The 5 Worst Types of ESL Classroom songs

2 Dec

I have been teaching English to children in Spain for a little over a year, and although generally speaking that isn’t a particularly significant amount of time, it’s been enough to expose me to various unusual situations which bear no relation to any other job I’ve ever had. For example, while working as an admin assistant in a university I never had the power to decide whether or not another person was allowed to go to the toilet, or chastise a co-worker for ‘talking when I’m talking”.

Another thing that I never had to do, but which is now required, is to spontaneously break into song and expect others to join me. ESL lessons for children are full of songs referencing a relevant grammatical point or vocabulary, and in fairness, some of them do it very well

(There’s a nice early 90s jangly guitar pop vibe about this one for example, I’m a fan!).

However, some of them are cringe inducing (made all the worse when accompanied by dancing dead-eyed mannequins ).

While for many teachers this really isn’t a problem, I consider my biggest character flaw to be my unwavering inability to feign enthusiasm about something I think is shit. Hence, at times, the delights of learning English with me through the magic of song can be a rather harrowing experience.

Focusing on songs mainly from textbooks (because these tend to be the lamest), I’ve noticed that they generally fall into 5 main categories, of which I’ve listed below.

The Chipmunk

The Creepy

The Shameless rip off

The Comedy

The Ballard

So let’s get cracking

 

1) The Chipmunk

Woman displaying usual human reaction to 'The Chipmunk'

Woman displaying usual human reaction to ‘The Chipmunk’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The chipmunk is usually used for younger learners, for whom I can only assume that the song writers have mistaken for dogs. Recently, I had to physically lower the pitch of a song I have for my five year olds fearing that the incessant squeaking may shatter the windows and cause an injury. Here is a five second clip, just so you know I’m really not exaggerating.

I may be wrong about this, but I don’t remember as a child liking a song any more if it was sung at a higher than usual pitch. Of course, there are children’s songs featuring children’s vocals, but ‘The Chipmunk’ doesn’t feature any children. Instead, the vocal track has adults whose voices have been altered to supposedly make them sound like children. It doesn’t work – the result is an ear splitting nightmare that makes Jackson 5 era Michael Jackson sound like Nick Cave in comparison.

And here’s the thing. When I lowered the pitch with one  in order to make it possible for me to sing (easily done with quicktime, for anyone who wants to do the same), it made no difference whatsoever to the kids. There were no protests or tears that the voices they heard actually sounded like actual human beings instead of unconvincing children, and being at a respectable octave meant we could all enjoy it!

So why does ‘The Chipmunk’ exist? How can we be expected to sing along to a song that the vocalists themselves needed their voices to be digitally altered for? That’s like asking me to mimic a champion fencer whilst armed with a spoon.

Furthermore, hearing adults attempting to be children is rarely pleasant. There are some voice actors who can do it quite well of course – just look at The Simpsons. However I’ve yet to come across anyone employed by a series of ESL coursebooks that has successfully convinced me, or any other person, that they really are 5 years old, and I wish that they’d just stop trying.

Which brings me on to…

 

2) The Creepy

Hello children...

Hello children…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Ah, the creepy. Much like ‘The Chipmunk’, creepy songs are usually created exclusively for younger children, and despite their unsettling nature, are often pretty popular in the classroom. It would therefore seem mean spirited to criticise them, but seeing as I’m a deeply mean spirited person, I shall continue to do so with relish. They have provoked many a nightmare.

A good number of ‘The Creepy’ would fit quite comfortably into any horror film’s soundtrack, particularly if the film features clowns. To demonstrate this, I’ve made a short video where, adding 3 scary images to a horrible song that was designed to play at the start of a lesson as a routine for 4-5 year olds. If you manage to make it past one minute, you’re a braver person than I.

Look if you dare

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why a song is creepy – it’s something you instinctively feel rather than logically conclude. But I believe I can pigeonhole most ‘creepy’ songs into two categories – ‘Clown bait’ (such as above) and ‘lobotomy’. Lobotomy is when a children’s song is performed on video by a perma-grinned but dead eyed soul who looks directly into the camera throughout, as if their brain has only just been tinkered with by a power mad surgeon armed with rusty tools. While the voices telling them to burn things may be gone, so have any feelings of genuine joy and emotion. All that remains is a fixated smile through the teeth with an often repeated declaration that ‘the sky is blue blue blue’, ‘the rain comes down down down’ or that ‘chainsaw killings are fun fun fun’. Upon hearing a lobotomised creepy song, I am reminded that life is fragile and the world at times can be cruel. Bizarrely though, the kids love it! Weirdos…

 

3) The Comedy

A new mobile you say?

