8 Ways to Use Music in the Language Arts Classroom

Heather Wolpert-Gawron from Edutopia posted an article about using music in the language arts classroom, so here are the activities listed, copied and pasted verbatim:

#1 Songs to Teach Academic Vocabulary

Using music as an aid in memorization is just plain smart. Add in songs that are focused in your content area, and they’re gold. That’s why history teachers still use “Elbow Room” from Schoolhouse Rock fame to introduce the concept of exploration. As a Language Arts middle school teacher, I love the Princeton Review Vocab Minute podcast. You can look through the list of short minute-long songs that teach concepts from word origins to synonyms.

#2 Lyrics as Poetry

I love looking at lyrics through a poetic lens. Clearly I’m not alone because my own second-grader’s teacher sent him home with the printed out lyrics to Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.” My son had circled the nouns and underlined action verbs. In my own classroom, I have even had students create a web trying to trace the logic from Willie Nelson’s version of “I Am My Own Grandpa.”

#3 Songs as Writing Prompts

Picture this. The students enter the classroom. John Williams is playing on the speakers. Maybe it’s the ominous opening from the film Jaws or the flying sequence from Hook. Now write.

#4 Music to Aid in Role-Playing

Earlier this year, my students embarked on a project-based learning unit that I developed based on the United Nations. On each day, we had music from the different nations playing, national anthems, processional marches, etc…as we role-played as ambassadors to the U.N.

#5 Developing Playlists to Teach Narrative

I once did a great project when I was in eighth grade in Ms. Sauve’s class that’s always stuck with me. We had to develop an album cover, complete with visuals on the front and a song list on the back. We then had to include a dust jacket that had lyrics to each of the songs. As I think about it, there would be something interesting to have the students develop a mythical playlist, a mix-tape of sorts, that tells a story through its song titles.

#6 Jingles to Teach Persuasive

Commercials jingles are a great way to show that people are writing persuasively in many genres and in many modalities. Have students analyze a jingle as you might analyze an article or review. Better yet, have them write one.

#7 Reviews as Literary Analysis

Music reviews are persuasive, sure, but they are also a form of literary analysis. Look at Amazon reviews or Rolling Stone reviews for elements of analysis. Have students listen to the music they are referring to. Did the reviewer miss the boat? Do they agree with the review and what evidence can they bring to the table to prove their analyses?

#8 Music to take “Syn-naps”

Last, but not least: simply turn on a good tune every now and then. I talk a lot about Judy Willis’ concept of “syn-naps.” This is when you wake up the brain by jolting it a bit. Sometimes you can use an image stuck in the middle of a Powerpoint slide, but music works beautifully as well, flicking the groggy brain into wakefulness. It doesn’t have the last long, merely a stanza or two, but enough to get the oxygen back to their noggin’ and the alertness back in their eyes.

Classroom Reading Challenges

Reading challenges are great ways to motivate people to read, kids and adults alike. I came up with an idea to make reading challenges a part of the classroom all year round by having a new challenge each month.

Challenges may include:

  • read a book with a dorky cover
  • read a “girl book” if you’re a guy; read a “guy book” if you’re a girl
  • read a genre outside your comfort zone
  • read more pages than you ever have before
  • read a book about a different culture
  • finish a series you’ve started
  • read a book where the main character is gay/Native American/African American/not American
  • read a scary/horror book (good for October)
  • read a biography
  • make up your own reading challenge (which students can do any month)

Participation in challenges are voluntary. Those who participate write up some kind of report/make a poster/something fun. If the product is of high quality, each participant is rewarded with something small. Rewards might include:

  • lunch with the teacher (that’s still a cool thing, right?)
  • book mark
  • money for classroom economy
  • gift cards of small amounts
  • school supplies bundle (baggie with pencil, eraser, sharpener…)
  • coupon to sit in the reading lounge of the classroom

Goodness, all of these are great for middle school but not high school. We all know what grades I’m meant to teach…

In addition to those rewards, each student who participates can put their name in a jar for a raffle/lottery. The student who’s chosen gets the grand prize. That prize may include:

  • gift card to a book store
  • a book of the teacher’s choice
  • a book of the student’s choice

Students who have won the grand prize are not eligible to win again but can participate each month and get the smaller prizes.


