NCTE 2010

Behind the Music: Lyricizing Critical Literacy

Whitney Miller & AnnElise Thomas

The University of Alabama


Introduction and Overview

Music is possibly the most prevalent text in our lives as pre-service teachers, and a text that is very central in the lives of our students. While we may listen to different music than our students, we still listen to music that is part of the popular culture in America, and therefore a common text. Popular music is the literature of our everyday lives. Accordingly, in the classroom, we can use plain, understandable language and familiar texts to demystify much of what we expect to occur in our classrooms, namely, text analysis. Text analysis is valuable tool for each of our students to have in her/his language arts toolbox. As we strive to help our students fill their toolboxes, we are asserting that what we learn in the language arts classroom is applicable to our everyday lives and also has power to change the world.


In this handout, we provide an overview of the 4 Levels of Listening as a new method for introducing students to the Four Resources Model of literacy, as well as two lesson plans to help you introduce the idea in your classroom.


4 Levels of Listening as a bridge to the Four Resources Model

We are surrounded by music: it’s on television, in movies, a central component in advertising, in our cars, on our iPods, at our sports events, a part of our theatre productions, and maybe even in our classrooms.

            Music is highly evocative – it can inspire us to dance, to sing, to start a revolution. Music is never harmless, because every song carries a message. The question is: Are you listening?


1.      Sound-appreciaters: Sound-appreciaters are those who hear the overall music package – the beat, the music, the sound of the singer’s voice, etc. Sound-appreciaters listen for the song’s “danceability” or “vibe” (the overall mood of the song).

2.      Word-hearers: Word-hearers know the words of the song, but stop short of considering what all the words come together to “say.”

3.      Song-understanders: Song-understanders know the words of the song (maybe even because they went online to look them up) and at least attempt to decipher the songwriter’s message while taking the aural components of the song into consideration.

4.     Message-spreaders: Message-spreaders take all of the elements of the song into consideration and act as “expert” by sharing their personal interpretation of the song with others.

Jones, Clarke, and Enriquez (2009) provide an overview to Luke & Freebody’s Four Resources model (p.12-13). In that model, “all readers need to be able to do specific things with print in today’s society:

·         Decode words by putting sounds, symbols, and meanings together (to be a code-breaker)

·         Interpret meanings embedded in texts (to be a text-participant or meaning-maker)

·         Recognize and use various textual structures or genres to understand how a text works and how to use it (to be a text-user)

·         Analyze and critique texts around issues of power, perspective, and social justice (to be a text-analyst) (p.13)


What makes the Four Resources model so innovative and useful is the idea that “all readers at all levels need to learn and use all four resources simultaneously in their reading,” and that there is not one particular way in which to accomplish this task (p. 13). I suggest that the 4 Levels of Listening can help scaffold your students to thinking about texts in terms of the Four Resources model.


4 Levels of Listening: An introductory lesson plan

1.      First, introduce the 4 Levels of Listening to the class – you may want to prepare a poster or display the levels on the board or overhead projector.

2.      Explain the 4 Levels of Listening and ask students to share which category they typically fall into – it’s important to stress that this isn’t a true hierarchy (no level is superior to the other), it’s just that fewer people tend to make it to the fourth level of listening (Message-Spreader). As listeners, we all move back and forth between the four levels all the time. Sometimes we may even choose to stay at a particular level for whatever reason.

3.      Select a song that everyone is likely to have heard (a song from the latest episode of Glee is probably a safe bet). You may or may not want to provide students with a printed copy of the song lyrics. Play the selected song, then ask students to decide which level they are at right now for this song, then share with classmates (or not). Ask volunteers why they are at this level. “Because I like it” is acceptable, but press them to specify what they like and why.

4.      Use the 4 Levels of Listening as an analogy to explain the Four Resources Model. Consider hanging a poster that compares the 4 Levels of Listening to the Four Resources Model.

Keep in mind that this is a whole-class initiating activity – it’s designed to scaffold students and put the Four Resources Model in their language arts toolbox.

One application: Song and poetry

How many times have you seen your students’ eyes glaze over when you begin your poetry unit? Often students can feel disconnected from poetry because they can’t see poetry’s relevance to their lives, they think that understanding poetry is too difficult, or they just don’t see the value in identifying alliteration or allusions in one more poem by a dead white guy. And because they’re adolescents, they expect to immediately understand what the poem is “really saying” but probably lack the skills to interpret the text in front of them.

An easy way to help students gain the literary skills needed to make the study of poetry more appealing is to bring pop songs into the classroom. Because students are bombarded with songs (television commercials, phone ringtones, videos on YouTube, television series like Fox’s Glee in which students sing popular songs that apply to the situations they are experiencing), popular music is an obvious choice to highlight the literate lives that students are already leading. They may have already given some thought to the idea that every choice a songwriter makes is made deliberately. It’s not an accident that this week’s chart-topper is so catchy.

Teaching students how to analyze songs can prepare them for analyzing poetry and progressively longer literary selections.


