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05. Glossing songs for the foreign language classroom

Using songs in the foreign language classroom isn’t new; it is a fun activity that creates a good atmosphere and helps students learn. Having used songs in my own foreign language learning, I am a strong believer in the power of music when it comes to assimilating vocabulary and grammatical structures. This is why I like to incorporate songs in my French language courses, but I do so with clear objectives in mind and with thorough materials preparation.

Through discussion of songs, students engage in conversation, express feelings and exchange opinions effortlessly. They practice oral comprehension and pronunciation skills, they learn to interpret spoken and written language, and, when the song is well selected and properly glossed, they identify and explore cultural elements of the targeted foreign language in an entertaining manner. Because of the engaging nature of music, a well-chosen song stimulates students to listen to the language outside of class and to learn in a personal and enjoyable way.

Here are some steps I follow when glossing a song for the intermediate foreign language classroom:

1.     Select a song. I find a song that discusses (or strongly alludes to) the appropriate cultural topic of study, and I ensure that the song uses the vocabulary and grammar that I am teaching. This is the hardest part of the process, but not impossible, thanks to the wealth of resources available online (YouTube videos, music stations like Pandora, etc.)

2.     Annotate the song to facilitate comprehension. I add vocabulary explanations (especially for idiomatic expressions) as footnotes. These usually include simple definitions of the words in the target language rather than a direct translation of the word or expression. I also point out and explain any unusual spelling that indicates a particular type of pronunciation.

3.     Develop comprehension questions. I then write a set of questions that will facilitate students' comprehension of the song and will spur meaningful conversation. I ask students to talk about the overall story narrated in the song (What happens in this song? Recount the story without directly quoting the song.). I also identify passages that are important and ask students to discuss and explain them in pairs or groups, ensuring that the activities require students to use the grammatical structures and vocabulary targeted. For example, if they are studying relative pronouns, I ask them to talk about aspects of the song using relative clauses. I provide examples of the structures to be used and brainstorm with the class on key points of the song that they could develop and discuss.

4.     Develop speaking and writing prompts that target interpretive abilities. Moving from the concrete to the abstract, I ask students to comment on the message of the song and to relate it to the larger topic they are studying in class (this is why the song must be carefully selected to match a particular subject.) I usually do a quick pre-speaking activity with the class, and we decide together what vocabulary to use in the discussion and which grammatical structures are appropriate. For instance, when using a song for past tenses in French, it is useful to have students recall in which circumstances each tense is used and why.

5.     Use technology meaningfully. Most songs are available online, and some video clips add a whole new layer of meaning. It is a good idea to have students listen to the song and discuss it first without seeing the clip. Then I have them watch the clip and re-evaluate their initial understanding of the song based on the information added by the video. This exercise expands students’ awareness of the material’s cultural context and encourages cultural comparisons. It also stimulates them to make comparisons between oral and visual modes of expression while encouraging more in-depth discussion.

6.     Extend beyond the classroom. I usually save some of the questions and assign them as homework. This requires students to listen to the song again, which enhances their oral comprehension and helps them build vocabulary. We then use the prepared homework as a warm-up activity at the beginning of the subsequent class. Often, when the activities relating to a song were split over two sessions, students asked to listen to the song again. When the song is particularly engaging, they cheerfully sing along with it!

7.     Work on presentational abilities. Songs can also be used for practice of presentational language and further exploration of the topic. This is why I assign mini presentations on the artist's biography or on other appropriate topics relating to the song. I ask students to include a couple of questions for their classmates at the end of their presentations in order to launch into discussion.

These activities have worked really well in my French language classes. Students engage with the music, they love learning new vocabulary and structures through song, and they tend to continue exploring the works of the artists they discovered in class. When they recall vocabulary they learned from a song, their excitement is very obvious!

I hope these steps will be useful to others and I look forward to reading your thoughts and experiences using songs in the classroom. 

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