Music is part of popular culture. Language teachers have been integrated music and language learning in the classroom for many years. For example, using the song Yesterday from the Beatles to teach past tense. If music and songs can help learning English as a second language, English teachers in Hong Kong should be encouraged to use rap songs as a tool to teach English as a second language in the classroom.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “rap” is a style of popular music developed by New York Blacks in the 1970s in which words are spoken rhythmically and often in rhyming sentences over an instrumental backing.
In the early 1770s, Clive Campbell (Kool DJ Herc), a Jamaican immigrant, introduced the sound system from reggae music (Njubi, 2001). By combining the English sound system and other African-American linguistic features, rap has become a unique voice for the African Americans.
When we talk about rap songs, we must mention hip-hop culture. Hip-hop is a cultural movement originated from the Bronx (a poor gang-oriented neighborhood) in New York City during the 1970s by African American. Njubi stated that hip-hop is clearly one of the most significant youth cultures as it has influenced what young people wear, how they talk and even the way they walk. It has also received significant attention from scholars and politicians.
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Hip-hop has been a major literacy force for over twenty years (Morris, 2002) because it has created rap as an important music genre. English teachers around the world are trying to use rap as an educational tool to promote English (Pennycook, 2003) because of its “fast spoken lyrics”. However, many teachers in Hong Kong are reluctant to use rap songs in the classroom because most of them think the lyrics either violent or sexual, and some think the materials are too “black” or “Americanized” (Low, 2009).
In the following, we will discuss how rap songs can be an effective language learning tool to motivate students in learning English as well as increase their awareness of cultural differences.
Why do we use rap songs for language teaching and learning?
Music is accessible because of the technology such as iTunes and iPod. Since 1937, using folk, classical and pop music to teach English as a second language has been documented by educators in various professional journals (Sposet, 2008). Through music, students can improve their speaking skills, learning and understanding grammar, enhance their writing skills and increase their culture awareness (Peregoy and Boyle 2008; Saricoban and Metin 2000; Iwasaki, 2009).
Woodall and Zeimbroski (2002) stated that music plays an important role in language and literacy development because students can learn grammatical structure and develop natural responses and speech through songs. According to Schoepp (2000), the repetitive nature of many rap songs can help English learners to get familiar with new words and phrases as they can rhyme and sing along. Many rap songs, just like folk songs, follow a repeated verse and rhyme, and that makes them easy to follow (Saricoban and Metin, 2000). For teenagers, it is important to improve their listening and speaking skills, as well as their attention span and memory (Hilll-Clarke and Robinson 2003). Mithen (2006) stated that all individuals have a capacity to acquire language and are born with a basic instinct to appreciate music. Iwasaki (2009) also agreed that music is a powerful medium to motivate students to learn a second or foreign language.
When students listen to songs and sing along, the experience is enjoyable and stress-free, it can help second language learners to acquire the language more naturally and effectively. Perry (2004) also agreed with linguist Geneva Smitherman that rap lyrics are usually humorous, ironic, punning, teachy but not preachy.
If according to Abbott’s (2002) theory, repetition can help build language and fluency, then rap songs can definitely help stimulate second language learning because of its repetitive format. Also, by using the chorus in the rap songs, it can help students to learn syntax and lexical items easily and apply them in their daily conversations.
Using music to enhance our memory and learning
Mithen summed up three similarities between music and language :
rhythm and melody
intonation and stress time
Lake (2002) found out language and music are closely tied together in the brain by pitch, rhythm and syntactical phrasing. When students understand the connections, they can acquire, process and produce English naturally.
Neurologists have found musical and language processing in the same area of the brain (Maess & Koelsch, 2001). To illustrate the strong connection between music and learning, Strickland (2005) conducted a very interesting and valid experiment. He asked a group of students if they could remember the words in ten poems. Then, he asked how many words they could remember in ten songs. Without much surprise, there were more hands go up the second time. It clearly proved that music has played a very important and “memorable” role in language learning.
