song lyrics that don’t make sense

The other day I played the song “Ironic” by Alanis Morisette for my students. It’s a very good song to play at an Intermediate level. Lots of interesting vocabulary for that language level there. Among the many things that you can do, here’s one:

Write or display on the board or give a printed copy of these mismatched lines from the song (they are already matched here, just separate into two columns):

  • It’s like rain / on your wedding day
  • It’s a free ride / when you’ve already paid
  • It’s the good advice / that you just didn’t take
  • A traffic jam / when you are already late
  • A no smoking sign / on your cigarette break
  • It’l like 10,000 spoons / when all you need is a knife
  • It’s meeting the man of my dreams / and then meeting his wife

If you want the extra challenge, make it a bit more interesting and fun by removing the last word from the second column. In that case, ask the students to match the lines and also to try to predict what the last word might be. 

Once your students have rearranged the lines, play the song for them to check. This song presents the listeners with some ironic situations in life. But is it really irony what transpires from these situations or is it simply bad luck? Do these lyrics actually make sense? Watch comedian Ed Byrne slating Alanis Morisette and see what he has to say about it. 


Difficult as it is to understand if pitched at an Intermediate level, I would nevertheless play from 00:27 to 1:25 a couple of times and see what your students are able to understand (ideal for higher levels). They will, at least be able to understand the point he is trying to make.

This can get more interesting if you google “lyrics that don’t make sense”. This will led to some critical thinking and speaking interaction. Here are some lines that don’t make sense. Or do they? Well, it’s up to your students to decide. Do they make sense? Why? Why not? Can they explain why and elaborate on it?  Do they know or can they find any more lyrics that don’t make sense?

  • “Eight days a week I love you” (The Beatles, Eight days a week)
  • “I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain” (Prince, Purple Rain).
  • “I only wanna die alive” (Ariana Grande, Break Free).
  • “I’d rather have bad times with you than good times with someone else” (Luther Vandross, I’d Rather).
  • “Before you came into my life, I missed you so much” (Carly Rae Jepsen, Call Me Maybe).
  • “I have a blue house with a blue window. Blue is the color of all that I wear. Blue are the streets and all the trees are too” (Eiffel 65, Blue).
  • “Well, I’m not dumb but I can’t understand why she walked like a woman and talked like a man” (The Kinks, Lola).


Keep It Simple Activities

My name is Daniel Martin. I am the author of several books for teachers and learners of English as a foreign language and a teacher trainer and speaker at international conferences. I can provide teacher training to your institution via Skype or on site. Here you will find a collection of useful and meaningful activities for the English language classroom devised to help you teach effectively in terms of providing plenty of language exposure and practice to your students with an aim in mind: zero or minimal preparation for the teacher. Enjoy!! 




teaching language chunks

I love the little and unexpected detours that one sometimes takes from the planned lesson that we have in our notebook or/and in mind. I also love the feeling of being totally prepared and very much looking forward to steering off the path and embrace a golden opportunity to:

a. bring on a useful expression

b. do pronunciation work with it

c. create conversation around it and, in doing so, making it memorable

d. share learning stratetegies with the students

A recent lesson revolved around the topic of “work”. At one point a student was talking about his indecision some time ago regarding whether to take on one job (which entitled relocating to another city) or staying put.

And then the “aha” moment came. I intervened to suggest the chunk “make up your mind”. “So you couldn’t make up your mind then”, I said. “It was a difficult decision”. I wrote the chunk on the board and asked the class to drill it with me starting backwards:

  • mind
  • my mind
  • make up my mind
language chunks

First slowly, then a bit faster and finally very fast. Then we drilled “I couldn’t make up my mind” three times in that manner. Finally I asked the students to simply say “I couldn’t make up my mind” after my questions.

  • “Tea or coffee”? “I couldn’t make up my mind”
  • “Espresso or capuccino”? “I couldn’t make up my mind”
  • “Small or medium”? “I couldn’t make up my mind”
  • “One or two sugars”? “I couldn’t make up my mind”

In order to help to stick to memory and to get students interact around it and have some speaking practice, I thought of a conversation question to go with the chunk, as shown in the photo above. I let the students discuss in small groups for five or six minutes and then I asked around (which generated some more useful vocabulary).

While the students were working in small groups, I took twenty seconds and opened Youglish in the computer browser. If you are not familiar with Youglish, read the blog post I wrote about it (“Do you Youglish?”) where I introduce you to the site and the kinds of things that can be done with it in the language classroom. After the speaking practice I played three or four snippets from Youglish with the chunk “couldn’t make up my mind”. Click here to have a look. Then I invited the students to do the same thing at home and try to drill the chunk.

Obviously we can’t afford to do this with every single language item we encounter but it’s always a good idea to, from time to time, take some words for a walk. Now, in your head: can you see this course of action unfold for these chunks?

  • “just get rid of it”
  • “what about it?”
  • “at the end of the day”
  • “enough already”

How would you drill them backwards? Could you think of conversation questions to go with them? Can you find examples of them on Youglish?

conversation cards

This time I would like to share with you what I call a “vocabulary activation routine”. For starters, it activates vocabulary, as it is meant to revise vocabulary already seen in class in a spaced manner. Also, this isn’t simply “an activity”. It is a routine which is established to provide language practice and activation and to consolidate it.

Keep a note of interesting words and expressions that crop up in class. Then get some index cards (or make out cards with pieces of paper) and write a different word or expression on each card and also think of a conversation question to go with it. For instance, at an Intermediate level, I chose “into” and wrote “Are you into modern art”?

