TESOL Connections

TESOL Board Connect: Learning Never Ceases—A Student of Leadership

by Gabriela Kleckova

TESOL past president Gabriela Kleckova takes a look at the new tasks, challenges, and relationships that come with any new leadership position and considers the role of mistakes in leadership and learning. She shares a recent change in her current position at her university, discussing how (despite her familiarity with the position and experience in leadership roles) the unexpected challenges took her by surprise. 

In my 25+ years in the profession, I have served in numerous leadership roles in TESOL as well as outside TESOL. I have taken part in leadership training opportunities, read on leadership, reflected on leadership, and written on leadership. I have developed confidence in leading people and have grown with every new leadership experience, TESOL presidency being the far most educational of all of them. On the novice to expert scale (Dreyfus, 2004), I would describe myself as proficient in leadership.

Making Mistakes and Facing Challenges

With any new leadership position, we face new tasks, challenges, practices, and relationships. There is always a learning curve, and mistakes are an integral and important part of this learning. We enter a new role knowing learning will happen. When it happens to me, I remind myself of my favorite quote on mistakes:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. (Gaiman, 2011)

I fully embrace these processes and have strategies to turn challenges into opportunities for myself and others. However, I currently face a leadership situation that has caught me off guard: The hard learning is happening in a role and context I have established myself in—not in a new leadership position.

Unexpected Changes in Familiar Contexts: Reasons for Personal Growth

I have chaired the English Department at my university for 12 years, and we are lucky to have had new hires in the past 3 years. The newcomers have developed relationships among themselves and created a cohesive team that is ready to support the vision for the department. Until now, I have always been able to turn to two or three people for support in improving our second language teacher education (SLTE) program quality. Now, I have four more. Basically, half of my department is ready to act as a team and in alignment with new research and current practices in SLTE—a dream come true.

Yes, I am very lucky! Yet, I have been challenged by this new reality. I am unexpectedly confronted with new dynamics in a very familiar context. For such a long time, I have been leading and managing the department in a certain mode that has helped me to bridge the existing gaps in values and practices. The gaps still exist, but I suddenly have the majority of my staff committed to the same vision. I have the foundation for synergy and effective collaboration in the department (Zoglio, 2001) that I have never experienced before.

Two recent events, an orientation for new students and a collaborative project proposal, have unveiled that I am to face a big learning curve that I primarily associate with new leadership positions. Group reflections that followed both events provided me with feedback on my leadership style and collaboration. They showed needs for my growth in the new circumstances. I am called to adjust my leadership style and behaviors and find new paths for leading and managing the department. The new conditions ask for new approaches, which I will need to identify in the upcoming months.

My current leadership challenge reminds me that learning never ceases—even in contexts we are well familiar with. It is important to remain a student of what we are proficient or event expert in, be it leadership or teaching.


Dreyfus, S. E. (2004). The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 24(3), 177–181. https://doi.org/10.1177/0270467604264992

Gaiman, N. (2012). My New Year wish. https://journal.neilgaiman.com/2011/12/my-new-year-wish.html

Zoglio, S. W. (2001). 7 keys to building great workteams. https://www.agileconnection.com/article/7-keys-building-great-work-teams

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Gabriela Kleckova, PhD, is TESOL International Association past president (2022–2023). She chairs the English Department at the Faculty of Education, University of West Bohemia, in the Czech Republic, where she also teaches second language teacher education courses. Her professional interests include the effectiveness and utility of visual design of ELT materials, teacher education, innovation in education, and leadership. Her most recent publication, coedited with Justin Quinn, is titled Anglophone Literature in Second-Language Teacher Education: Curriculum Innovation Through Intercultural Communication (Routledge, 2021). For TESOL’s 50th anniversary, she was named one of 30 emerging leaders shaping the future of the profession.

TESOL ELevate 2022: Raising the ELT Bar

by Gracie Allely

The 2022 TESOL ELevate conference, an online event for primary and secondary English language professionals, drew more than 900 participants. Attendees engaged in workshops designed to help them support their multilingual learners, connected with colleagues across the world, and gathered new skills and strategies. Participants share what they learned and their most impactful takeaways. 

More than 900 English language professionals from more than 20 countries came together for TESOL ELevate (2022 October 18–19). ELevate was an engaging and interactive online event with sessions facilitated by English language teaching experts.

About ELevate

The virtual event held 16 synchronous sessions on critical areas in the field, including

  • student-centered learning,
  • advocacy and social justice,
  • newcomers and students with limited or interrupted formal education,
  • family engagement, and
  • trauma-informed practices.

Participants joined sessions via Zoom, and the event was hosted on TESOL’s Canvas platform.


