Poetry in English language teaching

Two of the modules I currently teach at the University of Leicester are on English language and literary studies. Students attending these modules are typically in the Erasmus/Study Abroad programme and, therefore, do not have English as their first language. These are ‘taster’ modules. Students have two terms of 20 hours of tuition each to acquire some knowledge of English literature! It is a daunting task and all I can give them are glimpses of specific periods, literary genres and particular works.

Some lessons are dedicated to the Novel and, as far as it goes, students can take them pretty well. Most of them have some knowledge of the set texts (Bronte, Austen, Gaskell, Dickens, Rhys) and, in spite of some language difficulties, students tend to be quite open about reading the books. When we come to poetry, things already start quite differently.  I sense in class a certain anxiety and an atmosphere of subtle disbelief that they will in fact be able to engage with poems not matter how I present and work with them. Although students are usually not brave enough to say that, I feel that, from the outset, most of them are just thinking, ‘OK, let me put up with these two lessons on poetry and then we can move back to prose and be done with it’. For this reason, I start the first lesson on poetry by trying to unpack students’ perceptions, beliefs, and previous experiences with reading poetry, both in English and in their mother tongue. It is a rare finding indeed to have more than one of two learners in a group of 20 saying that they actually enjoy reading poems and often do so. It is even rarer to find anyone who actually knows much about English poetry apart from the names of the usual culprits.

My job is to try to dis-mystify poetry and connect it with other art forms they are used to (such a music, film and visual arts), make them realise how language works in poems, and how poetry can be relevant to their everyday life because it reaches us both intellectually and emotionally in a more intense and cognitively challenging way than most prose. It may sound a bit old-fashioned but I actually ask them to do some close reading and engage with the images and sounds in the poems. I have to admit that when I work with poetry with these learners, I do leave Greenblatt, Foucault and all the French bunch behind. Before being able to move in that direction I feel that they have to personally engage with the poems and look at how language is used there to construct images and associations.

In the first term, I work with the Romantics and War Poetry. In the second term, I explore the Arthurian myth in English poetry in different periods (Tennyson, Tolkien, Armitage) and contemporary poetry across the British Isles (Heaney, Thomas, Lochhead, Duffy). I cannot really say how much these lessons change my students’ attitudes and general enjoyment of poetry, but I can observe their almost palpable change towards a much more positive and engaged attitude in class when reading and discussing their criticism reading, possible meanings, and their ‘interpretations’ of the poems they read. Above all, I can see that they start engaging with the language at a different level: from ‘fear of not understanding what the words mean’ to ‘how I can understand these words?’. For me, this last point alone is already justification enough to bring poetry into language teaching and learning.

I am writing all this because for the next IATEFL in Manchester, we have decided to dedicate the LMCS PCE to approaches and activities to use poetry in ELT – thanks to David A. Hill for the idea and the inspiration! We have put together a star line-up for the day (see below) and we expect teachers to come, enjoy the day, and go back to their classrooms with a different perception of the role of poetry in language learning  as well as with lots of practical ideas on how to use poems in class.

We are also starting to warm up towards the PCE with an online discussion of our members favourite poems in the LMCS discussion list, starting this Sunday 7th December till next Sunday 14th. Join here

LMCS Manchester 2015 PCE Programme
Jeremy Harmer: Encouraging and enabling students to speak poetry.
Chris Lima: Exploring language with Dylan Thomas
Amos Paran: Co-Constructing Meaning: Using gapping techniques and jumbled sentences to work with poetry.
Carol Read: Inspirations for poetry in the primary classroom: ideas for getting children to write their own poems.
Carel Burghout: What do we bring to a poem about a myth?
Claudia Ferradas: More than meets the eye: poems to discuss beauty stereotypes in the classroom
Alan Pulverness: Poems talking about paintings and poems talking to poems.
Hania Bociek: Art and Poetry: across the ocean, across the centuries.
Alan Maley: Performing a poem.

Further reading:

  • Davis, P. (2013) Reading and the Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Eagleton, T. (2007) How to Read a Poem. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Wolosky, S. (2001) The Art of Poetry. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Online discussion on extensive reading

Starting today and going up to 31 August 2014, the IATEFL Literature, Media and Cultural Studies special interest group is  hosting a fielded discussion on extensive reading with Thomas Robb, Professor at the Faculty of Foreign Languages, Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan. He has been a long-time advocate of extensive reading and computer assisted language learning. His current project M-Reader is an online site designed to help schools implement extensive reading programmes. 

To join the discussion, visit Yahoo groups webpage.


Imagination in teacher professional development

In a previous entry on imagination in teacher education I focused on publications intended to promote creativity and imagination in English language teaching and learning. Now I would like to focus on professional development since the way the content and ideas advanced in books and articles are disseminated among ELT practitioners is mainly through teacher education programmes, courses, workshops, seminars and conferences which are sponsored and supported by major publishers and educational organizations.

