Songs and Games in the Language Classroom
Mark Hancock has written two books in the Cambridge Copy Collection, Singing Grammar and Pronunciation Games. We spoke to Mark about the thinking behind these books and the approach they take to language learning.
Q: Singing Grammar is a particularly interesting combination. Songs are quite commonly used in the language classroom for teaching listening, vocabulary and for discussion purposes, but we would not usually associate songs with the teaching of grammar. How did you come up with the idea of teaching grammar through songs?
MH: In fact, I know a lot of teachers who have compiled lists of well-know pop-songs which are good for given grammar points. So it's not really a new idea. But as a teacher, I was frustrated at the amount of not-very-useful, or too advanced level, vocabulary and expressions that also occur in most of these songs. And as a musician and song-writer, I felt I was in a good position to write songs which included the grammar point without the vocabulary problem.
Q: Does Singing Grammar address other ways, besides the teaching of grammar, in which songs can be exploited in the language classroom? And what skills can teachers practise with their students?
MH: I wrote in the introduction to Singing Grammar that songs can be used for most aspects of language teaching. Songs can be used for skills work; listening, obviously, but also the other skills. Songs can also be used for language work, be it grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation. The book includes exercises and suggestions for using songs for all of these aspects of teaching.
Q: The introduction to Singing Grammar states that: 'It is designed to provide a motivating alternative focus on various points of English grammar.' In what specific ways does this novel approach to the learning of grammar motivate students?
MH: The variety of medium is very important. Students can quite understandably tire of doing exercise after exercise on paper. A bit of music is a change, and a change is as good as a rest! But also, melody is a very powerful mnemonic. A sentence without melody is much less memorable than the same sentence with melody. Just think how much text people can recall when they are hearing a song ‘in their head’. The melody somehow makes the sentence more significant - it's not just 'dead text', such as a sentence from a traditional grammar practice exercise.
Q: You have taught in Sudan, Turkey, Brazil and Spain. During your years of teaching have you at times experienced difficulties in finding suitable and appropriate songs for use in lessons: e.g. songs with lyrics which are clear and simple enough for young/elementary learners to understand, or songs which adequately illustrate a grammatical point you are aiming to teach? How does Singing Grammar help teachers who are facing these difficulties?
MH: Yes, of course, the writers of pop-songs are not usually concerned that their songs should be understood by non-native speakers of the language. And in many cases, they use language more for its musical quality than for its meaning as prose. So for example, in order to achieve a rhyme, a song-writer may change the word order so that it is ungrammatical, or change the pronunciation of a word so that it fits. So there are two problems:
1. Finding a song of an easy enough Level for my class
2. Finding a song which is a good model of normal language use.
Faced with these difficulties, I decided to write my own, and hence Singing Grammar.
Q: Does Singing Grammar cater for the needs of all age groups/language learning levels?
MH: Not quite. There isn't really anything for advanced learners. But then, there are plenty of pop-songs which would be accessible for advanced learners. Singing Grammar has three sections; Elementary, Pre-intermediate and Intermediate. These also more or less correspond to age-appeal. The songs at the start of the book would appeal to the younger learner, while those towards the end could quite easily be enjoyed by adults.
Q: Would you regard the activities in Singing Grammar as warm up/end of lesson activities, or can they form the basis of an entire lesson?
MH: It's fairly flexible. For each song, there are three worksheets: a ‘Songsheet’, which works with the actual song, a ‘Grammar Page’ with additional grammar practice, and a ‘Game Page’ with a more fun extension activity. If you used all three sheets, you would have a complete lesson. On the other hand, if you use just the ‘Songsheet’, it could be a short warmer or perhaps an introduction to the grammar point.
Introductory Page from Singing Grammar
Songsheet from Singing Grammar
Grammar Page from Singing Grammar
Game Page from Singing Grammar
Q: A final question about Singing Grammar: does the teacher need any musical skills to be able to use this book effectively?
MH: No, the book comes with cassettes. One cassette has the songs. The other cassette has second versions of the songs; slow versions and karaoke versions (just the music, without the words) for students to practice singing over. However, the cords of the songs are given at the back of the book for those teachers who play an instrument or who have students who play.
Q: Turning to Pronunciation Games: this is a book which takes an activity-based approach to pronunciation. Why would you argue that games provide an appropriate and effective method of teaching pronunciation?
MH: A game is a way in which learners get repeated exposure to a piece of language without it being too boring. Imagine, for example, you spent 20 minutes just saying the names of cards: ‘Five of hearts.', 'Queen of spades.','Three of clubs.’, etc. That would be extremely boring, wouldn't it? But people are quite happy to spend hours saying this kind of thing in the context of a card game. So games are great for language practice, which is often a repetitive business.
Q: You state in the introduction to the book that the challenge offered by these games contributes towards the development of learner independence. In what way do the games do this?
MH: In many classrooms, pronunciation is often only practised through oral repetition drills. Oral repetition is fine, but I think there is more to pronunciation. We all know that in grammar there are rules and patterns, and it often helps students to be made aware of these. There are also patterns in pronunciation, and I think awareness-raising is important here too. For example, if a student learns the pronunciation of the word ‘tape’, they've learnt the pronunciation of one word. On the other hand, if the student learns that the final 'e' in words like ‘tape’ makes the letter 'a' in the middle of the word sound like 'a' as we say it in the alphabet (compare ‘tape’ and ‘tap’), then they've learnt much more than one word. This student will then be able to predict how to pronounce the vowel in ‘cake’ for example. The student won't have to ask the teacher, so the s/he becomes just a little bit more independent.
An intermediate Level game from Pronunciation Games
An intermediate Level game from Pronunciation Games
(Click on the pages to get a closer view)
Q: Does Pronunciation Games, like Singing Grammar, cater for the needs of all age groups/language learning levels?
MH: Yes, there is something for all levels in the book. When I indicated the Level for the games in the book, I put a minimum level. That's because pronunciation is often neglected, and so students might easily get to Advanced Level and still have much to learn from a game that I've labelled as ‘Intermediate’ in this book. As for age, I've used these games with anything from 10-year-olds to adults. But I think the cognitive nature of most of this material would make it unsuitable for primary age kids.
Q: Are the games in the book predominantly familiar ones which have been adapted for language teaching purposes, or have you devised new games specifically for this book?
MH: Both. But usually, even the games devised specially for the book have something in common with games that already existed. Actually, I included a glossary of game types and associated vocabulary at the front of the book. I thought it might be useful, to provide the kind of vocabulary students would need in order to play they games in English.
Glossary of game types and associated vocabulary from Pronunciation Games
(Click on the page to get a closer view)
Q: On a practical note, what preparation is required by teachers prior to using these games in class?
MH: Most of the games need to be photocopied. In fact, each game is accompanied by a page of instructions which tells you exactly what to do before and in class. So you should read that before you go in, so you know what you need to take in with you. The answer key is on that page too, which is always reassuring!