Participants started each day together in the main room. Day 1 started with a discussion between Debbie Zacarian and Diego Boada to engage on what motivates us as educators and to help us dig into existing challenges and explore opportunities ahead. On Day 2, all the participants came together to explore advocacy from the local and personal to the national and global levels. The discussion was guided by the issues the participants identified in an advocacy survey. As a group, ELevate participants examined the shared themes and became energized in their advocacy.

After the kickoff, each day, participants got to choose which sessions they wanted to participate in. All the sessions were recorded, enabling attendees to watch any session they missed and access the session materials on the ELevate Canvas page.

Participant Takeaways

More than 96% of participants said that they found ELevate to be a great experience and would recommend attending next year!

Here are some of the key takeaways that participants shared with us:

“I have learned how to start class with interesting warmer activities. Especially for the different aged and second language students.”

–Bolororgil Galsan (Mongolia)

“I will use the information from Dr. Manuel Gomez Portillo’s presentation, ‘Culturally Responsive Family Engagement: Amplifying the Voices of Diverse Families.’ I work as a third-grade EL teacher. Our staff could benefit from analyzing the case studies.

"Minimal contact does not mean that the parent does not care about their child’s success. Our district sends out weekly messages to smartphones. Expecting every household to have a smartphone with an unlimited data plan is unrealistic. We need to send home printed notices in multiple languages to reach all families.”

–Kathy Lanette Cohran (USA)

“I have learned about TESOL's 6 Principles for engaging young learners and I’m going to use the activities and principles when delivering training to teachers on how to teach young learners.”

–Heba Khalil (Egypt)

“I learned that teaching online can be as interactive as face-to-face teaching. I have learned from the instructors that break-out rooms are a perfect way to include group work in online teaching and learning.

"I also loved the fact that the workshops were dealing with contemporary topics…I acquired the necessary skills and solutions handed down to us by the TESOL ELevate instructors.

"Thank you TESOL ELevate!”

–Catherine Nansobya (Uganda)

“Some sections were cozy and familiar, while others were genuine eye-openers. For instance, the talk by Mary Romney on incorporating diverse English into listening material. I’ve been using audio materials recorded by non-native speakers for nearly a decade, yet during the talk, I realized that open-minded as I am, I still strived to choose the talks with speakers whose accents were as close to the [received pronunciation] and/or [standard southern British] as possible. It was a revelation to me. Now I plan on changing that to raise my students’ awareness of the variety of Englishes and to boost their cultural and linguistic tolerance.”

–Aida Rodomanchenko (Russia)

Learn More

To learn more about this year’s TESOL ELevate presenters and their workshops, visit the TESOL ELevate website.

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Gracie Allely has taught K–12 ESL internationally for more than 10 years. She completed her master’s degree in English language learning at the University of North Dakota (UND) and is currently completing her educational doctorate in educational leadership at UND. Allely is an experienced teacher educator, program developer, and curriculum designer. As the TESOL Education associate director, Allely manages TESOL’s professional learning offerings and virtual events as well as develops new courses.

Easy as Apple Pie: Teaching Idioms

by Claire Fisher and Meghan Killeen
Learn how to raise students' awareness of idioms and help them identify tools to unlock their meaning. The authors offer five classroom activities with expansions for further learning. 

We’ve all seen textbooks with an “idioms list” either shoved in the back or relegated to a blurb in a single chapter. Figurative language is often undervalued and underutilized by English language teaching materials, contributing to the perception that idioms are unimportant. On the contrary, though, idioms are used for meaning-making throughout a wide variety of registers and genres. For this reason, teachers should raise students’ awareness of idioms and help them identify tools for unlocking their meaning. It is also essential for students to understand how using idioms can enrich language by creating a dynamic subtext, conveying mood, and contributing to a sense of identity.

Idioms are not rare. If you’re looking for it, you’ll realize that figurative language is extremely common in English, which means that idioms should not be taught in isolation. Like any other vocabulary item, idioms are used in specific contexts and for specific communicative purposes. Cooper (1999) has shown that learners are able to decode the majority of idioms they encounter by using three skills that we can explicitly teach:

  • guessing from context
  • using the literal meaning
  • activating background knowledge

Teaching Specific Target Idioms

Because idioms exist in so many authentic contexts, you can teach them in conjunction with other language-learning tasks and goals. This approach makes it easier to fit idioms into a tight class schedule, and also helps students recognize that idioms are not a niche topic. Following are some example activities.

Sample Activity 1: Monopoly


Playing games generates spontaneous language use. Board games with complicated written rules also require good reading skills, such as skimming, scanning, and syntax analysis. In other words, playing a board game can be a multiliteracy activity. Because the stakes are low and games are fun, they can also get shy students out of their shells.


