Category Archives: Songs

Working with a song

I’m going to go back to at least occasionally recording what I did in class.

I was satisfied with work with a song today. Tom Garza, at U Texas, prepared an awesome site for Russian students and teachers, called “Rocking Russian.” It has recordings, song lyrics as subtitles or not, and exercises.

I created a cloze for the song with only about 15 words missing, since I’ve realized it’s hard and frustrating to be still writing down one missing word when the next blank comes up, even if we do listen to a song several times. Because the song I picked has a lot of unfamiliar words for the lower level kids, I put the English translation in a separate column. I put blanks for the same missing words.

We listened to the song twice to begin with: first, just to hear it. The second time, I asked kids to randomly write down any words they heard clearly, without trying to go for volume.

Then I handed out the cloze exercise. Before the kids listened to the song, I wanted them to find direct translations of words from one column to the next, so I asked them to circle one word in each Russian line and the corresponding word or phrase in the English line. That was just to get them to work through the meaning of the entire song and see how much they already understood.

Then we listened to the song again and filled in the missing words in Russian. With partners, they filled in the translations of those words on the English side.

Next, we watched the song with Russian subtitles, so that they could see whether they were right. I was pleased that there was really only one word that caused trouble.

Someone asked about an infinitive, playing into my hand. The grammar point I have in my head right now (because some of the most advanced kids haven’t acquired it, while others have) is infinitives after modals, in subjunctive phrases, and after other verbs. I explained the first infinitive, and asked kids to find and explain all the other ones. It was five grammar minutes for the AP level kids. It was aimed at meaning, more than at grammar, but gave us an excuse to read through the song again.

After that, we talked about the song in the more advanced group. Some kids really didn’t like it, because they couldn’t understand it, so the more advanced speakers got to try to start explaining the song. Every time I find ways to motivate re-reading of a text, I am impressed anew by the power re-reading gives students. The less-advanced kids understood the conversation, but the more advanced ones finally had a chance to talk about the text, and because it was in front of everyone, with translation, the conversation felt real. It probably didn’t hurt that I didn’t understand the song at all, and so the questions I asked were genuine. Why is she singing? Is it a happy song? What makes you think that? Why is she burning ships? How can she do that if her matches are all soaked? More to come!

Song Friday

I have a group of beginners who like to sing. They just got me to sing with them the whole period (they thought they were keeping us from our lesson). Since I’ve been somewhat voiceless and at least hoarse for the better part of the last month, it was fun to do that.

There’s one song with numbers that goes very fast, and I’m having all my classes learn it, now that someone told me numbers are relatively late acquired. I am also going to do Scott’s Kindergarten approach to numbers (go to his TeachForJune page on the right sidebar) whenever we do stories from now on. I figure that every class can concentrate on some aspect of the same number/group of numbers each week, and that will help keep me sane.

Learning songs through gestures and then later reading the words does so much…helps kids vocalize Russian sounds quickly (I mean that they say the words faster than they might); it also gives them reading ability faster, because these are all words they’ve heard, and we read them over and over. Finally, they remember all these words forever.

Just when it seems there’s no chance that kids could learn a complex song, they do, because we learn it in small chunks, with lots of gestures. One kid stayed after today to tell me that he’s trying to speak Russian all the time now, and that he uses all our gestures to help him remember the words that he wants to say. What a way to make my day at the end of my last class on a Friday!

Song for Saturday

Just ‘cuz it’s Saturday, check out the sweet song that I mentioned in the post yesterday. This version has English subtitles. You can think of me sailing down hills on my bike, singing it at the top of my lungs.

Lyrics Training

Just came across a post by Kristin that linked me to something called Lyrics Training.

Basically this allows you to find songs in your language (if you happen to teach English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese or German) that lets students work at their own pace through the lyrics of a range of songs rated easy, medium or hard.  Basically it’s a cloze exercise, but one that is synchronized with a video that you can listen to as often as you want to get the word, and that won’t let you progress until you get it.

I was seriously impressed with the selection of German videos; usually you get just a couple token videos, but this had quite a selection. If you go to “Advanced Search” you can even expand your options by choosing to work with videos that haven’t been formally reviewed yet (which makes me wonder what the purpose of a review is, but I’m not complaining).

