foreign or second) language. There are two processes that take place in acquisition of language skills: intuitive and conscious. Using songs can successfully contribute to both of them. On the one hand, being exposed to songs in the target language the learner can pick up the language much quicker than through systematic study. On the other hand, the lyrics can be used in various types of learning activities, as they very often present interesting linguistic material.

 These two processes are connected with the use of both brain hemispheres. It is a common knowledge that the left part of the brain is responsible for logic and analytical thinking, while the right hemisphere ensures for creativity, using images, metaphors and emotional expressiveness.

A number of researches show that the real learning and mastering a skill happens when there is a switch from the left to the right hemisphere of the human brain.

So what music has to do with it? Why both parts of the brain are activated when we use music in language teaching? In a song emotion and language live together – they are inseparable. They coexist ensuring the constant switching from rational to irrational and vice versa.  Think also about the rhythm, which facilitates memorising and makes repeating enjoyable. These three components: language – rhythm – melody (i.e. language is repeatedly produced, facilitated by rhythm and melody) guarantee that the language patterns, words and grammar forms are transferred to long-term memory.

And besides, let us remember that singing is a fun for most people so it is among the very pleasurable ways to acquire a foreign language.


2.1.2. Shift of language teaching approaches: from teaching grammar to authentic texts

Language teaching in the 60s had already gone beyond the traditional grammar lesson. Language teachers had discovered how essential texts are in teaching a foreign language and put them at the centre of a teaching Unit. They started to base their teaching on contents rather than grammar points, never leaving out civilization aspects.

All language teaching materials after the 70s have been organised into Teaching Units based on texts, either fake or authentic.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment, from now on Framework, published by the Council of Europe in its first edition in 1996 puts, in a taxonomic way, authentic texts at the centre of teaching.

When the language teaching or learning aims at reaching real communicative competence, the Framework considers a text as the only real link between the learner and the culture the language expresses (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment, Strasbourg, 1996).

The Framework takes into consideration quite different types of texts on which to organise teaching work because only authentic texts coming from various contexts can give the learner a complete understanding of how people communicate within a community.

The Framework does not pay great attention to the consideration that only authentic texts can be useful in the teaching of a foreign language and civilization. It may be useful to recall the Latin etymology of the word ‘text’. It derives from “textus”, which is also at the origin of texture (compare: Italian “tessuto” - material, cloth). Just like a “texture” is a complex network of threads and patterns, a text is a rich network of information on the lexis and morphosyntax of a language and civilization that foreign language teachers should use and exploit in their teaching. 

It’s useful to keep in mind that the Framework is not a didactic document but it changes the way language teachers work; it assumes that teaching should be aiming at an active communicative competence  and wants to train “social actors”, that is, people able to act with linguistic propriety within a culture different from theirs. The linguists created this document are well aware that learners of a foreign language represent quite heterogeneous groups: young people going to another country to study, business people, tourists, workers, elderly or uneducated people who need to be motivated, etc.

These assumptions lead us to two interesting phenomena from a teaching point of view.

The first is our going beyond the rigid frame of a Teaching Unit towards a more flexible work pattern. The second is the great amount of different texts which have become available: narrative, descriptive, literary, prescriptive, from films, media, theatre, books, essays, newspapers, history, advertising, science, etc.

Further, going beyond the Teacher Unit, the Framework encourages the teacher to organise work in a more flexible way, so that to meet the needs of different types of learners in terms of age, competences, intercultural experience, etc. Thus, the work pattern taking the place of a teaching unit can be called a ‘Teaching/ Learning Unit’ (TLU), which takes into consideration the teacher’s competence and the learner’s needs.

The TLU pattern had already been outlined in the Framework first edition and, without betraying the neuro-didactic principles inspiring a Teaching Unit, it is much simpler. It implies three moments which are focussed around a text:

1st phase: approaching which comes before the real work upon the text;

2nd phase: manipulation to understand how the text works and to train morpho-syntactic rules;

3rd phase: going back to the text to check assimilation and to extend it to aspects of culture and civilization.


From the standing point of TLU songs are among the most interesting language teaching resources. A song represents an authentic text, i.e. not written for teaching. The mixture of music and lyrics may be enriched by videos, trailers, etc. and that keeps the learners’ interest and motivation at a high level. Usually a song has the right length for teaching (three or four minutes). It brings into operation a person’s receptive skills.