  • Students will be able to (SWBAT) engage in friendly classroom competition.
  • SWBAT ask clarifying questions, negotiate for meaning, and debate a guiding text.
  • SWBAT use mortgage, rent, sell, and buy in context, and infer the meaning of two idioms.

Target Idioms

  • Do not pass Go, do not collect $200
  • Get-out-of-jail-free card

Lesson Procedure

  • Before class, have students read and annotate the rules of Monopoly.

  • In class, play a 90-minute game of Monopoly. You can assign students roles (banker, real estate agent, rule-reader) in advance to make this run smoothly. One student should record the audio while they play.

  • After class, have students listen to the audio recording of the game and analyze how they communicated during it.

  • Have them write a summary of how the game went.

  • Share short corpus examples of “do not pass go, do not collect $200” and “this is your get-out-of-jail-free card” being used outside the context of the game. From those examples and using the literal meanings from the game, have students infer potential figurative meanings for each.


Many other idioms are derived from games, such as “cards on the table,” “call your bluff,” “cross off X on my card,” and “I’ll take [topic] for $200.” You can teach the basics of those games and share examples of those idioms to help students practice using literal meanings to infer figurative meanings.

Sample Activity 2: The Wizard of Oz (1939)


Movies can teach a wide variety of listening skills, including analyzing dialect, register, and tone and understanding humor, sarcasm, and emotional intonation. In addition, many idioms were coined as references to plot points from famous movies. This activity involves watching the original scenes that coined those terms, and then inferring their idiomatic meanings from authentic contexts.

Main Objectives

  • SWBAT draw connections between literal and figurative meanings.
  • SWBAT work with authentic, corpus-based sample texts.

Target Idioms

  • Not in Kansas anymore
  • Ding dong, the witch is dead
  • Off to see the wizard
  • Flying monkeys
  • Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain


The class alternates between reading a synopsis of the movie The Wizard of Oz and watching key scenes with famous quotes. On the worksheet (provided in the Appendix), each quote is followed by a corpus example of it being used in an unrelated context. As the students work through the movie, they pause for small-group discussion of what each quote means a) in the movie and b) in the unrelated quote. Then, they extrapolate a context in which they could use that idiom themselves. You’ll be surprised how productive and creative these conversations become!


The Wizard of Oz is a particularly rich source of famous quotes that are now used as idioms, but dozens of other movies and TV shows can be used in a similar way. Ask your students what kinds of movies they enjoy, and get creative!

Sample Activity 3: Alice in Wonderland


Pleasure reading is a valuable tool in vocabulary acquisition. Alice in Wonderland is one of the most influential stories in the English language. Its influence on internet culture is most obvious in the increasing popularity of “down the rabbit hole.” Moreover, this children’s novel includes lots of wordplay and jokes, so the text is both accessible and challenging.

Main Objectives

  • Assessing students’ reading level
  • Raising awareness of cultural references
  • SWBAT extrapolate a figurative meaning from the literal meaning of an idiom.

Target Idiom

  • Down the rabbit hole


  • Students read Chapter 1 of Alice in Wonderland (10 pages), in which Alice falls down a rabbit hole.

  • After they read, they must answer: “Now that you’ve read the chapter that created the idiom ‘[go] down the rabbit hole,’ what do you think that idiom means?” This forces them to use the literal meaning to extrapolate possible figurative meanings.

  • After sharing their best guesses, students check against definitions on theidioms.com.

  • Students look up the darker modern definition of “down the rabbit hole”: “To get extremely and obsessively involved in something.” Discuss how one meaning could lead to the other.


Student enthusiasm sometimes justifies reading the rest of the novel together, which provides rich opportunities to work with descriptive language, wordplay, symbolism, characterization, and poetry. Students also sometimes know the drug-culture meaning of “down the rabbit hole,” which is “high.” For age-appropriate students, this provides an opportunity for you to add a listening text, “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.

Raising Awareness of Idioms, Identity, Styling, and Translanguaging

Personal speech style is composed of many different linguistic features. These styles can vary, shifting through communication strategies such as code-switching and translanguaging techniques. The following activities promote the use of idioms as identity-building and help foster diversity in speech through the “holistic and equitable view of multilingualism” (Wei, 2022).

Sample Activity 4: Personal Narrative


The main purpose of a personal narrative is self-expression; it lends itself to a distinct authorial voice that can be amplified by idiomatic word choice.


  • Students will be exposed to a variety of personal narrative exemplar texts to identify different moods and personas.
  • Students will learn idioms and compound adjectives to help build their vocabulary, specifically as they relate to character and setting.
  • Students will gain an awareness of communication fluidity and practice flexing their multilingual repertoire through their own personal narrative piece.

