Using Songs to Teach ESL

IN 1999 in Tijuana I taught English in a private school that was a both a high school and a two year of college.

I had 6 to 8 classes every day – with an average of 40 students, no materials, small rooms, and no idea what to do with so many young people!!!!!!

I was very frustrated. Every night I would go back to my apartment and turn on the radio, to a station that played American popular songs, such as the Beatles.

Then one day I had an idea.

The radio I used was also a tape recorder that played audio cassettes. It was a Dual Cassette player and I could make copies of a cassette. Do you remember audio cassettes?

So at night I put a tape in to record the songs from the radio station. Then when I had 10 good songs, I made a master tape that I used to make lots of copies..

I went to a store to buy cassettes which came in packages of 10, and I bought enough for all the students and made copies during the next week.

I also printed the lyrics to hand out to the students.

You can imagine their surprise when I walked in one Monday with my tape recorder and a backpack filled with cassettes.

Here is the first song that we “studied’ in class:

“Saw Her Standing There” - by The Beatles

Well, she was just seventeen,

And you know what I mean -

The way she looked was way beyond compare.

So how could I dance with another

When I was her standing there?

Well, she looked at me,

Etc., etc.

In the classes we studied pronunciation and grammar.

The pronunciation exercises included:

1. “TH” - with vibration, there, the , that, without vibration, through.

2. “j” - just

3. The “t” sound of various regular verbs - looked, crossed, danced.

4. “V” - love

5. gh words - through, night, tight

Grammar lessons included:

1. The past tense of irregular verbs - saw, was, went, held, fell.

2. The use of could and would.

3. The use of the apostrophe - I’d, wouldn’t, I’ll.

4. The use of will - I’ll.

That is my first attempt at using technology to teach, very "low-tech". Well now I use YouTube songs with the lyrics superimposed for the students to study and also to practice reading out loud and for listening comprehension. After a while, we sing the songs! 

Students like songs, especially the Oldies. They also like my stories about the days I danced the Jitterbug.

Anyway, I encourage everybody to use songs in class. You can send some to your students via your smartphone, which I do for ….homework.

To learn more, go to my free website, and

Paul Rogers


I love this! I want to use songs, and I try some, but I get frustrated because there are just too many exceptions. Do you have that problem? It's like I can't possibly teach all the exceptions in a single song even in my 3 hours class; it's overwhelming. 

I'll go check out your website today, but do you have thoughts on this frustration? Or maybe a list of "good" or "safe" songs that don't bring up too many issues?


I am not sure what you mean by exceptions. Try the oldies from the  50s.

I have used some Beatles, but not really 50s. I have a lot of really young adults, so I try to use more modern music. But there are so many words that aren't words and left out verbs and incorrect usage. I feel like I teach more exceptions than actual rules from the songs, but I do enjoy using them.


The slow oldies are very good and young people like them! Try Imagine, Unchained Melody, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Elvis.....write out the lyrics, everybody reads them out loud...then...sing!!!!

In reply to by Ginger

Hi Ginger, 

I agree it can be frustrating finding just the right songs to use in lessons. For me, I've used them to show examples of structures in everyday speech. I found this really helpful when trying to show authentic examples of complex structures or more advanced grammatical rules. This helps me restrict what's heard to an excerpt, which is always accomplanied by the lyrics. It also gives me a lead on picking just the right songs. For example, I used excerpts from the following songs to provide context for teaching present and future conditionals: "If I Ruled the World" (Nas/Lauryn Hill), "Time in a Bottle" (Jim Croce), and "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof. Three very different genres of music, but all sharing a similar tempo. I found that most of my learners had heard at least one of the songs, which varied depending on their age and background. I just made sure to check the punctuation and spelling of the lyrics that were used so they would not contradict the rules being taught.


   This morning I was on the bus 'cause it's chilly and icy, and had the lyrics to Lift Every Voice And Sing from a program from the weekend... and had the first verse and a half down by the time I got to work.   I reflected that music -- unlike other kinds of "studying" -- keeps echoing itself even after we look away, so if we learn to consciously create 'earworms' for things we want to remember... we can be learning even when we aren't trying to ... 
     Yes, there are *lots* of songs that wouldn't work too well  (Louie, Louie....)   but oh, bring on the ballads!!!    
      I hve hundreds of cassette tapes from the "tape from the radio" days, and I need to make 'em digital.   

S Jones: Bingo!!!! Once we know the lyrics to a song, it is almost impossible to prevent ourselves from singing it inside our heads!! So all that is necessary in an ESL class is to "study" the song making a list of the vocabulary words, practice the pronunciation of difficult words, then recite the song out loud a few times taking as a group and taking turns, and then...singing it! YouTube is great because you can find songs with the lyrics superimpsed.