Using Lyrics for Beyond Literal Comprehension

By Brent Vasicek on March 16, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Howard Gardner suggests that intelligence is not merely being able to read or do mathematical calculations. It encompasses several different components, one of which is music. I like to use music in my classroom to manage the day and to tap into the talents of those students who are high on the musical intelligence spectrum. One way to engage these students in reading is to use lyrics to teach the difference between the literal and beyond literal meaning of texts.

Photo courtesy of Filomena Scalise.



  • Engages students with high musical intelligence and auditory learners.
  • Teaches students to differentiate between literal and beyond literal meaning of texts.
  • Offers many examples of similes, metaphors, and personification.
  • Allows students to practice discussion skills, which include supporting opinions with examples.
  • Teaches the reading comprehension strategy of making connections between the text and the world, the self, another text, or even other songs.
  • Makes a Friday something to look forward to.


  • The first step in teaching this lesson is to print up the lyrics. I usually copy and paste the lyrics from the Internet and then format them to look like a regular text. I purposely do not include the author or title.
  • I distribute the lyrics, and we read a few lines at a time. We try to figure out what the literal message is and what the author might really be trying to say.
  • After analyzing the words, we listen to the song in its entirety while the students reread the lyrics.
  • We hold another discussion. Any opinions must be supported by examples from the text. Connections between self, world, text, and other songs are encouraged.
  • Propose the final discussion question or assessment piece:  Using only characters from stories we have discussed in this class, which one would most likely be singing this song and why?


  • "Fireflies" by Owl City: As an example of how this prompts great discussion, some students have interpreted the "fireflies" as the little electronic lights that glow throughout our houses at night. Others suggest that the "fireflies" are memories that you cannot get out of your head.
  • "Firework" by Katy Perry: This is a brand new song that I am using this year. It talks about not letting yourself wallow in pity or succumb to your fears. It encourages you to ignite your internal flame and allow it to become infectious. The video for this has some powerful underlying stories that add to the song. Starts off with a few great similes.
  • "Breakaway" by Kelly Clarskon
  • "The Climb" by Miley Cyrus
  • "On the Brightside" by Never Shout Never
  • "For Good" from the Broadway musical Wicked: A great song about how others change you just by interacting with you. Some for good. Some for bad. Do you agree? Do you believe everything happens for a reason? This is great for the end of the year. Nice similes.
  • "Corner of the Sky" from the Broadway musical Pippen: Everyone is searching for their purpose in life. Everyone wants to fit in.
  • "Puff the Magic Dragon" by Peter, Paul, and Mary: Contrary to some, this song is not about drugs. There is also one additional verse in which Jackie Paper's child finds Puff. I could not find the verse on the Internet, but it is out there!
  • "I Hope You Dance" by Lee Ann Womack


  • Listen to the lyrics in advance.
  • Research on Urban Dictionary any slang terms to ensure appropriateness.

For more examples of how I use music in my classroom, please visit the blog posts "Mr. V.'s Classroom Music Playlist" and "Music to Manage Your Classroom."

What songs do you analyze in your classroom? What interpretations do you have for some of these lyrics?

2I2 Trademark 2010 Vasicek Going beyond,


2i2 is a trademark of Mr. Vasicek's classroom


I'm going to try this kind of lesson with The Streets 'On the Edge of a Cliff' tomorrow. If it goes well I'll do Music Mondays and use some of your suggestions. Thanks!

I will be starting my first year of teaching in August as a high school English teacher! I am planning on implementing something like this in my classroom on a regular basis. Thank you for your insight and your awesome instructions on how to implement it in a fun and effective way. Thank you!

I am a pre-service student teacher at Illinois State University. In a Curriculum and Instruction class today we discussed Bloom's taxonomy including the stages of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation and how we as teachers find it difficult to get to those stages of learning often in the classroom. The lesson mentioned above seems to really touch on those key levels of "learning in action". Was this idea in mind when you came up with this lesson?

Jeff- Great question! Yes, Bloom's Taxonomy is always on my mind when designing lessons. More specifically, the critical thinking stages of Bloom's. With Google and other search engines around today, remembering information is not as essential as critically thinking about the message, the bias, and the validity of the information. I like kids to constantly be thinking deeper. Music, technology, debates, and quality books are some of the avenues that I find most effective for critical thinking. Thanks for the thoughtful question, Brent

Mr.Vasicek, thank you for doing this in our classroom I know it teachs me more than I already know. , Alexa

Thank you, Alexa. You are going to be well prepared for middle school! ~Mr. V.

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