Target Idioms

These can relate to personality, such as “cheapskate,” “big mouth,” and “go-getter,” or to intentions, such as “put one on a pedestal,” and “set an example.”


  • Students read an excerpt from two different exemplar texts that are personal narratives, such as A House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisnero and 99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai. Here is a list of other texts related to “living between languages.”

  • Students discuss the texts and identify which idiomatic words and phrases convey personality/setting. Students also discuss why some words were not used in English.

  • Preteach common idioms that convey personality and setting (see target examples).

  • After class, have students write two different personal narratives about the same experience and try to convey two different moods based on their word choice using the vocabulary taught in class.


Students review each other’s personal narratives and make guesses about word choice.

Sample Activity 5: Film Scripts


Maintaining continuity, dialogue word choice shows personality. It is conducive to building idioms around a theme.


  • Students will examine how language conveys personality and how other linguistics features, such as rhythm and intonation, play into meaning.
  • Students will have an awareness of how idioms are economical and relate to pop culture.

Target Idioms

Similar to the Personal Narrative exercise, you can review idioms that relate to personality or common exclamations, such “hitting the nail on the head.”


  • Students read an excerpt from a movie script (scripts from Quentin Tarantino films tend to be rich with idioms, though these films should be screened for adult content and language).

  • Students identify the idioms and try to guess the meaning from context.

  • Students act out the script.

  • Read a character description of two different characters in a film (from the same script or a different one). Cut up a few lines of dialogue from two or three different characters. Have students match the dialogue to the correct character. Have students watch the scene and see if their guesses were correct.


Have students brainstorm an “odd couple” (close friends with opposite personalities) for two of their characters and write dialogue. Students use idioms and are also encouraged to use idioms from their language.


Lessons on idioms should focus on developing strategies for students to notice, decode, and also use idioms. The activities in this article illustrate authentic contexts that expose students to idioms. Ultimately, students see how idioms can promote their identities, and they develop the confidence to add idioms to their own personal repertoires.


Cooper, T. C. (1999). Processing of idioms by L2 learners of English. TESOL Quarterly, 33(2), 233–262. https://doi.org/10.2307/3587719

Wei, L. (2022). Translanguaging as a political stance: Implications for English language education, ELT Journal, 76(2), 172–182. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccab083

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Claire Fisher teaches in the Intensive English Program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, USA. She is also their interim technology and assessment coordinator, and tutors both at Pratt and The New School. Previously, she has taught in community colleges, private language schools, and community-based organizations in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. She also had the honor of appearing on Jeopardy! in its 36th season.

Meghan Killeen completed her MA in applied linguistics and literature at The University of Westminster in London, UK. Her research has focused on intersemiotics and multimodal teaching practices. She has taught at The ESL School of the New York Film Academy and is an instructor for The Intensive English Program at Pratt Institute. She is also the curriculum and assessment specialist for the Center for American Language and Culture (TCALC) at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Placing Identity at the Epicenter of Socially Just Classrooms

by Nancy Kwang Johnson and Nicole Brun-Mercer
These four activities will help you to create brave spaces in your classrooms and empower your learners to share their stories. 

Advancing social justice—equitable and inclusive participation—in English language classrooms has become paramount in order to cultivate intercultural competence among multilingual learners (MLLs). Delivering activities designed to empower the multiple and overlapping identities of MLLs has the effect of resituating their critical language narratives from the periphery to the core of the curriculum.

The question for instructors then becomes: How can activities be designed to place the multiple identities of students at the epicenter of a socially just classroom?

Embracing Multiple Identities

In this article, we draw upon Social Justice Standards: The Learning for Justice Anti-Bias Framework (Chiariello et al., 2022). Of the four domains delineated in the standards (identity, diversity, justice, and action), we focus here on identity, highlighting the recurring theme of multiple identities. Following are the identity anchor standards from the framework (p. 1):


  1. Students will develop positive social identities based on their membership in multiple groups in society.

  2. Students will develop language and historical and cultural knowledge that affirm and accurately describe their membership in multiple identity groups.

  3. Students will recognize that people’s multiple identities interact and create unique and complex individuals.

  4. Students will express pride, confidence and healthy self-esteem without denying the value and dignity of other people.

  5. Students will recognize traits of the dominant culture, their home culture and other cultures and understand how they negotiate their own identity in multiple spaces.

Our objective is two-fold. First, we, as social justice practitioners, serve as facilitators who strive to create brave spaces, such as nonjudgmental circles (in synchrony with Native American traditions) and communities of belongingness for MLLs. Second, we develop materials and activities that empower MLLs to include and share their stories within a safe, affirming classroom community.

4 Activities for Creating Brave Spaces and Communities of Belongingness

In the following sections, we describe the purpose, preparation, and procedure for four sample activities that accomplish these goals.