This will slot very nicely with how I have my students do self-selected homework, but it does have the drawback of no real “filter” for songs (I recognize a couple that I wouldn’t show in class).  I guess I’m a bit of a prude, and I simply don’t show songs in class if I’m not comfortable with either the lyrics of video.  This opens up that floodgate a bit, but my students are pretty comfortable with where I draw the line for classroom viewing, so I don’t anticipate anything other than a couple complaints.


I really admire what some of my colleagues do with songs and poems: those beautiful little pages of fill-in pictures and words. I am usually unable to get those done for our songs. Today’s song could have really used it! Instead, I asked kids to listen to the song a couple of times and write down the words they knew as they heard it.

It seems that when kids have to do this kind of activity, they like the song better. It’s clear when they have to fill in the blanks on a song, they end up singing it. But even this very loose activity had great results. Maybe it’s that I choose to do that only with songs that have lots of words I think they’re going to understand. Or maybe it’s songs that I myself want to hear several times on the first day, and we have the same taste. When I just play a song and show the words, without any preparation, typically way more than half the kids do not like it.

It doesn’t matter. Two classes’ worth ended up liking the song that one of the kids had prepared, and now we’re going to have a great week singing.

Catching up with links

I promised I’d put Natalia’s great student self-evaluation rubric up as a post; it’s in this comment. Natalia says that she’s open for suggestions, but it looks PDG (pretty darned good) to me.

I also have the links to the videos of Tam teaching poems through TPRS. Here’s the link to the comment where I put those.

Have a fun Sunday! I think it snowed a lot here, so first I’m going to shovel, then ski to my classroom.

(PS I am linking this to songs because the videos show a way you could also teach songs.)

More on poetry

We had our local TPRS meeting today.

The plan was to discuss out how to work teaching poetry into a TPRS classroom. It ended up being more about some of the nuts and bolts of teaching poems to kids who need to memorize them for a purpose. I Flip-videod our speaker, a former TPR textbook writer and current university mentor for student teachers in world language, not to mention a TPRS and CI supporter (and school-board member hopeful), as she gave us a great demo of introducing a poem through gestures. The links to the videos are in comments below. She asked why we like to teach poems; her main two of three ideas were culture, and confidence: kids like having something that can roll off their lips, and it doesn’t take too long to teach them.

She taught us the first couplet of a French poem very quickly through TPR. It was fun to see how easy that made the learning, even on a Friday afternoon.

We talked briefly about how gestures seem to really nail in meaning, but that the best thing is to use every possible way to assure comprehension and recall: pictures, gestures, stories, questions, jokes, general silliness. Nick mentioned how use of gestures goes down as fluency goes up.

I was planning to talk about adding the TPRS twist to poem instruction, but then others started adding truly awesome ideas. Kristin shared a Laurie-inspired drawing-fill-in. Kids listen to the poem being read, and fill in the blanks with pictures. They could also go through the initial stages of learning the poem and do this exercise later. There is a word/picture bank on the left side of the page. Laurie had shown that to us two AFLA conferences ago; part of what she demonstrated was playing a song and having kids fill in the blanks as they listened to it. It’s very powerful. As usual, Kristin jumps on these ideas and makes them her own. I’m glad for the reminder.

Kristin's poem fill-in

Then Sophie (or Virginie…someone can correct me; I’m depending on Betsy’s retelling of this because I was sitting too far away) shared how she creates a four-column page (landscape view) with the poem in the middle two columns, and with rows marked off by couplet. In the outer two columns, kids draw pictures so that they can use them to tell the poem, having folded the paper so that they can’t see the poem if they’re ready to use just pictures as support, but they can then still open and get a sneak peek at the poem as needed. I think that we could use that technique with critical structures on the inside and drawings on the outside for any story as well!

I must break in here and say that Karen’s little boy was getting passed from person to person as well so everyone could get a baby fix. He put up with it admirably! He only started to cry when she told us that she had to leave. What, you want your son to lose time with language input???

