Jamie Keddie looks at how we can harness popular technologies, such as media players or lyric search sites on the Internet, to illustrate language points in the classroom.


Here are some key facts about corpora:

  • A corpus is a large database of samples of language, usually online. It may contain both written and transcribed spoken material from a wide range of media (books, magazines, newspapers, emails, television, radio, presentations, conversations, etc).
  • In order to find an item in the corpus (a word or phrase, for example) a corpus user must rely on a search facility.
  • Conventional corpora exist primarily for linguistic research. An example of a conventional corpus is the British National Corpus (go to http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/).
  • An example of a non-conventional corpus is the biggest corpus of all – the internet. As mentioned above, a corpus would be no use without a search facility and the internet would be no use without search engines such as Google. Although non-conventional corpora were never intended for linguistic investigation, their usefulness to researchers as well as language teachers and students should not be underestimated.

In this first part of the series, we are going to look at two non-conventional corpora, each with a musical flavour. They are:

1) Media players
2) Lyric search sites

Before we consider these corpora, we are going to look at three grammar activities which involve songs.

The present perfect continuous

Here are five musical examples of this structure:

I’ve been loving you too long to stop now – Otis Redding

I’ve been thinking about you – Londonbeat

The piano has been drinking, not me – Tom Waits

How long has this been going on? – Bobby Womack

I’ve been waiting for a girl like you to come into my life – Foreigner

There are many classroom situations in which these songs could be very useful. For example:

  • When the teacher is required to introduce the structure to a class.
  • When the teacher decides to recap the structure a few days later.
  • When the structure arises spontaneously in class (through a speaking activity, for example) and the learners start to enquire about it.
  • When learners need to revise it for exams.

Here are some ways in which songs like these can be used:

Name the song

This exercise can be used when a song contains an important piece of language in the title and when the title is repeated in the chorus. Simply play the song and ask your learners to listen out for its name. Once they think they have identified the title, have them write it down (i.e. no shouting out). Afterwards have everyone compare their answers.

This can be a very good activity for learners, especially if they have heard the song before but have never really been aware of the words. In fact, this is a case in which the cheesier and more overplayed the song, the better. It may be worthwhile pointing out that the exercise is not as difficult as your learners might think. The title is often the catchiest and most repeated part of a song. This means that they should be able to locate it easily and will then have ample opportunities to hear the words.

Warning: Do not choose songs with unclear lyrics unless you want a class mutiny on your hands.

Grammar hangman

Choose a song with a good chunk of language that contains the target structure. For example, the last song on the list would be good for this activity – I’ve been waiting for a girl like you to come into my life.

Write a corresponding word grid (one line per word) on the blackboard that looks like this:


___’_____    ________    ________    ________    ________    ________  

      (1)                  (2)                   (3)                  (4)                  (5)                  (6)

________    ________    ________    ________    ________     ________     ________

      (7)                  (8)                   (9)                 (10)              (11)               (12)               (13)

Play the song chunk once and then ask your class to offer words that they heard. Make sure that only one word is given at a time and, importantly, that the student who gives you the word must tell you on which line it should be placed. Replay the song every now and again and continue to ask for words and their positions. Just like normal hangman, the gallows grows each time an incorrect answer is given (this will be either an incorrect word or an incorrect position). 

Image of hangman game

Playing hangman with words rather than letters can make it more difficult to make guesses. This will mean that learners will have to rely on their ears and knowledge of English grammar in order to win.

Jumbled songs puzzle

Tell your students that you are going to let them hear two songs, each with an example of the present perfect continuous structure in its title. Tell them that, before you do so, you want them to try to decipher the titles. Give them all of the words from the song titles jumbled up like this:

been                been                drinking                has                I’ve                long
     loving                me                not                now             piano                stop                
                          the                to                too                you

Make sure your learners realise that each word must be used once and once only. You may or may not decide to give them a guidance template similar to the one we saw in hangman (although I have found that it can be more fun not to, especially with more advanced learners).

1) _____   piano   _____   _____   _____   _____   _____

 (Tom Waits)

2) _____   _____   _____   _____   _____   _____   ____   stop now

 (Otis Redding)

When everyone has come up with two possible song titles, let them compare their answers before you let them hear the songs.

Some notes on using songs

It can be useful to address grammatical structures such as the present perfect continuous at two levels when teaching or learning them:

1) The structural level
Songs are excellent for strengthening students’ awareness of the words and word order of a particular structure. The songs mentioned above, for example, reinforce the following construction:

 Subject + have/has + been  + -ing

(NB one of the songs demonstrates how the subject and auxiliary change place when constructing a question.)

