Songs in the EFL Classroom

Elvis Presley’s "In the Ghetto" and its potential to enhance skills and competences

Term Paper, 2014

27 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Part
2.1. Definition and Types of Songs
2.2. Advantages of Songs for the EFL Classroom
2.3. Problematic Aspects of Songs for the EFL Classroom

3. Practical Part
3.1. Analysis and Evaluation of the potential of a song for the EFL classroom: “In the Ghetto”—Elvis Presley
3.2. Presentation and Analysis of a Lesson Plan: Elvis Presley “In the Ghetto”—The Vicious Circle of Poverty

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

6. Appendix

1. Introduction

Songs are part of the daily life of most people—including teachers and especially pupils— which helps to connect school life with the student's free time. Even though songs are an effective and useful teaching tool in itself, English benefits even more from songs due to the fact that English is the dominant language of the music industry. However, songs are still not used very often in the EFL classroom and many of the main textbooks used in Germany only include parts of songs or offer songs as extra activities (e.g. Green Line 5+6). One of the main reasons for this might be the difficulty of choosing an appropriate song for the classroom since songs sometimes include problematic elements. Consequently, the main purpose of this term paper will be to discuss the positive and problematic aspects of songs for the EFL classroom, as well as to analyze the value of Elvis Presley's “In the Ghetto” for the classroom, including the presentation of a lesson plan.

The first part will focus on theoretical aspects, including a definition and classification of songs, as well as their advantages and problems for the English classroom. The second part will turn to the practical example of the song “In the Ghetto” by Elvis Presley. In a first step the song itself will be evaluated, considering its chances for the classroom, as well as investigating its problematic elements. In a next step a lesson plan with a focus on expanding knowledge and enhancing skills and competences will be presented and analyzed.

2. Theoretical Part

2.1. Definition and Types of Songs

According to the OED, a song is “a short piece of music with words that you sing (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary 2005:1459). Hence, songs are generally characterized by “dual coding” (Summer 2011: 350), referring to their combination of musical and textual elements (cf. Summer 2011:350). In particular, the first includes the rhythm and melody of a song, while the latter contains the lyrics. Importantly, songs are sometimes considered as a form of poetry because their textual elements tend to be “in rhyme” and often have “a regular verse-form” (OED Online). In this combination songs can be described as “communicative in nature” (Summer 2011:350) in the sense that they mostly serve the purpose of evoking feelings and/or conveying a message (cf. Summer 2011:350).

Besides this, songs can be divided into different categories. For teaching purposes it makes sense to differentiate between three types of songs: pedagogical songs, traditional songs, and popular songs (cf. Summer 2011:350). To begin with, a major criterion to differentiate between those categories is authenticity, meaning if the song is produced for the classroom or if it is a real-life example. In fact, the former is the case for pedagogic songs which are produced for textbooks and learners only (cf. Summer 2011:350). Although non-authentic songs tend to lack originality and, as a result, contain the risk of being considered as boring by pupils (cf. Mol 2009), they have the advantage to focus on a specific teaching point in a simplified and age-related language, as well as they do not include any inappropriate language or wrong grammar (cf. Summer 2011:351). In contrast, traditional songs, including children's songs, are generally authentic songs which are taken from the target culture (cf. Summer 2011:351). Hence, they contain many cultural elements and therefore are a useful tool to teach cultural literacy (cf. Summer 2001:351). However, as they are produced for mass media, they do not focus on specific teaching aspects, as well as their language might not always be appropriate for the classroom (cf. Summer 2011:351). Besides, as popular songs are authentic songs as well, the above mentioned aspects are true for them too (cf. Thaler 2012:65). Furthermore, popular songs often focus on emotional aspects and they are heavily connected to the life of students outside of the classroom (cf. Mol 2009).