Tam then shared how, when kids have learned a poem through gestures but haven’t seen it yet, she puts all the words for a poem randomly on a grid to project onto her screen. The kids have heard that the class is going to be completely silent. She starts by pointing at the first word in the poem somewhere in the grid, then the next one, and keeps going until she’s pointed out the first line. Then she holds out the pointer to the kids, some of whom are already wanting to do the next line. Pretty soon the entire class has helped point out the poem and she can hand them a copy of the grid and they can “write” the poem. Tam says it’s a terrific way to fool the brain so that the brain thinks the activity is to put the poem in order, when really it’s a reading activity.

It was great to see everyone. I wish I could have been able to hear what the ideas were for assessment, since a couple of people were oohing and aahing on the other side of the table, but maybe someone will send me a summary of the ideas. I love our little community.

K. leaned way across the table to explain that I still hadn’t answered her question in the following letter. I left my explanations, thinking they might help someone, but it turned out that she was talking about what to do once having asked kids to draw pictures after a weekend, for example. I said that we would talk about them, circle information on the drawings, work them into a story, use them for later assessments, and so on. Maybe other people have more specific answers for her.

Here’s her original note:


A quick question. When you have students draw pictures, how do you use the pictures?
I am feeling very uninspired right now, or rather a failure at this TPRS thing this year. Good thing there is a lot of year left for improvement :o)

Hi K,

I use pictures in a number of ways.

I like to quote Laurie Clarcq: she says that the purpose of language is to form a picture in someone’s mind. Drawing pictures helps remind kids that they should have a mental picture whenever they hear or read something.

That being said, sometimes pictures are a way that I get to repeat the information more often. After we’ve done a story, I might have one kid draw at the board, and everyone else draws at their seat while I repeat the story. We might number four-six pictures and then retell the story out of order; they have to say which picture represents each part of the story. Then I might start pieces of the story and have kids finish or embellish a given picture. I might do a dictation with short sentences from the story and then have them identify which pictures went with which sentence.

Once the language is falling out of their mouths, they can get into groups and retell the story: if there are four kids, they retell it once with each one telling about one picture. Then they switch and a different kid starts, or they all try to add as much as they can to picture #2.

Sometimes I hand out a reading and ask them to do a mural with all the pieces there.

If someone has a phone, they take pictures for me and send them so that I can post them on our website (here’s an example, if it works.)

If you do embedded readings, here’s a post about another idea for using drawings

Don’t feel discouraged. You’re awesome for trying it! New stuff is always hard to implement, especially when we’ve taught and learned for so many years in other ways, and the kids have too.


(Note: I’m tagging this under “songs” because that way people can find it if they want to use the idea for teaching songs. Usually we don’t talk so much about teaching poetry in TPRS.)

Brain Rules

Last year I went through all of John Medina’s brain rules on his website with great interest, and now Kate Hunt has reminded me about that with postings by Karen Rowan and Carol Gaab from the moretprs yahoo group.

Here’s Karen’s posting, which answered a query about how teachers can keep up the energy to do TPRS:

Sustainable TPRS: 

“I’d add one more thing to that. Read “Brain
 Rules.” In a lot of ways, the way we do TPRS 
isn’t brain friendly, mostly in the amount of
time between activity transitions. Since I read
this book in particular, but also previous brain 
research, I have re-worked TPRS with:
1. Real transitions. The brain pays attention
for only 10 minutes, so I change activities more often.
 2. Fake transitions. I do something in the
 middle of a story that includes the entire class,
so it’s not just me telling a story or a couple of people acting.
3. Processing transitions. Take a 30 second
break — turn to the person next to you and 
predict what could happen next in the
 story. (Stole that from Beth Skelton) Draw the 
story we just told using your left hand. 30
seconds. (Brain Rules — in order to transfer
information to processing by a different part of the brain) 

In an adult class in Washington in February I 
experimented with really following the Brain
 Rules advice and changing activities A
 LOT. Every few minutes I was asking them to get
 up. We did running dictation, reading a story
 and acting it out with a partner. I told a story
and they acted it out. They drew with their left
hands. The class went AMAZINGLY fast. When I
did it yesterday in class — randomly changing 
activities even within TPR, by grabbing a prop or
a picture or recycling older vocab, attention
 goes up. It has to be COMPELLING, comprehensible
 input, and if they aren’t paying attention…
well, it isn’t compelling. And the brain isn’t
capable of paying attention to one thing for more than a few minutes at a time.

