Monday, March 2, 2009

Mondegreens & Using Song Lyrics to Teach Reading Comprehension

Maybe you've experienced one of these all-too-common phenomena:
  • You are singing along to a song you've loved for years on the radio and your friend breaks in with "Wait! Did you just sing [insert embarrassingly incorrect lyrics]?!" This leads to an awkward silence, defensiveness, and some heated debate. Eventually, one of you breaks down and looks up the lyrics, proving the other (or both of you) wrong.
  • You encounter a foreign, uncommon, or extremely formal word in print for what seems like the first time. A few seconds, hours, or days pass. Then, you realize that you had encountered this word or phrase for years in spoken form for years, but had misheard it as something very different, or just ignored it.
  • You, your child, or someone you know has memorized some piece of text (The Pledge of Allegiance, a Bible verse, etc.) and has been reciting it incorrectly for a long time because of what they thought it was or they just couldn't understand what the words were.
We as humans frequently mishear speech and music lyrics, but these errors can be a test of our engagement with the material and our level of comprehension. Do we continue to mumble out the words we aren't quite sure of in the bridge of a song, or do we actively engage with the material and try to figure out what the lyrics are (or simply look up the lyrics online)? When we hear a word we don't know, do we ask what it means or do we just ignore it and move on? Of course, it can be an automatic process to make some unknown stimulus match what we are already aware of, but as we mature and begin to have more awareness and engagement, we can start to short-circuit that process (while avoiding some future faux pas).

These misheard snippets of speech are called "mondegreens." You can learn all about the development of this term (from a mondegreen) and some popular musical mondegreens from the Wikipedia article. You can also find a compendium of misheard song lyrics on the website AmIRight, which has collected thousands of commonly misheard song lyrics. A religious music teacher has collected her own misheard hymn and Christmas song lyrics.

With this in mind, you can use music as a method of engaging your students while doing comprehension exercises. You can make fill in the blank worksheets or dictation exercises or simply start a discussion. Spoken dictation exercises are valuable to learning English, but making exercises from music gives the advantage of having the words be more jumbled -- there is background noise, pronunciation may be modified to fit the music/rhyme, words may be stretched out, and words may be sung very quickly. In addition to teaching the lyrics of a popular song or memorized piece of text, you are teaching the valuable skill of engagement in information and doing what is necessary to comprehend it.

A final note about mondegreens: many of the mishearings may complete the sentence in a way that is syntactically proper (correct grammar) and may even make sense. However, it is vital to consider the complete context. For example, "How I love cheese sauce!" definitely completes a sentence using proper grammar, and the sentence makes sense. However, does it belong in a praise and worship song? No! This can easily serve as a teachable moment for your students about the importance of context clues while they're reading.

Remember to have fun with the language!

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I have an early reading blog on my site that I am constantly looking for material for. I would love to find out if your organization would like to be a guest blogger sometime.

    I am currently using your sequential spelling with my two older daughters (10 & 8 yrs old), one of which is dyslexic. They are performing very well and love using the program. Thank you for the devotion you have towards finding ways to help struggling readers and writers learn easier.