The Internet TESL Journal

Songs, Verse and Games for Teaching Grammar

Arif Saricoban & Esen Metin
arifs [at]
Hacettepe University & Cankaya University (Ankara, Turkey)


Grammar teaching has often been regarded as a structure based, formal activity. After the integration of several sources and techniques, which are mainly based on communicative activities, the teaching of grammar gained a new insight. In the teaching of grammar, technique-resource combinations are often modified to structure-discourse match and if well developed, they can be used effectively for all phases of a grammar lesson. In order to make a grammar lesson effective, beneficial, and interesting a teacher should use some well-developed and fascinating techniques in the classroom. In the present paper, the examples of such integrated sources and techniques -the use of songs, verse, games, and problem solving activities- will be clarified and several examples will be provided.

Using Songs and Verse


Since the meaning is an important device in teaching grammar, it is important to contextualize any grammar point. Songs are one of the most enchanting and culturally rich resources that can easily be used in language classrooms. Songs offer a change from routine classroom activities. They are precious resources to develop students abilities in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. They can also be used to teach a variety of language items such as sentence patterns, vocabulary, pronunciation, rhythm, adjectives, and adverbs. As stated by Lo and Fai Li (1998:8), learning English through songs also provides a non-threatening atmosphere for students, who usually are tense when speaking English in a formal classroom setting.

Songs also give new insights into the target culture. They are the means through which cultural themes are presented effectively. Since they provide authentic texts, they are motivating. Prosodic features of the language such as stress, rhythm, intonation are presented through songs, thus through using them the language which is cut up into a series of structural points becomes a whole again.

There are many advantages of using songs in the classroom. Through using contemporary popular songs, which are already familiar to teenagers, the teacher can meet the challenges of the teenage needs in the classroom. Since songs are highly memorable and motivating, in many forms they may constitute a powerful subculture with their own rituals. Furthermore, through using traditional folk songs the base of the learners knowledge of the target culture can be broadened. Correctly chosen, traditional folk songs have the dual motivating attack of pretty tunes and interesting stories, plus for many students- the added ingredient of novelty (Hill, 1999:29). Most songs, especially folk songs, follow a regularly repeated verse form, with rhyme, and have a series of other discourse features, which make them easy to follow.

In consequence, if selected properly and adopted carefully, a teacher should benefit from songs in all phases of teaching grammar. Songs may both be used for the presentation or the practice phase of the grammar lesson. They may encourage extensive and intensive listening, and inspire creativity and use of imagination in a relaxed classroom atmosphere. While selecting a song the teacher should take the age, interests of the learners and the language being used in the song into consideration. To enhance learner commitment, it is also beneficial to allow learners to take part in the selection of the songs.

Teaching Procedure

There are various ways of using songs in the classroom. The level of the students, the interests and the age of the learners, the grammar point to be studied, and the song itself have determinant roles on the procedure. Apart from them, it mainly depends on the creativity of the teacher.

For primary students, the best songs would be those that are either familiar to the children or those, though maybe not familiar, which have an international nature, such as Old MacDonald. Since there is not a strict teaching procedure, the teacher can mainly concentrate on what to teach rather than on how to teach. For instance, while teaching them individual letter sounds or spelling the words, the traditional camp song 'Bingo', or while teaching them counting 'Johnny Works with One Hammer' will be useful. In order to make the songs more meaningful and more enjoyable, motions can be added to the song which parallel the words of the song. Since most children enjoy singing fun and nonsensical lyrics, using easy children songs will be useful. Furthermore, choosing lively action songs through which they can dance or act while singing will ensure a lively atmosphere.

For teenagers or adults in the intermediate or advanced level, it is better to use more meaningful or popular songs, which not only review or introduce grammar points but also reflect cultural aspects. At the primary level of singing the song, the prosodic features of the language is emphasized. At the higher levels, where the practice of grammar points is at the foreground, songs can be used with several techniques. Some examples of these techniques are:

A teacher's selection of a technique or a set of techniques should be based on his or her objectives for the classroom. After deciding the grammar point to be studied, and the song and the techniques to be used, the teacher should prepare an effective lesson plan. Since songs are listening activities, it is advisable to present them as a listening lesson, but of course it is necessary to integrate all the skills in the process in order to achieve successful teaching.

When regarding a lesson plan, as a pre-listening activity, the theme, the title, or the history of the song can be discussed. By directing the students toward specific areas, problem vocabulary items can be picked up in advance. Before listening to the song, it is also beneficial to let the students know which grammar points should be studied. At this stage, pictures may also be used to introduce the theme of the song. In the listening stage, some of the techniques listed above can be used, but among them gap filling is the most widely used technique. Through such gaps, the vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation are highlighted. This stage can be developed by the teacher according to the needs of the students and the grammar point to be studied.

In the follow-up, integrated skills can be used to complete the overall course structure. Since many songs are on themes for which it is easy to find related reading texts, it may lead the learner to read a text about the singer or the theme. Besides, many songs give a chance for a written reaction of some kind. Opinion questions may lead the learner to write about his own thoughts or reflections. Some songs deal with a theme that can be re-exploited through role plays. Acting may add enthusiasm to the learning process. Finally, some songs deal with themes, which can lead to guided discussion. By leading the students into a discussion, the grammar point could be practiced orally and, in a way, naturally.