It also says some pretty interesting things about
 how multi-tasking is a myth. No such 
thing. It’s a worthwhile read. It’s physically 
changed my teaching more than any other book I can think of lately.

Karen Rowan


Here’s what Carol had to say:

“In regard to the teacher who asked about TPRS being sustainable, I
wanted to throw out just a few tips for keeping it sustainable:
1) Use music
Once a week (or every other week) introduce a new song by decoding
the lyrics with students. Tell them about the song, play the song a
couple of times while students follow the lyrics with their finger. As
they build up a repetoir of song, play ‘old’ songs. Require students
to either a) follow the written lyrics as song is played. b) sing or
lip sync as it’s played. I play at least one song per class.

2) Use video
Play videos – but make sure they are completely comprehensible. Sr.
Wooly, Youtube, Cuéntame más interactive story cd, Extra, short
snipits (1-2 min.) from movies and TV shows.

3) Partner Work
Short activities (2-3 min.): practice vocab, re-tells, creating a new
ending to a story, inventing the next event/detail in a story,
reading, predicting the next event in a reading. My goal is a partner-
type activity every 15-20 min.

4) READ!
If you are reading engaging and interesting pieces, reading is very
low-energy / low-stress. Read with your classes!

5) Use a curriculum that is easy to use and requires little to no
prep! I may be a little biased, but the Cuéntame series is incredibly
teacher-friendly. Daily comprehensive lesson plans are provided,
including gestures, pqa, story-asking outlines, and concentrated
readings. To see/practice with the curricula, go to the ‘free
downloads’ at

6) Use any OTHER source that will provide compelling, contextualized,
comprehensible input.

Hope this helps-

Questions on Songs

Kate said I could post this discussion we’ve been having after a conversation we had on the metro from the Arch in St. Louis back to our conference hotel. Her remarks are in red.

…The idea of untying myself from testing with songs has been quite liberating…except…I forgot all of what you said. Can you help?

This is what I remember:

1. You do a new song every week or 6 days.
It might be longer, or shorter, depending on what is happening. Sometimes the pre-story or discussion or the post-song discussion will take longer, especially if we end up researching the singer or the time or something like that. In fact, sometimes it’s way longer…three weeks…
2. You teach the song like an embedded reading pulling out the nuggets that they will need to read the song.
Or I teach the story of the song, if there’s a good
YouTube or obvious story line. Or we go to cultural info or news or history background.
3. The class is listening to last week’s song sometimes while you are teaching this week’s song.
That’s why sometimes we go longer too, depending on how complex and interesting the new stuff is. Sometimes, if there’s a song that I don’t really like, I won’t go through all the pre-stuff. I’ll just throw their song up and we’ll do it a couple of days.
4. On any student’s B-day the given student chooses a song for the class to listen to/sing.
5. On Fridays, the class votes for 3 songs to sing.
It sort of depends on how kindergarten day has worked out, but it is often the way. Sometimes kids who’ve been really quiet in class have requests, or they ask for a song I want to hear, so I go with them!
6. In the 1st level they are not allowed to sing. They must mouth the words. You sing w/o them. Eventually they ask to sing. Not everyone actually
sings but most
do. THe ones who don’t have to mouth the words still…or sing softly?
I like those first-years to do our gestures and hear the words a lot. It depends of course on the kids. I keep saying they have to listen three more times before they can sing. By the time I let them sing over me (often there is no music, only my so-lovely voice, and they get very anxious), they are loud and clear.
7. You do not test on the songs. They are a reading to you with auditory overtures with fun and often a story included.
8. Students will often ask to listen to songs all day long if you are tired you say YES and feel like you got a bargain.
9. One time per year students must find a song in the language and run the lyrics through google translate and then fix the errors.