The lesson plan: Song and poetry

1.      Choose a song that is relevant to the style of music that your students listen to while still appropriate for a school setting and their age level. You don’t want to lose them immediately because of poor song choice.

2.      Display or pass out printed copies of the song lyrics for students to look at while discussing the song. Depending on the song, you may need to make edits to the lyrics to make them school-appropriate,

3.      Play the song for your students but do not let them look at the lyrics yet. After the song ends, begin a critical conversation. Try to center the discussion around these questions:

a.       What images do you “see” when you hear the song?

b.      What images do you think the songwriter meant for you to see?

c.       What are some of the ideas presented in the song?

This may require a refresher lesson on images (or other literary elements) for students to have a meaningful participation. You may think of this part as the transition from Sound-Appreciater to Word-Hearer. 

4.      Play the song again. This time have the students look at the lyrics while they listen. Have students circle where they may see imagery, metaphors, similes, and other literary devices.  Encourage students to write down any thoughts, questions, or ideas that come to mind as they read along with the song. This can be thought of as the transition from Word-Hearer to Song-Understander. At this point students begin to shift from simple listening to an early comprehension of the song’s message.

5.      Start another discussion with students. This time focus on questions similar to these:

a.       Which parts did you circle? What effects do these parts have on the song?

b.      Are they crucial to the understanding of what is happening in the song?

c.       What different ways does the artist use to get their point across?

6.      In small groups or with a partner, have students discuss how the song relates to them. Maybe have them specifically relate it to a particular event in their lives or a time when they felt the same as the feelings or ideas expressed in the song. If group work isn’t an option with your class, you may want to turn this step into a journaling process, in which students record how their understanding of the song has changed.

7.      Now that students have experience with literary analysis, they are ready to apply these techniques to different poems. You may want to choose contemporary poems or poems that have strong images so that students are still scaffolded by the previous activity. As students gain more experience with analysis, you can help them transfer these skills to longer literary works.

Suggested Song List

We’ve included this short list of popular songs as a starting point for you. We recommend that you Google these songs and listen to them online before bringing them into your classroom. You may also want to do a Google search and pull up the song lyrics while listening to the song. Keep in mind that you may need to find the “clean” or “radio edit” versions of some songs and lyrics to ensure they are classroom appropriate. We have not included any songs that are not played on the radio, but you may need to proofread the lyrics to make sure they match the song’s radio version.





Musical Genre

"Cooler than me"

Mike Posner



“Streets of New York”

Alicia Keys








Colbie Caillat



"Good riddance (Time of your life)"

Green Day




Katy Perry




Lady Gaga



"Poker face"

Lady Gaga



"Hip-hop saved my life"

Lupe Fiasco



"My wish"

Rascal Flatts



"I will remember you"

Sarah McLachlan



"Billionaire" (radio or clean version)

Travie McCoy feat. Bruno Mars




You probably know which musical genres your students are attracted to, but might not be sure about how to find specific songs. There are a couple easy ways to find out what songs your students are listening to, aside from asking them.

·         Most larger radio markets have a pop-only station – visit the pop station’s website and look at their “Currently playing” list for ideas.

·         Watch an episode of Fox’s TV show Glee. Each episode features many, many pop songs, and one might strike you as a good fit for your classroom.

·         Visit and view the iTunes Charts, a current list of the top singles and albums.

·         Check out the “Today’s Hits” category at

·         Find the “Top Ringtones” list on any cellular provider’s website



So often our students are savvy visual “listeners.” Capitalize on their rich visual orientation by inviting them to take pictures important things or people in their lives. Students will likely bring in a range of images, capturing everything from clothing, to family and friends, to jewelry and places they enjoy visiting. Have students bring in printed copies of their pictures and do a classroom gallery walk in which students put their images on display for their classmates. Encourage students to take an image that particularly inspires them and use that as the starting point for a creative writing piece. Later, volunteers can share their writing with the class. Or, you may have students who are still very visually oriented and find the images to be their medium of choice. Encourage them to make a visual presentation of their piece using tools like Prezi or Glogster, or even something more creative. Any time you can encourage your students to be “experts,” the more engaged they will be in your classroom.








Jones, S., Clarke, L.W., & Enriquez, G. (2009). The reading turn-around: A five-part framework for

differentiated instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.


Moss, B. & Lapp,D. (2010). Teaching new literacies in grades 4-6:  resources for 21st-century classrooms.

New York: Guilford Press.


Flocabulary - Hip-Hop in the Classroom. (n.d.) Retrieved from




Contact Information


Whitney Miller -

Check in December for handouts and other web resources


AnnElise Thomas -

Please read the fantastic article by Ann Trousdale, Jacqueline Bach, and Elizabeth Willis, entitled "'One Question Leads to Another': The Value of Talk in the Choral Reading of Poetry" from the December 2010 issue of NCTE's journal Voices from the Middle. It gives you exactly the research-supported bridge you need to bring popular music into your classroom! Note that all copyrights are held by NCTE 2010. 

