Tag Archives: songs

Teaching ESL with Songs and Poems

Babies learn by play and imitation. Children learn by play and imitation. There is no reason this isn’t the easiest way for adults to learn, as well (and I speak as someone who has made a successful career of using board games to teach business finance rapidly and enjoyably).

The imitation of language, with a baby learning to speak, is enhanced by repetition–not just simple sentences and phrases used again and again, but also lullabyes and nursery rhymes. The advantages to songs and poems are that they are engaging to the ear (even if the words are not understood); that they are repeated virtually identically each time the same person sings or recites them; that the repetition and music, the rhythm and rhyme, make it easy to learn; learning then moves from passive (understanding) vocabulary to active (speaking) vocabulary; and the word-for-word learning teaches the structure of the language, the syntax, the grammar, as well as basic vocabulary and playful other words.

The principles are no different for someone learning a second language, whether as a child or an adult. To make the process engaging, to develop active use of the language with a confident vocabulary and grammar, there is nothing better for the beginner than songs and poems. Recorded music is fine–then the repetition will always be exact, and learning to sing simple songs (The Beatles’ ‘Hello Goodbye’ comes to mind) will contribute to developing a native speaker’s accent. With ESL–English as a Second Language–you may need to decide if you want the Queen’s English, or Liverpool, or Nashville, or what.

But singing isn’t always a practical solution. In that case, look at the resources developed for ESL teachers. Here is a webpage developed by the British Council and the BBC. And here for teens and adults is an excellent website with ‘Popular Poems to Teach‘. Note that most of the poems (though not all) whether British or American are using rhyme and metre. And this, again, is because those factors make it easier to learn things by heart–and that is what songs and poems will achieve: learning not just words and rules, but rather entire sentences with their grammar and vocabulary, learnt by singing or reciting, far more enjoyably than by studying lists and charts.

And the advantage is universal. Songs and poetry are part of the human experience, whether you come from China, India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or Brazil. Learning to sing or recite in English is not to start again from scratch, but to enjoyably refresh a childhood experience, a skill that has already been mastered.

Photo: “Wittenberg International Student Party” by Matt Cline is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poetry Resources: A.Word.A.Day

One of the greatest resources for any lover of words is the (free) email subscription to A.Word.A.Day from wordsmith.org, founded by Anu Garg in 1994. Of course, you may well be getting this already as one of the 400,000 subscribers in 170 countries, enjoying the definition, pronunciation, etymology, usage and visual illustration of a not-quite-random word five days a week. Added bonuses include a quotation from a writer on their birthday, and limericks, anagrams and puns in the readers’ comments on the weekend.

This week’s theme is words used by singer-songwriter Roy Zimmerman, and is the trigger for my posting about A.Word.A.Day. Roy Zimmerman, as guest editor for A.Word.A.Day, writes:

“When my wife Melanie and I write a song, the Idea is out in front. People often ask which comes first, the melody or the lyrics. We say the Idea, with a capital I. The Idea takes shape as a hook — a little snatch of lyrics and melody — and the hook gives birth to a tune, a meter scheme, and a rhyme scheme.

We both love words. We’re both aware that words do real work in the world, especially words that rhyme and meter well. That’s what we’re trying to do with these songs — provide context, history, laughter, and encouragement for the work of social justice.

The description of the sequence for songwriting is virtually identical to that for writing poetry – and although poetry doesn’t necessarily have a tune, poetry definitely has a tone, a mood, that forms in the same place. Songs and poetry are very close siblings. Sometimes songs are forgiven weak lyrics because of a strong melody; sometimes poems are forgiven their lack of rhythm and rhyme because of their strongly expressed ideas and images. But at their most memorable they fuse as catchy songs that can also be fully enjoyed as poems without the music.

In either case, they are completely dependent on words. And to prod your word awareness, there is nothing simpler than the daily email from Anu Garg.