Do this for about two or three weeks. Then, once you have about the same number of cards as students, bring those cards to class and start off the lesson by giving each student a card. They have to pair off with another student for about two or three minutes, trade cards and take turns to answer the question that is written on the new card (in about a minute or minute and a half). Then they pair off with someone else and go through the same procedure again.

Walk around and provide help if there are students who can’t understand the key words or questions on the cards. Set a time limit of about 15 minutes for the students to have several conversation exchanges.

Settle into this routine for the whole school year. My recommendation would be a couple of times a month. Add new cards to your collection and recycle them so there is always a certain number of “old” and new cards.

Once students are very familiar with certain cards because they have been exposed to them for a given number of times, ask them to think of an alternative question to ask using the key word on it. If they can’t think of anything, they can still use that question or call you for help and you may suggest a different question.

It only really takes about five minutes to create two or three cards at a time. However, the pay-offs are fantastic.

mini dialogues

One of the keys to successful teaching is the ability to provide ample opportunities for recycling language in varied, original and engaging ways. A substantial number of activities from this blog deal with recycling language. In fact, speaking a language is nothing but reusing language. Here is one activity that you may enjoy trying out to kick off your lesson.

Identify interesting bits of language that cropped up from your previous lesson and create a mini dialogue with two interventions where that language is used in one of the lines. Then, get rid of the line that does not contain that language.

Here are some examples from an Upper-Intermediate class.

  • Skip it and just move on. Don’t waste your precious time.
  • That’s weird! Are you sure?
  • Of course you can do it, if you set your mind to it.
  • It went really well actually. Thanks for asking.
  • Wow! You’re so resourceful. You really are!

Write this on the board or project on a screen and show to your class. Clarify meaning and then get your students into pairs and give them 6-10 minutes to choose as many of the dialogues they can see and provide the missing lines. They can do this in any order and as many as they may have time for.

For instance, the first dialogue could unfold like this:

  • This exercise is so difficult!
  • Skip it and just move on. Don’t waste your precious time.

Ask your students to come up to the front, each pair of students at a time and scenify their dialogues. Don’t limit yourself to the mere recycling of these language items. This is a very good opportunity for pronunciation practice as well.

If you would like to extend this activity further, focus on one interesting mini dialogue and ask the rest of the students:

  • Where are the speakers?
  • Why might they be saying this?
  • What’s their relationship?
  • What can be said right before and and right after?

For this instance, the speakers might be two students in a classroom or library. They might be doing some school work. One of them might be struggling with an exercise and the other one is encouraging him or her to do the next one and come back to that one later. And these might be the interventions right before and right after:

  • Having trouble?
  • This exercise is so difficult!
  • Skip it and just move on. Don’t waste your precious time.
  • I know. I was about to.

Very minimal preparation activity. One recommendation: always keep a record of interesting bits of language that crop up in the classroom. I always have a notebook on my desk where I annotate some of the language that I write on the board as I teach. First thing I do when I’m ready to prepare my next lesson is take a look at those annotations.

working with listening transcripts 2

My approach to working with listening, as a skill many language students struggle with -and more especially so students whose primary language is syllable timed (as opposed to stress timed)- has been gradually shifting towards focusing more on the process rather than on the product. In other words, prioritising teaching listening over testing listening.

I find that a lot of useful classroom time seems to be devoted to the pre-listening tasks of setting the topic and pre-teaching some vocabulary. Nothing wrong with that but all things in good measure. Warming things up and activating schemata are totally relevant tasks. However, they can’t really take over the actual listening practice. As for pre-teaching vocabulary, there are many studies that show that pre-teaching more than 4 words is counterproductive. Pre-teach too many words and the attention will be driven to those isolated trees in the forest and the whole picture of the forest will be lost. In addition, there is no guarantee that those target words will be recognised in connected speech, with the pressure and demands of decoding in real time, particularly when met for the first time.

And then the passage will be played twice. And then understanding will be checked. And then we will move on.

But are we doing anything about what wasn’t understood? Is there any trouble areas evidence being collected in order to provide feedback, just as feedback is provided in speaking practice or writing activities? How can we possibly help our students understand better is nothing is done about it?

John Field in his seminal book Listening in the Language Classroom, provides a lot of food for thought in this matter. This book is a must for anyone interested in delving a little bit deeper into listening as a process and coming up with strategies and courses of action in order to help students be better listeners. He also posits that listening is a very active skill, as opposed to traditional views of listening as a passive skill together with reading.

I adapted a listening feedback sheet from this book by simpliflying it a bit in the hope of making it a little bit more user-friendly for both teachers and students. The idea is for students to, once they have listened to a passage and understanding has been tested, find the listening transcript (provided by the textbook or teacher) and then answer the questions in it. Then the teacher can gather this information and go back to the listening passage and play and replay bits and pieces to have a look at what obstacles lay in the way. Then the teacher can model pronunciation of those words in context for the students to repeat and drill and get to grips with it. The many underlying reasons why students may not understand something may be not knowing the words themselves or this may be a result of areas of connected speech such as assimilation, linking, elision, intrusion, rhythm and stress. Other conflict areas may be speed of delivery or even messy speech. Media players allow changes to speed settings. If a listening passage is too difficult, it may be a good idea to slow it down. And viceversa, once a student is acquainted with it, it may be a good idea to speed it up. Just like muscles get trained, ears can equally be trained!

Here’s my adapted version of John Field’s listening feedback sheet.

You may consider setting this up as a routine and allowing five minutes (it only take five minutes really!) for the students to reflect on the listening process. My recommendation: regardless of the length of the passage, narrow it down to one to two minutes of speech time and focus on that. Just a small sample will do so that you are in a better position to do some remedial work afterwards.

Does this makes sense to you?