How to give homework that can expose your learner to English between lessons? Now that is one persistent question. We want our learners to get practice, but their busy lives leave little opportunity to do worksheets, write essays or do anything else that requires academic rigor. Tutors and teachers have to find assignments that can be done in the background, while other work is going on. That is the reason I suggest assigning songs as homework.
The specific idea came up in the middle of a tutor training. A new trainee, Carlos Lewinson, suggested assigning one song to listen to, which made me think, "Hey, good idea," because it harked back to an experience I had. A supergroup called Los Super Seven perform a song called, "El Canoero." That Mexican folk song came in a CD with the Spanish and English lyrics side by side. Its haunting melody and driving rhythm kept me wanting to hear the song again and again. Through repetition I learned phrases from its lyrics, "Yo soy el canoero que rema y rema y rema y rema." [I am the canoeist who rows and rows and rows and rows.] Most of my conversations in Spanish do not concern rowing, but the other verbs I learned in the romantic song - darle [to give her], buscando [searching], encuentro [i find] - were very useful.
So find a good song. By "good" I mean a song where someone sings with clear diction and at a reasonable pace. So, the Rolling Stones are a pretty poor choice, as is REM. Ozzy Osbourne is right out. But Executive Director Jeff Burkhart suggested the ever-mellow James Taylor as a good source. You can find his lyrics at www.jamestaylor.com, as well as a limited number of songs and videos. "You've Got a Friend" is perfect. "Steamroller Blues" is more risqué but very catchy. Another slowish, clear singer is Billy Joel, whose site is www.billyjoel.com. "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" is a nice song with a simple narrative. You can also search lyrics by artist at the site Lyrics Zoo.
Before you introduce the song, look over the lyrics. You may need to pre-teach any vocabulary that could be confusing. For instance, in "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" there is the line, "A bottle of red, a bottle of white. It all depends upon your appetite." You can explain that he means red and white wine and the meaning of the phrase "it depends on ___" using simple English. Music is a great way to learn idioms.
You may need to lend a CD, or possibly make a copy to give your learner--a modest investment. But if the song keeps playing in their mind--if you can infect them with a songworm--the English lyrics will be repeating themselves between lessons. Yes, tutors, English is an infectious disease. And we are the vectors.
P.S. Tutor Brett Rohlwing had this to add shortly after reading my message:
Another fun song I have used with my learners is the Barenaked Ladies classic "If I Had $1,000,000" which has pretty clear lyrics and is easy to understand. I've used it for explaining the use of subjunctive and the verb "would"-- like, "I would buy you a house" etc. It's also fun explaining some of the jokes and word-plays in the song, like "If I had a million dollars, I would buy you some art- a Picasso or a Garfunkel"
Editor's note: The same subjunctive idea works with the stately song, "If I Had a Hammer" by Pete Seeger