Disputable as it may be in terms of long term results, sustainability and impact (Lamb, 1995, pp.78-9) and cultural appropriateness (Leather, 2001, p.232), attendance at short courses, talks and workshops in conferences is still an important and stimulating part of ELT professional life for most teachers and teacher trainers (Beaven, 2009, p.8). Conferences organized by TAs usually attract a fairly good number of delegates and a flow of ELT professionals linked to the publishing industry, education providers, and institutions interested in the promotion of English around the world, such as the British Council. A way to see how much currency imagination and creativity have among ELT professionals who participate in such events is to look at conference programmes.

For instance, the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language’s (IATEFL), Annual Conference consists of a 4-day programme of over 300 talks, workshops and symposia (IATEFL, 2014, online). In the past ten years, there has been a small but steady increase in the number of presentations related to classroom techniques and activities to promote creativity using songs, drama, storytelling, literature, visual arts, and new media. The IATEFL Literature, Media, and Cultural Studies (LMCS) SIG has also been promoting imaginative and creative uses of material to promote language learning in its pre-conference events and in its SIG day presentations for years. At Cardiff 2009, there was a symposium especially devoted to Art in ELT, convened by Alan Maley. At Harrogate 2010, I delivered a talk on Imagination in Teacher Education which largely focused on the research I carried out for my MA degree. At Harrogate 2014, we saw the creation of the C Group, and had a symposium devoted to Creativity in ELT, once again largely organized by Alan Maley. The C Group and the LMCS are now organizing a joint event to take place in October 2014 in Oxford which theme is Teachers Create Learners Create. On the whole, it seems to be true that there has been a growing awareness of the importance of creativity in teacher education and language learning, at least among teachers and teacher trainers associated to IATEFL.

We should also consider if the same tendency is present at formal teacher education programmes, both at initial teacher training and continuing professional development levels. As for academic qualifications, it is virtually impossible to draw accurate conclusions about the status of imagination and creativity in the syllabus of degree programmes due to the overwhelming number of undergraduate and postgraduate Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) courses being taught at education colleges and universities around the world. What we can do is to look at the syllabuses of some of these courses in the hope that this will reveal a general trend in some specific contexts. This can be a potential area of investigation for educators interested in taking future research in the field.

When it comes to professional qualifications, the market of TESOL short certificate and diploma courses is unquestionably dominated by the Cambridge – Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA), the Cambridge Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (DELTA) – and the Trinity College – Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CertTESOL) and Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (DipTESOL) (Barduhn and Johnson, 2009, p.62). These are courses for candidates who have little or no previous English Language teaching experience; candidates with some teaching experience but little previous training; or candidates with some experience but who wish to achieve a higher professional qualification in ELT. These courses are usually taken by both English native speakers who want to obtain a professional qualification to teach English abroad and non-native speaker EFL teachers who seek to obtain an internationally recognized qualification to improve their career prospects. There is considerable controversy and criticism regarding the efficiency and suitability of such courses to prepare people to teach EFL (Brandt, 2006; Ferguson and Donno, 2003), but it is undeniable that they can provide some training where otherwise none would be given and that they can be a first step towards further later academic TESOL qualifications.

In these courses, the knowledge and skill development model of teacher education is embodied in the concern for the development of teaching skills, with emphasis on classroom management, teaching methodology and language awareness, which reveals the strong influence of competency-based training. This is in turn coupled with a marked tendency towards analysis and reproduction of supposedly effective teaching practices and focus on knowledge of and about the English language. The words ‘creativity’ and ‘imagination’ do not appear in the syllabus or handbook any of these professional qualification programmes.

A note of warning is necessary here though. Even with the content of academic and professional teacher training programmes excluding overt references to imagination and creativity, it does not necessarily follow that the teacher trainers’ approach in class excludes those. Teacher trainers working on such courses may well introduce tasks involving imagination and creativity in their own sessions and propose the discussion of such issues in their lessons with their trainee teachers. There is no way of knowing the extent to which imagination is actually present in the everyday sessions of student teachers without an ethnographic study in specific institutions as it depends on the trainers’ own views and understanding of what is important in teacher education, which makes the whole discussion of the roles of imagination and creativity in teacher development even more indispensable.


  • Bardhun, S. and Johnson, J., 2009. Certification and Professional Qualifications. In
  • A. Burns and J. C. Richards (Eds) The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Beaven, B., 2009. Exeter Conference Selections. Canterbury: IATEFL.
  • Cambridge English, 2014. Teaching English. [online]Available at http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/teaching-english/ Accessed 10 Aug 2014
  • Lamb, M., 1995. The consequences of INSET. ELT Journal, 49/1.
  • Leather, S., 2001. Training across cultures: content, process, and dialogue. ELT Journal, 55/3.
  • Trinity College London, 2014. Teaching English. [online] Available at http://www.trinitycollege.co.uk/site/?id=293 Accessed 10 Aug 2014