Hitting the Right Note:
Extending the Theme of Your Song / Activity #7

2013_Heyer_Sandra Sandra Heyer

One way to extend the lessons in True Stories Behind the Songs and More True Stories Behind the Songs is to follow up each unit with a supplemental song that connects to the theme of the unit, plus an activity to go with the supplemental song. Each month I’ve shared a song-based activity that has worked well with my beginning and high-beginning students. In the past six newsletters, we’ve explored these activities:

  1. The Targeted Cloze
  2. Summarizing the Song’s Story (and making the summary “disappear”)
  3. Personalizing the Song’s Theme with Draw-Write-Share
  4. Building a Lesson Around a Repeated Phrase
  5. Writing New Song Lyrics
  6. Singing or Speaking the Chorus

This month, let’s take a look at an efficient way of matching a song with an activity. You could begin by choosing an activity, and then look for a song that works with it. For example, if you chose Activity #2, Summarizing, you would look for a song that tells a story. But it’s usually easier to pick a song first, and then match it with an activity. To quickly find a match, convert your list of favorite activities into a checklist, run the song you’ve chosen through the checklist, and–voilà–the activities that are a good fit will naturally emerge. Here is a checklist based on the activities above.

Does the song have…

  • related words (irregular past tense forms, for example) that can be deleted for a targeted cloze exercise?
  • a story that students can summarize?
  • a theme that students can personalize with a Draw-Write-Share activity?
  • a repeated phrase that invites a mini-lesson?
  • simple lyrics that students can replace with their own words?
  • a chorus that students can sing, or a chorus that students can speak because it has a strong downbeat?

As an example, let’s see which activities are good matches for the song “I Wish I Knew What It Feels to Be Free.”

The first story in Unit 7 of More True Stories Behind the Songs is about escaped slaves who used the Big Dipper to guide them to the North, and the second story is about two East German families who escaped to the West in a homemade hot-air balloon. So Nina Simone’s recording of “I Wish I Knew What It Feels to Be Free” is a good choice for a supplemental song. When the lyrics are run through the checklist, several of the song’s features pop out: related words, a repeated phrase, and a theme.

 Example 1: Cloze exercise targeting rhyming words
I wish I knew how
It would feel to be _____.                                  a. clear
I wish I could break                                            b. me
All the chains holding _____.                             c. free
I wish I could say                                               d. hear
All the things that I should say–
Say ’em loud, say ’em _____
For the whole round world to _____.

The song has many words that are related because they rhyme–for example, clear/hear; heart/apart; me/agree/free. Those words could be the focus of a targeted cloze exercise. (The verbs in the song are also related in that they express wishes, conditions, or implied conditions. That common feature could be exploited in a targeted cloze exercise for advanced learners; however, the exercise would probably not benefit beginners or high beginners, who are our focus here.)

Example 2: Building a lesson around the repeated phrase I wish I could

I wish I could give
All I’m longin’ to give.
I wish I could live
Like I’m longin’ to live.
I wish I could do
All the things that I can do.
Though I’m way overdue,
I’d be starting anew.

The phrase I wish I could appears in the song seven times. Each time, the construction is the same: I wish I could + a verb in its infinitive form. (I wish I could break, say, share, know, etc.) If you teach the phrase as a chunk, without going into lengthy grammar explanations, it can be the basis of a mini-lesson for high-beginning students. Here is one way to structure the lesson:

  1. Write the phrase I wish I could on the board. Remind students that could is the past-tense form of can. But in this phrase, could is used in a different way: to talk about things we want to do, but can’t–for example: I wish I could buy a car. I wish I could go to the party. Tell students, “If you say I wish I could, it doesn’t mean you will never do it. Maybe someday you will. But you can’t do it now.” (My high-beginning students quickly grasped the idea.)
  2. Highlight the phrase I wish I could all seven times it appears in the song, and hand out the lyrics to the students. Clarify new vocabulary.
  3. Play a recording of the song while students read the lyrics.
  4. To further reinforce the I wish I could construction, follow up with the communicative activity below.

 Example 3: A Draw-Write-Share activity personalizing the topic “I wish I could fly”


The fourth verse of the song begins:
Well, I wish I could be
Like a bird in the sky.
How sweet it would be
If I found I could fly.

Those lines inspire yet another exercise: personalizing the topic with a Draw-Write-Share exercise. Here is one way to structure the activity:

  1.  Find a royalty-free outline map of the world on the Internet, and print it out.
  2. Under the map, insert this fill-in-the-gaps sentence: I wish I could fly to ______________________ because _______________________.
  3. Students draw a line on the map from where they are now to where they want to be. Then they complete the sentence under the map.
  4. Students share their maps and their writing in small groups.

In my class, this Draw-Write-Share activity created a sense of community when we discovered we all wished we could fly not to exotic vacation spots, but to faraway family members.

More often than not, running a song through a checklist reveals several activities that are good fits. Then it’s just a matter of choosing the one or two activities that work best for your class. And there is a side benefit to using a checklist if you teach beginners: it helps you home in on aspects of a song that are accessible to your students. When I first read the lyrics to “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” I thought the complex verb forms made the song too challenging for my high beginners. But the checklist highlighted activities that my students could comfortably handle. Confining the lesson to just those activities enabled me to bring Nina Simone and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” into my classroom, and I’m glad I did. My students loved this song.

 Coming next month: General tips for using songs in the classroom


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin


Recent Posts


Explore our eCatalog

Explore our eCatalog
On Key

Related Posts

Build Self-Directed Learners

Build Self-Directed Learners “One hour.” The answer is heartbreaking. More fortunate teachers and students say “Three hours,” but it’s still disappointing. Both are answers to

What It Really Means to Know a Word

By Christina Cavage What It Really Means to Know a Word As ELT educators we often build our lessons around reading, writing, listening, speaking and