1. Identity Mapping and Story Sharing

Purpose: To begin guiding students through the process of exploring their intersecting identities

Preparation and Materials: Paper and pen, or access to word processing software. (Optional: a written or spoken text on identity, e.g. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” to introduce the topic.)


  • Introduce the notion of identity (e.g., religion, race, gender, profession) through the use of a short article, talk, and/or discussion questions.

  • Students brainstorm identities in small groups and then pool their ideas in a class discussion.

  • Students create a three-by-three table to form a total of nine squares. In each square, they enter one of their identities (see Figure 1).



Middle aged

European ancestry

American and French

Speaker of English, French, and Russian




Figure 1. Identity map sample.

  • You can remind students that it is neither desirable nor possible to include all one’s identities in the nine squares of the identity map. Students should select the identities that are most meaningful to them personally. You might also encourage students to consider identities that are both important to their sense of self as well as unwelcome labels that others have projected onto them.

  • After completing their identity maps, students reflect on stories related to their identities. For example, the time the student overheard an unwelcome comment about her hijab or the party the student’s family held to celebrate her college graduation. Have students write at least one identity-related story as a journal entry.

  • If comfortable, students may share either their full identity maps or one or two identities with a partner or small group. They can also tell each other the identity-related story they wrote in their journal entry.

  • This identity map can be used as a springboard for a variety of other activities, such as the following Activities 2–4.

2. Creating an “I Am” Poem and Delivering a Poetry Slam

Purpose: Over two lessons, to reflect on and compare how one’s self-identity differs from societal perceptions and constructions of the “Other”

Preparation and Materials: Your visual aid or photograph to model your “I Am” poem. Have each participant bring their own visual aid or photograph for their own poems. In alignment with Native American and restorative justice practices, place chairs in a circle. The circle provides a sense of equality and belongingness in the group.


  • Invite each participant to join in a circle.

  • Model the activity by showing each circle member your photograph or visual aid (see Figure 2), and read aloud your poem (see Figure 3) as the visual aid or photograph passes through the hands of each circle member.

  • For the following lesson, have each circle member bring a visual aid or photograph and their own “I Am” poem. For intermediate levels (B1–B2), students would just make “I am” statements for each line. For the advanced levels (C1–C2), students have more flexibility, as suggested by the example in Figure 3.

  • Participants join the circle. Taking turns, each circle member passes their visual aid or photograph to other members of the circle as they recount their “I Am” poem. You might not want to have a time limit for each circle member. Rather, encourage each circle member to engage in the art of poetry slamming and storytelling—without limits. After each circle member shares their “I Am” poem, the circle, as a collective, thanks the storyteller for sharing their story with the circle at large.

Figure 2. Visual aid for an “I Am” poem. (Click here to enlarge)

Figure 3. Example of an “I am” poem. (Click here to enlarge)

3. Double-Entry Journal Storytelling

Purpose: To examine and relate to poem excerpts addressing the visibility, invisibility, multiplicity, and intersection of “Other” identities

Preparation and Materials: Provide a poem for modeling. (In this example, we use “Others Are Us” by Nathalie Handal.) Create a two-column journal for each participant (see Figure 4). Place chairs in a circle.


  • Create a circle.

  • Invite each circle member to select three quotes from the poem and record them in the left column, including the line number of the poem, and then write what each excerpt means to them and how they connect to it in the right column.

  • Model the selection of poem excerpts and demonstrate how the circle members may share their individual connections and interpretations of the poem.

  • Taking turns, each circle member shares double-entries with the rest of the Double-Entry Journal Circle. You might want to allocate an appropriate time limit (3 minutes) for each participant.

  • Discuss similarities and differences in poem analyses and interpretations in terms of our own individual and societal assumptions and perceptions about identity.

  • Compare and contrast what accounts for the variances regarding how one self-identifies vis-a-vis societal constructions (and perceptions) of the identities of the “Other,” as well as the phenomenon of “being visible” and “being invisible.” After each circle member shares their double-entries, the circle, as a collective, thanks the storyteller for sharing their story with the circle at large.



“He said I was different because I was dark” (Handal, 2021, Line 1).

This quotation really resonated with me. Why? In the African-American and Korean cultures, the color of one’s skin is paramount. Case in point, in Korea my maternal grandparents’ servants were instructed to “keep me out of” the sun. Since I was racially mixed, my grandparents wanted to make sure that I was not “too dark.” Moreover, people who work in the sun are placed in a different social class. Hence, my grandparents did not want me to be mistaken for a manual laborer.

Figure 4. Sample double-entry journal.

4. Identity-Based Poster Presentations

Purpose: To explore the importance and personal meaning of an identity or intersecting identities

Preparation and Materials: A small poster board or access to an online platform (e.g., Padlet) for creating a poster-like document.


