Songs for Class: ‘We Used to Wait’ by Arcade Fire


I personally really like this song but it’s also ideal for classroom use because:

  • the overall meaning of the song is clear and raises interesting questions about modern life which can be discussed in class before or after listening.
  • the vocabulary and grammar used is accessible to students from B1 level up.
  • the vocals are relatively clear and prominent in the mix.
It’s a perfect way to present/review the meaning and use of ‘used to’ (and tenses generally since it uses a range of past and present tenses as well as ‘going to’) as it contrasts modern lifestyles with those of the past. It could fit in with a broader theme of technology or modern lifestyles, especially in academic English, IELTS or EAP classes.
The main drawback for me is that, at 5 minutes, it’s a bit long – I prefer to use songs in class that are 2-3 minutes.

A possible lesson plan could be something like this:

  1. Ss discuss: Have you written a letter by hand? If so, when was the last time? If not, why not?
  2. Put the first five lines of the song on the screen. Tell Ss that it’s the beginning of a song, ask them if they know what song it is. Ask Ss to discuss the meaning of the lines.
  3. Give Ss a copy of the lyrics as a gap fill exercise (try removing more than just isolated words – remove whole lines, especially when connected speech may make it difficult for students to recognise the individual words).
  4. Play song twice while Ss fill in gaps.
  5. Ask Ss to compare answers in pairs/groups.
  6. Play song again, stopping after each gap to check. Play individual lines again if Ss are having trouble with them.
  7. Ask Ss to discuss the overall meaning of the song and express their feelings/reactions to it.
  8. Focus on parts of the song where the meaning may be slightly less obvious or which contain interesting/relevant linguistic features:
    • “But by the time we met the times had already changed” – Why is Past Perfect used?
    • “So when the lights cut out I was left standing in the wilderness downtown” – What does this mean?
    • “Now our lives are changing fast. Hope that something pure can last” – What does this mean?
    • “But what’s stranger still is how something so small can keep you alive” – What does this mean?
    • “Like a patient on a table, I want to walk again, gonna move through the pain” – What does this mean?
  9. Play song again, get Ss to sing along.

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