Six songs to sing with students

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my beginner classes asked me if we could sing a song together at the end of the year. When I taught in Mexico this was regular practice for me and my students, but after a couple of dismal experiences with some very serious students in Europe I kind of gave up. I had forgotten what a great feeling it can be for a group to sing a song together, in English.

So, with that in mind, I suggest here six songs that are suitable for singing along with beginners. They are recognisable, slow and relatively easy to sing to. At the end, I’ll share with you the way I’ve “done” this in class. I stress by the way that these aren’t reflective of my own personal music tastes, which stray towards the hard rock end of the spectrum, but I can’t exactly sing those in class.

1. I have a dream – Abba

A bit soppy and schmultzy, but the message went down really well with my beginners. Plus the singing is very slow and clear.

2. Yesterday – The Beatles, although a close second could be Hey Jude (except the na na na is TOO long)

I know, I know. It’s SO typical. And it isn’t the best Beatles song. But it’s SO recognizable, and I bet your students would go home and tell someone “Hey, I sang Yesterday today in class”.

3. My Way – Frank Sinatra

Great tune, great build up and great to sing as long as you don’t mind students doing it “their way”.

4. The Sounds of Silence – Simon and Garfunkel

Good pauses between bits of this song, helping students to pronounce chunks. Any song with Hello at the beginning also works. The only problem with this song is the large vocabulary load that has to be dealt with if students want to understand the words. Sometimes I’ve given it to them the day before for homework to translate. 

5. What a wonderful world – Louis Armstrong

Easy lyrics, recognizable tune and easy to sing along to. Hits all the right buttons too.

6. American Pie – Don McLean

A song with “bye bye” also tends to be a hit. You’ll hear your students walking down the hall humming this one for weeks after if you do it in class. And I would do the original, not the Madonna version.

Here’s what I do with any of these: first we do a listening activity (circling words, gapfilling or putting lines in order) and listen to the song once. Then we do a “read through”, with me reading a line and the class repeating it for pronunciation. I focus here on difficult words and phrases to pronounce, as well as stress and rhythm. This sometimes has the weird effect of feeling like we are at church but my lower level students love it.

Once we’ve read it, everybody stands up. I play the song again and we all sing along. The key here is to play the song quite loudly so people can “hide” behind the music as they sing the first time. As people get confident, I slowly turn the volume down bit by bit while we are singing. If it sounds really awful, I turn it back up again! Once the song is finished, and if there’s time, I ask them if they would like to sing it again but with less music. In my class they all said yes. We repeat the process, but I turn the music down earlier and slightly more.

I fully realise that this isn’t for everyone, and certainly not for very small classes unless they are keen singers and you are too. However, with a large (20+) group of beginners, I’ve found it a motivating and even sometimes (gasp, I say this at the risk of sounding TOTALLY corny) magical experience.

Have you ever done anything like this? Was it a disaster or a triumph? Post a comment.

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Published in: on June 9, 2009 at 8:02 am  Comments (25)  
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25 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Congratulations on your original blog:-) Please tell me more about the porcelain singers. Do you know who made them? They’re lovely:-)
    Ruth

    • Hi there, and thank you! I’m afraid I don’t know where the figurines come from, it’s just another nice photo from the fantastic photo share site Morguefile (www.morguefile.com)

  2. Thanks for the fast response. It’s certainly an appropriate illustration for your article. I’ll take a look at the photo site.
    Enjoy your teaching. I’m retired now and am concentrating on painting.
    Ruth

  3. I’ve always loved having an excuse to sing in class. Guess it allows me to channel my inner rock star:-)

    3 more songs to add to your great list–

    “Under the Boardwalk” (The Drifters) Easy to understand lyrics good for narrative practice (and dictation for more advanced classes)

    “(I can’t help) Can’t help falling in love” (Elvis or UB40) Great if for no other reason than it’s in every Karaoke collection in the world. But more than that, it allows even the most staid businessman to channel his inner rock star, too. With lyrics this exaggerated, it’s tough not to have fun.

    “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” (Madonna) This was a big hit with female classes as we all channeled our inner material girl (hey, it was the 80s when I started teaching!)

