Using Poetry to Learn English

The classification of poetry as a literary activity usually keeps it out of EFL classrooms—to the detriment of students. Many teachers argue that the themes explored in poetry are too difficult to be grasped by EFL students. Here is my riposte: poetry is as much about language—how a message is expressed—as it is about what is being expressed.

Poets play with language like artists play with shadows and colors. It’s not always about the big picture, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Through poetry, we can learn word pronunciation through rhymes or oral reading. We can build their vocabulary and experiment with word pairings and unlikely descriptors. The rhythm of language comes particularly easily when poetry is read aloud. Poets use as few words as possible to convey what may be a lengthy point—something we could all learn to do, not just EFL students. Even an existential poem’s actual meaning needs to be nothing more than a backdrop.

To that end, here are some ways to use poetry to help others or yourself learn English.

Reading the poem
  • Before reading a poem, play background music to set the tone or rhythm of the poem in question.
  • Visual aids, such as dramatization or a video on YouTube, can add another sense element to the learning experience.
  • Read the poem aloud. Jorge Luis Borges, a respected wordsmith, said, “Truly fine poetry must be read aloud.” Reading aloud helps with pronunciation, rhythm, articulation, and even confidence.
Pronunciation
  • If working with a rhyming poem, write down what words could end the verse.
Rhythm
  • While one person recites the poem, the other can clap out the beat.
Building on the poem
  • Write another verse to the poem using the same rhyming (or non-rhyming) scheme.
  • After a general idea of the poem’s topic is understood, write a response to or paraphrase of the poem. Think beyond an essay—write a letter, a play, a page from a fictitious book, or a rap.
  • Summarize long poems into short ones.
  • Write a personification poem by giving human qualities to an inhuman object, like a lonely rock or a sleepy cloud.
To celebrate poetry, here’s one by Lord Cromer, who was not afraid to play with the English language.

Our Strange Lingo
When the English tongue we speak,
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose, dose, and lose
And think of goose and yet with choose
Think of comb, tomb, and bomb,
Doll and roll or home and some.
Since pay is rhymed with say
Why not paid with said I pray?
Think of blood, food, and good.
Mould is not pronounced like could.
Wherefore done, but gone and lone—
Is there any reason known?
To sum up all, it seems to me
Sound and letters don’t agree.


Dana Viktor is the senior researcher and writer for duedatecalculator.org. Her most recent accomplishments include graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in communications and sociology. Her current focus for the site involves pregnancy stages.
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