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Home: The Motivating Magic of Songs in the EFL Classroom

The Motivating Magic of Songs
in the EFL Classroom
by Gary Joe Wolff

Quick guide  

Key words: Songs, motivation, EFL, lyrics, reductions

Learner English level: High beginner and above

Learner maturity: High school and above

Preparation time: 15-20 minutes

Activity time: 30-40 minutes

Materials: English-language song, audio source for song, lyrics, music video (if available), textbooks (optional), tablet PC karaoke application (optional )

The link between music and language acquisition has been established by scholars across many academic fields. It is also clear that Japanese students are motivated to learn English through listening to and singing English-language songs, so it is no big surprise that EFL professionals have long made good use of music in their classrooms. Whether improving students’ listening or helping them learn new vocabulary, grammar, idioms, or colloquial English, the pedagogical options for using music in the classroom are limitless.


Step 1: Choose easy, short (less than 4 minutes), well-known songs. Ballads and movie themes work well, but make sure they are singable and not too difficult. As much as students love listening to “A Whole New World,” it is almost impossible for them to sing along.

Step 2: Print out the lyrics which you can get online, from the CD jacket, a songbook, textbook, etc. I really like, which probably has every English song on the planet, plus features a pop-up audio player allowing you to listen to the song while you sing (or read).

Step 3: Make a gap-fill (cloze) exercise with the song lyrics. In some textbooks, there is a cloze exercise already provided for each song (see Appendix below). For some songs, the first letter of the words is given to assist lower-level students.

Step 4: In the previous class, assign the song from the class webpage as homework and ask students to become familiar with at least the lyrics and tune beforehand.


Step 1: Briefly discuss the artist’s background and history of the song.

Step 2: Play the song and ask students to listen only for the emotions and mood they feel. To maximize the emotive impact, I ask them to close their eyes and try not to listen to the lyrics yet, but instead focus on the melody, instruments, and singer’s voice. 

Step 3: Project the gap-fill (cloze) exercise onto a screen or onto student monitors and then ask students to write down the missing words as you play the song twice.

Step 4: Show the missing words and ask students to check their answers.

Step 5: Briefly discuss the meaning of the lyrics and any difficult vocabulary or idioms, and explain reduced forms, or reductions, such as gonna, wanna, doncha, and whaddaya, common in English songs.

Step 6: Read the lyrics out loud, pausing at the end of each line, and ask the students to repeat after you in choral response. This is a good time to emphasize correct rhythm, especially stress patterns, and focus on any words difficult to pronounce. 

Step 7: Everyone sings the song! Encourage students as much as possible to try and match the singer’s tempo, rhythm, and intonation. Since not everyone is crazy about singing, for those students who are not, I ask them to simply speak the words as the rest of us sing.

Step 8: Encourage students to sing the English songs we have learned in class the next time they sing karaoke with their family or friends.


Although more complex lesson plans can incorporate activities like dictation, sequencing lyric strips, musical bingo, and original lyrics rewriting, I have found that by keeping the musical lessons short and fun, students will eagerly look forward to learning through music. I have also observed that fun music lessons can also have a spill-over effect of increasing student interest in other classroom activities and their motivation for learning English in general, with the side benefit of helping them learn about foreign culture as well.


Cloze exercise for first stanza of Your Song by Elton John:

It's a little bit (1)f_____, this feeling inside
(2)I____ not one of those who can easily hide
I don't have much (3)m______, but boy if I did
I'd buy a big (4)h_____ where we both could live


Campbell, J. (2013). Using Google to motivate and teach via English songs. The Language Teacher, 37.2, pp. 3-4.

Kumai, N., & Timson, S. (2010). Hit parade listening (3rd edition). Tokyo: MacMillan Language House, Ltd.

Lieb, M. (2005). Popular music and its role in the EFL classroom, Proceedings of the 13th Annual KOTESOL International Conference, Seoul, Korea, October 15-16, 2005, pp. 91-98.

Author Bio

Gary J. Wolff is a former registered professional transportation engineer who has worked in Japan since 1991 and taught both undergraduate and graduate engineering and science students in his university’s School of Science and Technology for the past 22 years. His interests include the latest technological advances in online student forums, student motivation, computer-assisted language learning (CALL) methods, and fostering global awareness among his students. In his free time, Gary enjoys mountain climbing and has scaled all of the 25 highest mountains in Japan.

[This article was written in Jan. 2014 and appeared in the "My Share" section of the Jan./Feb. 2015 issue of The Language Teacher, published by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT).]

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