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A Hunka Hunka What?

Most teachers use music for the literal content, to shine the light on vocabulary or to elucidate particular grammar targets, often overlooking what music does best: rhythm. Learning to recognize word boundaries from within a stream of sound is an important skill that can be challenging, daunting even, to any level of learner. What particularly gives students problems are those unstressed syllables that get rendered down into schwa in fast speech. Music is perfect for rehearsing this as most of the little words glom together, disappear or get distorted in the performance.

Take a snippet like this from Elvis Presley’s up tempo “Burning Love,” for instance:

Girl girl girl girl
You’re going to set me on fire
My brain is flaming
I do not know which way to go

Remove some of the more malleable syllables:

Girl girl girl girl
You’re going set me on fire
My brain flaming
I don’t know which way go

Students listen and mark where the missing word is as below. Skip the semantics: There is no need to identify the word at this point; location is everything. Such an approach works even with the lowest post-literate levels.

Girl girl girl girl
You’re going ^ set me on fire
My brain ^ flaming
I don’t know which way ^ go

For false beginner and up, follow up by directing students to write in WHAT THEY HEAR, not what they think the missing word is.

Girl girl girl girl
You’re go-/na/ set me on fire
My brain /niz/ flaming
I don’t know which way /da/ go

Next have students identify the words that these odd syllables represent. This can be done cooperatively or solo depending on time constraints. This can also lead naturally into a discussion of stress timing, contractions and linking at some point depending on the level. By incorporating this approach into a regular lesson plan discussion becomes moot as music has the power to make the point at an unconscious level. Students pick up on the /roolz/ right away.

Another approach is take the targets out of context and have students first predict then put them back by marking location as they listen.

Girl girl girl girl
to | You’re going set me on fire
is | My brain flaming
to | I don’t know which way go

One more approach: Mix up the word order in each line >>> Cooperatively descramble >>> Listen and check >>> Debrief.

This kind of thing can be rolled out at the beginning of the lesson to transition audio focus from L1 to L2. That is, as a warm up. One other advantage is that the perennially tardy will suddenly start showing up on time. The real pay-off, however, is that you get to hear the King proclaim over and over that he’s a hunka hunka burnin’ love. And who can argue with that?

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