Medina (2002) agreed that we have good memory with music because all those repetitive words and rhythm stay in our head even after the English lesson. When we add rhythm and melody into language, it will help us to transfer words into long-term memory. Medina concluded that it is impossible to acquire language without memory.
Using rap to teach poems and pronunciations
According to Renegade (2002), the strongest poetic influence on rap is popular poems with four bears per line, for example, “Eenie meenie, mynie moe, Catch a tiger by the toe.” With all those rhyming, cross-rhyming, metaphor, symbolism and simile, rap can be a preferred literacy teaching tool to teach English as a second language.
Renegade noticed rap lyrics are written according to highly structured rules. There are two forms of rap lyrics: Rhyme and rap song. A rhyme is a single long stanza, often a narrative and the writer can write as many as he / she wants, whereas a rap song borrows its structure from a popular song with repeating chorus in between.
Renegade also observed that rappers have been using rap as a poetic tool because it has a strong emphasis on assonance, consonance, and combinations with end rhyme. Rappers like to use simile, metaphor, invention and reinvention of words to spark off new interest in poetry. In other words, using low culture to teach high culture.
In 2002 and 2004, Low worked with a creative writing teacher to develop and teach “spoken word poetry” curriculum. The initial curriculum was only a seven-week program but in 2004, it became a long-term course. Low concluded the success of the program as “a literacy of LIVING experience” because students were able to use rap as a platform to speak inside and outside the classroom. Strickland also agreed that students are natural poets, and poetry is meant to be performed.
Lake observed a strong connection between intonation and music. He noticed students’ interested in symbols and images, and that means they are more likely to be stimulated by audio or visual. He compared words, feeling, pitch and stress with musical expression. He concluded that speech without music is like language without heart because both music and language express emotions and convey messages.
Through rap songs, students can learn pronunciation, intonation, stress, accent, pitch, tone, melody, rhyme, rhythm and fluency. Students who enjoy singing, chanting, lip syncing or mouthing along can improve their pronunciation skills and practice linking and reduction when speaking English
Using rap to enhance reading and writing skills
To be a good rapper, one must be able to use his / her voice to write, have good memory and reinvent rhymes spontaneously. Rap music encourages teenagers to write because it reflected the writers’ inner speech and images in their mind. For example, in Low’s “spoken word poetry” school project, students in the class were able to write powerful and thoughtful poetry for the first time because they were inspired by rap.
A lot of students in Hong Kong hate writing because expressing themselves in a second language is already difficult, and writing in a second language is even more challenging. Students need to have a reason to write, and that reason will become their motivation.
Alvermann, Hagood and Williams (2001) shared a case of a 14-year-old Grade 8 / F. 2) African American boy who scored the lowest on the district’s standardized reading test. The school boy loves rap, so Williams asked him to write to him about his favorite rap artist. The boy wanted to have more factual information about his favorite rap artist. Williams agreed to help the boy with his “project”, and he asked the boy to e-mail him regularly and keep him informed of his findings. The boy demonstrated that he was a capable reader because he searched for specific information through different websites, and he was a capable writer because he used popular culture texts in his writing. Instead of just giving information to the school boy, Williams guided him throughout the project and made him an independent learner, and enhance both of his reading and writing skills, not to mention giving him a higher self-esteem and more self-confidence.
Iwasaki (2009) stated that rap songs have natural language and it can help students to process the meaning of words under an authentic environment.
In Weinstein’s (2008) study, she found many teenaged students have demonstrated sophisticated understanding of literary features through rap, for example, figurative language. Rap can help students, especially the social marginalized ones to write lyrics that can reflect social, economic and racial problems. Teenagers enjoy writing lyrics for rap because it is a channel for them to prove and establish their identity, an outlet for them to express their anger and frustrations about school, community, social norms, confusion and desire.
Lake suggested that students are already heavily exposed to popular culture and music of their first language, it is likely that they are going to be curious about the popular culture and music of their second or foreign language as well. The purpose of writing for teenagers should not be just classroom based, it should be included a great variety and popular culture related topics. Despite worrying about low test scores, teenagers will be more willing and eager to try because when they see the purpose, they can produce quality work and invest their time in it.
