This guest post has been written by Russell Mayne who writes the great read that is Evidence Based EFL. Russ has chosen the article ”Keep talking’: using music during small group discussions in EAP’ written by Clare Cunningham. Over to Russ …

In my first ever teaching job I was teaching conversation to quiet Japanese students in small classes. I had the idea of playing a tape (that’s all there was back then) during the ‘production’ part of the standard PPP lessons we were obliged to teach. I remember thinking I was genius but then for some reason discontinued it after a few lessons. I’m sure a lot of teachers have had a similar experience. Certainly, Clare Cunningham has. In fact, she decided to research the efficacy of using music to help students to relax during small group discussions in EAP classes.

The first interesting point about this article is that it appeared in ELTJ. This may not seem odd but in EAP there is something of a disconnect between the very theory driven world of the more experienced EAP practitioners (perhaps represented by publications like JEAP) and the more practical world of ELT, (arguably represented by ELTJ). Therefore, it was interesting to see an EAP article in ELTJ.

The article begins with an outline of the problem. Students in EAP discussion classes are often quite reticent to talk. This is a complaint most EAP teachers (and possibly anyone who has taught speaking in Asia) will be familiar with. The research, she tells us, is ‘exploratory’ and is practitioner-research. This is music to my ears (pardon the pun) and I wish that more EFL/EAP practitioners would choose to research their particular situations.

The literature on this topic is understandably slim. No one before Cunningham has looked into this. Therefore the literature review focuses more generally on ‘music’ in EFL teaching and reticence/anxiety, in attempt to draw these strands together in support of her argument. Thus we get references to Krashen’s ‘affective filter’, Lozanov’s ‘suggestopedia’ and such things as ‘music therapy’ in medical and psychological journals.

Cunningham also lays out the potential causes of reticence in the classroom, an area of study, which in contrast to ‘background music’ has been the attention of a large amount of research. The research she cites lists several causes for reticence but for the purpose of this study Cunningham seeks to tie it to anxiety. The logic driving this, I believe is something like ‘reticence is caused by anxiety raising the affective filter’ and so if music can remove some of the anxiety, the filters will come down and students will talk more.


Cunningham clearly has a love of music and this possibly prompted her to look into this topic in more detail. However, I was a little concerned when I read ‘for a number of years, I have been using background music to attempt to create a positive environment for learning’ (Cunningham, 2014, p. 3). That is to say, the author begins from a position of believing music can be ‘positive’ and then attempts to prove this point. Unfortunately this leads to what seems to me to be problems in the article.

In the Literature review for example Cunningham seems to actively search for references to shore up this conclusion. For example, she suggests that ‘music use in language classrooms has been steadily increasing over the last 30 years’ (Cunningham, 2014, p. 2) without providing a source or indicting how this relates to her study. Is music use increasing? Does it follow that an increase in music use (of whatever kind) means playing music in discussion classes is a good thing? We are not told.

Likewise, she suggests that the use of music may have ‘cognitive and linguistic benefits’, though the citation relating to improvements in linguistic ability comes from a paper examining patients with Parkinson’s disease and whereas improvements in “singing” ability were found ‘no significant changes were found for speaking quality’ (Elefant et al 2012, p279). It is not at all clear how this citation supports the argument.

Cunningham also links background music to the relaxation techniques in Suggestopedia noting that Lozanov claimed playing music in class helped students with memorization and also to Krashen. The problem here though is we are not told if these theories have any validity or not. Rather, they are included, seemingly, to give credibility-by-association to the hypothesis. This feeling is reinforced further when criticism of the poor efficacy of Lozanov’s work is side-stepped with the statement that despite poor results ‘many teachers felt there was a lot to be said for the inherent focus on relaxation’ (Cunningham, 2014, p. 2). Who were these teachers? How many is ‘many’? What does ‘a lot to be said for’ mean here?

The results section seems to again offer support for playing background music. But the way the author seeks to test that proposition bothered me somewhat. Whether background music increases the amount or quality of in-class discussion is an eminently testable proposition. The author could play music in selected classes and not in others and test the mean length of student contributions, words-per-minute, number of turns, or some other feature which could be related to reticence. Instead she chooses to ask students about their beliefs regarding music in EAP classes.

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, beliefs are not facts. Students may believe all sorts of things about language learning (and teaching) which are untrue. Secondly, the results are muddied by the fact that the author has actually played music in class and these students, all MA TESOL students, are therefore being asked by their former teacher, to judge her pedagogical choices. Research into student evaluation of teaching shows that students can be influenced by their attitudes towards the teacher (the Halo/reverse Halo effect) and will often purposefully misrepresent facts in order to reward teachers they like or punish those they dislike (see for example, Clayson and Hayley, 2011). It would not be surprising if students who liked their teacher were reluctant to criticise that teacher’s pedagogical choices.

