With a Little Help from My Friends

Using the Beatles in the ELT classroom

Chris Walklett

Recent surveys, such as Kaplan (2013) https://www.kaplaninternational.com/blog/how-to-teach-english-kaplan-infographic, have shown that, in the ELT classroom, music is the most popularly used form of all media types with 86% of teachers having used songs in class. This means that it easily outstrips other uses of popular media used in English language classes.

The Kaplan survey questioned 500 English teachers across 40 countries and found that 40% of those interviewed had used Beatles’ songs in their classes at least once. The survey also highlighted that the Beatles were, by far, the most popularly used musical artists in English language teaching. This seems particularly striking given that the band split up almost fifty years ago.

This short article will examine why the music of the Beatles remains popular and why their songs are so commonly used in ELT. Then, it will focus on how three ELT professionals from different parts of the world use the music of the Beatles in their teaching.

Why does the Beatles’ music remain so popular? If we are talking generally (i.e. not specifically related to ELT reasons),  this could be said to include:

  • The power, emotion and melody of their music
  • The vocal clarity and harmony of the vocals
  • The simplicity (and conversely, in turn, the complexity) of their lyrics
  • The song’s themes – which are invariably universal, and full of wisdom and insight
  • The (seeming) timelessness of both the music and the message therein 
  • Lastly, but not least, the way their songs tend to connect with people. This perhaps more than others remains a rather mysterious quantity 

In regard to using Beatles’ songs specifically in the ELT classroom, many of the reasons above still apply, but consideration should also be made as to these additional factors:  

  • That students tend to find their songs likable, relatable and, perhaps strangely given how old the songs are, relevant and current
  • That despite some complex language, delivery is almost always clear
  • That they possess a certain ‘singalongability’ i.e. their songs are rhythmic, catchy and memorable 

One would think that, given the strength of the songs & the possibilities therein, there would be a lot of innovative ELT material out there based on Beatles’ songs. Indeed, while it is true that the internet is awash with Beatles’ material for use in the classroom,  on closer inspection, activities on the internet often amount to little more than gap-fills and biographical activities, showing little, if any, innovation in usage.

It became clear that to find original and pedagogically sound use of Beatles’ materials, one needs to cast the net wider; so, I began the task of consulting colleagues and others in the industry as to what uses they put Beatles’ material to in their classrooms. What follows is a much more simplified account (as there were many more contributors) of the ideas highlighted by three ELT tutors in order to give a flavour into the possibilities that, with a little thought and effort, exist.

Jean Theuma – an experienced English language teacher based in Malta uses the Beatles’ song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds for awareness-raising on the subject of nouns modifying other nouns (more specifically known as attributive nouns). Activities from her detailed lesson plan suggest that students should try to work out what the combinations from the song might be before listening and checking accordingly. Further sourcing of related artwork from the internet containing pictures of these items. For example, newspaper taxis might prove helpful to students attempting such an activity.

Carol Samlal is a teacher who is relatively new to ELT and mostly works with ESOL classes in the UK. She highlighted what she does with the Beatles’ song Blackbird. She suggests that this song can be used for a CLIL lesson, opening up the classroom to the issue of the historical struggles of black people living in the USA. Carol recommends focusing on the figurative language in the song and discussing what (event/s) might have inspired this song. She suggests expanding the topic to consider the issue of hope in today’s world, asking students the question: which leaders inspire hope? A follow-up activity from here would be for students to find other examples of songs that inspire hope and for them to present their ideas related on this to the class in a later session.

Sandra Heyer – who is based in the US is a teacher and runs a website https://sandraheyersongs.com/ where she constructs lesson plans for various songs including many Beatles’ ones – explains her lesson plan for the Beatles’ song Here Comes the Sun focuses on how the weather affects our mood, especially SAD (seasonal affected disorder). Such a subject may be applicable to students studying in, for example, the UK in the winter months. The material includes a background to the writing of the song and a grammar activity on it’s been vs it was.

Here is Carol’s outline lesson plan For Blackbird

  • Ask your students to think about the meanings of these lines from the lyrics (figurative language)
    Take these broken wings and learn to fly / Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.
  • Discuss what they might mean ( note any words such as struggle, despair, hope, faith, etc. – synonyms )
  • Play the song, let them listen for the lines. Play it again, do they hear any other lines that refer to hope?
  • What is the message in the song? (share lyrics)
  • What (event) inspired the song? Share the story (a choice of articles on the internet) – Discuss
  • Critical thinking: get students to understand why these events took place at that time/ what is the impact of segregation?/ why is hope necessary in today’s world?/ which leaders inspire hope? (Jacinda Arden e.g.)
  • Extension: research/presentation on related topic / other songs that inspire hope.

Despite the fact that there is a lot of Beatles’ related material out there both in coursebooks and on the internet, much of it tends to be of poor quality. We clearly have to look further, work harder and think smarter to do justice to the Beatles’ canon of work when employing it in the ELT classroom. Perhaps we might even consider what the three contributors above have done, putting in thought and effort and taking the time to make our own.