Pronunciation: the uninvited guest

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
Ludwig van Beethoven

What do people love? That one’s easy. Music! The use of songs has been applied in language teaching for different purposes with positive outcomes. Moreover, the most common use of songs has been focused on grammar and vocabulary learning or as a listening comprehension activity. But, what about pronunciation? Isn’t pronunciation as important as vocabulary and grammar? After all, in a conversation in which pronunciation is unintelligible, communication breaks; and even if grammar and vocabulary are perfectly structured, bad pronunciation will lead to misunderstandings or no understanding at all.

Pronunciation is said to be the “Cinderella” of language teaching (Kelly; 1969) because it never gets to go to the ball. It’s uninvited and neglected, despite its importance. Most of the time, this neglect is due to teachers not knowing how to approach pronunciation in the classroom (Derwing, 2010; Scrivener, 2005). So, how can we teach pronunciation to a bunch of students in a fun way? Well… songs are the perfect answer to this question. Songs are fun, motivating and allow teachers to vary instruction. They also appeal to different learning styles. Furthermore, the wide selection of songs you can access will allow you to personalize them to your specific needs. Not sure how to do so? Keep reading.

What song to choose:
The first concern teachers have when choosing a song is the music genre they will work with. Here it’s important to set a clear learning objective and find a song that fits this purpose. It always helps to know what type of music your students listen to, and if you’re lucky enough to have a group of students who like the same genre, then that will narrow down your options. You can always choose a song they like and adapt it accordingly. However, the priority is the pronunciation objective you have, so whether it’s heavy metal or salsa, you are the teacher and you are the one who will choose what song fits your learners’ needs, even if they aren’t too keen on it. Who knows, this might be their chance to be exposed to different genres and find out they love The Beatles just as much as you do.

It’s important to be clear with your students on what the objective of using a song is and let them know you have not chosen this activity for the sake of just listening to music. Being clear on this point helps students understand that, in the end, what matters is what they will learn from the song. In my experience, being clear from the beginning avoids complaints on students’ part about the song genre you have chosen.

Regarding what song to choose, this will depend on the English level your students have. If they are at a beginner level, it will be best to choose a song that is well articulated, not so fast in pace, and within the range of vocabulary and structures students can handle. Nowadays, there are many websites designed for English Language Teachers which divide songs into topics, vocabulary, and grammar structures, but you will also find some, though not many, which focus on pronunciation.

Since our focus is on pronunciation, you might not find exactly what you’re looking for. But if this is the case, not to worry! You can adapt ready-made song activities or make your own.

Pronunciation activities with songs:
Here are some ideas of activities you can create and adapt for all levels. The examples have been based on different lyrics from the band The Beatles, but of course, the group or artist chosen is completely up to you.

💡 Word and sentence stress
Underline/highlight stress in words:
This activity is intended for students to identify the syllables that are stressed within a word. In words, there is always one syllable that stands out among the rest and is pronounced louder.

Ask students to listen to a song and pay attention to which syllable within a multisyllabic word stands out and is said louder and clearer.

🎵 SUddenly, I’m not HAlf the MAn I Used to bE
There’s a shAdow hanging Over me.
Oh, yEsterday came sUddenly 🎵
(Song: “Yesteday”)

💡 Fill in the blanks:
This activity will focus on the emphasis we give words in a sentence (sentence stress). These words tend to sound higher, longer, and clearer than the rest.

Ask students to fill in the blanks with the missing words. Omit the stressed words in sentences. Ask Ss to listen to the song and fill in the blanks with the missing words. Remember, stressed words are content words such as nouns, verbs and adjectives.

🎵 All you ______is______, _____is all you _____ 🎵
(All you need is love, love is all you need.)
Song: “All you need is love”

💡 Underline/highlight stressed words in sentences:
This is a variation of the previous activity. Instead of asking students to listen for the missing words, ask them to listen for the words that stand out the most. They can underline or highlight the stressed words.

🎵 All you need is love, love is all you need. 🎵

💡 Final consonants (plurals and final –ed)
The objective of this activity is for students to learn to identify and discriminate final consonant sounds. Song activities can be used to practice plural endings, third-person or ed endings in regular verbs in past or adjectives.

