Pop Song Lyrics in the University EFL Class

Since the role of literature or “literary” texts in language teaching was reevaluated in the 1980s in the U.K. and the U.S.A, the range of literary texts used in classrooms, the proficiency level of the students and the way of using those materials have all expanded. Continue Reading


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Proceedings and Papers 2011

Pop Song Lyrics in the University EFL Class

Kyoko Kuze

1. Introduction

Since the role of literature or “literary” texts in language teaching was reevaluated in the 1980s in the U.K. and the U.S.A, the range of literary texts used in classrooms, the proficiency level of the students and the way of using those materials have all expanded. Inspired by this movement, the current study focuses on a university EFL class in Japan, which uses modern pop song lyrics as teaching materials. It aims to explore how this type of literary texts works in the classroom by examining discourse of a teacher and students, and by analyzing student responses from the results of questionnaires. The study also reflects a growing interest in empirical studies that employ a close examination of what is going on in a natural classroom setting with literary texts. The findings suggest that pop song lyrics can generate a variety of classroom activities to develop meaningful discussions, especially concerning interpretation and personal connections. It also reveals that learners regard pop song lyrics as useful and motivating materials for their foreign language learning.

2. Conceptual Framework

2.1 Previous studies

Literature, which had been disregarded in language education for a time, was reevaluated as a classroom material in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, owing to “convergence of ideas from two main sources: literary criticism and communicative language teaching” (Gilroy & Parkinson, 1997, p.213). The interest in this area of research has continued since then, but the fact that most of studies in this area have been theoretical has recently encouraged researchers to pay more attention to empirical studies, including analysis of the reading process of individual learners and examinations of interactions in classrooms with literary texts (Hanauer, 2001; Kim, 2004; Carter, 2007; Paran, 2008).

Paran (2008) convincingly categorizes these empirical studies into two types: exploration of contribution of literature to language learning, and the attitudes of teachers and learners. The first includes research on interactions in the literature and language classroom (e.g. Boyd & Maloof, 2000; Kim, 2004), the roles of the teacher, the task, and the reader. The research in the second type can be subdivided into two kinds of study: large-scale surveys, and analysis of student reactions or feedback on specific courses or classes with literary texts. Interestingly, while results from research on student reactions or feedback are generally positive, most large-scale surveys do not have favorable results for literature, excluding those by Davis, Carbon Correll, Kline & Hsieh (1992), which show the respondents found their literature studies rewarding in the context of U.S. foreign language departments. Among those surveys, Martin & Laurie (1993) tested the hypothesis that students do not perceive literary studies to be useful in helping them to achieve their primary goal of oral proficiency in French courses in an Australian university, and concluded that the hypothesis was supported. Qiping & Shubo (2002), claiming the importance of the role of literature in English departments in Chinese universities, revealed that “34 percent of the teachers of English literature were found by the students to conduct ‘boring’ classes, mainly because the teaching tended to be in the form of a monologue rather than a dialogue” (p.321).

2.2 Pop song lyrics as materials

Although it might be controversial to regard pop song lyrics as “literary” materials, we should now take into consideration the fact that the range of literary texts expanded along with the movement of resurgence of literary materials in language teaching in the 1980s. Hanauer (2001), analyzing the reading processes of “Suzanne takes you down”, pop song lyrics, states the following:

The reading of literature is a naturalistic task that exists within the realm of real-world language use. This is especially true since the canon wars within the field of literary research have redefined literature to include a wide variety of texts and reading situations including the lyrics of popular songs. (p.297)

Hullah (2007) defines the role of song lyrics in his instructions as “catalysts to stimulate individual response to and contemplation and discussion of issues and themes thereby suggested” (p.6), and this claim is relevant to the remarks of “the potential of literature to engender student talk” (Boyd and Maloof, 2000, p.166). “Authenticity” of the materials is also emphasized in Hullah (2007), which claims that “offering learners ‘real’ examples of the target language is always preferable to the employment of texts specifically designed and written for EFL study” (p.6). Authenticity of the materials is also regarded as one of the essential features in the classroom conducted in Communicative Language Teaching.

2.3 Research Questions

This qualitative study analyzes classroom discourse to examine how pop song lyrics work in the context of university EFL classrooms in Japan and the questionnaires to students to understand how they feel about the materials and instructions. In the study, the following three research questions are raised:

1) What characteristics are there in in-class interactions regarding pop song lyrics?

2) What kinds of activities does the teacher engender to improve student English ability?

