Why and how you should use poetry for teaching English

A class at our Westcroft Square centre

When asked if he had any words of wisdom on using poetry with students, one of my courses managers responded in haiku:

Don’t use poetry,
In class. They don’t like it in
My experience.

This concern is not uncommon and nor is it unfounded, if truth be told. I have certainly had lukewarm reactions to poetry lessons. Still, there are ways to avoid frustrating your students and, by extension, your courses managers who receive the complaints. In fact, I would go so far as to say that using poetry can be useful, rewarding and enjoyable if done correctly.

Before I elaborate on how to use poetry successfully in class, however, I want to clarify why I think it is worth putting in the effort. Finally, I will list some tried and tested poems that, introduced appropriately, are sure to get your students excited about reading poetry.

Why should I use poetry?

  • Popular poems are popular for good reason; they describe common experiences that everyone can relate to. Thus, they can be an effective way to introduce a topic for discussion in class.
  • Once students have studied a poem on a topic, I find that they are more willing to contribute their own ideas. Reading a short text thoroughly and having time to discuss it with one’s peers gives students time to reflect. This means they are able to make more thoughtful and profound contributions on the topic.
  • Many students are eager to engage with the cultures of English-speaking countries. Shakespeare, for instance, is a name that every student will have heard, but few of them will have had the courage or the guidance to tackle any of his work. It can seem daunting - even impossible - to read Shakespeare alone as a non-native speaker of English. However, I have had great success using one of his sonnets with advanced students. They were glad to be able to read a text they had previously thought unattainable.
  • If students want to read literature in English, poetry is good way in. Using novels in class, even in the form of abridged and graded readers, is fraught with difficulties. Your students may not like the story for whatever reason; they might lose interest halfway through; perhaps they will be unwilling to read a lot for homework; and what if they miss a key lesson in your three-week master plan? Poems, in contrast, can be used in lessons that last anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours. In other words, poems are far easier to digest than prose.
  • One of the outcomes of these lessons is that students are motivated to read more literature in their free time, having built up their confidence in class. If done well, students will no longer feel intimidated by poetry. I’ve found poetry lessons to be some of my most rewarding teaching experiences.
  • Authors usually set out to convey a specific message, but the wonderful thing about poetry is that a lot of it is ambiguous and open to interpretation. This gives students the confidence to take risks when they explain what the poem means to them, which is something that should be encouraged in a language class in order to build confidence and fluency.

Course participants at The London School of English

How do I make my poetry lesson a success?

Check with your students:

The best way to avoid disaster is simply to ask your students if they would be interested in reading literature in class. If a few of them are eager, the rest will usually give poetry a chance at least once. Equally, if none of them are interested, do not attempt it no matter how much you may agree with the points listed above.

Choose your poem wisely:

The poem must be suitable for the level and demographic you are teaching. Consider everything from the difficulty of the vocabulary to the accessibility of the topic. It is also worth thinking about the syntax of the poem; if it is too far removed from standard English, students may find it incomprehensible.

Be enthusiastic:

I am loath to say this as I genuinely believe in the benefits of using poetry in class, but if you are not particularly enthusiastic about the idea then I do not recommend that you do it. Poetry is challenging to use effectively, and any reluctance from you will be reflected in your students.

Pre-teach difficult vocabulary:

As with any receptive skills lesson, you will need to consider which words will prevent your students from understanding the text. If there is too much new vocabulary in it, they may not engage fully.

Be prepared:

I recommend preparing some questions about specific lines in the poem for your students to discuss with a partner. A few students will not need much support, but they are the exception to the rule in my experience.

As an example, here are some questions I have used to guide my upper-intermediate students in their interpretation of The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost:

  1. Are the roads similar or different?
  2. When the author says he is ‘sorry he could not travel both’ (l.2), what do you think he means?
  3. Could the author see where the road ended (l.4-5)?
  4. How did the author choose which road to take? Do you think he was impulsive or did he consider it carefully (l.3-6)
  5. Does the author think he will return and take the other road sometime (l.13-15)?
  6. Why does the author say he will ‘sigh’ (l.16)? Will he be happy or sad? Could it be both?
  7. The author says he ‘took the one less traveled by’ (l.19). Is that true, considering your answer to question 1?
  8. ‘That has made all the difference’ (l.20): is this a positive or a negative thought? Does the author know for sure that he made the best choice?
  9. What do you think the poem’s message is? Do you agree with it?
  10. Overall, do you think this a poem of regret or thankfulness?
  11. Why do you think many Americans consider this to be their favourite poem?

Have a language focus:

Be sure to teach some new vocabulary or grammar from the text. Students will immediately see the value of using poetry in class if there are language outcomes apart from simply practising reading skills or having a discussion. For instance, with Warning by Jenny Joseph, I ask students to deduce the meaning of ‘gobble up’, ‘sobriety’ and ‘hoard’ from context after they have read the text.

Some of our course participants

Tried and tested poems

Sonnet 130, William Shakespeare

An amusing poem that ridicules the way that love poems idolise people, this will show your students Shakespeare’s playful side. It is also a good poem to use around Valentine’s Day.

If, Rudyard Kipling

This poem is a father’s advice to his son and is a great way to introduce personality adjectives. I have also used it with older students to discuss parenting.

Warning, Jenny Joseph

This light-hearted poem is a fun way to introduce the topic of ageing and responsibilities at different stages in life. It can be used in combination with a lesson about future forms.

The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost

Frost’s poetry is modern enough that his vocabulary is easy to understand, but not so modern as to be experimental and impenetrable. This is a wonderful poem about making choices, which makes it easy to tie into a lesson about advice, dilemmas, the 3rd conditional or structures such as ‘if only/I wish’.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost

This poem is not simply about the beauty of nature, but the importance of focusing on one’s goals and duties. It could be used to lead into a lesson about ‘have to’ and ‘don’t have to’.

Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

This may be too sensitive a subject for some classes, but it is an important one. This poem is at its heart about black communities surviving oppression, but it is also about self-esteem and overcoming obstacles in a more general sense.

This post was written by Rosie, one of our trainers at The London School of English

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