Also notable is the fact that four of the students did not complete the questionnaire (n=18/22), but this is not remarked upon. Though speculative it is conceivable that with such a small sample size these four (roughly 1/5) could have made quite a difference to the results and it is conceivable that students who disliked the class or lessons (and thus didn’t fill in the questionnaire) may have also disliked the music.

Even with the potentially biasing factors in the questionnaire the results are not encouraging. However, the desire to see the practice as effective makes for an analysis in which disappointing results seem to be presented as validation for the approach. For example, the author suggests that comments such as ‘I don’t care about music’ are ‘neutral’ and supposedly indicate that ‘teachers can be confident in using music in class without alienating students’ (Cunningham, 2014, p. 8). ‘Not alienating students’ is a rather low bar to set for best practice.

There is much in the results that is hard to follow. For example, 66% of students who felt they were confident speakers were described as ‘only two-thirds but later 61% of students who said they would use background music in their own teaching are described as a ‘very high percentage’. This analysis of a similar figure in opposite ways seems to derive from what the purpose of those figures is. 66% is ‘only’ when trying to underplay student confidence levels, but 61 is ‘very high’ when they support the authors hypothesis. Could we not equally say that ‘only two thirds said they would use background music in their own teaching’?

Similarly only five of 18 students thought background music was ‘useful’ and yet here the author chooses to focus on the interesting comments this question elicited. In one section she notes that one-third thought music should be used in project work (that is the vast majority thought it should not) and yet despite this at the end of the article Cunningham recommends its use in project work. The confusion continues when we are told that only a third were ‘active supporters’ (N=8) yet ‘the vast majority of participants intend to use [it] in their teaching’ though oddly many (the number is not given) would not recommend it to other teachers. So we have respondents who weren’t supporters, wouldn’t recommend it to others but who plan to use it themselves.

I think it’s great that a fellow EAP practitioner has decided to research a topic of interest and hope other practitioners and ELT teachers in general follow her example. While I found the paper problematic, I think much of my criticisms stem from what seems to be an effort to prove that a practice the teacher personally likes, is effective. This is a shame because I think her research actually shows the real problem and potential solutions. Like previous research on this topic (King 2013, Harumi 2010, Zhang & Head 2008), Cunningham’s research clearly details the causes of reticence among Asian students, namely factors like ‘unfamiliarity with the topic’ and ‘language proficiency’. None of the authors’ students’ cited ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress’ as a problem and yet this is the focus, or rather, it must be the focus.



Clayson, D. E., & Haley, D.A. 2011. ‘Are Students Telling us the Truth? A Critical Look at the Student Evaluation of Teaching.’ Marketing Education Review, 21/2: 103-114.

Cunnigham, C. 2014. ‘Keep talking’: using music during small group discussions in EAP ELT Journal vol. 68/3: 179-191

Elefant, C., F. A. Baker, M. Lotan, S. K. Lagesen, and G. O. Skeie. 2012. ‘The effect of group music therapy on mood, speech and singing in individuals with Parkinson’s disease—a feasibility study’. Journal of Music Therapy 49/3: 278–302

Harumi, S. 2010. Classroom silence: voices from Japanese EFL learners ELT Journal vol. 65/3: 260-269

King, J. 2013. Silence in the second language classrooms of Japanese universities. Applied Linguistics vol. 34/3: 325–343

Zhang, X. & Head, K. 2008. Dealing with Learner Reticence in the Speaking Class ELT Journal 64/1: 1-9




5 thoughts on “A slight discord? Music in EAP classes

  1. Personal experience has discouraged me from using music in EFL /ESOL sessions where students come from a different musical cultural heritage. When I introduced it, Eastern European students engaged well – but Somali and Asian students were visibly uncomfortable. Having attended a Carnatic music recital by one of its finest exponents while working in India, I must say I felt the same way. It seems that the scales, harmonies and rhythms just ‘seem’ wrong (even discordant) if they are unfamiliar. So I have come to the conclusion that music’s capacity to break a student’s concentration just isn’t worth the risk.

    • hi Simon,

      I agree that culture plays a part here. I was surprised that the article didn’t mention the possibility of cultural taboos on music. For example, some muslim student may not want to hear music played in class at all, and , as you say, may find it distracting or even offensive.

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