Through rap songs, teachers can further illustrate and explain grammatical structures to students. Based on Schoepp’s observation, songs can help students to develop a natural ability to use the target language in the right situation. When students are exposed to repetitive phrases in the right context, they can remember the language and apply it automatically.
Using rap to help student to communicate with the world
Iwasaki noticed that while students are gaining linguistic knowledge through rap songs, they are gaining the cultural knowledge at the same time as well. The lyrics always tell us something about the history, culture, thinking and attitude of a society. As Pennycook concluded that rap is a global phenomenon involving language use.
Pennycook noticed rap has always helped the spread of English globally, especially to countries where English is a foreign language, like Japan and Korea.
Mitchell (2001:1-2) argued that hip-hop and rap only belong to African-American culture. In fact, it has brought youth from around the world closer. It is not about where one comes from or which social class one belongs to, but what one can do with the language. Iwasaki believes culture, like music and language, develops and changes. Therefore, popular culture is a channel for the mass to express themselves and for those who want to release pressure from the society. Allowing students to expose to both mass and popular culture will help them to develop cultural awareness of others and their own.
Pennycook argues despite the lyrics in rap contains highly controversial topics and expressions, it also communicates meaning on a global scale. Rap is not just about the blacks in the U.S. but a common language shared by a lot of Asian countries like Japan, Korea and even Hong Kong. s we are all going global, our ability to communicate and knowing each other’s language and music will help us to understand each other’s customs and traditions much better and faster, thus, avoid conflicts and misunderstanding.
Based on the evidence above, few would agree with Schumann’s hypothesis in 1976 that the greater the social distance between two cultures, the more difficulty the learner would have in acquiring the target language.
Negative impression towards rap
A lot of English teachers are reluctant to incorporate rap in their class because when they think of rap, they will have all these negative images — villains, gangsters, low culture, low education, guns, drugs, blood, violence, sex, materials and “bling bling. They do not know how and where to find the GOOD rap songs with positive meaning. Weinstein (2006) criticized the highly sexual nature of many popular rap songs often gives damaging images of black men and women. The music videos always emphasizes on violence and drugs which also reinforce stereotypes of Blacks and Black youths where they are seen as dangerous, immoral and anti-social.
However, Iwasaki argued that any music-based lesson could become a disaster without any thoughtful selection and preparation.
Same for Koloze’s argument, people wrote songs about drugs, life in the ghetto, rebellion and sex in popular songs since the 1950s.
Iwasaki urged teachers to actually make use of those discussions to enhance students’ critical thinking while acquiring a second language. According to her theory, without general culture knowledge and some social and political awareness, one would find it difficult to participate in common and meaningful topics that a second or foreign language can offer.
Some teachers may think some rap songs are inappropriate for classroom use, but the massive influence of rap and hip-hop music around the world has to be considered and noticed. Just like all other popular culture and media, it has its positive and negative influence. Lake also agreed that it would be a foolish if teachers do not use music to take advantage of the positive influence of music as a teaching tool.
Selecting a rap with a positive message and the right attitude can enhance English learning as well as social awareness. English teachers need to realize that each rap has a message to spread out. As Music in a universal language, most raps are trying to solve race, class and religion problems that face by the youth (Njubi, 2001). For example, Where is the Love? by Black Eyed Peas. The rap is about the U.S. after the 911 tragedy and calling for U.S. army withdrawal from Iraq. The rap song was the longest-serving British No. 1 in five years and the best selling record of 2003 in the U.K. The group performed the song at the 2004 Grammy Awards, where it was nominated for The Record Of The Year (Wikipedia). This rap was so popular and moved so many people around the world because it is a social-conscious rap. It focused on upright and political awareness.
Despite social and political implications, raps do give a voice to young people and inspire them. Teachers should involve their students in the selection process because when they hear something they can relate to, it will motivate them to learn.
