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Civics Activites Using Music

Lynda Terrill
National Center for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE)
January, 2001

Using music to teach English is not new. Songs with lyrics provide language and content for activities that build listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills while providing cultural information. See the digest on Using Music In the Adult ESL Classroom for more information.

Using music to combine language and civics teaching is easy, fun, provides great opportunity for community-building and multicultural sharing, and can be used at many levels.

Beginning Levels
High Beginning/Low Intermediate Levels
Intermediate/High Intermediate/Advanced
High Intermediate/Advanced

musical noteBeginning Levels

For example, a literacy level class in 1988 was comprised of mostly Central American learners who were applying for amnesty. The group was enthusiastic and vocal, but many of the learners had limited reading and writing skills. To fulfill part of the amnesty requirement of learning about the United States, the class learned a song that listed the 50 states of the union alphabetically, and was sung to the tune of "Turkey in the Straw". The class practiced for several weeks before the school-wide festivities at the end of the quarter. Not only did the learners become familiar with the number of states, they also learned about the Native American names such as Michigan and Tennessee and recognized Hispanic influence in names like Arizona and Montana. Particularly at this point early in the amnesty era, the opportunity to come out of the shadows and learn together helped the group and the teacher to form strong emotional bonds that enabled the learners to take many risks in their language learning. If you want to try this with your class, the lyrics are below:

Alabama, & Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas
California, Colorado & Connecticut and more,
Delaware, Flor'da, Georgia, then Hawaii, Idaho,
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa still thirty-five to go!
Kansas & Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine,
Maryland, Massachusetts & good old Michigan,
Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri & Montana,
Then Nebraska's 27, number 28's Nevada.
Oooooo Next New Hampshire & New Jersey
& way down New Mexico,
There's New York, North Carolina,
North Dakota, Ohio,
Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania. Now let's see:
Rhode Island, South Carolina,
South Dakota, Tennessee,
Texas, and there's Utah, Vermont, I'm almost through!
Virginia, then there's Washington and West Virginia, too.
Could Wisconsin be the last one or is it forty-nine?
No,Wyoming is the last state
in the fifty states that rhyme.

(Note: The words are sung to "Turkey in the Straw." You can learn some of the history of the song and hear the tune at The lyrics are also found at, which also has a song for memorizing the presidents of the United States.)

musical note

English language learners bring a full range of ideas and feelings with them to class, and if the environment is comfortable and the teacher and class members are respectful of each other, language learning and multicultural sharing happen simultaneously. In one small literacy class, learners shared their feelings about their native countries by singing their national anthems to their classmates. Started spontaneously by two young Salvadorans in the class who sang their anthem, others followed in turn. These two young men, one a war veteran who must have fought as a young teenager and the other a farmer, inspired the other learners to share. In the same class a Kurdish man, who sang his song alone, shared his story of a Kurdish town that had been destroyed by Saddam Hussein. Even at this beginning level, inspired by topics that were significant to them, the learners found the English to share feelings of homesickness, grief, and hope for the future.

musical noteHigh Beginning/Low Intermediate Levels

Many English language learners report that they listen to American/English music to help them learn vocabulary and culture. Learners of all levels are familiar with American political, historical, sports, and arts/entertainment figures, so it's easy to build on that familiarity to encourage language use and cultural and civics knowledge.

For example, the Stevie Wonder song "Living for the City" served as a catalyst for one class to talk about the difficulty of making a living in the United States and about discrimination. The adult learners spent several weeks learning to sing along with the tape. The group brought down the house when they sang at the end-of-quarter festivities for the entire program. They had learned some history about African-American migration from the rural south to the northern cities, vocabulary, including some common colloquial forms such as, "ain't" and other more specialized forms such as "you'd best believe she barely makes a penny," and practiced both listening and speaking English.

(Note: Find the lyrics to "Living for the City" at and other websites.)

musical noteIntermediate/High Intermediate/Advanced Levels

Using music lyrics for listening dictations is popular among students at higher levels. Songs that relate to a historical or cultural topic offer variety and challenge to learners. A typical process is to provide a handout of the lyrics with missing words for learners to fill in. As with any such activity, the teacher could choose a particular set of words-content words, a particular grammar structure, or words that are difficult to hear or say.

For example, if an intermediate class is reading about the Civil Rights Movement or learning about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, a song like "Follow the Drinking Gourd"-- which gave slaves veiled directions about how to reach free territory--could be used for listening dictation. Some classes might need or want allusions and vocabulary explained before they hear the song. The song can be played as many times as the groups want to hear it before a general group debriefing. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" is a simple folk song, but a teacher can decide how much ancillary information to add. (For more related activities, see ESL Activities for African-American History Month).

(Note: The lyrics to "Follow the Drinking Gourd" and an historical notes can be found at: as well as at other websites. The following AskERIC lesson plan for K-12 can also provide some ideas for lesson planning:

musical noteHigh Intermediate/Advanced Levels

Advanced adult English language learners, who often come to ESL classes with many years of education and many pre-conceived notions about American culture and government, may enjoy comparing their native countries with the United States. They often like talking about the myths and realities of American life. For instance, learners could compare in writing or in discussion Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" with Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again", or Paul Simon's song, "American Tune." The song or one of the poems could help stimulate the ever-popular discussions about varieties of English and the meaning of American idioms.

(Note: Access "The New Colossus" at and other websites. Access "Let America Be America Again" at and other websites. Access a video clip of Paul Simon singing "American Tune" at Find the lyrics at

It is important for teachers who are more familiar with ABE and GED adult learners to understand that many advanced English Language Learners are comfortable with talking, reading, and writing about and complex topics . In fact, one frustration that such learners often express is that they can't explain complex ideas and feelings in English as well as they can in their native language. Using music and poetry with high intermediate and advanced learners can help answer that need.