    In addition to your excellent presentation tips above, I’ve also been known to have my students clap or stand and march to keep time while we practice the lyrics as a chant (a la jazz chants). And then, I make sure that I sing louder and with even more exaggerated gestures so that no one has to worry about being the worst or silliest looking singer.

    • Thanks for these, good choices! Your mention of karaoke makes me think… I could probably do that using an online karaoke site, no? Has anyone used that with students, or used a game such as Popstar or Rock Band for the Playstation?

  4. I love the bit about turning it up again if it sounds bad!I can imagine the laughter.I’ve sung songs with a guitar,terrible self-indulgence.The key is to avoid singing Knocking on Heaven’s Door,but if there is a guitar in a room,it will get sung anyway,by someone.But I remember once playing Penny Lane by the Beatles,a nice descriptive yet slightly weird lyric,one of my students was really disappointed when we looked at the words!She had ‘heard’ something even more magical.Or was it Strawberry Fields?

  5. I’ve done ‘Yellow Submarine’ with a class, and changed the lyrics slightly to reflect the situation at the time. I even got them on stage doing it in front of a few hundred people!

    My next one will be Hawkwind’s ‘SilverMachine’, a 1970’s headbangers’ classic – from the days before headbanging was invented, even! All we need are the space suits and the naked dancer…

    • Singing on the stage! Wow, that is impressive. Thanks too for the pointer to Hawkwind, I didn’t know that song and have just listened (I’m a headbanger myself). Please upload the video on your blog once they do it…

      • That’s fine, Lindsay – glad to be helping you educate yourself about British rock music! If ever you need somebody to steer you through the drug-crazed maze that is early-to-mid 1970s British rock, I’m your man.

        Back in those days it was called underground or progressive rock – before the term ‘heavy metal’ was even invented. Ah yes, I can well remember smoke-filled afternoons at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse, watching Hawkwind, the Pink Fairies. Motorhead, etc, chug their way through … [disappears into a trance-like state and begins salivating]

      • What’s more important is that Lemmy Kilminster started off in Hawkwind. His band name, “Motorhead”, comes from a Hawkwind song…

    • While we’re on subject of Hawkwind, why not bust out one of those loopy Michael Moorcock spoken-word prose poem pieces from the mid-70s, “Warrior on the Edge of Time” era? That would be worth a chuckle I imagine.

      Or for elementary students, it just occurred to me that the immortal classic “Do It!” by the Pink Fairies (if I remember correctly) would be good for commands. “Don’t talk about iitttt! Just—DO IT!” Way before Nike.

      And next year I’m totally doing “Black Sabbath” with all my students for Halloween. Swear to God!

  6. Hi,
    I love singing with my classes, especially beginning ones. I must confess I cannot sing at all… but this has a great effect on my students, as they usually become more confident in their speaking when they’ve heard ME singing 🙂 It’s a kind of “if she’s not embarassed to sing, why should I be embarassed to speak English” reaction. Congratulations on your blog!

  7. Hi Lindsay

    I’ve done The Twelve Days of Christmas, which was -predictably – hysterical. But great for enunciation. I’va also done “If I were a Carpenter” and “If I were a Rich Man” for second conditional. Naf, but the students liked them all.

  8. Great stuff!

  9. For years I neglected using songs in classes, but now they’re a staple diet. I get students to choose a favourite song to present to the class. They research the background, run a learning activity based on the song, and lead a discussion on its themes. We generally finish the session by singing the song together. Great for pronunciation and intonation.

    One of my favourite songs for use in class: The Logical Song by Supertramp. Always leads into lots of discussion on the theme of schooling and education – a theme that learners generally have lots of opinions about.

    • Thanks Simon, and another nice choice of song. I agree 100% with you about the uses of songs for intonation and pronunciation.
      Have to admit I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of singing enthusiasts leaving comments… I was fully expecting the opposite!

  10. Katie Melua’s 9 Million Bicycles (June is bicycle month here)is a terrific tune – clear lyrics and if you want to talk about colours and feelings her Blue Shoes is good too. Also the Barenaked Ladies – If I Had a Million Dollars is one of the most popular – good for the conditional and for students to contribute their own lines.

