Language teachers use a variety of strategies while teaching. The focus and choices around such strategies range from pedagogical reasons and language development, to concerns around students’ needs and the class environment. One of these strategies has been the use of music to support language learning and help students cope with language and learning issues.
Music can support language learning because music and spoken language are connected in a variety of ways. Both share common characteristics such as ‘pitch, volume, prominence, stress, tone, rhythm and pauses’ (Fonseca-Mora, 2000, p. 147), while processes used to make sense of a language are like the skills needed when listening to music – for instance, when making the distinction between melody and rhythm. A current investigation of the music practices of teachers worldwide sheds light on these practices and how teachers are employing music to assist language learning. The most-discussed practices for music based on data collection for a PhD project I am currently undertaking were background music and listening to songs, which will be discussed here.
In the past, studies have addressed the positive effects music can have on the overall learning atmosphere for students. Teachers reported using this popular, unobtrusive strategy as it requires little preparation – which is in line with previous research (see Cunningham, 2014). Halpern (cited in Metaxa, 2013, p. 50) states, ‘The sound of music brings into the words its magic power to activate the mind when it is dormant, to soothe the soul when it is in turmoil, and to heal the body when it is hurt.’ He suggests, therefore, that music can have calming and positive effects on students’ responses to the subject as it can improve students’ attitudes. Thus, background music can aid indirectly in language gain not only by providing a positive learning atmosphere but also as a tool for classroom management. The following example comes from my current PhD project, proving this practice is still popular today as it was discussed by many participants:
‘I used to do a lot of IELTS [International English Language Testing System] teaching, and it’s quite strict at times. So you just choose a song. A long turn is only a minute long. And it’s really hard for students to understand how long a minute is. And they see that they’ve got something to block out to focus on their partner.’
The participant taught in South Korea, Bulgaria and the UK with 20 years of teaching experience, including CELTA and DELTA certificates, using music throughout his career.
‘Background music can aid indirectly in language gain not only by providing a positive learning atmosphere but also as a tool for classroom management.’
Music gives an auditorial cue to students when prepping them for the IELTS speaking part as students need to get used to the minute of uninterrupted speaking. The participant thought that using music provided a better option to a timer which gives little indication other than buzzing after the allotted time. Further, music muffles classmates, helping them to focus on their partners.
Further, improving listening is an important and difficult skill to master (Renandya & Farrell 2011). Therefore, many teachers were concerned about improving this skill in an engaging way. Stansell (2005) reported that the addition of songs increased awareness of sounds, rhythms, intonation and particularly stress in language learning. He connects this improvement to the communicative teaching approach shifting the focus to interactions such as group discussion enhancing speaking and listening skills. For students, it is important to develop strategies for effective listening skills as ‘listening is so crucial to the acquisition of speech and language that defective listening can lead to impaired learning’ (Madaule, 2001, p. 2).
Some teachers in my current study mentioned that listening to textbook dialogues can lack relevance, opting for music instead. They listen to interviewed artists, or listen to and discuss a song:
‘I’ll play the song, see what message they heard. And then I’ll play different versions, ask them which one they like better.’
The participant taught in Canada and Japan for more than 20 years in different educational centres. She represents other teachers who also integrate music videos, comparing how the songs and presentations differ, or teaching students about the instruments used. The accounts shared showcase music’s versatility across countries and over time.
Based on past research and current accounts of music in English language teaching, music is widely used by practitioners worldwide with international students. Its diverse and creative approaches can aid different skills and learning outcomes, so it is important to raise awareness of music practices by encouraging teachers to share their experiences.
Cunningham, C. (2014). ‘Keep talking’: Using music during small group discussions in EAP. ELT Journal, 68(2), 179–191. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/cct097
Foncesca Mora, C. (2000). Foreign language acquisition and melody singing. ELT Journal, 54(2), 146–152. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/54.2.146
Madaule, P. (1997). Listening training and music education. Early Childhood Connections: Journal for Music and Movement-based learning, 4(2). https://www.listeningcentre.com/UploadedFiles/Articles/Articles/Listening-Training-and-Music-Education.pdf
Metaxa, X. T. (2013). The effect of authentic songs on vocabulary acquisition in the English foreign language classroom (Doctoral dissertation, Saint Louis University).
Renandya, W. A., & Farrell, T. S. C. (2011). ‘Teacher, the tape is too fast’: Extensive listening in ELT. ELT Journal, 65(1), 52–59. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccq015
Stansell, J. W. (2005). The use of music for learning languages: A review of the literature [Doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois]. https://www.incantoproductions.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/LEARNING-THROUGH-MUSIC.pdf