Using Song to Teach Intonation, Rhythm, and Grammar

Using Song to Teach Intonation, Rhythm, and Grammar

By: Meredith Stephens

I spent years pondering why my learners had such difficulty acquiring English. I knew that one reason was their assumption that a language is strictly represented by the written word. I impressed upon them the importance of listening, and in my early days of teaching would carry a CD player to all of my classes so I could play them recordings of various samples of English.

I knew listening skills underpinned reading (Walter, 2008), but I was not sure which listening skills were involved. Was it enough to teach phonemes and word stress? Then I chanced upon an observation by Halliday:

[The English language] makes a great deal of use of intonation to carry grammatical meaning. (1985, p. 49)

Similarly, I was impressed by Cook (2000) who explained how nursery rhymes facilitate L1 acquisition, and I wondered whether this would apply to L2 acquisition too:

Rhythmic breaks not only coincide with linguistic boundaries, they also emphasize those boundaries much more than they would be emphasized in everyday speech. Grammar, rhythm and actions all echo each other. (Cook, p. 15)

In my native-speaker naivety I had overlooked the relationship between intonation, rhythm, and grammar. In order to redress this oversight, rather than exclusively relying on the traditional teaching of grammar, we language teachers need to avail ourselves of songs. The lyrics of the songs should rhyme, in order to provide exaggerated examples of grammatical boundaries. Rhyme occurs at the end of the phrase, coinciding with the end of a grammatical unit. Songs highlight these boundaries more clearly than speech, and therefore, are appropriate models for our learners.

Grammar is usually taught in a dry and clinical way, and students typically do grammar homework consisting of filling in the blanks. I recommend consigning these exercises to the paper recycling station, and replacing them with hearty group singing to suitable contemporary English-language songs.

Thank you to Halliday, and Cook, for highlighting a blind spot. Let’s devote some of our classroom time to singing, not just because it is (usually) effortless and pleasurable, but also because it is pedagogically sound.


  • Cook, G. (2000). Language play, language learning. Oxford University Press

  • Halliday, M. A. K. (1985). Spoken and written language. Deakin University Press.

  • Walter, C. (2008). Phonology in second language reading: Not an optional extra. TESOL Quarterly 42(3), 455-468

Meredith Stephens - retired teacher, who, at the time of writing, was on a sailboat in Bass Strait

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