It is a good idea to drill these song lines and thus get your students used to the sound and feel of the structure. Singing would be good but since many learners (especially adults) will cringe at this idea, chanting will often have to suffice.

Write the song titles up on the wall beside pictures of the artists (which you could download and print off from Google image search). They will provide a good point of quick reference whenever the teacher needs to recap, reactivate or remind students of the language in question.

2) The 'What does it mean?' level
This can be more problematic. It is often difficult to be sure that our learners have understood the meaning of a structure. When using individual lines from songs, this problem can become more apparent since we are dealing with small isolated pieces of language.

In some cases, it may be possible to concept check by asking students to translate the lines into their own language. This can work in monolingual classes when the teacher has an adequate knowledge of the students’ L1. The best idea, however, is to use activities such as the ones above in conjunction with others which will reinforce understanding of meaning.

Finding songs

At this stage, you may be thinking: 'This is all very well but I don’t have any of the songs that have been mentioned so far, and in any case, if I wanted to use songs to teach a specific structure, how would I go about finding them in my collection?'

Now we are getting to the corpus part.

Imagine you wanted to find a few songs with 'used to' in the title. How would you go about this? In the days before personal computers, you would probably have had to take one of the following options:

1) Go through your entire collection of songs, scanning for examples of the structure in question.

2) Have a brainstorming session one evening with some friends – other English teachers perhaps – over a beer. Ask them how many songs with 'used to' in the title or main section can they think of.

Fortunately, in the days of personal computers, lyric sites, and media players, finding and playing specific songs is a lot more convenient than it used to be.

Media players

One good thing about media players is that they have a search facility. Let’s go back to the other example that we talked about. I typed 'used to' into the search window of my media player and found a number of songs already in my music collection with this structure in the title. The most notable were:

This used to be my playground – Madonna

I’m not the man I used to be – Fine Young Cannibals

I used to love you but it’s all over – Nat King Cole

A playlist is a folder of selected songs. The ability to create playlists is another feature of media players. After finding the above three songs, I decided to create a new playlist called 'Used to'. Here are three more playlists that I have created:

Can and can’t playlist

(To find these songs I typed 'can' into the search window)

You can’t always get what you want – The Rolling Stones

Can’t take my eyes off you – Andy Williams

You can call me Al – Paul Simon

You can get it if you really want – Jimmy Cliff

How can you mend a broken heart? – Al Green

Baby can I hold you? – Tracy Chapman

Have got

(To find these songs I typed 'got' into the search window)

I’ve got to see you again – Norah Jones

You’ve got a friend – Carol King

I’ve got you under my skin – Frank Sinatra


(To find these songs I typed question words such as 'what' and also auxiliaries such as 'do' and 'are' into the search window)

Do you want to know a secret? – The Beatles

Do you really want to hurt me? – Culture Club

Are you lonesome tonight? – Elvis

What difference does it make? – The Smiths

Why does it always rain on me? – Travis

How deep is the ocean? – Diana Krall

How can you mend a broken heart? – Al Green

Why does my heart feel so bad? – Moby

With a set of playlists on your MP3 player and with a little pair of portable speakers, you will now have a valuable teaching tool for the classroom. Use songs with useful grammar structures in their titles in the ways set out previously as and when it seems appropriate in class.

If you do not have a large collection of digital music yourself, you could use an online music streaming site like Spotify as an alternative option, for example.

Lyric search sites

This is another great way of finding grammar in songs. The following are sites that I have found useful:



Until now we have been concerned solely with song titles. But, of course, there are other lines in songs that will be very useful. Lyric search sites are good for carrying out searches in whole songs. The bad side is that such sites usually have so many songs in their databases that a search such as any of those carried out above will usually yield far too many songs, most of which you will never have heard of, to be of any use.

There is a way around this, however. The secret is to use a lyric search site to scan the lyrics within all the songs of a particular band or artist. For example, go to www.lyricsondemand.com, type in ‘Beatles if' and sift through the hits. You will come across the following lyrics:

If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true?
From the song: If I fell (The Beatles)

If I needed someone to love. You're the one that I'd be thinking of.
From the song: If I needed someone (The Beatles)  

Carrying out searches in Beatles songs is ideal for me. I have a lot of their music on my computer / MP3 player and they are usually popular with students (as well as being recognisable). The songs above, each of which contains a conditional structure, would be perfect for any of the three previously mentioned activities (grammar hangman, jumbled songs puzzle, etc).

Just as using internet search engines can take some getting used to, finding songs in the ways described in this article will be no different. It will almost certainly take some practice but it can be really be worth it.


A corpus is nothing more than a database of language with a facility for carrying out a search. As teachers, we can use non-conventional corpora such as media players and lyric search sites to locate target grammatical structures which we can then use for the basis for classroom activities.