3) How do students perceive the learning experience of the pop song lyrics?

3. Methods

3.1 The settings and the participants

This study was conducted in 2008, in the second semester class of Reading 2B, a compulsory English course for 2nd-year students at Meiji Gakuin University in Japan. Students in this class belonged to Department of English, The Faculty of Literature, and they would be affiliated into three majors in the next two years: English literature, American literature, and linguistics. The number of students was 26 in class on October 6, and 18 in class on December 22. Their English proficiency level was intermediate with approximately 500 points in TOEFL-ITP, or Grade 2 in Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency. The teacher was a native speaker, and had been teaching at universities in Japan for more than fifteen years. He was the writer of the textbook that was used in class.

To have students sufficiently prepared and meaningfully involved, at the beginning of the semester the teacher gave an orientation on how to read poetry and how to participate in class. Class was conducted along with the textbook, and students were regularly required to read song lyrics before class and to write comments (e.g. what they felt about each unit lyric) and questions (e.g. which part they could not understand) in a notebook. Their notebooks or pieces of writing were collected and evaluated by the teacher twice during the semester. Alongside reading and discussing song lyrics in class, students were also assigned to read graded readers and to write book reports on them. Assessment was based on class performance of the students, notebooks, and the final essay examination.

3.2 Materials and tasks

More Songs of Ourselves , was used as a textbook throughout the semester and one unit is usually covered in each class. A unit consists of three parts: 1) pre-reading and listening activities, 2) reading the lyric and listening to the song, and 3) post-reading and listening activities, including a comprehension check, composition, and group work. Unit 1 ‘IS THAT A FACT?’ (Truth and Guessing): Nine Million Bicycles by Katie Melua was used for class on October 8, 2008 and Unit 16 ‘METAPHORS’ (Describing Ourselves): I am a Town by Mary Chapin Carpenter was used for class on December 22, 2008.

3.3 Data collection

Data were collected twice during the semester by the following means: two class hours of observation with audio- and video-taping, field notes, questionnaires, and syllabus analysis. The first observation took place on October 6, 2008, the first day the class read song lyrics. The second observation was on December 22, 2008, which was the last day before a review class and the final examination in January. Two questionnaires (pre/post) were given out on October 6 and December 22 and filled out by students for approximately fifteen minutes.

Only “lesson talk” was analyzed in this study. According to the definitions in Boyd & Maloof (2000), “lesson talk” is defined as the talk related to the class lesson, as opposed to classroom management talk (p.169).

3.4 Data analysis

All audio-taped interactions, which included the teacher’s instructions and classroom discussions, were transcribed in order. To specify relevant topical themes in student interactions with the text, the teacher, and other students, the classroom discourse was categorized using a framework modified from Kim (2004). Kim (2004) examined discussion of L2 adult learners in literature circles and proposed five categories of utterances in student responses based on the cording system in Eeds and Wells (1989). Considering the nature of the class in this study, the transcribed utterances were analyzed using a total of six categories of the topical themes: 1) student reactions, 2) literal comprehension, 3) personal connections, 4) interpretation, 5) related activities, and 6) lecture, to answer Research Question 1 and 2.

The results of two sets of questionnaires were analyzed to perceive students’ attitudes toward the experience of reading and discussing pop song lyrics, to answer Research Question 3.

4. Findings

4.1 What characteristics are there in in-class interactions about pop song lyrics?

After in-class interactions were examined along with the topical themes, time that was spent in each category was calculated and shown in the Table 1.

Student reactions

As an introductory part of each class, the teacher asked the students a typical question, for example, “How did you feel about the lyrics?” to get the students’ general reactions regarding the lyric assigned. Several students shared impressions like, “It was difficult for me.” Others tried to speak about relevant themes, such as their interpretation of the text. This introductory activity helped students to become more emotionally involved in the text and class.

Literal comprehension

Kim (2004) illustrates, in his observation of literature circles, how students worked together to create a meaning that all group members agreed on and how they developed their communicative competency through literature discussions. In some parts of the class in this study, students shared their difficulties in understanding certain expressions and sentences. They often asked for assistance from the teacher, and sometimes had opportunities to help one another to clarify the meanings and ambiguities.

Personal connections

In most cases, when students read literary materials, they often relate the text to their own experiences and values. Moreover, they share these personal matters in discussion. Kim (2004) states, “The process of making personal connections generated optimal conditions for students to communicate their own thinking meaningfully in the target language” (p.153). The following is an example of interactions concerning personal connections.

