It sounds counterintuitive, right? You’ve found the perfect song — it has a catchy tune that your students are just going to LOVE, the lyrics are comprehensible and full of examples of the exact grammar point you’re working on, and it ties in perfectly to your thematic unit. When you find a gold mine like that, you absolutely cannot wait to pull up YouTube or iTunes and get the music cranking. At least I can’t. I just want to rush into the classroom and yell “YOU GUYS! WAIT UNTIL YOU HEAR THE AMAZING SONG I FOUND! WE ARE GOING TO HAVE THE BEST CLASS EVER!” (And I have to make good on this 99% of the time to make up for the one class period I will spring Righeira’s “Vamos a la playa” on them!)
As much as I want to turn up the volume right away and get my students up and out of their seats for an impromptu dance party, I’ve found that this isn’t necessarily the most effective strategy. After all, I’ve got a long list of objectives that I’m trying to accomplish when I bring music into the class: reinforcing vocabulary, working with examples of grammar in context, practicing a variety of listening comprehension strategies, and mining both the lyrics and the music video for cultural content, not to mention convincing my students that Spanish is awesome and fun and totally worth learning. In the past, even when I’ve warmed them up with a pre-listening activity and given them a targeted exercise to complete while listening to the song, I’ve found that my students can feel more overwhelmed than inspired if we try to do too much at once. We make it through the song for the first time, and I’ve got one group of students who have dutifully completed their cloze activity, but kept their eyes so focused on the paper that they didn’t see a single second of the music video and barely even heard the music, so now they are no more engaged than if I had read to them out of the dictionary; and another group of students who were definitely rocking out, but got distracted and now have half-completed worksheets and are sitting there bugging their friends for the answers; and a third group that’s all stressed out because they didn’t know that one word in the first verse and by the time they finished sneaking out their phones so they could look it up, because they need to understand every single word or they haven’t understood anything, they’d missed 6 more verses with 8 more unfamiliar terms.
So one day, I tried something a bit… unorthodox. I turned the volume off. Our first time through the song was completely silent. And it. was. awesome.
I first tried this with “Hoy es domingo,” by Diego Torres. (Side note: If you haven’t used this song yet with your students, you absolutely have to give it a try! This is one of my all-time favorites!) We were doing a unit on hobbies and pastimes, and I was SO excited to find this gem – not only is it comprehensible and filled with tons of thematically relevant vocabulary, but it is a gorgeous portrayal of Latin culture and lends itself naturally both to making cultural comparisons and to exploring the connection between cultural practices and perspectives. (ACTFL for the win!)
For homework the night before, I’d asked my students to create a schedule of their typical week. Our pre-listening activities involved sharing these schedules with a partner, focusing especially on the weekends, and then working as a class to brainstorm a list of the most common ways that American students spend their free time. “Hoy es domingo” is from an album called Buena vida, so for the next activity, I gave them a list of factors that could be considered necessary elements of “the good life,” such as family, money, friendship, and a career, and asked my students to rank them in order of importance. The combination of the two activities not only activated the relevant vocabulary related to hobbies and pastimes, but also got them thinking about the relationship between how we spend our free time (cultural PRACTICES) and what we value (cultural PERSPECTIVES).
In the past, I would have played them the song at this point, and I did pull up the music video, but I muted the sound before I hit play. We sat there in complete silence for 4 minutes and 36 seconds while watching an assortment of people walk their dogs, brew coffee, grill food, and break out into spontaneous dancing in the streets. My students’ task was to determine how they thought Diego Torres would have completed the first two activities — what does he do on a typical Sunday, and how would he rank the various factors of “the good life”? — based only on what they could see in the video.
It was magical. I had been worried that the visuals alone wouldn’t be enough to hold their attention for that long, but they were completely rapt. After it was over, I heard a few students exclaiming that they were ready to move to Latin America already, several more talking about how much they couldn’t wait to hear the song after seeing the video, and one girl who had to leave early lamenting the fact that she had to miss the rest of class.
The rest of the class followed a familiar routine. We watched the video again, this time with the sound on, and they completed a variety of activities to check their comprehension, reinforce the relevant vocabulary and grammar, and dig deeper into the cultural content. The difference was in how productive that work was. My students were completely engaged for the entire lesson. They dug into all of the activities and made really thoughtful cultural connections. It was one of those classes that just works, where everything comes together in all the ways you had hoped and both you and your students leave feeling completely energized. And the highlight came a few weeks later, when I heard one of my students playing music from her personal playlist and realized she was listening to “Hoy es domingo”!
After seeing how well that class went, I now turn the music off anytime I want to introduce a new song to my students. But why does it work? Here’s what I think:
- It lets students focus on one aspect of the song at a time. Trying to process loads of new linguistic input while being bombarded with flashy images can completely fry their poor brains. By turning off the sound, they can relax and concentrate just on the visual information before they dive in to processing the language.
- It encourages students to practice using context clues to interpret what is being communicated. This translates into better listening comprehension skills in general, as they become more adept at looking for nonverbal cues like facial expressions, gestures, and body language. I think sometimes students are hesitant to believe that this “counts” as understanding Spanish; they feel like they’re cheating if they only know what we’re saying because we acted it out or pointed to a picture. By taking away all of the words, we can reinforce the message that not only are they not cheating when they use these interpretive strategies, but that we want them to do so.
- It results in a more meaningful interaction with the target culture. Students aren’t just relying on what we say about the culture, but rather are drawing their own conclusions based on their interaction with the culture. Of course, we still have to guide them by giving them a carefully crafted task to help them hone in on the most relevant images, but I think sometimes we get so focused on working with the language of a song that we forget just how much cultural information is encoded in the visual imagery.
- It prepares students to better understand the lyrics once we turn the music on. Add this into your repertoire along with KWL charts and discussion questions as a great way to activate their prior understanding and get them to make predictions about what they will hear.
- It gets them really excited about the music. Delayed gratification is so much more… well, gratifying. Seeing the video is like a little teaser that lets their enthusiasm build!
So next time you’re ready to crank up the tunes in class, think about turning them off first. It might just turn out that the proverbial wisdom is right – silence really is golden… as a teaching tool!
Did you give this a try? Let me know how it went in the comments, or share other fabulous strategies you have for incorporating music into your class!