2.2. Advantages of Songs for the EFL Classroom

Music is an important part of the daily lives of most people—teachers and especially pupils included—which makes it an indispensable teaching tool inside the classroom. In other words, one of the main reasons for integrating songs into the English classroom is their connection to the learners' everyday lives which opens up a unique chance to raise the students' motivation by dealing with types of texts and topics which are extremely relevant to them (cf. Kuzma 2008). Besides this, and considering the dominance of English in the music industry, songs are the “most frequent and meaningful exposure to English” (Domoney and Harris 1993:235) for pupils outside of the classroom which increases the above mentioned advantages even further (cf. Thaler 2010:107). As a result, learners feel a desire to understand the lyrics of a song which often increases their willingness to learn, as well as it encourages active participation in the classroom (cf. Kuzma 2008). Furthermore, since students listen to songs in their free time, they “relate to music as part of entertainment rather than work” (Coe 1972:357) and therefore they often enjoy learning with music. For this reason, songs contribute to a positive, stimulating and non-threatening classroom atmosphere in which everyone feels comfortable to speak up (cf. §evik 2012:11). Moreover, pupils in a study indicated that songs create a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere by bringing variety into the “usual tedium of the classroom”, as well as by “liven[ing] up the pace of the lesson” (Jolly 1975:13).

Beyond that, songs are easy to integrate into the classroom because they offer a great range of possible teaching goals and can be combined with many pre-/while- and post­listening activities. In terms of teaching goals, songs are useful material for three different main categories: language, content and/or skills and competences (cf. §evik 2011:1029). In relation to language goals, mainly pedagogic songs can enhance grammatical skills, as well as improve the students' pronunciation. Above all, songs are particularly efficient in vocabulary learning due to the basic structure of songs which includes repetitions of some vocabulary items (cf. §evik 2011:1029). With regard to content, it is possible to find a song for almost every topic, as well as different songs, like any texts, offer various aspects of and opinions on the same topic. Especially important in relation to content, are the cultural elements presented in songs (cf. Jolly 1975:14) which help to increase the pupils' knowledge about the target culture and hence enhances cultural awareness (cf. §evik 2011:1029). In addition, a wide range of skills can be trained, including all four basic skills with a special regard to listening skills (cf. §evik 2011:1029). Moreover, songs especially enhance communicative competences by providing meaningful and stimulating input for discussions, and by triggering emotions which encourage talking about attitudes and feelings (cf. Schoepp 2001). Nevertheless, not only communicative competences can be enhanced with songs, but also a great range of other competences, e.g. personal, social and methodological competences, depending on the chosen activities. In fact, as every song is different and offers different focus areas and possibilities of teaching goals, the methods for pre-/while- and post-listening activities are countless (cf. Thaler 2012:67-68); a selection will be presented in the following lesson plan. As a result, songs enrich the lesson with variety and offer exercises suitable for every learner type (cf. Schoepp 2001).

Another positive aspect of songs is their potential to facilitate learning processes in general through their very nature and structure (cf. §evik 2012:10). In particular, language acquisition is supported by the rhythmical pattern of songs which accelerates memorization, as well as by “the large amount of repetition which is not tedious and which results in automatic use of the target language” (§evik 2011:1030). Additionally, since music is generally aimed at a large audience with different cultural and social backgrounds, songs “often contain common, short words”, “the lyrics are often sung at a slower rate than spoken words” and they are written “at about 5th grade level” (Murphy in Mol 2009) to facilitate understanding for non-native speakers of English.

2.3. Problematic Aspects of Songs for the EFL Classroom

First of all and most importantly, it has to be mentioned that there is no general reason against using songs in the English classroom. However, there are reasons against using specific songs in the classroom because not every song is appropriate and sometimes it can be difficult to find a useful and suitable song for the purpose of the lesson.

Most problems that occur when using authentic songs in the classroom are non­standard grammar including contractions, as well as slang expressions and offensive language (cf. Kuzma 2008). Importantly, teachers have to analyze the language of a song carefully and, if containing some of the above mentioned aspects, decide whether the song is still appropriate (cf. Thaler 2012:66). In general, it can be said that while some contractions or minor grammar mistakes do not exclude a song from the classroom but only need further explanations by the teachers, a song full of contractions and mistakes does. In terms of slang or offensive language, teachers might want to exclude the song from the classroom or eliminate the respective parts depending on the age of the group, the severity and the amount of words used.

