Using Songs in Learner-Designed Materials

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Brian Cullen, Aichi Prefectural University


  • Key Words: Song, Discussion, Learner-developed
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate and higher
  • Learner Maturity Level: Sr. High to Adult
  • Preparation Time: Varies
  • Activity Time: 20 minutes or more

Most of the papers in this special issue focus on teacher-developed materials. Another lesser known but equally successful approach is to involve the learner in materials development. Involving students in materials development allows them to gain a greater understanding of their learning processes and the pedagogical premises underlying teaching materials. In my classes, an ideal starting point is songs. More CDs are sold in Japan than in any other country in the world and Japan is the largest importer of foreign music. This is a clear indication that our students find music, i.e., English songs, both accessible and enjoyable. But how do we develop learners from consumers of music to developers of song-based materials? Several resource books have shown ways for the teacher to produce materials (e.g., Murphey 1992, Griffee 1992), yet these may appear overcomplicated to students. The best way to encourage learner-designed materials is by example.


The Procedure

In a yearlong course for one of my university conversation classes, I produce the materials for the first semester, and the students produce them for the second (see examples below). Students are free to use their own format, but for a conversation class, using a gap-fill listening task is suggested as a minimum core. A gap-fill activity is a simple activity for students to prepare. Words are deleted at a regular word rate or for the purpose of focusing on a particular language point such as grammar, topic-specific vocabulary, or pronunciation. Because famous songs are used in this task, another interesting way of song presentation is to introduce deliberate mistakes into the lyrics. This manipulation of comprehensible input forces students to negotiate the meaning from context when doing the task and it also forces them to be creative when developing the task. (An example of one student's parody of a well-known song is given below.) As with most listening activities, students learn more if they are asked to correct the mistakes before listening.

If possible, other activities should also be included in the learner materials. These can include vocabulary exercises, comprehension exercises, discussion tasks, and links with other materials, such as a reading. Songs are an excellent launching pad for discussion classes as their meaning is often ambiguous. By including a few simple discussion questions on the topic of the song, learners are amazed at the different interpretations, and the personal nature of music encourages even the most reticent student to express opinions freely. An expanded electronic version of the example below, which includes some of these tasks, is available at

As a musician and songwriter, I sometimes bring to class materials based on my own songs, and, each year, at least one or two musically inclined students reciprocate by bringing in songs that their bands have written. While teachers occasionally may have to listen to some dreadful music, students are always interested in classmates' compositions. Even for those students who wouldn't usually play music, a short session of song writing can be fun and a great chance to use language communicatively, especially if students are paired in "Lennon/McCartney-like" collaborations. Students can compose their own melodies or change the words of standards. These songs can then be incorporated into learner materials for use with the whole class or in groups.

Using the materials

In many classes, the students, having developed the materials, are willing and able to take on the role of teacher and organize and lead the class in the task. Before introducing the gap-fill activity, students might give a short presentation about why they chose the song. In some classes, however, class size or the level of the students might make it necessary to choose the best of the student materials for presentations or to split the class into small groups to ensure that everyone's materials are used. This requires one tape recorder per group (and lots of noise), or students can provide a tape to group members to listen to before class.


Learner-designed materials are an exciting area of language teaching, and songs in particular offer a strong motivation for students to enter willingly into material design. Moreover, most students will listen to a large number of English songs before deciding on their final song, thereby introducing them to a rich, authentic source of English which will continue to bring benefits of autonomous learning long after the course has finished. Finally, when students develop their own tasks, they are better able to understand what they should grasp from professionally developed materials, along with the pedagogical premises underpinning them.


Griffee, D. (1992). Songs in Action.. Prentice Hall.

Murphey, T. (1992). Music and Song. Oxford: OUP.

Teacher-developed Example (mistakes highlighted)


Find the 13 mistakes in the song. Underline them and then listen to check.

Maggie May

Rod Stewart

Wake up Maggie, I think I got something to say to you
It's late September and I really should be vacuuming
I know I keep you amused, but I feel like Benny Hughes
Oh Maggie, I couldn't have tried anymore
You led me away from home
Jasco savings you from being alone
You stole my harp and that's what really hurts
The morning sun when it's in your face really shows a page
But that don't worry me not, in my eyes you're everything
I laughed at Oliver Hokes, my love you didn't need to coax
Oh Maggie I couldn't have tried anymore
You led me away from home
Just to save you from being alone
You stole my soul and dirty paint I could do without

All I needed was a friend to lend a gaijin
But you turned into a lover and mother what a lover - you wore me out
All you did was wreck my bed and in the morning kicked me in the head
Oh Maggie, I couldn't have fried any corn
You led me away from home
'Coz you didn't want to be alone
You stole my heart -- couldn't leave you if I tried

I suppose I could Collette and Brookes and get on back to school
Or steal Daddy's cue-make a living out of playing pool
Or find myself a rotten old man that needs a helping hand
Oh Maggie, I wish I'd never seemed so late
You made a first class fool out of me
But I was blind as a fool can be
You stole my heart but I lob the ball away.


Student-developed example

My Way

Paul Anka

And now the end is rear
And so I face the final cartoon
My friends I'll say it clear
Of which I'm certain
I've lived a life that's fool
I troubled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I planned each chat of course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my away