Apart form that using a song as a language teaching resource help to remove communication barriers between the learner and the teacher and to keep the motivation high.

Further, in section ‘Process’ some practical recommendation can be found on how to apply in practice the mentioned three steps through various teaching/learning activities built around a song.




2.2.1. What to choose and when to use?

 What songs to choose?

Obviously, not every song is suitable for teaching purposes. But still there are plenty of songs available (especially online) which will serve teachers perfectly well. Basically, when searching for relevant songs, teachers should stick to a few useful hints:

First of all, the songs to be chosen should be authentic, i. e. primarily not created for teaching. About 80% of the grammar and vocabulary should be on or slightly above the level of language of the learners. Ideally, there should be some repetitions of certain structures (refrains, dependent clauses, etc.). This imprints the structure in memory, which allows teachers to create pattern sentences for further practice and use. There should be no miscellaneous grammatical structures.

            Naturally, it is better to use songs which are known amongst people as it raises motivation too. As for lyrics, they all should be clear for learners to understand and correct (both from the point of view of grammar and identical in their recorded and written form).

            When choosing songs?

Within language classes there are various stages in which teachers may use songs for different intentions. For example, at the beginning of the lesson as an ´icebreaker´ to encourage students to start talking together and get to know each other better. Later during the class teachers could use songs so as to introduce a new theme or topic (e. g. Christmas, feelings, colours, personality adjectives, idioms, etc.). Also, using songs may be useful when teachers want to teach and build vocabulary, spelling rules, pronunciation and intonation, more difficult grammar patterns and, of course, when they want to practice reading and listening comprehension (both for details and gist).

            Basically, whenever teachers plan to involve particular songs in their teaching, they should follow the three-step process covering the so called pre-listening, while-listening phase after-listening activities. Each of these steps corresponds to the three phases of broader learning/teaching context.

Let us have a closer look at each of these three phases and relevant activities that the teacher can explore.

2.2.2. Phases and activities

I. Global phase   

Integrated processes:

1.    Lowering the affective filter

2.    Building motivation  

3.    Cultural learning  (getting in touch with a different culture)

(Introducing one or more texts, possibly accompanied by images, accompanied, especially if the captions refer to the lyrics, their meaning and the cultural context )

4.    Approaching the text, making its meaning clearer, eliciting the text 

(Keywords, synonyms, antonyms, idioms, words with an evocative  effect, Wh questions to favour guessing/elicitation.  First listening without any particular task).

These processes are covered during pre-listening activities.

 Below there are some of the possible ways how to establish the classroom environment for listening to a song and elicit students´ previous knowledge, predictions and expectations.


II. Analysis

 Integrated processes:

1.    Initial practicing: the learners receive tasks in their pre-listening phase to fulfil while listening (During the second listening they can write adjectives, nouns, verbs, aspects of civilization, draw the “emotions” caused by the lyrics, find a word or a situation suggested by the words, etc)

2.    Manipulating the text

(The teacher gives the written text which is integrated in various learning activities,  such as reading and listened to in order to reinforce sounds and intonation; cloze tests, scrambled sentences, changing from present to past, swapping from the male to the female words, spotting  the mistake, etc.)

3. Establishing conscious links: exercises to favour reflection on grammar

 The ‘Analysis’ phase in practice relates to so called ‘while-listening’ activities:

These are some suggestions what you can do with your students while they are listening to the song.


III. Synthesis

Integrated processes:

    1.    In-depth comprehension: new listening to the lyrics

  1. Socio-cultural and intercultural observations

(The teacher favours the awareness of a different culture through discussion, suitable phrases, drawings, images, other texts on the same topic, etc.)

Practically the synthesis is performed when the teacher engages the class in after-listening tasks, which often include going back to text and its perception at a new level of comprehension.

After-listening activities: when using songs in classrooms, follow-up activities are equally important as those of the first two stages. Here are some useful and funny hints how to benefit fully from what you have just listened to with your students.

2.2.3 How to make and use your own teaching materials?

The reason why language teachers use songs in their class activity is the good atmosphere it creates and, as learners tend to relate to songs as an entertainment activity rather than study represents a very important motivational factor. This definitely best applies in the case of pop songs which are undoubtedly part of the youth culture. The learning resources our project developed go beyond the audio features songs have, and adds two extra dimensions to help students acquire language competencies: video information (either static – pictures, or dynamic – clips) and text (as part of the karaoke songs).