    • The Barenaked Ladies… A Canadian band no less! Yes, that song is a complete favourite among teachers for exactly those reasons. One would almost think the singer had done a stint in TEFL…

  11. Oh, one more for an advanced class – I used it with a high level group of 16 -18 year olds. After they did their own rap versions of Sonnet 18 I found this wonderful video of David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame singing the sonnet.

    They loved it.

  12. “Only you” – great for crooning in unison, and lyrics easy for beginners:

    Only you can make the darkness bright
    Only you and you alone can thrill me like you do
    And fill my heart with love for only you
    Only you can make this change in me
    For it’s true, you are my destiny etc.

  13. Wow, that sonnet performance by Gilmour was great.
    Here are a few I have used:
    ‘You are everything’ (from Cutting Edge PI)
    gist listening followed by cut up lines and mingling to find place in sequence, then invent your own song
    Today I saw…
    who..
    As you…
    I…
    I felt so…
    When…

    I saw this done with Perfect day but still have to try this myself

    Perhaps followed by investigating links to different artists and a discussion about free music/piracy?

    I Would like to see the whole thing performed by Shane McGowan & Courtney Pine for the novlety!

    • Great stuff! Thanks for sharing this!

  14. How lovely that Gilmore interpretation is – thank you so much!
    I do songs quite a lot. With YouTube in your pocket, so to speak, there are so many songs to just sing along with if you don’t play an instrument or don’t want to schlepp your guitar. I, too, ask my students for their favorites. But my adult learners kind of like me to bring old staples. The ones I remember doing this past year that worked well:

    Frank Sinatra: “They can’t take that away from me”
    Aretha Franklin/ The BossHoss: “I Say a Little Prayer For You”
    Chuck Berry: “Johnny B. Goode”
    Alanis Morisette: “Hand in Pocket”
    Walt Disney/The Jungle Book: “The Bare Necessities” (Harris/Reitherman)
    John Martyn: “May You Never Lose Your Temper”
    Sister Rosetta Tharpe: “Up Above My Head”
    Odetta: “The Midnight Special”
    Ink Spots/King Sisters/Manhattan Transfer: “Java Jive”
    John Denver: “Country Roads”
    Gloria Gaynor/ Cake: “I will survive”
    Ian & Sylvia/Neil Young/Johnny Cash: “Four Strong Winds”
    Woody Guthrie: “This Land is Your Land”
    Breakfast at Tiffany’s: “Moon River” (Mercer/Mancini)
    Tom Waits: “Hold On”
    Aimee Mann: “Freeway”

    I also teach English on board a sailboat in the summertime, with a crew of all ages (10 to 72 last time) and just take lyrics to shanties and folksongs of all kinds with me. I find they are still marvellous for teaching – and teaching outdoors on a boat is as good as it gets! I always take along several copies of these:
    Good night, ladies
    Oh, Shenandoah
    The Leaving of Liverpool
    Clementine
    Drunken Sailor
    The Leaving of Liverpool
    The Banks of Sacramento
    Sloop John B.
    Loch Lomond
    Haul Away Joe
    All for me grog

    • What is the quickest / most efficient way of getting hold of a) the lyrics for a song, b) the song itself to play in the classroom?

      Thanks for all the good ideas!

      Valerie

  15. Playing songs in an English class is one of the best things, and one students are really looking forward to at the end of the course or year in Mexico City.
    I have tried them a lot, not only for the sake of listening but also for the musical intelligence sake.
    I have played from various artists such as U2 (which are a classic), Air Supply, Bon Jovi, Goo Goo Dolls, etc.
    But one class I do remember and feel proud of was one I had with 20 teens who were between 10 and 13 years old. Since the very beginning of the song, they felt tuned in, they got the words easily (it was a fill-in-the-blanks-exercise) and then they sang it along THREE TIMES!!! The song was “Because of You” from Meat Loaf.
    I keep remembering that class, because they needn’t me to understand it, and they were singing it to the top of their lungs. It was a such a good time, listening to those early teenagers singing Meat Loaf, it’s just a WOW! a wonderful and awesome WOW!


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