As an English major, I enjoy teaching literature and drama in the classroom. This being said, this kind of content is often challenging to learn from for non-native speakers. Nonetheless, poetry is a great way to include creative and artistic content into the ESL classroom and can be used for a wide range of English levels. Due to the variety of structures, themes, and vocabulary, poetry is a great tool to enhance a multitude of ESL lessons and topics.
About the Author: Kyle Dore taught English in South Korea for over 3 years. He is now teaching English in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Kyle graduated from OnTESOL’s 120-hour Advanced TESOL certificate program.
Lower Level Students
For elementary or beginner students, teaching rhyming is a great way to practice sound forms and pronunciation. When selecting a poem to use in your lesson, avoid difficult verb tenses and advanced and challenging words to pronounce. If the poem is displayed on a T.V. or computer monitor, I recommend using a large font. In addition, read the poem aloud so students can hear it clearly.
Although it sounds childish, a good poem to begin with is “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. You can also begin by teaching the word ‘lullaby’, explaining that it is often read to children to help them sleep.
I often label the ends of each line with an A or B to indicate where the rhymes are. In the case of “Twinkle Twinkle” the rhyme scheme would be:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star A
How I wonder what you are A
Up above the world so high B
Like a diamond in the sky B
Twinkle, twinkle little star A
How I wonder what you are A
Intermediate Level Students
While teaching a writing class in Toronto, I gave my students one day per week to free write. Students would write short paragraphs on a topic of their choice, and present them in front of the class. From time to time, I would get them to write small acrostic poems on various topics.
Acrostic poetry are usually poems where certain letters in each line spell out a word or phrase. Usually, the first letters of each line are used to spell the message, but they can actually be placed anywhere. These poems allow the students to think creatively within a given structure. In addition, they give the students some flexibility depending with the chosen theme. An easy option is to get students to use their own name as the base of the poem, and to apply their personality traits as the theme.
After completing their acrostics, I usually get the students to come to the front of the class, and read their poems to the other students. Be aware that students may be shy to read their poetry aloud, however it’s great way to encourage creative expression in the classroom.
Advanced Level Students
When teaching advanced students, it is possible to select a more challenging poem for analysis. It’s even possible to involve the class in a discussion about content or meaning.
When going through a poem, I always try to select students to read aloud. This method forces the students to hear the words as they are spoken aloud. In addition, it allows me to check for correct pronunciation and intonation. If you are using poetry in a pronunciation-focused lesson, you could try using alliterative poems which focus on sound repetition. Additionally, when allowing the students to read the poems aloud, clarify and reiterate that punctuation matters. For example, when we speak, we can pause for effect or emphasize specific words easily. When it comes to writing, however, clear punctuation is necessary to indicate pauses and emphasis.
When teaching my advanced speaking class, I occasionally include Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out—”. I usually use it as a tool for teaching vocabulary and poetic imagery. After assisting students with difficult language or grammatical forms, I recommend beginning a discussion on the meaning of some of the most impactful sentences. These include: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” or “big boy / Doing a man’s work”. These lines usually resonate with adult students and encourage them to think about the story from their perspective.
Depending on the lesson, poetry is a great way to show ESL students that English isn’t just about function; it’s also about expression. Although not to be used every day, poetry in the ESL classroom is a tool to encourage students to express themselves, to learn pronunciation or vocabulary, and to formulate opinions on a variety of discussion topics. If you’re bored teaching the typical writing or pronunciation lessons, try to use poetry and see how your students react; you might be surprised!