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Teach Primary Grammar With Taylor Swift (And Other Music)

Pink Floyd were certain they didn’t need “no education”, but your pupils might think otherwise, says Stephen Lockyer...

  • Teach Primary Grammar With Taylor Swift (And Other Music)

Congratulations! You are teaching Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling. You’ve got the teaching side covered, but what to do for a purposeful activity? This was exactly the dilemma I faced on a weekly basis. I began by looking at activities on popular websites, but they were all very focused on one particular punctuation or grammar rule, not to mention incredibly dull and uninspiring.

Anyway, one day after school I was called in to cover choir practice at the last minute and, in desperation, turned to YouTube, my overhead projector and some speakers in what I called ‘Choiroke’. The children loved it! More than that, they knew almost all the lyrics. There was, however, a problem. The grammar policeman in me recoiled in horror at the awful punctuation and syntax of the lyrics. Take, for example, the hit song ‘Blank Spaces’ by Taylor Swift.

Nice to meet you
Where you been?
I could show you incredible things
Magic, madness, heaven, sin
Saw you there and I thought oh my god
Look at that face, you look like my
next mistake

But while cringing at the errors and omissions, a light bulb went on in my head. The very next day, I printed out several lyric sheets (which can be readily found online) and asked the children in my class to correct them as best they could.

It was a revelation. The class, recognising the words, took to the task instantly, adding speech marks, adjusting slang and colloquialisms, and generally upsetting the flow of a song so as to achieve a better grammatical standard. Taylor’s lyrics now read:

It’s nice to meet you –
where have you been?
I could show you incredible things:
magic, madness, heaven or sin.
I saw you there and thought, “Oh my God,
look at that face; you look like my
next mistake.”

The dialogue around this task was rich from the off, and produced much debate. Should the children change the word ‘nice’ for a more effective adjective, for example? Would an ‘or’ in the list of incredible things be more appropriate than an ‘and’? All these discussions came directly from the children, who, having endlessly sung the songs but never really examined the lyrics, identified that perhaps Taylor’s lyricist would be wise to come back to school for a little while.

We continued to trawl, with the students starting to suggest song lyrics they knew to be poorly constructed. Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’, for example, has a prose-like flow to it and simply needs some punctuation. While Pharrell William’s ‘Happy’, on the other hand, is the equivalent of word soup. He’s won plaudits for the song, but written down it makes little sense.

It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
(take a break)
Hot air balloon that could go to space
(we can go through space now)
Oh no, with the air, like I don’t care baby
by the way

In fact, ‘Happy’ produced the most debate, with the unusual mix of tense, possession and slang. The corrected versions bore no resemblance to the original, but that isn’t the point.

Laying down your lyrics

If my experiences already have you trawling your mental jukebox for possibilities, I have some useful recommendations to consider before you go ahead and commit to a playlist. First, make sure you check any lyrics carefully before you decide to use them – some have thinly (and not so thinly) veiled sexual references. Milkshakes should remain in the yard.

It’s best to double-space the lyrics to make room for corrections and if you want to focus on specific areas, such as punctuation or colloquialisms, it’s helpful to identify these using different coloured pens. Another idea is to give each member of a group a different page of lyrics, then ask him or her to correct it before passing it on to the next person to repeat the exercise. This way children will identify different ‘errors’ and improve on each other’s suggestions. (Again, you might want to let each member of the group use a different colour so his or her comments are easily recognised.) Lastly, try to use lyric sites where the writer is credited and include this information on the sheet – it highlights provenance from an early age.

The benefits of using a popular song for this task is that you get an immediate buy-in from the class, as you are using something familiar and important to them. By virtue of the words being lyrics, they often have poor punctuation, so almost any song is fair game. And the songs can be tailored to your children’s most keen interests, which keeps the task fresh. Working in these lesson, some of the children were the happiest I’d ever seen them – it’s not often pupils set about adding semi-colons to a sentence with a broad smile on their face (and occasionally singing). One unexpected side effect was that the children began looking more deeply at the content of the lyrics, and the sometimes ridiculous contradictions or metaphors used. I’ll admit I set the children up on this one, but have you ever read ‘Any Dream Will Do’?

I closed my eyes, drew back the curtain
To see for certain what I thought I knew

It didn’t take long before the children spotted that it would be hard to see something for certain with your eyes closed! This extended into a conversation about the curtains being a mental reveal of the dream Joseph is having. We’d become literary analysts in just a few minutes.

Next time you want to recap some GPS rules, have a look at some lyrics. Just try to avoid any of your personal favourites. My party go-to of Basement Jaxx’s ‘Bingo Bango’ fills me with shame when written down, and is pretty uncorrectable.


Did you know?

According to a recent analysis by the website SeatSmart, the average song requires the reading age of an eight-year-old; this age has declined in the past 10 years.

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