Can Stevie Wonder Teach Phonics?

As I plan and create classroom lessons that model culture-centered teaching, my first concern is student engagement—getting and keeping students’ attention.

So in my daily interactions with various media, I stay alert for resources and references that may be used to interest and engage students in serious academic work, heighten intellectual curiosity and relieve boredom and tedium.

Much of modern media can be used as resources, but I focus on some of the most accessible formats for teachers of various grade levels— television, movies, music, and the Internet as well as books, magazines and newspapers.

Let’s look at an example of how lyrics from songs of popular artists can often be used to help focus students on core literacy skills.

Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise”

Stevie Wonder performing in 2015

Stevie Wonder performs onstage during day 1 of the 2015 Life Is Beautiful Festival on September 25, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Stevie Wonder is an award-winning songwriter, singer, and instrumentalist. He has recorded over 30 top-ten hits and won 22 Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award. His honors also include induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.

“Pastime Paradise” was first recorded in 1976 on the album, Songs in the Key of Life, one of Wonder’s most highly acclaimed albums. The song has been sampled by other musicians more than 20 times and has been recorded in whole at least 11 times.

Two recurring lines reveal the theme of the song–the comparison of the mind-sets of two types of Americans during the late 1970’s:

“They’ve been spending most of their lives living in a pastime paradise,” and “They’ve been spending most of their lives living in a future paradise.”

Full lyrics for “Pastime Paradise”

The song alludes to a combination of issues important in the U.S. in the late 70’s during the tail end of the black power movement by using two lists of words and phrases, all ending in the phonic pattern, _tion. One list of eleven words relates to the “pastime paradise” folks e.g. dissipationrace relationssegregation, and exploitation. Another list of nine words and phrases are used for those living in a “future paradise” e.g. acclamationintegration, and confirmation to the peace of the world.

The last lines of the song are a summary of the main message: “Let’s start living our lives living for the future paradise” i.e.: Let’s embrace new liberating ideas and open our minds to the positive promises of the future.

When I first heard “Pastime Paradise,” the repetition of words ending in the phonic pattern,_tion is what made me consider the song for use in literacy skills lessons. Then, as I explored the layered ideas and rich meanings in the song, I was convinced that teachers would find it a treasure trove, not just for teaching phonics, but for lessons and discussions in suffixes, academic vocabulary, poetry, and reading comprehension as well.

African American Culture Note

This song is a unique example of the use of one of the most powerful and prevalent patterns in African American culture: the combination of rhythm and repetition.

See Touching the Spirit: Applying Cultural Knowledge in the Achievement of Academic Excellence for African American and Other Students

Examples of Lessons and Activities Using the Lyrics for “Pastime Paradise”

Below are some examples of explicit teaching and active learning for phonics and vocabulary skills. Using these lessons as models of the use of the Touching the Spirit principles and strategies, create additional lessons related to suffixes, reading comprehension, poetry, and other skills.

Teaching and Practicing the Phonic Element _tion Using the Strategy: Phonic Pattern Word Lists

  1. Teach or review the phonic element _tion using the Touching the Spirit Highly Recurring Phonic Elements Chart
  2. Write the lists below on charts, or write the lists on the board.
  3. Write the words so that they are lined up with the _tion endings written in red (or italics), forming a distinctive vertical column, one under the other.
“Past Paradise” Folks 

Race Relations

“Future Paradise” Folks 

Race Relations
World Salvation


Play the song softly, as appropriate background, at various times throughout the lessons.

  1. Model the Recitation of the Lists (Teacher recites alone.)

Using a long pointer, yardstick, or ruler, spending only a second and sometimes a millisecond on each line, quickly, and with slight dramatic flourish, go down the chart, pointing to and reading, not the whole word, but only each “_tion”, spoken with gusto!


Then, unexpectedly, without skipping a beat, start at the top of the list, and point to each phonic part as you read each word backwards, building from_tion.




  1. Students Practice the Rhythmic Recitations of the Lists

After you demonstrate with the two lists, have students take on roles as teacher, either as a whole class or as a small group. You coach from the sidelines as students come forward to try the recitations.

Teach the Meanings of the –tion Words

  1. Preparation
    1. Write each word using one dark color marker on a 4” x 11” piece of card stock or paper.
    2. Using a different dark color marker, write short definitions on another set of 4” X 11” cards or paper.
  2. Teach the meanings of the words, using examples, pictures, and the short definitions.

Students Practice the Definitions Using Recitation and Movement

  1. Randomly distribute word and definition cards—one card to each student.
  2. Have the song cued up.
  3. When the music starts, students quickly try to find their word or definition partner, before the music stops.
  4. Student partners form a circle around the room, using the teacher’s chart to determine how to stand in the order that Stevie sings the words.
  5. With the music turned off, the teacher and the whole class recite the first word on the chart: “dissipation!”
  6. The two students who have that word and definition say the definition loudly on the next beat: “wastefulness of resources!”
  7. The teacher and class recite the next word or phrase: “race relations!”
    A pair of students respond: “Connections among different races!”
    This pattern of recitations continue until all student partners have had a turn.