Teaching Pronunciation Using Song Lyrics

Tina LaBrenz Chan

Celce-Murcia (1987) outlines four steps which teachers can take to develop their own program in teaching pronunciation. They are:
  Identify the student's problem areas.
  Find lexical/grammatical contexts that have a number of natural occurrences of the problem sound(s).
  Develop communicative tasks that incorporate the words.
  Develop at least three or four exercises so that you can recycle the problem and keep providing students with practice of the target sounds with new contexts (p. 10).

Catford suggests that two principles - frequency of occurrence and functional load - be followed in selecting particular sounds for teaching. In his terms, frequency of occurrence is the number of times a sound occurs per thousand words in text, making voiced /D / the highest frequency sound in English. He concludes that it is essential to teach this most frequent of all English consonants at a very early stage for use in such words as the, this, and that. However, in Catford's discussion of sequencing pronunciation-teaching points (1987), he recommends that it may be best to begin with rhythm, "particularly in teaching English to speakers of languages with a very different kind of rhythm, such as French and Japanese" (p. 91). /D / may be the highest frequency sound, but teaching it solely in the context of articles and demonstratives might be (will be) boring. Celce-Murcia suggests that kinship terms be used to teach /D / since many of the common ones have this sound, "sister" being the major exception. She also states that, in addition to the use of communicative activities, she tries to maintain high interest level by varying classroom activity. To do this, she includes practicing and reciting manageable segments of poetry, light verse or song lyrics that reinforce sounds that have been practiced. Celce-Murcia warns that song lyrics should be spoken, not sung, if pronunciation practice is the objective. Singing distorts the sound of spoken words and phrases, of stress and intonation, thereby detracting from any pedagogical value the exercise might offer for pronunciation practice.
With the preceding guidelines and suggestions in mind, I designed the following pronunciation teaching project using an old song about an unusual family that my father used to sing, "I'm My Own Grandpa." The words of the song, set to music, are saved like a treat for the end of the lesson.

Lesson Plan

Level: Intermediate and advanced adults

(The subject matter is neither understandable nor particularly suitable for children.)

Purpose: -to practice pronunciation of /D / at the beginning, middle, and end of words to contrast /D / with /z/

-to demonstrate stress-timed rhythm in verse

-to practice stress-timed rhythm in rhymed verse

Materials: Copies of "I'm My Own Grandpa" and the accompanying worksheets, one for each student.

-(Optional but recommended) Tape recording of "I'm My Own Grandpa," either sung or read or both. (It was originally recorded by Eddie Fisher in the 1940's.)

Setting: Ideally, this lesson would follow a teaching unit on family kinship words. Otherwise, pre-teaching or review of these terms may be necessary. This lesson will separate the men from the boys on knowing and understanding the words for kinship in English. In its entirety, the lesson should probably fill two one-hour class times.

Procedure: The lessons begin with an explanation of the correct articulation of /D /. For Japanese speakers of English, /z/ is frequently substituted for /D / even among intermediate level speakers. Students' attention is drawn to the production of /D / so that it will be articulated correctly in both the interactive practice exercises and the focus on suprasegmentals which comes later in the lesson. Because some of the vocabulary in the song lyrics may be unfamiliar, that also is addressed before the section of the lesson on suprasegmentals.

Pronunciation of /D /


Introduce the lesson by saying you will read (or play a tape recording of) the words to a song about an unusual family. Tapping your foot as you read (or listen) is good both here and during all the other times the students hear the lyrics. This will provide some preview of the second half of the lesson, which focuses on suprasegmentals. Let the class listen to the song lyrics once or twice, then pass out the handout with the printed song lyrics. Read the song lyrics one more time as the students read along silently. This will enable the class to begin thinking about the content of the song.
Production of /D /
Tell the class that many kinship words contain the sound "eth" /D /, such as father. /D / is a voiced dental fricative, i.e., it is produced by touching the tips of the upper teeth with a broad and flattened tongue tip and forcing out a voiced stream of air. If you don't touch the tips of the teeth with the tongue, /z/ will be produced instead of /D /. Practice the /D / sound briefly using phrases containing the sound in beginning, middle and end of word position:

mother and father the weather bathe and clothe

  Then this is the end.