In general, as with any text, teachers should choose a song whose language and content is appropriate for the age and level of English of the pupils. While songs offer the possibility to get access to different English accents and enrich the classroom due to this, it might not always be wise to select a song by a non-English singer or a singer with a difficult accent (cf. Kuzma 2008). Furthermore, sometimes singers stress and pronounce words differently to make them fit into the basic rhythm or rhyme of the text which can cause confusion among learners (cf. Coe 1972:358). Considering the topic, it has to be mentioned that the appropriateness depends largely on the age and other class-intern factors. However, teachers should avoid songs that include violence, sexual innuendos or political incorrectness (cf. Thaler 2012:67). Importantly, the song should fit the requirements of the curriculum, as well as it should form a link to the textbook and to previous or following topics (cf. Thaler 2012:67). In general, “there should be a clear reason in the language teacher's mind as to why and how to use a song” (§evik 2012:12) and it should be avoided to integrate songs without any relation to teaching goals.

Not every song includes all of the positive effects mentioned in the previous part and teachers sometimes have to decide what is more important to them. In general, it is above all the student motivation and interest which varies between songs (cf. Thaler 2012:66). Especially non-authentic songs tend to be considered as boring by learners and will not help improving their motivation. Furthermore, not every song is connected to the everyday life of the students but some are considered as old and are consequently, unknown and/or do not fit the musical taste of pupils which also might decrease the relevance and interest (cf. Thaler 2012:66-67). Teachers might have to steer the middle course and alternate between songs that are highly relevant for learners and those that are not but contain other advantages (cf. Thaler 2012:66).

3. Practical Part

3. 1. Analysis and Evaluation of the potential of a song for the EFL Classroom: “In the Ghetto”—Elvis Presley

There are millions of songs—but not all of them are appropriate and/or useful for the EFL classroom. Significantly, the previous part has already provided us with a theoretical background on the selection of songs by presenting advantages and problems. In particular, these aspects will be applied in this part by analyzing the value of an example song for the EFL classroom. For this purpose a popular song was selected since their outcomes tend to be higher due to the real-life connection, while they also more often contain problematic elements as they are not written for the classroom. In particular, the song “In the Ghetto” by the American Rock ‘n' Roll artist Elvis Presley from the year 1969 was chosen because the song clearly offers many possibilities for the classroom, whereas it also contains some debatable aspects.

One of the main reasons for using this song in the EFL classroom is its topic and the universality of the message. To be more precise, the song deals with the problem of poverty and, as the title suggests, life in the ghettos (cf. Appendix I). It is of interest for students since it depicts one of the major social problems of our current time. Although the song deals with poverty in a ghetto in Chicago in the 1960s and before, the topic itself is still up-to-date today in every country. Therefore, students should be familiar with it through television, newspapers, other subjects and from everyday life—even though they might not be affected themselves. As a consequence, it is important to increase the pupils' knowledge about poverty, but even more so to make them aware of their own responsibility and their possibility to help.

Interestingly, the song presents the problem by telling the story of an unnamed male protagonist, starting with his birth and following his though life in the ghettos, presenting him as driven by the circumstances which make him a criminal and finally, lead to his death (cf. Appendix I). Importantly, the story of the young boy is depicted as a vicious circle out of which he cannot escape by himself (cf. Appendix I). Besides this, while the story of this one young man ends with his early death, it is followed by the birth of another child in the ghetto (cf. Appendix I, l.32), indicating that the story repeats itself over and over again. Hence, Elvis suggests that children born in a ghetto cannot make their way to a better life by themselves, but they will always be trapped in the ghetto and the vicious circle of poverty and criminality. Furthermore, the only way out mentioned by the singer is the help of other people—the people the song addresses (cf. Appendix I). In particular, the second stanza of the song is very special because it directly addresses the audience (cf. Appendix I, ll. 9-14). Most importantly, Elvis Presley makes them feel guilty by asking the question: “...are we too blind to see, or do we simply turn our heads and look the other way?” (Appendix I, ll. 13-14), and by this, implicitly stating that the society does not care enough about these children. Additionally, he also asks them to give the child a “helping hand” (Appendix I, l.10) which makes them feel responsible. On the whole, this presentation of the story as vicious circle and the direct address of the audience, can be considered as an one-sided presentation of the problem of poverty in which the children themselves are not responsible for their situation and cannot change it. Therefore, the song provides a great starting point for a discussion about poverty and about the roles of the poor children themselves and the roles of other people.

