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.