 A smooth rhythm is rather soothing.

  To show contrast with /z/, the teacher can write the following minimal words and sentences on the board or overhead projector. Model the words, have students repeat, then read an example and have students tell you which example you have read.

these \ sees clothing \ closing breathe - breeze

  These are easy. Z's are easy.

  He's talking about clothing. He's talking about closing.

  It was then that she studied. It was Zen that she studied.

 Do this as much or as little as you judge necessary. Generally, intermediate and advanced students need only a brief review.

Discussion of Unfamiliar Terms

Now go back to the handout and ask students to scan the song lyrics to find the kinship words which contain the sound /D /. They should circle these words. (Answers: father, mother, brother-in-law, brother, & stepmother) Now scan the lyrics again, and underline all the other words having the /D / sound. (Answers: the, they, this, then, although, though. Note: three (line one) and with (line 4) contain the voiceless dental fricative /T /.) Explain that in today's discussion, students should pay close attention to their pronunciation of these words also.
When students have finished identifying all the /D / words, ask for definitions for the less familiar kinship words, brother-in-law and stepmother. (Answers: A brother-in-law is the brother of one's husband or wife. Other related words are sister-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, and son-in-law.

A stepmother is the wife of one's father by a later marriage. There is no blood (biological) relationship; the relationship is by marriage. Other related words are stepfather, stepdaughter, stepson, stepsister, and stepbrother. One other kinship term is helpful for understanding the content of "I'm My Own Grandpa": half brother/half sister. Write these words on the board and ask the class for definitions. (Answers: A half-brother is a male offspring having only one parent in common with another offspring. Likewise, a half-sister is a female offspring having only one parent in common with another offspring.

At this point, students should have enough background to make some sense of the lyrics, and be sufficiently aware of the focus on pronouncing /D / carefully.

Interactive activities

Divide the class into pairs or groups of three to read the lyrics aloud to each other, the teacher free to circulate to monitor pronunciation performance and answer questions. Questions may arise about certain idioms ("pretty as could be," "bouncing baby boy," "it really is so," and others. Answer these questions, but avoid an overt discussion of how all the principle characters in the song are related because that is what the students themselves will be working on next. After a few minutes of reading time, pass out Worksheet #1.
Go over the directions on Worksheet #1 and let students continue discussion in the same pairs or groups. If they have a little trouble getting started on part A, the family tree, you may want to begin one for the whole class on the board. Tell them it is helpful to begin with me (the "I" in the song).

The teacher should circulate to monitor progress and help when asked; however, students should be encouraged to work out the answers with their partner(s) as much as possible.


When students are finished, answers to parts A and B can be drawn and written on the board for further discussion.


Now that the students have practiced /D /, read and heard the lyrics several times, and succeeded in understanding the content of the song, a focus on rhythm and stress can proceed. Begin by reading a few lines of the lyrics one more time, asking students to place dots above the syllables in the sentence that they hear more strongly. Share answers.


Distribute Worksheet #2. Remind students that the amount of time it takes to say a sentence in English depends on the number of syllables that receive stress. Read the top of worksheet number three with students to remind/instruct them on helpful principles for determining stressed syllables. They are:
Syllables can have no stress, minor stress, and major stress.

Stressed syllables are voiced longer and louder (and therefore often more clearly) than unstressed syllables.

Stress is more likely to occur on syllables in content words (words which carry the meaning of a sentence) than in function words (words which define the grammatical structure of the sentence such as articles, prepositions, and conjunctions).

Working in pairs or groups of three, answer the questions on Worksheet #2. The teacher should circulate and help where needed. Discuss answers to the worksheet. Some suggested answers are provided in Answer sheet #2. Accept any reasonable observations.


By this time, students should know this song intimately; some may even have memorized it. A nice way to finish is to have student volunteers read or recite the verse, singly or in unison. Reading accompanied by a metronome set on 96 or slower is another possibility. However, a teacher tapping a pencil for rhythm tends to make allowances for stumbling over words. The metronome, by contrast, is merciless. If the teacher has the song sung on tape, this is an excellent time to play it. In addition, if the class is sufficiently comfortable about it, you might even try singing the song together.