Besides that, the structure of the song does not follow the typical structure of songs. To be more precise, compared to conventional songs it does not have a recurring chorus, as well as it only includes repetitions of one line (“In the Ghetto”) more frequently (cf. Appendix I). So, while pupils normally have the chance to understand the words of the chorus by the second repetition, this advantage is not given here. Nevertheless, the song is not considered as very complicated and/or difficult to understand (cf. Presley 1969). In particular, it contains common, short words which belong to the basic vocabulary and concerning the level should be understood at the end of grade 6 or possibly 7, with some exceptions like “roam” (Appendix I, l.20) or “desperation” (Appendix I, l.23). Moreover, since the song is a ballad the pace of the song is slow and words are sung at a lower rate than spoken words which should facilitate understanding (Presley 1969). Additionally, Elvis Presley's pronunciation and his accent should be easily understood by most students (Presley 1969). Beyond this, the singer did not choose this specific structure arbitrarily but, as already indicated in the previous paragraph, the storyline represents a vicious circle and therefore offers the possibility to analyze exactly this structure.

However, considering the grammatical structures of the song, it can be said that teachers have to be aware that it contains some grammatical mistakes: At two instances the song does not include the third person ‘s' in the Simple Present, e.g. “...'cause if there's one thing that she don't need.” (Appendix I, l.6, emphasis mine). Although, these grammatical mistakes need to be considered, it is no reason to exclude the song from the classroom but teachers just have to make learners aware of these mistakes and the correct forms to avoid copying (cf. Thaler 2012:66).

Due to the time of publication (1969) it is most likely that pupils will not be familiar with the song. Hence, the above mentioned connection to real life is lost. Furthermore, the song might not correspond to the spirit of contemporary times or the taste of music of the teenagers since music has changed over time. However, since Elvis Presley is one of the most famous artists ever, it is assumed that at least some of them will be familiar with him. Additionally, even if the students know neither the song nor Elvis, it is no reason to exclude it from the classroom because it is important to familiarize them with famous songs and singers of recent years to extend their knowledge and arouse their interest in these times. However, it might take some time to motivate learners' for these songs.

In summary, it can be said that „In the Ghetto“ by Elvis Presley is a rewarding, interesting and useful song for the EFL classroom. Although it does contain some problematic aspects, like its grammatical mistakes or its time of publication, its topic and the presentation of the topic as a vicious circle makes it a valuable song for the EFL classroom.

3.2. Presentation and Analysis of a Lesson Plan: Elvis Presley “In the Ghetto”—The Vicious Circle of Poverty

The following part will now present a lesson plan for a double lesson in grade 10. The overall aim of this lesson is to enable pupils to participate in society by increasing their knowledge about the topic of poverty (cf. Appendix IV). Additionally, an enhancement of skills and competences is aimed at which is supported by a regular change of interaction patterns and student-centered methods.

First of all, it has to be mentioned that the song has the potential to focus on all of the mentioned teaching areas, hence language, content and competences (cf. Appendix I). In this particular case, the present lesson plan aims foremost at an expansion of knowledge on a thematic level, as well as on an enhancement of skills and competences (cf. Appendix II-IV). This decision was based on the assumption that the language points included in the lyrics are relevant for 6th or 7th grade (cf. Appendix I), whereas a deepened understanding, and productive analysis and discussion of the topic would be more relevant and appropriate from grade 10 onwards since learners, for instance, need the ability to challenge the point of view of the song and to conduct a discussion.

Considering the curriculum, the lesson can be assigned to the thematic field of “Social and Cultural Studies” (Ministerium für Bildung, Wissenschaft und Weiterbildung 2000:95). This thematic area focuses on the expansion of pupils' knowledge about other cultures, their history, geography and politics, as well as their social problems (cf. Ministerium für Bildung, Wissenschaft und Weiterbildung 2000:95). Considering the topic of this song and the lesson more precisely, it deals with social problems (poverty) in a different culture (USA) in a different time (1960s and before) (cf. Appendix I-IV). However, the curriculum also indicates that learners should be able to form a link between the other culture and their own cultural background which is also expected of the students in this lesson (cf. Appendix II-IV).


Excerpt out of 27 pages


Songs in the EFL Classroom
Elvis Presley’s "In the Ghetto" and its potential to enhance skills and competences
University of Trier
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ISBN (eBook)
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Songs, lesson plan, teaching, EFL classroom, Elvis Presley
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Stephanie Desoye (Author), 2014, Songs in the EFL Classroom, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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