  • From their identity maps (Activity 1), students choose one or more identities that are particularly meaningful or important to them.

  • Students write multiple journal entries about their identities. Here are some suggested journal prompts:

    • Tell a story related to this identity or these intersecting identities.

    • Write about people you know who share this identity or these intersecting identities.

    • Describe how this identity or these intersecting identities make you feel and either draw or collect images representing these feelings.

    • Make a list of famous people (writers, artists, politicians, scientists, etc.) who share this identity or these intersecting identities.

  • Students create a poster based on their journal entries. There is no “right answer” to what they include on their posters. Some students might make a collage. Others might write a story. Still others might create a word cloud.

  • Students share their posters with classmates, describing why they chose a particular identity or intersecting identities and the significance of each item on their poster.


These activities are just some of the many ways in which instructors may engage students in the exploration of the identity domain. Using the target language, MLLs are empowered to tell their stories. As a result, they are forging greater connections with their classmates, affirming positive social identities, and creating a sense of belongingness.


Chiariello, E., Olsen Edwards, J., Owen, N., Ronk, T., Wicht, S. (2022). Social justice standards: The Teaching Tolerance anti-bias framework. (2018). Teaching Tolerance. https://www.learningforjustice.org/frameworks/social-justice-standards

Handal, N. (2021). Others are us. Poetry, 217(6). Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/155502/others-are-us.

Download this article (PDF)


Nancy Kwang Johnson, MAT-TESOL (USC), MPA, PhD (Cornell University, Government), CATESOL Education Foundation president, CATESOL DEI chair and founding executive director of the MA in International Affairs program (University of New York Tirana), has two decades of higher education experience in Albania, Canada, France, Senegal, Serbia, and the United States.

Nicole Brun-Mercer is currently the associate director of English Language Support Programs at Boise State University. For more than 20 years, Dr. Brun-Mercer has taught English and trained teachers in France, Guinea, Russia, Switzerland, and the United States. She has published and presented professionally on materials development, DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging), corpus linguistics, lexicogrammar, reading, and composition.

Using Music to Make Student Learning Outcomes Fun

by Heather McNaught and Ece Ulus
The authors share activities and specific song selections for teaching pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary using music in the classroom.  

Using songs to make learning material enjoyable and easy to remember is a well-known teaching strategy (Arnold & Herrick, 2017; Stavrou et al., 2022; Weale, 2022). Many English teachers have used popular songs from groups like the Beatles to facilitate language learning just as many children have used the classic song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to learn body parts or “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to learn farm animals and their respective sounds. Using music to learn language is suitable for learners of every age and level of language proficiency. For English as additional language instructors, those who have been teaching long enough should remember bringing a portable sound system to class to play cassettes, and later CDs to play songs in class. Now, thanks to the internet, literally millions of songs are conveniently available on online platforms, such as YouTube and Spotify. Using songs as a teaching tool has never been more feasible.


We are currently both instructors at a university-based intensive English program. In her role as activities coordinator, Ece started Language Music Club as an extracurricular activity. The name of the activity was important because she wanted to emphasize from the start that language and music were going to receive equal attention during the activity.

Heather asked to join soon after its inception in 2017, and since that time, they cohosted the meetings several times per semester. Once the pandemic hit and classes switched to remote instruction, they continued to host Language Music Club virtually, and it provided a much needed sense of connection for the participants.

Student Learning Outcomes

Regardless of the student learning outcomes (SLOs) and language goals that you have in your school or program, speaking goals can most likely be divided into three distinct areas of focus: pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Of course, some songs can be used to practice more than one SLO.

1. Pronunciation

Probably the first and most obvious way to implement songs is for pronunciation practice. There are three areas of pronunciation to consider.

  • Segmental pronunciation features refer to the individual sounds (consonant and vowel sounds or phonemes), in particular the sounds that are challenging for your students. For example, the North American English [r] sound can be problematic for learners across a variety of home languages. Here are a few great songs to use for practicing segmental pronunciation:

    • “I Am Woman” (Helen Reddy, 1971): This song contains many words with a final [or] sound. It is also well suited for International Women’s Day, which is held on 8 March.

    • “Cheerleader” (OMI, 2014): This more recent song contains words with a number of final [r] sounds for practice.

    • “Green Grass Grows All Around” (Barney, 1993): This song is suitable for all ages to practice consonant clusters, and there are folk music versions and children’s versions of this song.

    • “The Way You Do the Things You Do” (the Temptations, 1964): This song offers a great way to practice rhyming words.