A new mobile you say?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The set of textbooks for kids I’m currently using end each section with a ‘joke box’ feature, surrounded by speech bubbles with ‘Ha Ha Ha’ written in them. One of these reads as thus:

“Q: What has a mouth but doesn’t eat, a bank but no money and a bed but never sleeps?

A: a river”.

If this type of long-winded half joke/riddle resonates with your sense of humour, then you will without doubt love ‘The Comedy’ song, as this is a good representation of the chortles coming your way. However, if by some miracle the joke hasn’t caused you to collapse into a fit of giggles then imagine how even less funny it would be if you were 8 years old, you were made to sing it and it was written in a language you don’t really understand yet. This, in essence is the underlying problem with the ‘comedy’ songs – even if they were side splittingly hilarious, a child with just a basic understanding of English isn’t going to appreciate it.

One example I had last year, in a section labelled ‘technology’, was a rib tickling ditty about convincing a grumpy grandfather to buy a new mobile phone – (“I don’t need one, I have a pen and paper” moans the voice actor in a tone less ‘grandfather’ and more ‘constipated’). The song itself wasn’t awful, but the constant unfunny interruptions made it difficult to sing. It’s a bit trying to teach this bizarre collaboration between Roy Chubby Brown and 1970s pop rockers Smokie to a group of disinterested 8 year olds. It seems a monstrous amount of effort for something that in reality is rather pointless.

However, it’s not all bad. I believe nothing brings people closer together than a mutual hate of something, and nothing is more hateful than comedy that isn’t funny. Therefore it can be said that ‘the comedy song’ has enabled my pupils and I to bond, for which I really should be grateful. I’m still not, though.

 

4) The Shameless Rip Off

ripoff

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the days when I still went to church, I remember that there used to be a number of popular singer songwriters that would tour the country, if not the world on the back of their hits that were sung nationwide in the happy clappy churches that made up evangelical Christianity (and in 1997, even headlining Wembley stadium on God’s request, apparently). Most correctly assumed that their target audience wouldn’t listen to secular and morally moribund pop bands, and therefore wouldn’t notice how suspiciously similar their songs were to their more popular, heathen counterparts.

The same can be said with the authors of ‘The Shameless Rip Off’. It’s safe to assume that foreign children won’t be aware that ‘Home is Home (A house or a flat)’ is EXACTLY the same as ELO’s 1970s smash “Don’t Bring me Down’ or that “We are family” has taken a rather generous amount from the Sister Sledge song that shares its name.  And so far, this has proven to be correct. Well I’m on to you, Cambridge University Press!

In all fairness though, I don’t have a big problem with ‘The Shameless Rip Off’, because more often than not, they’re the best songs to sing. It turns out popular song writers know how to write good songs – who knew! It’s also worth noting that young children don’t tend to give a flying fuck about whether a song they like harbours similarities to one made by 1970s pop rockers. Therefore the image of me furiously complaining of the thievery while declaring that the ‘sheeple’ kids should ‘open their fucking ears’ is a rather pathetic one.

However, if anyone reading is a songwriter who rather wouldn’t go through the rigmarole of actually writing music, I think ESL classroom music would be an excellent route for you.

 

 5) The Ballad

"Activity centre, lots of fun..."

“Activity centre, lots of fun…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have my suspicions that this type of classroom song, usually found in the last two units of a coursebook, is included purely to appease long suffering vocalists. The ballad, at last, gives them the opportunity exercise their moderate talent, perhaps as a reward for all the times they had to sing about vegetables, or something equally mundane, whilst pretending to be a 6 year old boy.

These songs are slow, with big choruses and always end with a Westlife-esqe key change presumably to allow the children to leap from their seats and thrust their cigarette lighters into the air. However, when the subject of the song is about what items of clothing are most suitable for a cold and windy day in the park (hat, coat, sweater and scarf, for those interested) or about what colour the grass could be, I feel that the explosive emotional crescendo is a little misplaced in this context.

To add insult to injury the songs can often be up to 4 minutes long, meaning that by end, the children are literally begging you to turn this shit off. Alas, they have sadly not been moved to tears as ‘The Ballard’ reminisces that ‘the games we played, the food we ate, the party was good, the party was great’ over and over again in ever rising keys. Instead, their reaction is remarkably similar to mine when I’m at a party or bar, and some wanker decides to get their acoustic guitar out.

So to sum up, I don’t think I’m ever going to truly get over my inhibitions and teach these songs very well, and admire greatly the teachers that can. In the mean time, I’ll just keep returning to these two classics, and hope others can make more like them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDj9Cl2YY-U (not made any better by the strange ‘adult pretending to be child’ actions, admittedly)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8F0NYBBKczM (Where is it! Where is it!)

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