Canciones in the Spanish Classroom
By Jon Aske, Department of Foreign Languages
I have always been fond of bringing songs to my Spanish language classrooms. The main reason was personal. I started learning English as a teenager in the 70’s, primarily through exposure to English language songs and I think that the experience was not only enjoyable but very helpful in the long run as far as helping me learn the language. Intuitively I felt that there was value in listening to foreign language songs for learning the language.
I used to present songs to my classes more as a curiosity, without fully exploiting the potential, more as a way to engage my students with enjoyable cultural artifacts which might motivate them to learn the language. Unfortunately language classes at the college level are extremely structured and there is little time to explore things that are not in the program.
Recently, however, I wanted to learn more about others’ experiences with the use of songs in the classroom and did some research on the topic. A short while ago I got the opportunity to share what I had learned, along with my personal experiences, at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association. Briefly I would like to summarize here my main findings. For more information, visit the website I made for this purpose and/or join the mailing list I created to allow Massachusetts teachers to share experiences about the use of songs in the Spanish classroom.
A. Reasons for using songs in the language classroom
- Songs are fun: Young people like them and, as we know, things that we enjoy doing help us learn and create emotional connection and thus are great motivators since they keep us coming for more.
- Songs are excellent texts: Although textbooks and teachers may prefer more literary texts, students can relate to the simplicity of songs with their universal themes that appeal to the young person’s mind and heart
- Repetition and learning: Songs are not listened to once, they are heard over and over, and this reinforces the learning of vocabulary, expressions, grammatical structures, and so on.
- Music and the brain: Several aspects are at play here. First it seems that the connection between music and lyrics facilitates the learning since both sides of the brain are involved. Also, music relaxes, reduces anxiety, and helps open the affective filter. Lastly, for students with a strong “musical intelligence” songs are especially useful.
- Culture: Songs connect the listener to the culture by means of an emotional, affective link; this has more potential to connect the student to the real culture than simply learning isolated facts about it.
- Playfulness: Songs give the language classroom a positive, playful environment which stimulates the imagination and creativity.
- Language skills and modes of communication: Through the use of songs students can practice all linguistic skills: listening (obviously), reading, speaking, writing and culture; and also all modes of communication: interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational.
B. Recommendations based on the experience of diverse authors
- Integrate the songs into the curriculum and the current topics: Songs should be used from day one, on a regular basis, and should be part of the routine (song of the week, song of the month, etc.). Songs should also be appropriate to the material being learned at a particular time (verb tenses, vocabulary, etc.)
- Choose the songs carefully: Look into different genres but, most importantly, make sure the songs will appeal to the students (not necessarily the teacher). Involving students in the song selection is a good idea. With the availability of millions of songs on YouTube, nowadays this couldn’t be easier; also make sure the enunciation and use of language is appropriate for the level of the students.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel: Instructors should share experiences and materials with other teachers in the same school or elsewhere.
- Use the Internet: Unlike in days of old when one had to have a good music player and obtain records, tapes, or CD’s, nowadays the Internet is an excellent source of free music, with the added benefit of video.
- Background information: It is important to provide background information about the song and the artist. Alternatively, students can do their own research if they want to learn more.
- Song presentation: Present the song just like any other text, with pre-listening activities, listening activities, and post-listening activities.
C. Activities to do with a song (and for assessment)
- Sing the song: in group and/or individually; dramatize the song too.
- Comprehension questions: Short comprehension questions, written or oral, after listening help with understanding. Start with simple yes-no questions. Allow students to come up with their own questions.
- Conversation questions: Use broader, open-ended questions to stimulate conversation in the classroom. Use polemical topics, present dilemmas or problems to resolve.
- Group conversation: In lower levels the instructor can come up with questions to stimulate conversation. In upper levels, students can come up with their own.
- Vocabulary expansion activities: Use the vocabulary in the song to expand vocabulary by asking about synonyms, antonyms, derived words, words with the same morphological patterns, etc.
- Language analysis: In more advanced classes the song’s language can be examined further by looking at the figurative language and idiomatic expressions.
- Cloze tests: These can be useful to practice the vocabulary as well, sometimes focusing on some specific aspect of the vocabulary, such as prepositions, conjunctions, or a specific tense.
- Word games: Cross-word puzzles, scrambled letters, tic-tac-toe, etc.
- Writing: Have students write a summary of the song, new paragraphs for the song, a different ending for the song, liner notes for the song, a review or critique of the song, etc. You can also ask for compositions about broad questions or around problems or dilemmas to be resolved, as in the case of conversation topics, or simply about any aspect of the author or the song.
- Culture: Songs can bring empathy with the culture in a way in which knowledge of cultural facts cannot.
- Role playing: Students can represent a dialogue based on aspects of the song.
- Oral presentations: In more advanced levels, students can do presentations about the song, the artist, or some aspect thereof.
- Other oral and written activities: students can performs surveys based on some aspect of a song, write a letter to a person in the song, write a diary as if they were a person in the song, or solve some issue that appears in the song.
- Anton, Ronald J. 1990. “Combining Singing and Psychology.” Hispania, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Dec., 1990), pp. 1166-1170. Online source URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/344326
- Eddy, Jennifer. 2007. “Song Lyrics as Culturally Authentic Material for Standards-Based Performance.” Hispania, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 142-146. Online source URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20063475
- Gómez Acuña, Beatriz. 2002. “Idea: Cómo sacar el mayor partido a una canción en la clase de español.” Hispania, Vol. 85, No. 4 (Dec., 2002), pp. 918-920. Online source URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4141260
- Nuessel, Frank and Caterina Cicogna. 1991. “The Integration of Songs and Music into the Italian Curriculum.” Italica, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Winter, 1991), pp. 473-486. Online source URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/479340
- Nuessel, Frank and April D. Marshall. 2008. “Practices and Principles for Engaging the Three Communicative Modes in Spanish through Songs and Music.” Hispania, Vol. 91, No. 1, Spanish Language Teaching and Learning: Policy, Practice and Performance (Mar., 2008), pp. 139-146. Online source URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20063629
- Seelye, H. N. 1984. Teaching Culture: Strategies for Intercultural Communication. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company.
- Willis, Bruce Dean and Keith Mason. 1994. “Canciones en la clase: The Why and How of Integrating Songs in Spanish by English-Speaking and Bilingual Artists.” Hispania, Vol. 77, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), pp. 102-109. Online source URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/344461
- Claudia Smith Salcedo. 2002. The Effects of Songs in the Foreign Language Classroom on Text Recall and Involuntary Mental Rehearsal. Ph.D. Dissertation, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College.