7 Ways to Use Music in Secondary ELA

Part way through some lesson last year, I said that my students should “let it go.” I don’t remember what “it” was, exactly, but I remember two or three students jumped up and threw their arms out and sang the line from Frozen. Then, one started making up new lyrics for the song based on my lesson. It was ridiculous and funny and it all happened so fast.

See, the thing is that we connect with music, and we don’t have to be particularly musical to do it. Music gets inside our heads and makes us feel things, and some tunes and lyrics never leave us.

That’s why I (a non-musical person, by the way) love using music in the secondary ELA classroom. I’ve found that in middle school and high school, music breaks up a bit of the routine and allows students to access information that they may otherwise struggle with or find boring. Music can be used strategically (or just for fun!) in the secondary ELA classroom to increase engagement and retention.

Here are seven ways I use music in my English classroom.

 1. Present music as an avenue of direct instruction 

The easiest and most obvious way to use music in secondary ELA is to find a resource that puts a new concept to music. My favorite resource for using music in direct instruction is Flocabulary. I’ve used these short hip-hop videos to review story elements, introduce public speaking, and solidify some research skills.

I also LOVE sharing Schoolhouse Rock with my students. Y’all, Schoolhouse Rock was already looking dorky and dated when I was a kid, but just *lean in* to this with your students. Tell them that you KNOW it’s dorky, but that you’re going to embrace that together in your classroom.

2.  Introduce Song Analysis

Another way to use music as a tool for direct instruction is by presenting songs as texts to be explored, analyzed, and imitated. I use songs to teach plot, genre, and figurative language. They are a short and easily accessible text (3-5 min) that provide a lot of fodder for student discussion. I do a whole Song Analysis lesson as part of my Short Stories unit, and you can download that lesson for free HERE.

Using music in secondary ELA is a great way to increase student engagement and productivity. Check out these tips and download a freebie to get you started! By Danielle at Nouvelle ELA on the Secondary English Coffee Shop blog.

On my blog, I share 15 Songs to Use in Secondary ELA and 15 (More!) Songs to Use in Secondary ELA. Be sure to check those out, since they include ideas for analyzing song lyrics.

3.  Play music to encourage relaxation & focus

People from surgeons to athletes have been tapping into music’s relaxing properties before tackling a stressful situation. Remember Michael Phelps’ omnipresent headphones? We can allow our students the same opportunities and play some music while they’re writing, studying, or taking a test.

Along this same line, music can be used to inspire creative writing. Encourage students to develop playlists for a certain writing project they’re working on. I often share my writing playlists with students to give them some ideas – my playlist for a sappy YA romance novel is completely different from my dystopian fairy tale rewrite playlist. Students should be encouraged to choose music that moves them towards the end goal: being creative and productive and awesome!

4. Have students create songs to demonstrate learning

Music also makes a great option for a final project. Students can demonstrate what they've learned by making a song about it (or rewriting lyrics to a known song). My students write Symbolism Songs after reading Lord of the Flies or The Pearl, showing their interpretation of a symbol through music.

Symbolism Song Project by Danielle at Nouvelle ELA on TeachersPayTeachers

5. Show students how to create study songs

Anyone who learned “The Fifty Nifty United States” as a kid knows the power of music to help memorize information. I mean, that stuff really sticks! Students can use music to help them study hard facts or vocabulary and definitions. They don't have to be amazing musicians to find a tune to make it stick - just have them try out making a recording of an effort on their phones. There is a simple ioS app called Recorder for this, or you can get a more sophisticated piece of software like Audacity. Eventually, they'll choose what study methods work best for them, but you can at least show them this tool is available.

6. Encourage storytelling with operas & symphonies

You can also use music that's already out there and available to get students writing. Operas and symphonies both provide excellent opportunities for this, since they are a vehicle for a story anyway. You could play a piece from an opera and have students imagine the story. What emotions do they hear from the characters? Who's singing? What conflicts come to mind?

You could have students write or discuss the stories they come up with, or even act them out in a scene set to the music. Don't share the original plot with them -- let them explore many possible answers. This is a great way to get them to engage in some creative writing, as well as explore the storytelling devices of classical music.

7. Actually, you know… play some music

Also, you could just play music. :) Whenever I want to give students a set time to finish an activity, I put on a song or a playlist. For example, if students need 3-4 minutes to cut out foldables and title the pages of an interactive notebook spread, I'll put on a song. I also used the song “Final Countdown” last year for the last minutes that students assembled their writer’s workshop portfolios.

What are some creative ways that you use music in your classrooms? We'd love to hear from you in comments or on IG @secondaryenglishcoffeeshop. :)

Check out these other resources for using music by Coffee Shop teachers:
Grammar Activities: Musical Grammar Mistakes by Presto Plans
Analyzing Music Videos (Volume 2) by Stacey Lloyd
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