Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tom Lehrer And ESL

I first came across Tom Lehrer in high school, and the combination of accomplished piano-playing and biting satire won me over immediately.

It wasn't until a few days ago, though, that I came across some educational songs he wrote and recorded for children's show The Electric Company. Surprisingly, there's very few hits for "Tom Lehrer" and "ESL" online. Whether due to obscurity or conflation with the much-lauded The Electric Company and the subsequent video shorts, I aim to rectify this sad situation! All of the educational songs Tom Lehrer wrote would work really well at an elementary level, with or without the videos (though the videos ARE cute). But the best ones, which I'm posting below, are:

Silent L-Y (about creating adverbs)
Silent E (how silent e changes vowel sounds)
N Apostrophe T (contractions with "not" and also some modals)

Silent L-Y

Silent E

N Apostrophe T (Not Tom Lehrer performing, of course.)

There are all kinds of old clips on YouTube from The Electric Company, with similar songs on other sounds and grammar topics (Good Old Apostrophe S, Thanks to TH, etc). I'm sure they're great too, but this is a blog entry about Tom Lehrer, not The Electric Company.

Those were all, as you can guess even from the titles, very elementary songs. I wouldn't use them outside of that context because really, how patronizing would that be? Instead, Lehrer's satirical songs might be better for intermediate or advanced classes. The only downside is that Tom Lehrer wrote and recorded music for an extremely short period of time in the very early years of the Cold War; many of his songs reference people or ideas of a past zeitgeist. You have to choose carefully once outside the realm of his educational ditties.

With that in mind, I think these would work pretty well, either with adults or teenager-ish age. The lyrics to all of these are readily available online, too (or very easy to transcribe yourself), perfect for fill-in-the-blanks or ordering verses and so forth. Plus, the content is pretty timeless and still relevant today.

The Masochism Tango (Maybe only with adults, this one.)


National Brotherhood Week

And finally, my favorite Tom Lehrer song of all time; it may not be good classroom material (at best, requires vocabulary words with low coverage and use; at worst, satirizes Catholicism which might not go down with some students), but it's what initially endeared Mr. Lehrer to me. Enjoy:

The Vatican Rag

Happily enough, Tom Lehrer's birthday is coming up (April 9th). Why not honor the man with a "Tom Lehrer in the Classroom" day?

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