Excerpt 1: Class on December 22, 2008 [An example of Personal connections]

Teacher: And tell me your original metaphor, Student 1 (“S1”)! S1, hello. What…tell me your original metaphor.

S1: My original metaphor is I am [a] see-saw.

Teacher: See-saw! Wow. Now, all right. What S1 said is “I am a see-saw.” S2, do you know S1? Do you know her well? What do you think S1 means by this?…See-saw, and S1. What the similarity? You know what the see-saw is.

S2: She is … indecisive.

Teacher: You think the see-saw is indecisive?

S2: Yeah, the see-saw always moves like this.

Teacher: Come up and down, up and down, up and down?

S2: She cannot decide which one is more better… more good.

Teacher: So, up and down, up and down like a see-saw. (To S1) Do you agree?

S1: Yeah.

Teacher: You think so? Or do you have a different idea, S3?

S3: …I think if I want to play [a] see-saw, I cannot play it well, so when I want to play [a] see-saw, I cannot play it by myself. So I think she thinks she cannot exist by herself.

Teacher: Fantastic! She doesn’t exist herself. She has to have her company. S4, what do you think? What would you say if S1 says I’ m a see-saw?

S4: I thought her emotion is sometimes up and down.

Teacher: Her emotion! Moody? Moody! Sometimes up, sometimes down. Sometimes up, sometimes down. This is wonderful! This is great! I am a see-saw, so, I go moody, indecisive, and how about saying “craving company.” Is that all right?

S5: For example, she is absorbed in things, something like a jewel.

Teacher: Jewel?

S5: Yes, diamond. For example, she loves something, but if…on the other side of see-saw, on the counter side of see-saw, if there is an attractive thing, she moves.

Teacher: The English word for that? The English word for that? A very good word, fickle. Do you know the word “fickle”? Changeable, fickle…(writing words on the board)Moody, indecisive, craving company, and fickle. Anything else? This is great. (To S1), when you say I am a see-saw, what did you mean?

S1: I think I am indecisive.

Teacher: So this was your meaning. This was what you…you intended to say. Ya? Now, see what happened. You see what happened here. (To class) S1 uses a very good, very good metaphor. Quite simple. But even though it is quite simple, we have interpreted her metaphor in different ways. See, when a poet… a poet writes a poem, the poet loses control, because the reader decides. The reader makes the meaning. And sometimes the poet, the writer might say, いやいや違う、違う。But it doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter because we can create, we can make the meaning. Literature allows you, me and everybody to be creative. So metaphors can be read in different ways. But sometime there is agreement…


Kim (2004) claims that readers of the fiction sometimes go beyond the literal meaning of the text to look for a deeper, hidden meaning and that they like describing the characteristics of the main characters. Likewise, students in this class using song lyrics appeared to like exchanging their opinions regarding what kind of person the writer is and on what kind of song this is. In this course, students usually discussed in a small group first, and then interacted with other students and the teacher. The following excerpt illustrates how the teacher successfully led the class to recognize the main themes of the lyrics.

Excerpt 2: Class on October 6, 2008 [An example of Interpretation]

Teacher: What kind of song do you think it is? Let’s put a word or two, S6?

S6: I think it is a one-sided love song.

Teacher: One-sided love song!

S6: …because she is not sure that her lover loves her.

Teacher: Wow, did you think that now, or did you think before the class?

S6: Before class.

Teacher: Wow, so you thought that.

S6: Yes, yes.

Teacher: Wow, you felt this song is she is not so sure.

S6: Yes.

Teacher: That’s great. Yes, I think that’s exactly right. She is not actually very confident. Excellent! Why did you think that, (to S6)? Or, what part of the song?

S6: “Just believe everything that I say.”

Teacher: Yes, that’s a good strategy. When you are reading a poem…I will give you another tip. When you are reading a lyric or a poem, sometimes you find one line which really stands out. That’s often something that seems to be contradiction to the rest of it.

Teacher: For me, I believe, for me, when she says “Don’t call me a liar,” it’s a kind of strange. Because nobody says she is a liar. Bur she says “don’t call me a liar.” Strange! And “high on wire” is as well. The image which is not confident. Good! Thank you. Ah, S7, what kind of song do you think it is?

S7: I think it’s a love song.

Teacher: And what kind of love song? You have to say something, something love song. Positive? Confident?

S7: Positive.

Teacher: You do, too? OK. You know, another interesting thing is that the meaning we make for a poem will tell everybody about our personality. That’ll make you a positive person. All right? Why do you think so?