  • Suprasegmental pronunciation deals with the aspect of pronunciation above the individual sound level, such as stress, rhythm, pitch, and intonation. Here are a few songs that are great for practicing suprasegmental pronunciation:

    • “Thunder” (Imagine Dragons, 2017): This song works well for teaching rising and falling intonation.

    • “Most Girls” (Hailee Steinfeld, 2021): This is another song that can be used to practice the “rising, rising, falling” intonation of a series of words separated by commas.

    • “We Can Work It Out” (The Beatles, 1965): The contrastive stress of “MY way” vs. “YOUR way” is good practice for this specific type of intonation.

    • “Sugar” (Maroon 5, 2014): There are excellent examples of thought groups and sentence rhythm in this song.

    • “Down by the Bay” (Traditional children’s song, 1914): This is a song that has fun rhythm and sentence stress practice.

  • Fluency also lends itself to song because it is very difficult to sing words discretely. The music inherently links each word to the next following the rhythm of the song.

    • “Look What You Made Me Do” (Taylor Swift, 2017): This song works well for learners to practice fluency because it has phrases that are repeated multiple times in quick succession.

    • “Counting Stars” (One Republic, 2013): This song is also has the repetition of the same line with the same rhythm, which makes it good for fluency practice. It also has other beneficial aspects, such as a grammar focus using present perfect progressive and future progressive, which allows students to practice fluency with more complex grammar structures.

2. Grammar

One way to make grammar more active and memorable is through music. Many songs use repetitive grammatical forms in both the chorus and in the verses. Here are some examples:

  • Present perfect tense: Queen’s “We Are the Champions” (1977) includes a wide variety of excellent examples of the present perfect tense.

  • Present unreal conditional tense: “If I had a Million Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies (1988) is another fun song that students will not be able to stop singing for days. As the title suggests, it is a great song for practicing the present unreal conditional tense.

  • Yes/No questions: “Shallow” (Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, 2018) has great examples of yes/no question formation and use. This song also contains examples of the use of the ain’t form of the verb to be.

  • Phrasal verbs: “Try Everything” (Shakira, 2016) has an incredible number of useful phrasal verbs in it.

3. Vocabulary

Songs are full of both everyday and academic vocabulary that is made much more memorable through the melody and the lyrics. When using a song in a lesson, sometimes the vocabulary is the learning objective, and other times there are only a few words that need to be explained.

Asking students to guess the meaning of a word or phrase is also effective if there is sufficient context. Here are some good songs to use for vocabulary practice, though, of course, song choice for vocabulary depends largely on your learners’ proficiency levels and what the class is studying during a given unit.

  • Figurative language: For higher proficiency students who are ready for practice with figurative language, Natasha Bedingfield’s 2004 song “Unwritten” contains engaging examples.

  • Slang and idioms: The 2020 song “Dynamite” by BTS is full of useful idioms, cultural references, and fun current slang.

  • Adjectives: “I Will Survive” (Gloria Gaynor, 1978) is a good song for practicing adjectives and synonyms as a way to increase vocabulary.

Choosing a Song

With so many songs to choose from, it can seem like a daunting and time-consuming task to find the perfect one. It is also easy to find yourself always returning to the same genre or decade that you yourself typically listen to. In considering which song to use, think of it as an opportunity for yourself to expand the types of music and artists that you listen to. Keep the following in mind when selecting a song.

  1. Student Learning Objectives: If a song is going to be incorporated into the curriculum, it needs to support the course’s goals and the lesson’s SLOs. One easy trick is to help the internet narrow down your choices. If you are looking for a way to liven up the simple past tense, simply do an internet search for, “songs with past tense.” Just finishing a lesson on comparative adjectives? A quick search for “songs with comparative adjectives,” will yield helpful results. This will narrow down your choices from seemingly infinite to a smaller, more manageable number of results.

  2. Language: One aspect to consider is the amount of slang or objectionable language in a song. If there is a song that you like that is full of curse words, try searching for a “clean version,” which may be suitable for the classroom. Another language-related consideration is the use of “nonstandard” grammar in the lyrics. This does not necessarily immediately disqualify a song. In fact, it can be used as a way to discuss the many varieties of English that learners will encounter. For example, many songs delete be verbs or contain forms like ain’t (as in the song “Shallow” mentioned in Activity 2) that teachers typically avoid when teaching grammar. Encountering these grammatical structures can open up a dialog with students about how and why speakers use these forms. The discussion topic can be related to where it is more common to hear different grammatical forms.

  3. Speed: Obviously, if the “perfect” song is much too fast for your learners, it can be frustrating. If you encounter this problem, one thing you can try is searching for another version, perhaps recorded by another artist. You can even do an activity using the slower version, and then share the faster version and encourage students to work up to that. Most digital music platforms such as YouTube or Spotify also allow the listener to increase or decrease the playback speed.