The arguments for incorporating popular culture into traditional curriculum are quite compelling and have generated a lot of noises and controversies. A lot of teachers and educators are filled with confusions and anxiety. Morrell (2002) understands teachers feeling daunting about using popular culture because of a lack of understanding. Rap has always been controversial because it is the rappers are expressing opposing views to the dominant culture.
By helping students to understand the content can help them to make a meaningful connection between language and culture. Allowing students to be exposed to both mass and popular culture will allow them to think about their own cultural beliefs. School education should incorporate elements and materials from popular culture. Just like what Itoi and Inose (2008) mentioned that teachers should encourage students to think critically around their surroundings and become an independent thinkers. Students can gain insights about the songs by understanding or implying what they hear. Situations in songs are usually open to interpretation, so students can exercise their imagination and express their opinions freely.
It is the teachers’ ultimate goal to inspire students to develop their sills and interest in English DURING and AFTER class. Music is one way to create memorable lessons and spark curiosity beyond formal language lessons. Music is a highly relevant source of language outside the classroom.
Integrating music into teenagers’ everyday activities promotes literacy development, particularly for English learners. It is a way for students to experience rich and complex language in a relaxing and entertaining way. A learning environment filled with music will generate interest, encourage creativity and positive learning attitude. Plato once said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”
Activity 1 – “Where is the love?” by Black Eyed Peas
Total class time : 60 minutes
– Use the rap song “Where is the Love?” (not the whole song, just the
first part — from “What’s wrong with the world, mama?” to “Where
is the love, the love, the love?”
– Teacher will pre-teach and elicit some of the key words in the song.
For example, addicted, trauma, terrorism, race, meditate, suffering,
etc. through pictures and images
– Teacher play the song for the FIRST TIME, ask students to stand up
every time when they hear a NEGATIVE WORD (either it is a verb,
noun or adjective). For example, trauma, terrorism, discriminate,
hate, killing, dying, hurt, sufferingâ€¦
– Play the song once (the selected part), ask students to identify the
rap part and the chorus part
– Put students into 2 groups
– Ask both groups to come out to the whiteboard (2 whiteboards in the
classroom) and when they listen to the words that rhyme, they have to
write down on the whiteboard. For example, “mama”, “drama” and
“trauma”/”discriminate, hate, demonstrate, yeah”/”dying/crying”â€¦
– Ask students to go to their computer
– Ask students to go the internet and search for the lyrics
– Ask students to copy and paste that file to a word document
– Ask students to underline all the rhyme words as they listen to it again
– Put students into 4 groups
– Play the song 2 times to the whole class
– Ask students to RAP along as much as possible (turn down the volume)
– Give each group 5 minutes to rehearse
– Tell students they can look at the lyrics from the computer screen and
do a group rapping in front of the class
– The audience (other groups) have to watch and hold up their hip-hop
cap afterwards if they like it.
– Teacher will count the number of hip-hop caps and write the result on
the whiteboard and see which group is the audience’s favorite
– No formal assessment is needed at this stage as this practice is to help
the slower and quiet / shy students to build up their confidence.
– However, teacher will ask students randomly and see what and
why they like or do not like about certain group’s performance.
