Speaking Up for Poetry

By Yolande Deane
DELTA qualified EFL teacher with 5 years’ teaching experience

As someone who likes to read and write poetry, I am always excited by the “challenge” of trying to work out what I think the poet meant by their words.  However, what I may see as a journey into words, others may just view as inaccessible language. Even though I read and write poetry, I know how frustrating it is at times to try and decipher what is being conveyed. In addition, poetry can often be culturally specific and any symbolism used may be very culturally bound.  This could be the reason why many avoid or never even think about using poetry in an EFL classroom. Furthermore, you may have to admit to yourself that you do not quite “get” poetry, so how on earth will the students cope?

In  my experience, I have found that students “get” quite a lot more than you may think, which is why I believe we should take that risk and use it in the classroom. I have often noticed that poetry regularly seems to find a short cut to a part of students’ brains that says “yeah let’s go with this”.  Of course, you may get students who are resistant and have bad memories of poetry interpretation from their own school days. Equally, they may not have had any exposure to poetry, or just may not have strong intrapersonal reflective intelligence. However, I find that if it is presented to them in a way that gives them time and space to think on their own about what they are reading, then they begin to almost soften towards the poem.

A poem can be humourous, serious or romantic, so you can choose one that would suit your students. Poetry shows them the English language outside the boundaries of a coursebook or newspaper, and it exposes them to vocabulary that will enrich their understanding of English.  Poetry is not all about obscure language, it is about exploiting everyday words and turning them on their heads. This is what excites me about poetry and this is what eventually captivates students in the end.

Yolande teachingStudents often get frustrated at the fact that there are often three or five words in English that describe exactly the same thing. Think of how many words we could use to describe how someone walks; stagger, swagger, tip toe and creep. Poetry can help to cultivate an appreciation of these precise descriptions, and there is such an array of modern English language poetry that it is a shame not to exploit it. I do not use poetry to confuse students about the English language, but to open their eyes to its amazing precision.

Useful Poetry Links:

Poetry Library

Poetry Foundation

Look out for Yolande’s post next Tuesday, 15 November, in which she’ll be discussing some practical ways to use poetry with learners of different levels.

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