    Another related obstacle is when the singer does not enunciate clearly enough. Songs can have great examples of reduced speech, such as “wanna” and “gonna,” but if every lyric sounds like a mumbled mess to your learners, it will not be an effective learning tool. Again, try to find another version of the song by a different artist who might sing a bit more clearly.

  4. Age of Learners: Many popular songs are suitable for learners of all ages, but if there is a song that you would like to use with younger learners that has lyrics that might not be appropriate, there are child-themed versions of popular songs available on Kidzbop. There are, of course, many songs, such as The Green Grass Grows All Around and Down By the Bay, that are specifically for children and which are great for learning vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.

How to Teach With Music

Basic steps for using music in the classroom:

  1. Introduction: Give a brief overview of the plan for the lesson. If it’s the first song-related lesson of the semester, it helps to have a short warm-up discussion about the students’ favorite artists, songs, and types of music. If the lesson is part of an extracurricular activity, these questions can be included in an online registration form to be completed before the activity. Alternatively, paper information forms asking for the same information can be used at the beginning of, or after, the first lesson.

  2. Artist and Song Background: Using projected slides, give some basic information about the artist and song, such as the time period, genre, and a few interesting facts.

  3. Introduction of Language Feature: Introduce the language focus (pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary) of the lesson and present a few examples of the specific language feature.

  4. Practice of Language Feature: Elicit additional examples of the language feature from students. If the focus is a grammatical feature, such as a specific verb tense, you can elicit explanations about form and use. If the focus is pronunciation, students can do choral repetition as well as practice with a partner or group.

  5. Listen for Specific Language Feature: Give the activity to the students. If the task requires students to listen for missing words related to the language feature, draw their attention to the blanks and remind them about the focus. You can have them predict the missing words based on the target feature. Here are some activities to create using the songs of your choice:

    1. Pronunciation [specific sound or phoneme]: Print out the lyrics to the song and have students listen to the song and underline the specific pronunciation feature that you’re working on.

    2. Vocabulary: Print out the lyrics to the song and ask students to try to predict what the missing words might be. Remind students to use the context and other lyrics to help them, especially for lyrics that have a predictable rhyming scheme.

    3. Grammar: Delete the lyrics that contain the target grammar feature. After introducing the grammar, ask students to listen and complete the lyrics with the missing words.

  6. Review Answers and Challenges: After listening to the entire song one time, ask students how they did (e.g., for a fill-in-the-blank activity, how many missing words they were able to complete). If the activity was challenging, play the song again. Then, have students check their answers with a partner or group before reviewing the answers as a class.

  7. Sing!: After the answers are complete, play the song again and encourage students to sing along, paying special attention to the target language.

  8. Point Out Interesting/Useful Vocabulary: After singing one time, stop to explain interesting and/or useful vocabulary.

  9. Answer Questions: Ask students if they have any other questions about the target feature, and if time allows, answer questions about any other unfamiliar vocabulary.


Using music and songs to learn a language can make any lesson more memorable and engaging. If the curriculum does not allow time for extra activities, try alternative ways to introduce the song. In our program, we decided to create the extracurricular Language Music Club, which is open to all students at all levels. Alternatively, an activity with explanations could be posted on an LMS or emailed to students as an outside activity. Try out one of these songs and share your experience with the TESOL community.

We have enjoyed using music as a language learning tool so much that we started a podcast in early 2022. “English as a Singing Language” uses songs from different time periods and genres of music to teach pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. The episodes are 7–12 minutes long and designed to engage learners’ attention and assist them in achieving language objectives.

How to Listen to “English as a Singing Language”


Arnold, J. & Herrick, E. (Eds.). (2017). New ways in teaching with music. TESOL Press.

Stavrou, H., Hyndman, B., & Munday, J. (2022, June 29). Struggling to learn a language? 6 tips on how pop songs can help. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/struggling-to-learn-a-language-6-tips-on-how-pop-songs-can-help-184642

Weale, S. (2022, April 7). Teachers encouraged to use Taylor Swift lyrics to make Latin accessible. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/apr/07/teachers-encouraged-to-use-taylor-swift-lyrics-to-make-latin-accessible

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Heather McNaught has been a language teacher for more than 30 years. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in applied linguistics from Ohio University. After living and teaching overseas for many years, Heather returned to the United States in 2009. She is currently the assessment supervisor at the English Language Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. As a language teacher and a language learner, she loves using music as a tool to make learning language enjoyable.

Ece Ulus has taught at the English Language Institute at the University of Pittsburgh for more than 10 years. In addition to teaching classes in the Intensive English Program, Ece enjoys planning and chaperoning activities in which students can use their English skills outside the classroom. Ece is an alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the latter in foreign language education with a TESOL certificate.