Using pop songs in ESL

Using pop songs in ESL

Songs have long been a favourite resource among EFL teachers. Here are a few ideas to get the most out of music in the classroom.

Are your students sometimes bored in spite of your best efforts? Are you looking for some new and different techniques? Could you use a learning activity that would really wake them up? Would you like to get and keep the students’ interest? Even have them helping you? Then try this classroom-tested technique by using student-selected songs to teach listening comprehension.

Almost everyone loves music. It is a part of our language and life from before birth onwards. As babies, we hear lullabies. As young children we play, sing and dance to a myriad of nursery rhymes. As adolescents, we are consumed by the beat of popular music artists worldwide. As adults, every form of advertising we hear, every special event we experience, is in part, music.

Music pervades television, movies, theater, and even the nightly news. When we exercise, when we work, when we play, when we worship and even when we die, music is there to reinforce or alter every mood and emotion. A catchy tune is played, hummed or sung, at times in our head, as we go about our everyday lives. So, why not include music and songs in language learning as well?

Factors Contributing to Listening Comprehension of Songs

Use of new vocabulary, idioms and expressions – You’ll need to address the new material offered in each song. This includes grammar, vocabulary and usage.
Pronunciation and accent of the singer – Every native speaker doesn’t pronounce or sing with the same accent. Students may be exposed to an accent which is outside the realm of what they might normally hear in context.

Use of new grammar and structure – Song writers and singers are notoriously “loose” when it comes to use of grammar, structure, pronunciation, stress and other language factors applied to songs. The teacher must prepare for this.

Three Principal Song Selection Criteria

  1. Use songs that are popular with the students whenever possible. Unfortunately, students frequently select songs for classroom use which are objectionable in some way making the song unusable.
  2. Songs MUST have clear and understandable lyrics. Nothing is worse than a song almost nobody can understand. If you have trouble understanding the lyrics by listening, then another song needs to be selected.
  3. Songs should have an appropriate theme. There’s enough bad news, negativity and violence in the world already. Songs with any type of negative theme should be avoided. There are plenty of positive, upbeat, even humorous songs available. Use these.

Music pervades virtually every aspect of our lives. Students adore it. It contains numerous useful elements for language teaching and it’s fun for both the teacher and students. So, why not include music and songs in your language learning classes as well?

Written by Larry Lynch
Prof. Larry M. Lynch is an ELT Teacher Trainer, English language learning expert author and university professor in Cali, Colombia. He has published more than 350 articles and academic papers and presented at numerous EFL teacher training and TEFL conferences throughout North America, South America and Europe. For comments, questions, requests, to receive more information or to be added to his free TESOL articles and teaching materials mailing list, e-mail


  1. Christian

    Is there a database which teachers could use?

  2. Jane

    I don’t know of a database of songs or anything like that but I’ve compiled my own list during my time in teaching. I usually hear something that has a lot of Past Simple or 2nd conditional in it for example, download it and then use it in class. I will survive is always a good one! – lots of past and future…

    • Samantha

      Do you think you could share your list? I’ve been searching for songs to add to my compilation.

  3. Angus

    I use I’ve never been to me from the Priscilla Queen of the Desert soundtrack for Present Perfect practice. It’s about things the singer has and hasn’t done in her life, so virtually every other line is present perfect. The lyrics are very clear to understand too.

  4. Jo

    One song I use is If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next by Manic Street Preachers. It’s good for first conditional – there’s only one first conditional sentence repeated over and over, but if you use the rest of the lyrics as a comprehension exercise and get students to fit them into the context of this conditional sentence, it works well.

    Another one is Vincent by Don McLean – not for anything specific, there are a variety of tenses and the lyrics are clear, so it’s good for general listening comprehension.

  5. Richard

    Another one for conditionals is Stand By Me by John Lennon – there are some alternative conditional constructions in there like “If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall” and “I won’t be afraid, just as long as you stand, stand by me”.

  6. Liz

    Yellow by Coldplay works for irregular past tense verbs.

  7. Mark

    I once used The Beatles song Blackbird with a textbook lesson on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. It’s very allegorical and filled with quite simple yet beautiful imagery. When the students finally made the connection between the explicit meaning of the song about a blackbird and the implicit connection to a social movement they were more than pleasantly surprised.

  8. Noel

    With a little imagination you can use just about any song for any grammatical form, vocab – esp. idiomatic. Lyrics are obtained easily from the many web sites and your peers may surprise you with their collective collections. Even better, I get my students to select some songs and I use those.

  9. Nell

    I use songs in my class very often. It is usually at the end of my classes when students are quite tired or after revision for tests or practicing certain grammar points. I try to find songs I think they might like or even know some of the lyrics already. And of course the aim is also to practice certain grammar structures with them.

