Teaching Adult ESL Learners through Music


Krishna Bista


It has been a tradition to take music as an integral part of teaching and learning in early days of schools. Children learn various educational and cultural activities through music effectively and there is significant emphasis on music in the kindergarten and primary levels. Children in the school tend to idolize singers and worship dance and musical bands whereas adults simply listen for fun or hobby. However, there is less focus on using songs or music in the adult education. It is true that a great number of teachers being more focused on academic curriculum standards do not think of integrating music into adult classroom lessons. Even though adult learners, contrary to young learners, are matured and have a specific goal of language learning, they could have more benefits and learn more effectively if the educators and teachers of English teach adult learners using song in the adult English as second language (ESL) classroom.

Related Literature:

There are a number of academic benefits of using songs in the adult classroom. Musical activities can serve as one of many types of instructional approaches to teach selected curriculum units. Moreover, music draws an attention of the learners by providing a motivational environment for learning.

Murphey (1992) carried out a research on lyrics of a large corpus of pop songs in relation to teaching his students. He found that the songs had several linguistic features that help second-language learners learning English: they contained common, short words and many personal pronouns (94% of the songs had a first person, I, referent and were written at about a fifth-grade level); the language was conversational (imperatives and questions made up 25% of the sentences in the corpus); time and place were usually imprecise (except for some folk ballads); the lyrics were often sung at a slower rate; words were spoken with more pauses between utterances; and there was repetition of vocabulary and structures. He believed that these factors of language learning allowed adult learners to understand and relate to the songs. Thus, since music includes personal feeling, a plot with an event, social and cultural traits, it can be successfully blended in the adult English classroom to create a learning and motivating environment, to develop listening comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing skills, to increase vocabulary, and to expand cultural knowledge.

In recent days, a number of studies have been carried out how music can be incorporated in adult ESL class activities. Neurologists have found that music and language processing occur in the same area of the brain, and there appear to be parallels in how musical and linguistic syntax are processed (Lems, 2001).  A study has reported that adult learners in South Africa exposed to instrumental music during an intensive English course showed benefits in language learning (Puhl, 1989). Bob Lake (2005), a teacher and research believes says: “There is strong evidence supporting the use of music in the ESL classroom. Language and music are tied together in brain processing by pitch, rhythm and by symmetrical phrasing.” Many educators report success using instrumental music as a warm up and relaxation tool, as a background for other activities, and as the inspiration for writing activities (Eken, 1996).

How to use Music in Adult ESL Classroom:

A number of English activities can be done using music in the adult classroom. Particularly, the following areas can be taught using music in ESL classroom settings.

Listening and Oral Activities

Songs contain rhythm, stress and intonation—the linguistic features. Adult learners from any language background can benefit from a choral or individual reading of the lyrics of the songs. Students may summarize orally the action or theme of a song or give oral presentations about a song for the class. For example the song by Neil Sedak “Calendar Girl” (January, you start the year off fine/February), you’re my little Valentine) is good for adult ESL beginners to learn the name of months. Similarly, Tracy Chapman song “All that you have is your soul” is good to teach sound in which the change of world final t+ word initial y to /ch/ can be heard (Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple/don’t you eat of a bitter fruit). To involve the whole class, students can fill out response sheets about each presentation, answering questions about the featured topic, something new they learned, and something they enjoyed.

Reading and Writing Activities

Adult learners can participate in several reading and writing activities such as filling in the blanks and  jigsaw puzzles during, before, or after listening to a song. This helps build the important skill of reading and writing. However, words can be deleted instead to practice a target grammar point, such as past tense verbs, prepositions, or compound nouns, or to identify key words (Griffee, 1990). For instance, in the song “Only Time” by Enya, the auxiliary ‘can’ could be omitted in classroom activity (Who can say Where the road goes/Where the day flows/Only time/And who can say/ If your love grows/As your heart chose/Only time). One popular activity is to cut the lyrics into lines and have students put them in the correct order as they listen to the song.

Adult students enjoy writing responses to songs, either in class or at home. Adult ESL learners bring diversity into language learning and provide a known context for comparing and contrasting information. Many songs tell a story, and these stories can be rewritten or retold to practice narrative or summarizing skills. For example, the Nancy Wilson’s song “Guess Who I Saw Today” is sung by a wife catching her husband having a romantic lunch with another woman.

Vocabulary Building Activities

Pop songs are written to be easily understood and enjoyed. They tend to use high frequency lyrics that have emotional content. However, the songs may also have idioms in them that might be difficult to explain, depending on the level of the students. For example, Cat Steven’s song “Morning Has Broken” (Morning has broken, like the first morning/blackbird has spoken, like the first bird/praise for the singing, praise for the morning/) can be confusing to adult ESL learners.

Cultural Knowledge Activities

Songs can be used in discussions of culture. They are a rich mine of information about human relations, ethics, customs, history, humor, and cultural differences. A song can be part of a unit that also contains poems, video footage, or still photographs. For example, Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech would be a powerful cultural activity in adult ESL classroom.

Selecting Music for Adult ESL Learners

Songs should be carefully selected for the adult ESL classroom. Lems (1996) and Poppleton (2001), make the following suggestions:
1. Lyrics should be clear and loud, not submerged in the instrumental music.
2. The vocabulary load for the song should be appropriate to the proficiency level.

3. Songs should be pre-screened for potentially problematic content, such as explicit language, references to violent acts or sex, or inappropriate religious allusions.

Griffee (1990) recommends using short, slow songs for beginning-level students and discusses activities such as creating song word puzzles, drawing a song, or showing related pictures. With higher levels, he suggests using songs that tell stories, moving toward short, fast songs, and finally, longer, fast songs that have fewer high frequency vocabulary items. Finally, students are often strongly motivated to learn the lyrics of a new pop song or an old favorite they have heard and never understood, so their choices for classroom music should not be overlooked.


Eken, D. K. (1996). Ideas for using songs in the English language classroom. English

Teaching Forum, 34(1), 46-47.

Griffee, D.T. (1990). Hey baby! Teaching short and slow songs in the ESL classroom. TESL

Reporter, 23(4), 3-8.

Lems, K. (1996). For a song: Music across the ESL curriculum. Paper presented at the annual

convention of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Chicago. (ED No.

396 524

Lake, Bob (2005). Music and  language learning. ESL Journal, 22 (5), 33-42.

Murphey, T. (1992).The discourse of pop songs. TESOL Quarterly, 26(4), 770-774.

Poppleton, C. (2001). Music to our ears. American Language Review, 5(1), 23-26.
Puhl, C. A. (1989). Up from under: English training on the mines. (Report on 1988 research

project conducted at Gold Field Training Services). Stellenbosch, South Africa: University of Stellenbosch. (ED No. 335 864)



(Krishna Bista is a doctoral student in Arkansas State University, USA. Click here for his profile: http://astate.academia.edu/KrishnaBista)

1 thought on “Teaching Adult ESL Learners through Music

  1. Yes, there is no doubt that it is music that connects people whenever language fails to. Moreover, music as an essence of ESL is highly appreciable no matter whether the classes are meant for juniors or adults. If it is added to adult ESL, there must be a wise selection of music so that the adult learners can benefit parallel to what they require to have at first. In music, pronunciations, rhythms and intonations that adult ears may face as a big challenge because of being accustomed to those of their mother tongue(s) are more complicated than in general talks. So the selection is a crucial job. Anyway, music is a must in any sort of language teaching!

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