Below is an excerpt from the full article that explains how to use music and poetry in your classroom. For the full article, please access the journal.

The authors mention that choral reading is often defined as reading aloud in unison. This reminded us of another practice that is often narrowly defined: teacher read-alouds. An article by Albright and Ariail (2005) entitled "Tapping the potential of teacher read-alouds in middle schools" extolled the value of reading aloud for middle school students. Embedded in the article was the finding that not all teachers defined "reading aloud" the same way and that most teachers used the practice for efferent rather than aesthetic reasons. Albright and Ariail also provided suggestions for helping students make personal connections with the reading material and motivate them to want to read. One of the first steps for "selling" this concept to teachers would be to define choral reading, as the authors have, as varied, creative, group interpretation of poetry.

Part of the joy of poetry is its musicality-the rhythm, the rhyme, and the wordplay of the language. Thus, a natural extension of the study of poetry is a consideration of the poetic nature of songs and lyrics. For adolescents, exploring songs and lyrics as poetry allows them to bring their often overlooked out of school interests into the classroom (Weinstein, 2006/2007).

The cultural movement of hip hop speaks to today's youth, especially urban youth, and shares their stories. In her introduction to Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat (2008), Nikki Giovanni, an award-winning poet and author, describes hip hop as "poetry with a beat . . . one part story, one part rhythm." This poetry anthology contains 51 selections that spotlight the rhythm and language of hip hop, rap, and African American poetry. Works by well-known African American poets, such as Langston Hughes, Eloise Greenfield, and Maya Angelou, are nestled alongside works by contemporary artists embedded in the hip hop world, such as Kanye West, Queen Latifah, and Lauryn Hill. An audio CD featuring over 30 oral performances is included. Some of the artists perform their own work, while some provide their unique interpretations of the work of others. These varying oral interpretations can provide a comparison to readers' personal interpretations of the poems and serve as models-"practice poems," as recommended by the article authors, to illustrate for students the many ways poetry can be expressed.

Hip Hop Speaks to Children (Giovanni, 2008) is one anthology in the Poetry Speaks collection. Each text in the collection includes an audio CD with oral performances of many of its poems, both by the poets themselves and other artists. While the anthologies were originally created for a range of readers from children to young adult to adult, all can be useful for sparking students' interest in the rhythm and wordplay of poetry and deepening interpretations through oral performances. The other texts in the collection include:
* Poetry Speaks to Children (Paschen, 2005) for ages 4 to 12
* Poetry Speaks Who I Am: Poems of Discovery, Inspiration, Independence, and Everything Else (Paschen, 2010) for young adults
* Poetry Speaks Expanded: Hear Poets Read Their Own Work from Tennyson to Plath (Paschen & Mosby, 2007) for teens and adults

Also explore the website Middle School Poetry 180, located at It includes many categories of poems, ways to teach poetry, and even opportunities for readers to blog about individual interpretations.

With the instructional suggestions provided in this article and the myriad sources available for poetry, teachers of all disciplines will have classroom-tested strategies to incorporate poetry reading across the curriculum.

Albright, L. K., & Ariail, M. (2005). Tapping the potential of teacher read-alouds in middle schools. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48, 582-591.
Giovanni, N. (Ed.). (2008). Hip hop speaks to children: A celebration of poetry with a beat. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.
Paschen, E. (Ed.). (2005). Poetry speaks to children. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.
Paschen, E. (Ed). (2010). Poetry speaks who I am: Poems of discovery, inspiration, independence, and everything else. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.
Paschen, E., & Mosby, R. P. (Eds.). (2007). Poetry speaks expanded: Hear poets read their own work from Tennyson to Plath. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.
Weinstein, S. (2006/2007). A love for the thing: The pleasures of rap as a literate practice. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50, 270-281.
-Jennifer Hathaway and Karen Wood

We found that talk in the small-group sessions enriched, deepened, and expanded the students' interpretations of the poems.

Their conversation and resultant performance indicate that they clearly understood it and used their bodies and voices to communicate their understanding.

The following resources from share additional strategies for choral reading of poetry as well as a podcast on poetry resources.

Speaking Poetry: Exploring Sonic Patterns through Performance
Using their voices as interpretive instruments, students gain a deeper appreciation of the art of poetry as they prepare a recitation of the frequently anthologized poem "Those Winter Sundays."

Moving toward Acceptance through Picture Books and Two-Voice Texts
Students read and discuss literature about intolerance and diversity. They work with a partner to write two-voice poems that illustrate situations of intolerance at their school and suggest a step toward acceptance.

Constructing New Understanding through Choral Readings of Shakespeare
After reading The Tempest or any other play by William Shakespeare, students work in small groups to plan, compose, and perform a choral reading based on a character or theme.

Celebrating Poetry for Teens
Tune in to this podcast for recommendations of a variety of poetry books for teens. Featured titles include themed collections of poetry compiled for teens as well as collections of poetry written by teens. You'll also hear about a poetic form that only exists in YA lit-the novel written in verse.
-Lisa Fink