Do You Hear What I Hear? Using Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts for Teaching Voice

Today’s guest post is from Kelly Pace, Hanover County’s (Virginia) Teacher of the Year! She teaches 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English along with IB Theory of Knowledge. You might remember her from a post she wrote for us earlier in the year on teaching active & passive voice!

Nineteen years ago, I found myself a brand new teacher amongst a team of veteran teachers. All were very candid in giving me advice, and while most of that advice resonated with me, teaching structural grammar by making my students complete textbook exercises seemed extremely boring, bringing me back to my own Catholic grammar school days. Why was I going to teach students what a direct object is or make students underline the adjective clause or prepositional phrase if they weren’t applying those skills to their own writing? Why were my colleagues teaching grammar in isolation and why were we using these grammar textbooks with the terribly boring sentences?

So, one day, I told students to put away their grammar textbooks. My students were not to bring them back to class. (Think of me as a slightly less brave version of Robin Williams as Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, encouraging his students to rip out the introduction of their poetry textbooks).

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I replaced the boring grammar sentences with the lyrics to Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” a song re-released that year to commemorate Princess Diana. They read the lyrics and discussed the sentence structure. Other lessons followed suit. They looked at songs and underlined prepositional phrases and then had to write in a similar fashion. They underlined adjectives and adverbs in song lyrics and added more of their own to descriptive writing. Students started to bring in songs and notice grammatical structures in them. They couldn’t listen to music without thinking about the way the lyrics were written–without thinking about grammar.

A Mentor Text Re-Visited:  Teaching Voice through Song Lyrics

Fast forward to 2015. My students this year have been struggling with voice in their writing. Every sentence reads the same way.  I read this paragraph where my student is analyzing the differences between Tennessee Williams’ text A Streetcar Named Desire and Elia Kazan’s film version:

Williams and Kazan both include that Mitch and Blanche have never gone out on a date past six o’clock. Mitch states, “You never want to go out till after six and then it’s always some place that’s not lighted much” (144). Blanche never wants to be met in the light is a light motif of not wanting to show her true self. The light symbolizes appearance and something that is clearly visible. Blanche never wants the truth of her past experiences in Laurel to be exposed to anyone. In other words she doesn’t want Mitch and others to really know what happened to her because they might not like her for who she is. Blanche creating this fantasy of dark lies in both the film and play is significant because it leads to the idea of Blanche lying for her own image in New Orleans.

Shortly after, I read another one that said the same thing in the same way. These students weren’t plagiarizing; their writing simply had no voice. I searched for ways to bring this voice to their writing. And I was somehow reminded of 1997 when my students began to talk about sentence structure through song lyrics. Could I bring music back to teach voice? I decided to try.

For this mini lesson, I used the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and Adele’s popular “Hello” as mentor texts. I gave the printed version of the lyrics written in paragraph form, not telling students their mentor text for today was Adele’s lyrics. I read the lyrics aloud, asking students what the writer’s voice sounds like. Of course, students shouted out, “Adele!” They had been singing those lyrics for weeks now.  I had been listening. Then I had them do the same thing with Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” leaving off his famous chorus identifying the song’s title. Only a handful of them knew it was Michael Jackson. The rest described his voice as determined, optimistic. We then listened to the lyrics, fully describing what they sounded like.

We began to discuss how easy it is to identify a singer’s voice because we can hear the way that particular vocalist sounds. I told students that with their writing, I have no song to accompany them. If they write voiceless analysis, it sounds the same as it does to every other person.  I should be able to recognize every student’s writing–even analytical writing.

I then gave them the student writing sample from above. We discussed how there is no song to follow with the writing–there is no voice. Then, students revised a paragraph of the essay they had been writing during writing workshop that they deemed as voiceless.  The writing that evolved was so  much better than what I would have gotten had I not brought Adele and Michael Jackson into my classroom:

When a filmmaker creates a film they take many liberties when translating it from a novel or play. In this instance Kazan made alterations to it, to create a more vivid image. Throughout the film Kazan builds Blanche up in particular to create her into an epicenter of drama. In Kazan doing this the audience is more invested in the film. Williams’ written play made Blanche into the center of drama but diluted her commanding presence with distractions from other characters, and stage directions. Williams doing this took away from the original play’s dramatic value. When compared to Williams’ play, Kazan’s film adaptation creates a more dramatic version of Blanche through the use of lighting, stage directions, and dialogue.

This is just one example that one of my students wrote. The paragraph prior to revision did not have words like “liberties,” nor did it describe Blanche as an “epicenter of drama.” Suddenly, I could hear my student’s voices.

Reflections and Other Ideas for Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts

As I reflect on this lesson, I begin to realize that there are so many ways we can use song lyrics as  mentor texts. The possibilities seem endless to me.

  • What about using song lyrics as a means to study verbs in writing? One Republic’s “Counting Stars” could work in studying present tense, future tense, present progressive, and past progressive verbs.
  • Or how about using a song like Pink’s “Just Give Me a Reason.” Students could analyze the figurative language there and incorporate it their own in their writing.
  • Perhaps a song with a strong theme could be the introduction to a theme analysis? Consider the top 10 love songs of all time as documented on the Billboard’s top love songs.  What if students analyzed an artist’s theme of love as an introduction to a theme analysis they would write on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?

As I said, the possibilities are endless.

When I reflect on 19 years in the classroom, today, I’m grateful–grateful that I asked those students back in 1997 to put away their grammar books. Had I not done that, I might never have thought to use song lyrics as mentor texts in the writing classroom nineteen years later.  Music is an entrance to our students’ understanding of language. My classroom will continue to welcome the voices of Adele, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, One Republic and anyone else who can help my students to to create meaning in the words they write.



How do you combat students’ stale voices in writing? In what ways have you used music as mentor texts? You can connect with me on Twitter @kellyapace or on Facebook at

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