Some questions:
Where do you tell them to find the songs?
I give them a couple of good sites where a lot of songs are categorized. Then they all go ask Russians for their favorite songs and use YouTube after all.
Do they e-mail you the lyrics?
Yes. No song lyrics/translation, no go. Surfeit of inappropriateness, no go.
Do they complain when you don’t use their song?
If they want me to give their song and argue for earlier use, they can come share it with me at lunch. And then sometimes I use a song for just a couple of days, or play two in a day to see what the class does when they hear them. I keep hearing people say that they will play a song without teaching it at all while kids are coming in so that it gets into their heads and provides anticipation while you are pre-teaching the vocabulary, but first of all those people are way more organized than I am, and secondly, the kids I have would hear “their” song and demand to work on that one. Or I would get distracted and forget which song I was really doing. I’m sure it’s a good idea for a younger teacher.
What do you go over in the song -vocab? -grammar? -idioms?
I go over the translation in phases. Now I really like having the translation below the words instead of in a column (got that from Duke Crawford–lots of great songs on his site, I would imagine!). I do go over whatever I think they’reready for, but if I’ve pre-done the structures over several days and taught the story of the song, they don’t need too much of the vocab/grammar. We may discuss idioms, and when I say something is an idiom, the little pens get flashing and they try to use them.
Does the vocab show up in stories or so you teach around those words?
If it’s low
frequency, I don’t bother. I just make sure everything is comprehensible.
I’d really like to be free of testing on this but I also want to trick them into learning. You could do Victoria’s vocab-by-agreement tests. I’m sure she has other things she does. In fact, I’m going to copy her on this so she can tell me what I’m missing.

In the end, though, all the pre-telling and post-discussion leads us so many places that we don’t really need to test on the song. Does that make sense?

Singing the songs helps make us a community, and any vocabulary and grammar is such a small piece of everything we can do around a rich song that testing over that song seems to me to be anticlimactic. But on days when I’ve been really annoyed by off-task behavior, or want to remind the kids that they are supposed to be looking at words, etc, I have been known to give a pop quiz. The best result I ever had though, was telling them to use a phrase in a quick write. I loved finding out who chose which lines, and how they got to those phrases.

None of this is written in stone. I never planned any of it from the beginning, just tried to follow what sounded like good ideas from others, or what was interesting to my kids. This
is what has happened in my room as I’ve used songs more and more. A lot of other different stuff might happen to you. I really want to get more into visuals this year, as well as into the songs that come from classical poems. Those have a lot of history behind them.

Top 10 Chart

As we had been marching through some novels with all of my classes I decided to give them a break and do a straight music day. Normally I’ll roll out one song every so often and spend the day on it; if necessary I’ll pre-teach the vocab a day before, PQA it, etc. so we’re ready to roll.  Not today, though.  I realized that I hadn’t been giving my students new ideas to branch out on homework for a while, so I decided to just show them snippets of a bunch of songs: the German top ten singles chart for April.

To be honest, I love seeing that chart (on for German teachers) whenever it comes out because I always learn about a couple new bands that I had no idea about.  This month’s crop was especially exciting for me as a teacher because I realized that the chorus to about four of the songs prominently featured a bunch of words from the vocab lists we’re working on this quarter.

Gotta love working with high frequency words; they’re–you know–high frequency.

So, we just started with Number 1 and worked our way to number 10.  Yeah, I should have gone backwards to build up the suspense thing, but this particular set got progressively wierder the later you went, so that’s what I wanted to end my class on.  We worked through the chorus of every song, and then I showed snippets of each song until I either got bored or the song got really interesting.  Often the calls would ring out: “Keep going!” “Why’d you stop it?”  Heh heh heh. Mission accomplished;  I was just trying to get them hooked anyway.

As it turns out the best song of the bunch wasn’t on the list, but rather a song that came out a couple years ago from an artist on the list (Stadt by Cassandra Steen).  We played that one all the way through and were able to get  a great discussion going about how sometimes life is tough and if you want something good you have to actively build it rather than just wait for it to come (this really came out in the video).

I ended the day with a quiz having them translate a couple lines from choruses that we had really worked with that day and that had several high frequency words from our word list.  As it turns out there was a huge range in the students’ favorite songs (which was the final question on my quiz) and it was kind of nice to have a little something for everybody.

We then finished the day with a quick comparison of  how the themes featured in this top ten list (making the most of life, dealing with problems) are different than in America’s current favorites (“They’re all just about partying!”).  That discussion could have–and should have–gone longer, but I’ll have to remember that for the future.