Exploitation of songs for grammatical structures can be illustrated through several examples. For present tense 'Let It Be' by the Beatles, for past tense 'Yesterday' by the Beatles, for present progressive 'Sailing' by Rod Stewart, for present perfect 'Nothing Compares to You' by Sinead Occonor, for past perfect 'Last Night I Had...' by Simon and Garfunkel, for modals 'Blowing in the Wind' by Bob Dylan, and for conditionals 'El Condor Pasa' by Simon and Garfunkel can be used. However, it should be kept in mind that songs, which provide frequent repetitions, or tell a story, or provide comments about life, or introduce cultural themes are the effective ones, since they provide authentic and meaningful material.

As a consequence, the use of songs in language classrooms provides many advantages. They entertain and relax the learners while they are learning or practicing a structure, and they often eliminate the students negative attitude towards learning. Through providing authenticity and context they make the grammar points more understandable and easy. As language teachers, we can benefit from using songs, since our concern is to motivate the students and draw their utmost attention on the subject during teaching.


Poems, like songs, contextualize a grammar lesson effectively. Since poetry is often spoken, repeated, dealt with, and considered, it acts as an effective tool for practicing a specific grammatical structure. Through repeating and considering the poem, the grammatical structures become more deeply internalized. Thus, poetry not only provides a rewarding resource for structured practice of grammar, but also a proper basis for review. If a poem that exemplifies a particular structure is also a good poem, it engages the eye, the ear and the tongue simultaneously while also stimulating and moving us; this polymorphic effect makes poetry easier to memorize than other things for many students (Celce-Murcia and Hills, 1988:123).

Like songs, poems exaggerate the rhythmic nature of the language. Thus it is an important aspect to be taught, since English is a syllable timed language with stressed syllables being spoken at roughly equal time pauses, even in everyday speech. Similar to songs, poems have an enormous linguistic value as they provide authenticity and cultural views. A poem's capacity to comfort the reader or the listener also increases its effectiveness as a teaching resource. Once a poem or song has been learned, they stay in the minds of the students for the rest of their lives, with all the rhythms, grammatical features and vocabulary.

Poems may bring the use of creativity and the rhythm into the language classroom, though they may also bring some difficulties. Poems are not constructed in a simple way and syntactically they are at a higher level than prose, thus it might be very difficult for a foreign language learner to comprehend them completely. As stated by Povey (cited in Celce-Murcia and Hills, 1988) there are three main barriers for literature including poetry. They are linguistic, cultural, and intellectual barriers. Linguistic difficulties are the problems caused by the syntax or the lexicon of the poem. Cultural difficulties include imagery, tone, and allusion. At the intellectual level, the students should be intellectual and mature enough to understand the theme of the poem. These difficulties could be easily removed if the teacher provides a poem which is syntactically and thematically appropriate to the level, age and the interests of the students. Thus, by removing or minimizing the potential problems, poetry can provide an enormously rich, enjoyable and authentic context for foreign language learners.

In the selection of a poem, the teacher should first consider the grammatical structure to be presented, practiced, or reviewed, then the level and the age of the students, next the theme and the length of the poem and its appropriateness to the classroom objectives. It is advisable to select a poem from 20th century poets. As older poems often provide a more difficult lexicon and syntax, and as they reflect some old-fashioned ideas, it is more convenient to use contemporary poems than older ones. Poems, which reflect cultural themes, universal features, humanistic values, or emotional aspects, will be more relevant to the foreign language learners. Finally, through taking the classroom objectives into consideration, a teacher should effectively benefit from poems as teaching aids.

Teaching Procedure

At the teaching stage of a poem, it is not advisable to talk about the meaning of the poem in advance. Since they offer a reading and listening activity, poems could be presented through a reading plan. At the pre-reading stage, students might be motivated through some enthusiastic talks about poetry or the poet. Some necessary vocabulary can also be handled at this stage. At the reading stage, in order to create images and stress the prosodic features, the teacher may want the students to close their eyes while he/she is reading the poem. After the poem has been read at least twice, it is better to elicit the primary responses of the students about the poem. Next, after distributing the poem to students, students may be asked to read it either loudly or silently. In order to practice the determined grammar point, students may be asked to paraphrase the poem. Through transforming the verse into prose students get acquainted with the structure.

After easing the grammar and understanding the vocabulary, students get an idea about the theme of the poem. Reading the paraphrased poem reinforces the grammatical structure under consideration. Asking questions about context may follow the reading. Through asking Wh- questions, providing additional information about the culture, and asking students to share their experience with the subject matter, the cultural content of the poem becomes more real and vivid. Words, pictures, and shared experiences can eliminate the gap that is created by different cultures, as no one can deny that poems cannot always evoke the same sounds, sights, smells, and associations for both native speakers and foreign language learners. After discussing the surface content of the poem, students may again asked to close their eyes and visualize the poem while listening to it.

