Why music is more powerful than anything (& how to use it)
I got a question via @espanolsrs about how I “teach” songs and whether my students understand what they’re singing. I thought I’d written a post about this before but when I browsed through my song label I didn’t see anything about it. Probably I just thought about it and didn’t actually write it (that happens a lot–I have probably 15 posts in the “edit” stage in my dashboard right now!).
It did remind me what I consider one of the greatest myths of language teaching: that students have to understand everything they hear. This is one area where I think that TPRS goes very wrong (and if you spend much time on my blog you’ll know that I love TPRS). But TPRS and I part ways mostly on two very fundamental philosophical principles, one being using so much English translation, and the other being this idea that students have to understand every word they hear.
The thing that got me started on using music was an AP Spanish workshop led by a woman who handed out two songs (the songs were 19 de noviembre by Carlos Vives and Olvídame y Pega la Vuelta by Pimpinela) and asked us how these songs could be used in class. As we started brainstorming through what target features and cultural themes were present in the songs, using them piqued my interest. When I actually used them in class, and then used videos related to them, the songs themselves piqued my students’ interest. The whole thing became a snowball effect that I never dreamed of. So my music journey hasn’t really been something I read about or something I set out to do–it’s something my students and the pop music industry have shown me, and happened to use my classroom as a venue to do it.
If you ask students all over the world what the best ways to learn English are, they will tell you that they learned the most English through watching our television shows and listening to our music. On any given Top Latino podcast, several of the songs will be in English by stars like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. Do these English language learners understand everything they hear? Of course not. I don’t even understand these songs. So why are they so effective? From using Spanish pop songs in my classroom, I have several theories, and tips.
1) Music is fun & motivating. This is why the industry makes so much money off of the adolescent market. It’s why teenagers walk around with earbuds in their ears. Accordingly, you should usually choose songs that are widely popular. (Sometimes I make an exception and just ask my students to forgive me if there is a feature that’s just too good to pass up–and then I’ll often have one or two students who absolutely love it anyway, as is the case with Alexander Acha’s Te Amo. I have a student who has memorized this song.)
2) Music offers a variety to appeal to lots of students. As teachers this is often a dilemma to us, particularly if you use a textbook. Students have a wide variety of likes and dislikes in every area of their life. If we can appeal to those tastes with music from Alexander Acha to Wisin y Yandel (appropriately for class), all the better. Choose a wide variety of artists. I have to remember that not all my students like the same kind of music I do. And I encourage my students to put up with some music and then let them choose other times. Trevor needs to tolerate Estrella for Ashley, and later she’ll put up with Cuando me enamoro. (Okay, so who doesn’t like that song.)
3) Songs offer an excellent opportunity for chunking. This is one of the main reasons why students don’t always have to understand what they’re saying. Any teacher or parent knows that children (and people) memorize words that are set to music. So what happens is this: think of all those phrases in Spanish (or English) that are a verb or noun plus an odd preposition. Let me pull a few from songs my students know inside out: “estoy a punto de” + inf from Mientes by Camila; or “hace [tiempo] que”+ present tense from Hace Tiempo by Fonseca. These are the kinds of structures that we can grammatically explain like we always have, and the best students will be able to produce them in writing to pass a test but they’ll move on and forget them past our class and never be able to make the connection fast enough to produce them in speaking or comprehend them in spoken Spanish. Unless–they’ve heard them in context so many times the brain connection is just there and always will be. That is the power of a song. We need to find these structures in songs and point them out to our students, and then give them opportunities to use them in different contexts while reminding them of their use in the song.
4) Songs are an inexpensive way for students to continue interacting with Spanish outside of class. I remember students who didn’t even continue to Spanish 3 telling me, “Oh I remember that song–it’s on my shower playlist.” Okay, well, I’m not really interested in what’s on his shower playlist, but the point is he’s still interacting with Spanish outside of my classroom because something struck his fancy and he went and spent $1. (Side note: encourage your students to responsibly and legally buy their music and you do the same. I have been appalled at the Spanish teachers who have proudly told me they download music illegally.) Offer homework credit for students listening to music outside of class. In my AP class this is a “fluency credit” my students can do once a quarter (along with 18 other options; they have to do one once a week).
5) Music can spur lots of varied assignments. These are some things my students have done:
–presentation on favorite artist including interpretation of a song
–essay on musicians’ social responsibility with examples
–compare and contrast of matters of faith and culture presented in songs by three different groups (I teach at a private Christian school)
–Google Earth investigation of places mentioned in songs (there’s a post about this in my song label mentioned above).
–rewrite a song to make it appropriate to their culture/life (example, Ojalá que llueva café to apply to the current recession in the U.S. and the struggles specific to our city)
(Also, remember I teach advanced students exclusively now.)
6) Music helps students remember grammatical features. I have an AP student who never forgets that words that end in -dad are feminine because of the song Electricidad by Jesse y Joy.
Most of all, always have a reason for playing a song. Well, almost always. There isn’t anything wrong with playing one just for fun once in a while. If you’ll look through the song label you’ll notice that songs frequently show a target feature you can point out or ask students to look for. At the advanced stage I teach we are often looking at vocabulary or culture issues.
Also, play them often. You never know when you’ll hit on the one or two that will be the magic that Hace tiempo, La llave de mi corazón, Adiós, Electricidad, and Dímelo, Dame, and Creeré have been in my class.