Post class activity :
A group project
Time given: 10 days
– Teacher will spend 10 to 15 minutes explaining this group project
– Students need to work in a group of 4
– Students need to find a controversial social or political topic in Hong
Kong through the South China Morning Post or other English news
media on the internet
– Students need to express their opinions about that topic by writing
new lyrics that will fit into the rap song of their choice
– The rap song must be either from the U.S. or Hong Kong
– Students need to perform and record their NEW RAP and post it on
– Students must provide a YouTube link of the original rap song with
their own YouTube video
– A VERY useful Reference for students :
– Students need to vote for their favorite GROUP, favorite
LYRICS, favorite RAP performance through the school intranet
Activity 2 – An Interview with your favorite rapper
Lead in / Warm up
– Ask students if they know any local rapper
– Ask students who is (are) their favorite(s)
– Ask students to work in pairs (provided they like the same rapper) or
individually to draft an e-mail to rappers like MC Jin, Famers, LMF,
24 Herbs, and invite them for an interview which will be conducted by
– Ask students to go online and look for more information about
their favorite rapper
– Ask students to produce the first draft
– Ask students to produce the second draft based on the teacher’s advice
and comments through e-mail
– Ask students to work in a group of 3s and prepare a list of questions
as an attachment with their e-mail to IMPRESS the rappers so they
WILL BE MORE EAGER to say yes to the interview
– Ask students to produce the FINAL draft
– Ask students to search from the internet and find out the management
company or the record company of the artist that they would like to
– Ask students to send their request to those rappers’ Facebook
accounts and blogs as well
– Students must send their e-mail through the teacher’s school e-mail
account — the teacher needs to have direct control of what goes out
and comes in
– Peer assessment
– Teacher will ask students to vote and pick the 10 BEST interviewing
questions through the school intranet
Assessment for activity 1 (post class activity) – The group project
Instruction : Just put a ‘ƒ¼’ in the box for the comment that you agree
What do you think, (name of the “audience”) ?
Did you like our topic?
Yes, it’s a hot topic and I can relate to it!
It’s a typical one!
Sorryâ€¦it doesn’t interest me at all!
Did our new lyrics get your attention? Did we bring out a clear message?
Yes, very interesting and I wanted to know more!
Sorry but I don’t understand what you guys were trying to say! What’s the message?
Did we write our new lyrics with the correct grammar?
Yes! I think so!
May be a few mistakes!
Full of grammatical mistakes!
Did we have the right pronunciation?
Most of them!
Was our rap clear and easy to follow?
Most of them!
Did our new lyrics rhyme with the tune?
Most of them!
No! Not at all!!!
Did we rap with the right beat?
Yes, I wanted to rap along with you guys too!
You guys were off a little but it was still alright!
Sorry! You guys couldn’t catch the beat at all!
Did we rap loud and clear enough?
I couldn’t hear some of them.
Sorry, you guys were just mumbling!
Group members : ______________________________________________
5=Totally agree 4=Agree 3=Average 2=Disagree 1=Totally disagree
1. An interesting topic which everybody in Hong Kong can relate to.
2. The contents of the rap showed your group had a good
understanding of the topic.
3. The organization of the rap was clear and easy to follow.
4. The lyrics were expressive and creative.
5. The lyrics were well written.
6. The lyrics and tune went well together.
7. Your group had good pronunciation when rapping.
8. Your group used correct grammar when writing the lyrics.
9. All of you were very fluent and smooth with your rap.
10. It was a very enjoyable performance.
Assessment for activity 2 – Writing an e-mail to your favorite rapper
Name of student : ______________________________________________
5=Totally agree 4=Agree 3=Average 2=Disagree 1=Totally disagree
1. Your e-mail had an appropriate and easy to understand subject.
2. Your e-mail had greeting, introduction, body and closure.
3. The organization of your e-mail was clear and easy to follow.
4. You made your request clear and precise.
5. Your e-mail showed the importance of this matter.
6. Your e-mail supported with good reasons and it can persuade the
reader to act according to your request
7. The spelling, punctuation and grammar of your e-mail were accurate.
8. Your e-mail was polite and sincere.
9. Your e-mail content fulfilled all the requirements stated.
Lyrics – “Where is the love?” by Black Eyed Peas
What’s wrong with the world, mama
People livin’ like they ain’t got no mamas
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that’ll bring you trauma
Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism
But we still got terrorists here livin’
In the USA, the big CIA
The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK
But if you only have love for your own race
Then you only leave space to discriminate
And to discriminate only generates hate
And when you hate then you’re bound to get irate, yeah
Madness is what you demonstrate
And that’s exactly how anger works and operates
Man, you gotta have love just to set it straight
Take control of your mind and meditate
Let your soul gravitate to the love, y’all, y’all
People killin’, people dyin’
Children hurt and you hear them cryin’
Can you practice what you preach
And would you turn the other cheek
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
‘Cause people got me, got me questionin’
Where is the love (Love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love
The love, the love
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