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Poetry as an English Language Teaching Tool

written by: Larry M. Lynch • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

In a recent study conducted at Victoria University it was shown that the use of songs is a prodigious aid in foreign language learning. The English language is no exception. Poetry is an excellent selected aid in learning and practicing English as a foreign language. Here's more to get you started.

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    Language Learning in a Poetry Context

    Poetry, much like songs, often uses multiple language elements or aspects which provide valuable language use in context for English language learners. This is one of the best ways in which to acquire English or any other foreign language. It doesn’t matter whether you are stressing the spoken or written form of the language. Language learning in context is invaluable to both language teachers and language learners. Here are some poems in English which offer considerable insight and practical elements in English as a foreign language acquisition.

    Following are some poems to try out.

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    “Macbeth" Act 4, Scene 1

    The three witches around the cauldron scene by William Shakespeare is one of my all-time favorite literary pieces; the opening scene of the three witches from Shakespeare`s Macbeth is not only great speaking practice using rhythm and rhyme, but can quite easily be dramatized even by very young language learners. I’ll not post the entire scene here since it’s easily accessible online, but you’ll likely already be quite familiar with the Bard’s renowned refrain,

    “Double, double, toil and trouble

    Fire burn and cauldron bubble …"

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    “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost

    The American poet laureate uses this poem to evoke cultural as well as linguistic elements of the English language. Not horrendously long, it can be learned and recited by your language learners using intonation, stress and accentuation to imbue added meaning. Telling a bit of a short “story" and well-illuminating the scene, most learners ultimately like this poem.

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    Children’s Rhymes

    Rather than single out any particular ones here, I’ve indicated this as an open category. Children’s rhymes are often designed to aid in pronunciation practice, although you certainly wouldn’t tell the children that. Poetic elements like rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and diphthong glides can easily be properly and successfully practiced simply by learning and repeating any number of these “cute" little rhythmic poems.

    Try this quick example:

    Snowy Day

    When it’s snowy like today

    I wish that I were far away

    And lived with the Eskimos.

    I’d say Hello with my nose

    And live in an igloo

    And eat fish like they do

    And chase Polar Bears away.

    When it’s snowy like today.

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    “Cross" by Langston Hughes

    In couplet form, this poem depicts the dilemma of a mixed-race child deliberating his socio-economic standing in the world. Language learners like it and often a lively discussion follows with mixed-parentage students typically providing a good deal of personal input and feedback on related issues. In context, it illustrates colloquial language lexis such as the use of “old man" for Father, “Ma" for Mother and the informal spoken contraction “gonna" to replace the more formal “going to". For your convenience, the full text of the poem is here.


    My old man’s a white old man

    And my old mother’s black.

    If ever I cursed my white old man

    I take my curses back.

    If ever I cursed my black old mother

    And wished she were in hell,

    I’m sorry for that evil wish

    And now I wish her well.

    My old man died in a fine big house.

    My ma died in a shack.

    I wonder where I’m gonna die,

    Being neither white nor black?

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    Using a Poetry Context

    Develop Language Learner’s Vocabulary, Pronunciation and Language Skills in a Poetry Context

    So don’t be bashful, try some short, pithy poetry to “warm up" your language learners` tongues and develop their vocabulary, pronunciation and language learning skills in context. If these poems mentioned are unavailable, dig up a half a dozen or so on your own to try out with your language learning charges.