English Composition & Commonly Misspelled Words: Songs Can Help

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In English Composition courses, I often use lyrics to teach commonly misspelled words. My favorite time and place to do this exercise is at the start of a face-to-face class, but it is readily available for online or hybrid courses, too.

Teachers know these commonly misspelled words; we mark them over and over. But many students don’t know them much less realize they are interchanging “its” or “it’s.” I well remember one of my English Composition teachers saying to the class, “All of you are too smart to mess up ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ – don’t do it.” And I’m a broken record when I tell my students to write a list of their most commonly misspelled words, put it above their desk, and check every paper against that list until they stop making the same mistake.

What about broken records? How do you teach “its” and “it’s”? I love to bring in Bon Jovi’s song, “It’s My Life.” I play it at the start of class (well, when I used to teach in-person, I would play it at the start of class, now I include it in my online units). The song’s “wah-wah” at the start wakes every one up.

I ask the class, “When Jon Bon Jovi sings ‘It’s My Life’–what ‘it’s’ is he using?”

I get a lot of answers, and we talk through the options. If I don’t play the whole song, the entire exercise can take as little as five minutes. But sometimes I play the whole song, and I ask these questions:

When Bon Jovi sings ‘This is for the ones who stood their ground’–what ‘their’ is he using?

When Bon Jovi sings ‘Better stand tall when they’re calling you out’–what ‘they’re’ is he using?

The students are thrilled that I’m such a throw-back. I was such a troglodyte back in 2007 (when I started using this exercise) that I had to schlep in my portable CD player and portable speakers. Students cannot believe the music I reference. (So old!) But more importantly, they appreciate learning how to pay attention. They learn to notice those commonly misspelled words in their daily lives.

Other songs I’ve used that seem to work particularly well include Keith Urban’s “You’ll Think of Me” for the particular line “we have nothing left to weather.” What “weather / whether” is Urban singing about? And “Take your cat and leave my sweater”–what “your” is that? (Students frequently confuse your & you’re.) “Will someone spell it, please?” I ask. Back in the day, a student invariably exclaimed: “Keith Urban married Nicole Kidman!” Super fun. How about “Faithfully” by Journey? I use Arnel Pineda’s version. “What ‘you’re’ is Pineda using when he sings ‘you’re on my mind’?”

It’s been my dream to go beyond commonly misspelled words to teach a class where we can watch and analyze rockumentaries such as the following: “Twenty Feet from Stardom”; Metallica’s “Some Kind of Monster”; Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey”; The National’s “Mistaken for Strangers”; and “Spinal Tap” (just because “it goes to 11”). Then students would be required to write a mini-rockumentary. But for now, I use these exercises. They’re a lot of fun. (What “they’re” am I using?)

Most handbooks have a section on commonly misspelled words, and your students can find an extensive list of “Common Errors in English” here.

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Renee DAoustManaging Editor Renée E. D’Aoust’s book Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist. Recent publications include Brevity and Sweet. Follow her @idahobuzzy and visit www.reneedaoust.com.

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