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Utilizing Poetry: A Resource For ESL Teachers

written by: Rebecca Scudder • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 12/10/2013

Poetry is universal among all societies, giving insights into individuals' lives, cultures, beliefs, and practices. It can be successfully utilized as a rich linguistic tool and resource for all English language learners, as ESL teachers introduce their students to favorite poems.

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    Poetry: A Universal Language

    The often-complex nature of poetry is not “foreign" to many ESL students who are already familiar with poetry written in their native Butterfly languages. Some students who were previously forced into counting the meter and memorizing poems may resist the idea of learning from poetry. But there is enjoyment to be had by delving into hidden symbolism and uncovering elusive meanings! It's a perfect teaching tool for the ESL teacher.

    With a full understanding of the rich vocabulary of poetry and its many benefits as a natural teaching tool, its introduction within a program of the study of English as a second language can become a very enjoyable means to enrich and energize the learning environment of an ESL classroom.

    Specifically, the repetition of words and syntax that typify poetry, as well as its intrinsic possibilities of language play and rhythmic and rhyming devices, can provide English language learners with an opportunity for a meaning-filled engagement with their English language texts. In addition, the study and writing of poetry allows ESL students to enrich their English language skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing, as well as contributing to their oral fluency.

    However, in addition to merely providing open access to poetry, there are several key elements ESL instructors need to consider for the successful introduction of poetry into English in a second language curriculum.

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    Tips For Success

    • Select short poems with everyday language to stimulate student interest in the poetic content of the poems presented in an ESL classroom.
    • Choose poems with a single theme to help students narrow the vocabulary needed to focus on multiple topics and or themes.
    • Present poems with predictable language patterns, repeated words, phrases, lines, and identifiable rhymes to make the poetry more accessible and easier to read.
    • Introduce poetry as an enhancement of an English language learner’s understanding of grammar, structure, punctuation and other writing conventions, as well as a means to bridge their understanding of various forms of literature.
    • Consider offering an opportunity for students to collaborate on poems to encourage a sense of community and facilitate a creative interest in the process of constructing a poem.
    • Enhance the power of poetry as a tool for stimulating learning while acquiring a second language, by utilizing the emotive qualities and dramatic process of reading and hearing poems read aloud chorally or individually. English language learners can become intellectually, emotionally, and physically involved in the target language from within the creative framework of an energetic classroom learning environment and new culture.
    • Also, avoid rhymed poems with strange diction or unnatural syntax, to avoid making the process of understanding poetry unnecessarily difficult.

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    Benefits Of Studying and Creating Poetry

    Poetry can be successfully introduced in either a child-orientated or adult ESL classroom—to the benefit of all learners, even those with limited literacy and proficiency in English. With the right selection of practical classroom activities, students can be guided to discuss and write about poems and to express how specific poems speak to their life situations. They can also be encouraged to create poems of their own to express their own feelings, thoughts, or beliefs.

    Furthermore, providing an abundance of poetry collections and resources to help each students discover poems and poetry writing techniques that uniquely speak to him or her will stimulate additional reading and learning.

    The official website of Academy of American Poets,, is one of the largest and most popular poetry sites on the Internet. It offers hundreds of essays and interviews about poetry, biographies of more than 500 poets, more than 2,500 poems, and audio clips of 150 poems.

    For a glimpse at the successful implementation of poetry into an ESL learning environment, look to the following model.

    1. An American Poetry Project for Low Intermediate ESL Adults from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. from Kristin Lems, an associate professor in the Department of Applied Language at National-Louis University, in Chicago, Illinois.
    2. A quick and easy reference to poetry exercises that can be easily implemented into an ESL classroom: check out 15 poems you can write now at Poetry Express
    3. And to help students explore various styles and types of poetry, look to the comprehensive list of forms of poetry for children that can be found at this site from The Lakes School in Cumbria, U.K.

    When ESL teachers and learners write and read poetry together, they connect with the introduction of English as a second language as well as with one another other in powerful ways.