    I use:

    Celine Dion Because you loved me – great for past simple, both regular and irregular verbs.
    Beatles Yesterday, Smokie Mexican Girl, Rolling Stones Anybody seen my baby, Bryan Adams Have you ever loved a woman – all good for practising present perfect.
    Bon Jovi In these arms is good for the second conditional.
    ABBA The winner takes it all, Bon Jovi Always, Whitesnake Is this love – for mixed tenses – present simple/continuous, past simple, present perfect.
    Natalie Imbrulia Torn – good for past simple and present perfect.

    The Internet has all the lyrics so use it. It’s great fun. You will love it and your students will definitely love it.

  10. Sian

    I have found this really useful before – especially using songs that match the grammar/topic being discussed. A nice example: If I had a Million Dollars by the Bare Naked Ladies when teaching conditionals.

  11. Helena

    I usually use a song to know the students’ level at the beginning of a school year. I usually introduce a topic with a song. There are plenty of them. For example, to talk about physical appearance, Beautiful by Cristina Aguilera. For human rights, Where is the Love by The Black Eyed Peas, for drugs The drugs don’t work by The Verve, for environment Animal Song etc. Students love listening to them.

  12. Liz

    I am a fan of using songs in class, but I find that students are not as motivated by the song itself as by the fact that they prefer them to their course books. When I first started to learn English the internet did not exist and we were absolutely eager to know what songs were about. Today everybody can find the lyrics of their favourite songs on the web and even translations in every language. Students bring to class their own song lyrics and translations and share them with their classmates, which is good. But there’s little work left for the teacher to do, I think. What’s more, when you prepare activities around a specific song you know they like, they usually know all the language involved by heart, so there’s no real effort there, just some fun.

  13. Mary

    Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega for prepositions of place or present continuous. Hand in My Pocket for adjectives.

  14. Patricia

    Wonderful site!
    For present continuous, Sailing by Rod Stewart.
    For present perfect Have you ever seen the rain.
    When I’m sixty-four by the Beatles is a lot of fun and students love it !

  15. Shona

    “All the leaves are brown…” in the song California Dreaming, is good for beginners as it has a very basic vocabulary.”

  16. Gza

    I use the following songs:
    I still haven’t found what I’m looking for by U2 for the present perfect.
    Terrifying by the Rolling Stones for comparatives.
    Yellow Lemon tree for present continuous to contrast both of its usages.

  17. Onur

    Using songs for teaching is definitely useful, however, you don’t have to teach something while your students listen to a song. You can just let them relax and feel more comfortable. And also you can make them listen to a classical instrumental music while they are reading a passage. This will definitely make them stress-free. Chopin’s Romantic Piano is just an example!

  18. Vickie

    I teach absolute beginners and Sing a song by the Carpenters was great for teaching opposites.”

  19. Kamila

    For the second conditional I recommend All I want is You from Juno Soundtrack. The pace is fast but it’s packed with the conditionals, and its a great song :)

  20. Anonymous

    Has anyone seen this site?
    This is an Australian music producer who writes pop songs that also have lyrics that contain a lot of grammar in them. I think it’s fairly new…

  21. Rich Zellers

    I created a video of songs using the present perfect tense (only parts of 12 songs). It’s at this link on Youtube: – feel free to use it. Also, if you want a printable word doc. copy of the parts of the lyrics that I used, email me at If you do visit the site, please rate. Thanks, Rich

  22. Cibele

    These tips were a great help for me. My students love learning through songs. If you need some songs, you could use How do I live by Leann Rimes to teach conditionals, Every breath you take by the Police and Sting to teach simple present, Can’t fight the moonlight by Leann Rimes to teach the use of “can” and “be going to”, I will always love you by Whitney Houston to teach the use of “will”, Can’t take my eyes of you (not sure of the singer) to teach adverbs.

  23. Marine

    Try for lesson plans based on popular songs and their lyrics. You’ll find a selection of free worksheets.

  24. Alex

    I had the same ideas when I was studying French. They have so many nice songs. So to make it easier for me and organize all the songs and lyrics in one place and also add some fun exercises I developed an application called “Sing and Study” – Not limited to English but to any language you want, no ads and it’s very easy to enter your own material.

  25. J. Schill

    I use Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful to teach adverbs and adjectives. It also helps to explain that sometimes prepositions can serve as adverbs! I have used Carrie Underwood’s Jesus Take the Wheel to teach subjects and predicates as well.

  26. Megan

    I just did this! It was a unit on present perfect and mixed tenses review. I used “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (U2), “See You Again” (Wiz Khalifa), “Hello” (Adele), “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” (Coldplay), “Where Have You Been?” (Rihanna). I had students listen, then analyze excerpts from the lyrics and identify the verb tenses.

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