As a follow-up activity a discussion may be held. After reviewing the plot of the poem and providing adequate artful questions, the students will eventually discover the deeper meaning of the poem. As being a facilitator, a teacher should always avoid telling the meaning. After each student grasps his or her own meaning, it is proper to discuss the depth of the poem. In this procedure, the teacher's aim is to support the students in their attempts to understand the poem and make it relevant to their lives. Once they have understood it and perceived its relevance, they will have no objection to practicing the poem or even memorizing it, for it will have become special for them (Celce-Murcia and Hills, 1988:126). At the follow-up stage, providing the determined structure, students may also be asked to write a poem about anything they want. In such a procedure the four skills are effectively integrated to practice or present any grammar point.

Since every class is different, teachers should creativity determine the teaching procedure. It is not advisable to apply one procedure too strictly. A teacher should adopt the activities according to the needs of the learners. However, it might not be very useful to use poems for young students or for beginners. Instead of poems, using nursery rhymes or songs would be more helpful since they provide more joyful and easier contexts. From pre-intermediate to advanced levels, it is really beneficial to use either songs or poems. Several poems can be adopted from contemporary poem books. The poems of the W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, Stanley Kunitz, Delmore Schwartz, W.D. Snodgrass, Theodore Roethke, Gary Snyder, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Lowell, etc. are suggested for the language teachers who want to use poems in their grammar lessons.

Using Games and Problem-Solving Activities

The latest concern of the foreign language teachers is to make the students use the language communicatively. After the realization of communicative competence , activities or techniques that are task-oriented and that lead students to use the language creatively have gained importance. Games and problem-solving activities, which are task-based and have a purpose beyond the production of correct speech, are the examples of the most preferable communicative activities. Such activities highlight not only the competence but also the performance of the learner. Yet they are the indispensable parts of a grammar lesson, since they reinforce a form-discourse match. In such activities the attention is on the discourse context.

Both games and problem-solving activities have a goal. Games are organized according to rules, and they are enjoyable. Most games require choral responses or group works, whereas problem-solving activities (though they are structured) require individual response and creative solutions. Games and problem-solving activities are generally used after the presentation, in the practice part, because such communicative tasks can only be handled after mastering sufficient grammar and lexical points.

Through well-planned games, learners can practice and internalize vocabulary, grammar and structures extensively. Play and competition that are provided by games enhance the motivation of the students. They also reduce the stress in the classroom. While playing games, the learners attention is on the message, not on the language. In a way, students acquire language unconsciously since their whole attention is engaged by the activity. By providing personal, social, and cross-cultural issues to define, they sometimes simulate real life situations. Many grammar games can be found in teaching grammar or course books.

There is a great overlap between games and problem solving activities. Though games generally place an emphasis on competition and wining, they also require some type of problem-solving activity. Like games, problem-solving activities have communicative purposes. Questions which require students to use available evidence to reach a conclusion and the logic problems which assist language learning by challenging students to demonstrate their understanding of English in an interesting way are the types of problem-solving activities. In problem solving activities, the problems are either based on real or imaginary situations. In the activities students are given a real or an imagery situation, and they are expected to find solutions for the problems.

Games and problem solving activities can be used for all levels. By regarding the proficiency, age and experience of the learners, appropriate activities might be applied successfully. It is also important to design clear and easy directions for the games or the activities.

Through problem solving activities students utmost attention is to the detail and to the meaning. The solution part of the problem can be used to generate any specific grammar point. In such activities a teacher should act as a facilitator rather than a director. It is also possible to integrate all skills in such activities. Reading or listening to a situation, a problem, or a question; responding or commenting either through speaking or writing. It is also advisable to keep in mind that such activities provide entertaining opportunities to practice thinking clearly while focusing on the form unconsciously.

In sum, games and problem solving activities provide favorable usages for extended communicative practice of grammar. They are both motivating and challenging. They encourage students to interact and communicate. Through such activities students match the discourse with the context of the game or the problem solving activity. So these activities create a meaningful context for language use. The use of such activities both increases the cooperation and competition in the classroom. Thus, potential classroom ideas come into being, and a successful, joyful and enthusiastic learning is provided.


So far, the usage of songs, poems, games, and problem solving activities are clarified. The advantages and some key points are explained. It is now more apparent that the teaching of grammar can be supported effectively by using such resources. According to the needs analysis of a classroom, several techniques can be integrated with such resources. Since teaching is a developing art, which requires innovative and creative ideas to enrich its effectiveness, we must not hesitate to use such resources in our classrooms. These resources can assist our teaching of grammar while providing a relaxed atmosphere and motivated students. Such activities are student centered, hence, by using them we give a chance to our students to express themselves, enjoy themselves during learning, and use the reserves of their minds. As, it should be born in mind that all these resources require the activation of both left and right hemispheres. Thus, we let our students use their long-term memory and learn effectively during such activities. So there is an undeniable fact that if our concern is to provide a successful and beneficial teaching, we must not hesitate to use songs, poems, games, and problem solving activities, which bring the structural, pragmatic, prosodic and communicative aspects of language together, in our language classrooms.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 10, October 2000