S7: Because she says “I will love you till I die” twice.

Teacher: Repetition! They are repeating. That’s something we can find in the songs more than in written poetry.

Related activities

Students were assigned a variety of pre/post-reading activities, including internet research. In addition, the teacher had students share the information they found and their opinions, and succeeded in bringing their attention to key words in the unit, for example, the word “fact” in Unit 1.


Although this class was not teacher-centered or lecture-based, it took, in some parts, the form of lecture; the teacher needed to explain the meaning of the lyrics and introduce the idea of how students should read lyrics. In class on December 22, he explained to students about “conceptual coherence” and “metaphor”, which led to more intellectual involvement when reading the lyrics.

Table 1 shows how much time was spent in each category of the topical themes.




Personal Connections





October 6 6:45 5:01 17:29 30:49 5:21 0 65:25
December 22 13:14 4:19 14:06 10:53 0 10:52 53:24

Table 1: Time spent in each category (minutes: seconds)

4.2 What kinds of activities does the teacher engender to improve student English ability?

Previous studies imply that it is often difficult for literary texts to incorporate a variety of classroom activities. The respondents in Martin & Laurie (1993) believed that literature in language classes would contribute to their reading skills, but hardly to any of the other skills. Yang (2002) gave evidence that the traditional teacher-centred class on literature resulted in a sharp drop in student attendance. In Japan, it is implied that literature in English class has been marginalized because it is not relevant to language activities to promote learners’ practical communication ability. Therefore, even though the title of this course is “reading”, it is worthwhile to seek possibilities that literary texts can contribute to overall English skills, including listening, writing, and speaking, in the context of EFL, where student exposure to English is very limited.

An analysis of the syllabus and field notes shows that the following activities or tasks were given by the teacher in class on October 6, 2008. The numbers in parentheses indicate approximate time of each activity.




Reading Reading lyrics (20)Internet research (15) Reading lyrics aloudIntensive reading Reading lyrics
Writing Answering questions (15)Journal writing (30) Note-taking Journal rewriting (30)Preparation for essay test
Speaking Discussion , Pair work (15)
Listening Discussion, The song (3)Class participation

Table 2: Activities in class on October 6, 2008 (minutes)

4.3 How do students perceive the learning experience of pop song lyrics?

Positive Fairly positive Fairly negative Negative
Pre Post Pre Post Pre Post Pre Post
19% (5) 33% (6) 65% (17) 59% (9) 12% (3) 11% (2) 4% (1) 6% (1)

Table 3: What is your impression of literary materials in language learning?

(Numbers in parentheses indicate responses in each category. Pre: class on October 6, n=26, Post: December 22, n=18)

Positive Fairly positive Fairly negative Negative
Pre Post Pre Post Pre Post Pre Post
46% (12) 39% (7) 38% (10) 56% (10) 15% (4) 6% (1) 0 0

Table 4: Do you think literary materials are useful in improving overall English skills?

(Numbers in parentheses indicate responses in each category. Pre: class on October 6, n=26, Post: December 22, n=18)

Positive Fairly positive Fairly negative Negative
Pre Post Pre Post Pre Post Pre Post
Reading 73% (19) 67% (12) 23% (6) 33% (6) 0 0 4% (1) 0
Writing 31% (8) 33% (6) 59% (13) 33% (6) 19% (5) 22% (4) 0 11% (2)
Speaking 12% (3) 22% (4) 27% (7) 33% (6) 46% (12) 33% (6) 19% (5) 11% (2)
Listening 8% (2) 17% (3) 19% (5) 33% (6) 50% (13) 33% (7) 19% (5) 11% (2)

Table 5: Do you think literary materials are useful in improving each English skill?

(Numbers in parentheses indicate responses in each category. Pre: class on October 6, n=26, Post: December 22, n=18)

Regarding student impressions of literary materials in language learning shown in Table 3, it might be difficult to claim remarkable differences between the results of the two questionnaires. This is partly due to the fact that the number of students in class on December 22 (post) dropped because the class was scheduled in the middle of a holiday season. Another reason could be that the students in this study may have anticipated having an interesting course from their experiences of learning with the same teacher in the previous semester. However, when the students were asked about the usefulness of literary materials in improving their overall English skills, we see an increase of positive answers in Table 4. “Positive” and “fairly positive” responses increased from 84% to 95%, and those of “fairly negative” went down from 15% to 6%. To justify the increase of positive answers, in class on December 22 (post), three students pointed out “authenticity” in the materials, in addition to other responses, such as “pleasurable”, “helpful in expanding vocabulary”, and “useful in learning expressions and styles”. Table 5 analyzes student perceptions in each language skill and it indicates remarkable differences in “speaking”, which goes up from 39% to 55% in the total number of “positive” and “fairly positive”, and in “listening”, which also increases from 27% to 50% in these two categories.

