March, Poetry, and ESL


March 10, 2015 by k. liz

I, I am an introvert. 
Words are my friends, and with them I
and weep.
I find in them my constant company,
and with them, the sleeping extrovert in me awakes 
and smiles at the world he finds.
But when
the others, the two-legged walking ones
appear, he hastens back
to his comforts
and awaits the quiet he needs
to once again
into a world
alive with words. 

It’s poetry month! I don’t think I ever knew about poetry month, growing up. Let me just say that I have loved poetry for a long time. Writing it, mind you. Reading it somehow never became a passion. Well, if you spend much time on the educational corner of the internet, you will find lots of ideas for using poetry in the classroom this month. I especially appreciated this article from Edutopia. There are lots of good ideas here!

This article doesn’t really need any addition, because the ideas are great. However, it is aimed at a high school American English class. My audience (or at least my intended audience!) is for those teaching English (or another language) as a second/foreign language. So, I wanted to share some ideas and adaptations to help you think through how to use poetry in the second language classroom.

Poetry can be a daunting subject for second language learners. The language used in poetry does not always follow the normal rules of language, and it is rarely straightforward in its use of imagery. Students already spend enough energy trying to decipher language when it is completely straightforward, so you don’t want an exploration of poetry to be discouraging or highlight how difficult English (or your Target Language) can be.

Here are a few ideas for you to incorporate poetry into your lessons:

1. Offer a variety of poems, so students don’t feel constrained to one type.

I remember loving exploring all different kinds of poems when I was younger. Some are more appealing and/or easier to understand to certain learners. Don’t make understanding poetry a benchmark, because even native speakers can struggle with this. Rather, offer different kinds of poems for students to explore and enjoy. You’ll probably notice that different learners are attracted to different types of poems. Choose a subject, and then offer 3-5 poems for students to choose from to complete the activities that you want to do with the poem in class. Here are some examples of poems that deal with the subject of “newness:”

2. Use poetry to practice pronunciation.

I wrote a post a while back on using poetry in the classroom and mentioned this benefit. Using poetry can really help to improve pronunciation and fluency. If you can convince your students to memorize the poem, you will be doing them a great service towards helping them with their chunking, cadence, and vocabulary. A good way to do this is to use spoken word videos on youtube, because the students can shadow read the poem to check pronunciation. It is also great because it incorporates visual aspects that can help with the understanding of the poem. You can find a lot of spoken word or kinetic typography poems on youtube. Here is a playlist for you to explore if you need a starting point!

3. Translate poetry together.

I think this would be a great activity for the classroom! Allow students to bring in poems from their native language and work either individually or in groups to translate the meaning, and then in groups or as a class, try to mold it into a piece of art. Then, as a follow up, give them English poems and ask them to translate them into their native language. Activities like this are great for getting students to focus on the word and syntax level of a language to both understand and interpret meaning.

4. Get them writing!

This is the obvious conclusion of a poetry unit! Get students to write poems. Now, some students will love this and will run away with creativity. Others will balk and find the activity overwhelming. So, some suggestions:

  • allow students to work in groups
  • give students an existing poem, and ask them to change it to be true about themselves; or give them a song and ask them to write a final verse

Finally, if you can foster a sense of class support for all students, getting them to perform their poems is a great way to build confidence, empowerment, and on a basic level, speaking and performing abilities! I know I would have been very shy to perform my poetry when I was younger, but if there had been a classroom atmosphere that was supportive and excited for me, it probably would have been much different!


What do you think? Would you be excited or nervous to use poetry in the classroom? I think that it could be a great addition to the normal ESL class, maybe even a weekly component? What are your favorite poems to use with students? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!


One thought on “March, Poetry, and ESL

  1. Your verse at the beginning of this blog is one i strongly identify with. I’m a student and a part-time teacher of the German language. Truly, poems are such a huge help in the classroom!
    As a student, I’ve seen a variant of the usage of poetry in the classroom- albeit our teacher would give each one of us a picture of a famous piece of art or a fresco, which we didn’t always have to recognize. We would then be asked to compose a haiku on the same, based on what we felt about the picture. In the end, the teacher would introduce the art piece to us, and we were given a chance to explain, in broken German, to the class, why we chose the words that we had.
    It helped us understand each other at a very fundamental level, and worked wonders for our unity as a class. Language is expression, and it cannot do to have a class which is fragmented or not expressive. Through this activity, we became each other’s cheerleaders. Amazing retention and even better response!

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