  • Catford, J.C. (1987). Phonetics and the teaching of pronunciation: A systemic description of English phonology. (pp. Xx-xx). In J. Morley (Ed.), Current perspectives on pronunciation: Practices anchored in theory. (p. ???-???). Washington, DC: TESOL.
  • Celce-Murcia, M. (1987) Teaching pronunciation as communication. In J. Morley (Ed.), Current perspectives on pronunciation: Practices anchored in theory. (p. 1-13). Washington, DC: TESOL.

Appendix 1. I'm My Own Grandpa

Many, many years ago when I was twenty-three,
I was married to a widow who was pretty as could be.
The widow had a grown-up daughter who had hair of red;
my father fell in love with her, and soon they too were wed.
This made my dad my son-in-law and changed my very life,
For my daughter was my mother 'cause she was my father's wife.
To complicate the matters then, although it brought me joy,
I soon became the father of a bouncing baby boy.

My little son he then became a brother-in-law to Dad,
and so became my uncle though it made me very sad.
For if he were my uncle, then it also made him brother
to the widow's grown-up daughter, who of course was my stepmother.

I'm my own grandpa.
I'm my own grandpa.
It sounds funny, I know, but it really is so.
I'm my own grandpa.
  Author Unknown

Worksheet 1.

A. Draw a chart or a family tree showing the family relationships in this song.

  B. Finish the sentences:

   My (step)daughter is my (step)mother because . . .

   My son is a brother-in-law to my father because . . .

   My son is my uncle because . . .

   My dad is my son-in-law because . . .

   I'm my own grandpa because . . .

Worksheet 2. Suprasegmentals

Principles to remember:

  1. The contrast of stressed and unstressed syllables is the basis of rhythm in English.
  2. Stressed syllables are voiced longer and louder than unstressed syllables.
  3. Syllables can have major stress, minor stress or be unstressed.
  4. Stress is more likely to occur on syllables in content words (words which carry the meaning of a sentence) than in function words (words which define the grammatical structure) such as articles, prepositions, and conjunctions.

Count the syllables in each line of the song, then write the number of syllables in the left margin of each line.

Read the lyrics aloud to your partner(s). Decide which syllables receive the most stress in each line and draw a large dot above those syllables.

Answer the following questions with your partner.

  1. What are your observations about the syllables in each line?
  2. What are your observations about the stressed syllables in each line?

Other comments or questions.

Answer sheet 2. Suprasegmentals

Answer the following questions with your partner.

  What are your observations about the number of syllables in each line?

Some possible answers:

  • All the lines of the song before the chorus have 13, 14, 15, or 16 syllables.
  • Fourteen-syllable lines are the most common.
  • There are only five syllables in three of the chorus lines, but 12 syllables in one of the lines.
  • Three of the four chorus lines have exactly the same words as well as the same stressed syllables.

What are your observations about the stressed syllables in each line? in the whole song?

Some possible answers:

  1. Each line has four major stresses.
  2. The lines of the chorus are shorter than the lines of the rest of the song, but they also have four major stresses.
  3. Some of the syllables are stressed more than no stress, but less than major stress.
  4. In line 3, normal word order is changed to maintain the rhythm. It says "hair of red" instead of "red hair."
  5. At the end of line 9, syllables are said very quickly to maintain the regular rhythm or stress pattern of the line:
  6. In "brother-in-law to Dad," "ther-in-law to" is said very rapidly. The extra syllable is condensed into the same amount of time, in fact, "'ther and in" are barely pronounced at all.

[Connecting groups of words together is called linking.]

Other comments or questions?

Some possible topics:

  1. The rhythm of the song lyrics is not like the rhythm of normal conversational English.
  2. The teacher revealed the stress patterns by foot-tapping or hand motions as the lyrics were read.
  3. Prepositional phrases are said all in one breath group.
  4. The song lyrics rhyme.