The application of poetry in teaching English

Mikhail Ignashchenko
Reading and writing poetry in the ELT classroom tends to be unpopular due to the many restrictions and prejudices that such work entails. In many teachers’ minds, poetry is one of the most complexes of the literary genres, where linguistic, social and cultural information is tightly packed and intertwined in a concise, ordered form, most of the time complemented by a discernible metrical structure with a logical sequencing of ideas.
Among educators there is a general preconception that while using poetry as the basis of a lesson provides learners with valuable language acquisition experience, it will not be as efficient as many other activities, because untangling and explaining the qualities of a poem takes too much time, so reducing the overall efficiency of a lesson. As a result of this widespread notion, poems are primarily used in upper-secondary schools, where teachers consider their students to be adequately proficient in the target language so as not to be daunted by the task of reading, writing, and analyzing poems.

Nevertheless, there are many examples of teachers making use of inherent positive qualities of working with poems, engaging students so that they can express themselves in the target language by using lesser-known, more accessible types of poems, such as haiku, pattern poems, picture poems, folksongs, and nursery rhymes. These and others can be viewed as poetry, simplified in some aspects and exaggerated in others, but each with a side which can be used to challenge students’ creativity and appeal to them in different ways. Here are some examples of poems and activities fitting for the classroom environment, of varying time investment and complexity.


I. Picture poems

Picture poems offer a visual perspective on the arrangement of words and are therefore an effective means of encouraging learners to interact with the target vocabulary. Words can make the shape or outline it.

Activity: Harvesting a daydream – a writing brainstorming activity, where students are given a piece of a daydream. The information has little to no context: it can be a word, a hummed rhythm, or an image. The students then try to build a poem from the ground up, “recalling” the story of the dream. As this activity is based on associations, it challenges the passive vocabulary, raises students’ awareness and encourages them to share and combine their unique perspectives.

Freeing poems from grammatical structures and providing opportunities to use word-associations enables students to create something unique and memorable, using familiar visual forms as a basis.

II. Haiku

Haiku is a type of short-form poetry that originated in Japan. Predominately connected with expressing emotion through nature and with loose rules regarding rhythmic patterns and sentence structure, haiku presents an interesting challenge for students to put feelings into words and find associations among natural phenomena.
“Students are encouraged to see words and short phrases as self-sufficient, and to play with the sounds of the words themselves, while juxtaposing simple concepts.” (Finch, 2003)

Activity: Convey feelings without using words for emotions. Poems predominantly exist to capture and share feeling, and many of them are very on the nose about it. Ask your students to change an existing poem, or write their own to subtly capture the emotion they have chosen, using associations or rhythms.

III. Limericks

A limerick is a type of poem that attends to many points important for younger learners, including an easy-to-perceive rhythm, brevity, and, most importantly, an inherent wittiness of content.

Activity: Adaptation. Give your students the task of adapting a poem by following the steps and rhythm given in the poem but substituting the context for their own interpretation. The strict limitations of the task provide opportunities for learners to focus only on context.

Promoting creativity is a foundation for constant intellectual development. Variations on this thought often appear in many articles on education written these days. Provision of an environment which fosters the growth of creativity in students is a commonly accepted goal for teachers. Poetry in the ELT classroom is an exceedingly convenient tool for many teaching situations, while also serving as an example of creativity used not only as a goal but as an actual means to attain subject-related and individual students’ aims. What makes poetry special is the multitude of ways in which an experienced teacher can shape the lesson with it, from highly individualized tasks covering allusion, association, and metaphor, to an easy-to-follow, relaxing group activity the purpose of which is to outwit other groups using the gentle insults common in limericks. Using poems in the teaching of younger learners is a slightly flawed but fulfilling experience, rich in opportunities to use these imperfections to the benefit of the pupils, so creating a unique, unpredictable outcome tailored for and by the students. A gimmick to be sure, but maybe one worth trying out.


Finch A., “Using poems to teach English”, English Language Teaching, 2003
Hadfield, C., & Hadfield, J. (1997). Writing Games. Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd.
Moore, J. N. (2002). Practicing Poetry: Teaching to learn and learning to teach. English Journal, 91(3), pp. 44-50.