From the time of Gregorian Chants to the origination of the blues, lyrics have spread messages and served as oral language foundations for cultures for thousands of years, across the globe. Music from “Horace the Camel” to “Hey Mr. Tally Man” have been staples of music class in primary grades. By the intermediate grades, lyrics and music seem to start vanishing from instruction.
Yet lyrics play such an integral part as children transition to independent readers. They are immersed in lyrics via YouTube, iTunes, and American Idol
(what ever happened to the Walkman?). Lyrics since the advent of pop music have consistently resonated with listeners. From lyrics inserted into love notes (authentic writing) to roadside tragedies (you know, the mix CDs that are flung out the car window after a breakup), students up through adulthood are actively trying to capture the messages contained within.
I hear teachers lament the loss of oral language. Language transforms and language is often coded. Lyrics (good lyrics) are always coded. Isn't that why
people insert lyrics into love letters—to give the recipient something to think about, or woo them with (someone else’s) eloquent writing? What about the blues? Or country? How many songs do we sing out loud, expressing heartache, depression, or courage?
Lyrics contain the words, the language, we look for to express our feelings. When we connect to the lyrics, our communication becomes clearer, more expressive.
Music and lyrics deserve (re)consideration in the classroom. The right song, or CD, with the right purpose can take a learner miles. Linking short text lyrics to literature, be it chapter books or short stories, builds schema and creates curiosity. Using lyrics from Paul Kennerley's album WHITE MANSIONS is particularly useful when dealing with the Civil War; it can help teach concepts such as states’ rights and perspectives. Provide students with lyrics, read the song, and practice the “Fab Four” (Oczkus, 2010) strategies before discussing potential meaning locked within the text. After establishing working background knowledge, engage in shared reading with primary and secondary sources. From these in-class readings, student will discover answers to their questions, clarify interpretations, and gain deeper meaning behind historical concepts, such as the “Old South” or class structure.
Songs do not need to make perfect alignments to books. Some lines should
be ambiguous or unrelated. This only helps the reader sort relevant information or invites them to ponder alternate perspectives. In a sense, when considering text-dependent questions or close reading, lyrics steer learners away from the “right there” question/answer and encourages synthesis of multiple texts and schema because lyrics do not outright explain ideas, like a text might. Allowing student to engage in such “out-of-the-box” thinking encourages creativity and widens comprehension.
Using lyrics in isolation works, too, depending on purpose. I prefer to model and practice reciprocal teaching with lyrics, particularly as a scaffold into content studies or theme-based instruction. If you use “Cherokee” by the famed hair-band Europe to introduce the Trail of Tears, students obtain the gist of the historical event and generate questions that will propel them into nonfiction reading. More specifically, students can glean from the lyrics that Cherokees were forced from their homes and moved on to reservations. They’ll likely ask questions such as “What promises were lies?” and “What does walked for many moons mean?” Encourage students to look and locate material that discusses the tumultuous relationship between the US Government and the Native Americans during the 1600–1800s, as part of in-class and independent readings. You may also invite kids to consider the time span of the march and the figurative meaning of “many moons”—a great invitation to literature discussions.
As Common Core challenges us to bring short text into the classroom, I find lyrics allows us to use short and complex text to help students acquire reading skills and motivate them to read “new” or “interesting” material.
Justin Stygles is a fifth/sixth grade language arts/humanities teacher in Norway, ME. He is an avid music fan an regularly uses lyrics to teacher literacy skills and comprehension in class. Tweet him at @JustinStygles (#closereadinglyrics).
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