The following shows student impressions about pop song lyrics. To this question, the students could choose more than one item from multiple-choice answers.

Pre Post Pre Post
Pleasurable 15 (58%) 9 (50%) Difficult 23 (88%) 13 (72%)
Good in language learning 7 (27%) 7 (39%) Not good in language learning 0 1 ( 6%)
Cultural enrichment 5 (19%) 6 (33%) Boring 4 (15%) 1 ( 6%)
Personal growth 11 (42%) 9 (50%) Impractical 2 ( 8%) 0

Table 6: What is your impression of pop song lyrics in class?

(Numbers in parentheses indicate responses in each category. Pre: class on October 6, n=26, Post: December 22, n=18)

According to Table 6, the percentage of students who answered song lyrics were good in “cultural enrichment” and “personal growth” slightly increases after a series of classes, and the number of students who answered song lyrics were “difficult”, “boring”, and “impractical” sharply decreases near in the end of the semester. One of the students explained the reason of his positive impression by saying, “It is pleasurable because there is not a single correct answer in the activities on these materials”.

When students were asked to write their comments on the materials and activities, six of them highlighted their pleasure in interpretation of those literary materials, while five students pointed out difficulty in interpreting poetry, three of them claiming, “Poetry is more difficult than fiction.”

5. Discussion

This paper explored how pop song lyrics or literary texts worked in the context of the university EFL class in Japan. For this purpose, classroom discourse between the teacher and students was examined and classified into the topical themes. Thereupon student responses in two questionnaires were analyzed.

The qualitative analysis of classroom discourse in this study provides evidence that pop song lyrics have the potential to create student interactions with the texts, the teacher, and other students in meaningful discussion, especially on topical themes concerning interpretation and personal connections. The study also shows that interactions in this class did not have regular IRE or IRF (teacher initiation, student response, teacher evaluation or follow-up) sequences of structure, which may “provide few opportunities for developing communicative competence” (Boyd and Maloof, 2000, p.164). The class provided students with opportunities to create original response to questions and to exchange their expressions, opinions, and personal experiences.

In participating in classroom activities with pop song lyrics, students perceived that those materials are sufficiently useful to develop oral proficiency as well as reading skills, although it was previously concluded that students do not perceive literary studies to be useful in helping them to achieve their primary goal of oral proficiency (Martin and Laurie, 2000). The achievement in this study seems to owe a great deal to the textbook and the teacher. Each unit in the textbook calls for personal response and pair/group discussion, and provides a variety of exercises and activities to develop overall language skills, including listening and speaking. As Kim (2004) points out, the teacher should play a significant role in orchestrating and supporting both student interaction with the text and interactions with other students. The teacher in this study had elaborately planned all classroom activities and procedures beforehand and facilitated student interactions during class hours.

The data in the two questionnaires indicate that students highly evaluated pop song lyrics as motivating and meaningful materials. More students gave positive responses both on the materials and on the class in the second questionnaire (post). Those responses demonstrate that students were thinking of pop song lyrics as not only effective materials for their foreign language learning, but also as pleasurable ones. It is worth noting that some of the students appreciated authenticity in the materials. Offering learners authentic materials is a key feature in Communicative Language Teaching and, at the same time, this is how literature can contribute to language learning.

6. Conclusion

This study was to examine closely what is going on in a natural classroom setting which uses pop song lyrics, reflecting a growing interest in empirical studies. The study confirmed that literary texts can engender meaningful classroom activities and discussion, and that students highly evaluate the materials and the relevant instructions.

It was often difficult to conduct a study in real classes. In processing classroom discourse, I realized that the amount of student talk was not sufficient to be analyzed. It might be of interest to examine the content of student talk in discussion with more active student participations and to focus on how the teacher promotes such talk. Furthermore, presenting the results from only two questionnaires may not be convincing enough. In this study, students could anticipate that they would have pleasurable and beneficial class even on the first day, and also the number of students sharply declined on the last day due to the reason mentioned in 4.3.

Despite these limitations, it is still worthwhile to examine real classes using literary texts to support the claims that literary texts can play a significant role in language learning and that learners are interested both in the materials and activities.


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