In order to practice plural endings, choose a song that is being sung in the third person or that contains many words in plural. Omit the final consonant -S- of the words to practice s, es, ies final endings with /s/ or /z/ sound.

🎵 Little darling, the smile(z) returning to the face(z)
Little darling, it seem(z) like year(z) since it’s been here
Here come(z) the sun
Here come(z) the sun, and I say
It’s all right 🎵
Song: “Here comes the sun”

In order to practice the pronunciation of -ed final sounds, choose a song with regular verbs in past or adjectives ending in –ed and omit the final ED. Ask students to listen and fill in the blanks as they identify the variation of pronunciation.

🎵 I don’t know how you were divert(ed)
You were pervert(ed) too
I don’t know how you were invert(ed)
No one alert(ed) you. 🎵
Song: “While my guitar gently weeps”

💡 Vowel sounds
This activity focuses on the pronunciation of vowel sounds and identifying specific sounds in words. Vowel sounds tend to be tricky for students, especially because English spelling does not go hand in hand with its pronunciation.

Ask students to listen to the song and identify words in the lyrics with the same vowel sound. They can highlight, underline, circle, or use a chart.

🎵You’re asking me will my love grow
I don’t know, I don’t know
You stick around now it may show
I don’t know, I don’t know 🎵
Song: “Something”

In this song, the teacher can focus on teaching diphthongs such as /əʊ/(British) or /oʊ/ (American) sound in the words grow ,know and show as well as the /aʊ/ sound in around and now.

If you teach vowels using the Color Vowel Chart, then a great activity is to ask students to color the sounds using their corresponding color.

In the example, we can see how specific words have been associated to their vowel colors. These lyrics contain mustard, gray, blue, black, olive, green, brown,and rose words.

💡 Intonation
You can also practice and teach intonation with songs. Remember intonation will set the mood, intention, feelings, and attitude of the speaker towards what he or she is saying.

Play a song and then ask Ss to say the lyrics of the song in a conversational style. Put students in pairs and ask them to say the song as if they were talking to each other. This activity is great with songs that are sung in the form of a dialog. In these types of songs, you can also divide the group in half and in a choral way. Ask half of the group to say one of the singer’s parts and the other half to say the other singer’s parts. The beauty of using songs is that many are written in the form of a monologue or as if the singer was speaking to someone else, so you can focus the lyrics on the intonation the singer would use if he/she were not singing, but speaking.

🎵Hey Jude, don’t make it bad.
Take a sad song and make it better.
Remember to let her into your heart,
Then you can start to make it better.🎵
Song: “Hey Jude”

In this song, students pretend they are talking to Jude and providing advice. What tone would they need to use?

💡 Reduced speech
Students can be asked to identify reduced speech in songs, meaning, contractions, and words that have been changed in their form to sound shorter. One of the most difficult features of pronunciation that students struggle with is contractions (I’m, can’t, won’t) and reductions (gonna, wanna). For this activity, you can choose a song with lyrics that contain contractions and reductions. Rewrite the lyrics by putting the contractions and reductions in their full form. Then ask students to identify where the singer is using them.

🎵 I think I’m going to (gonna) be sad,
I think it is (it’s) today, yeah.
The girl that is (that’s) driving me mad
Is going away. 🎵
Song: “Ticket to ride”

I’m sure you’d agree with me that Cinderella -as is the case of pronunciation in language teaching- deserves to go to the ball and enjoy the dance, instead of being pushed aside or neglected; and what better way to do this than with a little music?

Celce-Murcia, M, Brinton, D.M and Goodwin, J. M (2010).Teaching pronunciation: A coursebook and reference guide. (2ed) Cambridge: CUP
Derwing, T. M. (2010). Utopian goals for pronunciation teaching. In J. Levis & K. LeVelle (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching
Kelly, G. (2000) How to Teach Pronunciation. Harlow: Pearson
Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching: The Essential Guide to English language Teaching. Oxford: Macmillan.

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