From the didactic point of view, karaoke songs could be very effectively used to teach foreign languages, as:

q  music and lyrics aids memory (as the text is rhymed);

q  by singing songs learners acquire foreign language patterns and develop their vocabulary (as in songs language is automatically put into a natural context);

q  while listening to songs lyrics learners develop their listening – comprehension skills;

q  while singing songs learners develop their pronunciation skills;

q  while reading the lyrics and singing karaoke songs learners develop their reading – comprehension skills.


The major problems that teachers must solve when using songs and related teaching materials in the classroom is the non-standard grammar in many of the songs and the ‘non-serious’ image of the pop songs, as it is most likely that non-standard grammar will confuse the foreign language students, especially as some languages in focus in our project are less widely used and less widely taught languages. As, undoubtedly, not all songs are suitable for foreign language classes, foreign language teachers should employ all their teaching experience and expertise when choosing the right songs as this is the initial step in creating effective and good quality teaching materials.

The authors of this manual suggest a 10-step strategy so as to provide support to foreign language teachers for the creation of the best own teaching materials. As teaching and learning styles are closely dependant on the teachers’ and learners’ personal structure, this guide is merely aimed at offering a general framework and it is not intended to be in any way prescriptive.


This initial step is aimed at helping you get more familiar with the songs available and thus have a direct contact with ‘what is available out there’.


The main idea is to focus on the songs in which you can easily understand the lyrics. Of course, a few idioms can be fun, but make sure they don't make it difficult for your students to understand the overall meaning of the song.


 Listen to the song, read the lyrics and try to identify to which of your learners’ needs it might address: Vocabulary? Listening? Reading? Other?


 This is the moment when teachers need to decide exactly what do they want their students to learn from the song, as songs might focus on different aspects of the teaching – learning process.


If not the most important, this step requires the most of your teaching experience and efforts. Starting from the goals you set for your lessons, design a number of teaching activities and materials that will help your students learn the knowledge they need. The activities and materials should be designed from simple (for the first times the song is used) to complex in a structured manner so as to ensure learners’ progress and not to de-motivate them.

Depending on the song chosen, teachers could create a long list of types of exercises: fill in the gap, multiple choice, matching, writing tasks; they can bring in texts with a theme related to the songs’ theme and analyse it or can imagine scenarios where learners create their own lyrics for a particular song etc.


Before actually playing the song, teachers could initiate warm-up discussions with their students so as to focus their attention on what they will actually see and listen to. A guided discussion about the song’s general theme is a prerequisite for better learning results. Teachers could tell them the title of the song and students could afterwards guess what the song is about. The list of possible pre-listening activities is very generous and any language teacher could add their own items; this is just to stress on the importance this step plays in the strategy the partnership of the project designed.


 This is the moment when teachers should bring the song in the classroom. The song should be listened to without interruption the first time. It can be also replayed, as learners need some time to ‘see’ the song as a whole. Once teachers are sure the students are familiar with the song, they can focus on more specific or detailed approach of their teaching and address specific learning tasks.


It is now the appropriate time to use the teaching materials and resources created at Step 5. It is important that you include them in the teaching and learning process from the easier to the more complex ones. The activities that are carried out at this stage should be selected so as to be in close connection with the images and text, which thus provide immediate support to learners in case they experience any major difficulties. Do not move to Step 9 until your students were exposed to the whole range of issues you planned them to learn.


At this step it is time to use the most complex activities and resources you created at Step 5: introduce the complex grammar tasks, the difficult vocabulary, the reflective writing tasks (an essay?). As a principle, teaching and learning should be carried out at this stage with the song as a starting point, or a pretext, rather than a direct and immediate resource that can be consulted. Consolidation should be also included at this step. It is now that you can divide and separate the teaching techniques and instruments according to your students’ individual learning styles.


Songs and karaoke is fun, so you always need to make sure you make their use in the foreign language class fun and exciting as well.

Using karaoke songs to teach and learn foreign languages is one of the most effective ways of learning as it is a multi-sensorial experience (as sound, image and text are introduced simultaneously) and, if appropriately exploited by language teachers, should undoubtedly lead to rewarding teaching results.