Read-Talk-Write is a strategy to help students understand and remember what they’ve read, especially from non-fiction texts. I’ve seen it done where students are put into partners and each partner reads a different text about the same subject. Here is the process. Be VERY clear about the directions.

1. Students read for 2 minutes.

2. Partner 1 talks for 45 seconds (more or less) while partner 2 listens.

3. Read for another 1-2 minutes.

4. Partner 2 talks for 15 seconds (more or less) while partner 1 listens.

5. Close books. Students write in full sentences or keywords about what they remember, such as the who, what, when, where, how, why.

6. Students get 30 seconds to look back in the text to get additional information and details.

7. Write for a few more seconds to finish up notes.

ELL Vocab Accommodation

When assessing ELLs for understanding of vocabulary terms, rather than having students write a definition when given a term, do the opposite: provide a definition and have students write the term or match it from a word bank.

Idea Generation Matrix

My mentor teacher used this idea generation matrix to help students, well, generate ideas for preparing to write a narrative, either fictional or non.

First, make a list of your interests, activities, and experiences.

Next, pick 2 or more that are the most interesting to you or hold the most memories. Stick those ideas into the second chart and list the people, places, and moments associated with each interest, activity, or experience.

Idea Generation Matrix


Interests Activities Experiences
Reading Performing with wind symphony Getting married
Music Writing in my blog Student teaching
Movies Running Substitute teaching



  People Places Moments
Getting married My parents, in-laws, brother, brother’s friend My parents’ home, San Juan Island The wedding banner, camping in 100 degree weather
Performing with my band Dr. B, clarinet friends, boyfriend (now husband) University, Yakima, Bellevue Playing solo in Holst’s Suite in Eb, playing principal on “Pictures”


Keyword Note Taking

Keyword note taking is a note taking strategy that teaches students to focus on individual words that are the most significant in a nonfiction text. Students end by synthesizing their notes into a summary.

The nonfiction text should be divided into four parts. Label each part 1-4.

Notes are taken on a graphic organizer. Divide a piece of paper in half horizontally. Then divide the top half into four parts. Label each part 1-4.

Students silently read part 1 of the article and circle/underline keywords as they go. When they’re done, students pick 3-5 keywords to write in box 1. Students share keywords and reasoning with a partner.

Repeat until all 4 boxes are filled and the entire article is read.

Students then write a summary using all or most of the keywords in a paragraph in the bottom half of the graphic organizer.

Teaching Main Idea

Here is a link to a brainpop video about main idea of nonfiction texts/articles.

One way to help students organize their thoughts to find a main idea is to use a graphic organizer in the shape of a house:

Draw a triangle. At the top of triangle is the “topic” of the article, which is a one-word description of what was read.

At the base of the triangle is the main idea in one sentence: what was the article about?

Under the triangle, draw a rectangle and divide into three vertical sections. Each section should be filled with a different detail from the text to back up the main idea.

There are two ways to teach this “house” graphic organizer:

1. Top down – students come up with the topic and main idea before finding details.

2.Bottom up – students list 3 main details and use those details to determine the main idea.

Books with LGBT Themes

Lee Wind has a great blog about books with LGBT themes called I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell do I Read?

YA Books About LGBT Characters of Color

Here is a link to a blogpost about YA books with LGBT characters of color.

Somebody Wanted But So

“Somebody Wanted But So” is not my original idea.

Somebody Wanted But So can be used to help students summarize and understand the books they read. Make four columns, one for each word.

Somebody = a character.

Wanted = want they wanted (obviously).

But = the problem/why the person didn’t get what he/she wanted.

So = what happened because of that problem.

This could be used in book reports, instead of book reports, to teach summarizing, and to just help students better understand a text. Because the pieces are broken down and easy to manage, it’s good for ELLs (so I am told).

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