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Introducing and Reading Poetry with English Language Learners

By: Kristina Robertson
This article offers some ideas on how to introduce poetry to ELLs and integrate it with reading instruction, as well as some ideas for reading poetry aloud in a way that will encourage oral language development.

A Little Poem for Poetry Month
by Jack Prelutsky

I'm glad we have a Poetry Month,
But still, I wonder why
They chose a month with thirty days —
Were months in short supply?
I wish that they'd selected
A longer month, like May.
I'm certain I'd appreciate
That extra poetry day.

Of course, if they'd picked February,
I would be aghast,
For February's very short
And passes far too fast.
But April's not as short as that,
So I don't hesitate
To say I'm glad it's Poetry Month.
Hooray! Let's celebrate.

Poetry All-Year Round

Even though poetry gets a lot of attention during Poetry Monty in April (as it should), it is fun to teach any time of year! I must admit that I am drawn to fiction, and teaching poetry seemed daunting at first; but I have discovered the joy of poetry while exploring it with my English language learners, and my students have been very enthusiastic about our poetry units. Here are some of the reasons why I've enjoyed teaching poetry so much with my ELLs:

Versatility

Poetry is so versatile, which makes it a great form to use in the ELL classroom. There are so many types of poetry and so many different forms that eventually, each student is bound to find a poem or poet he or she enjoys!

Language

Poems can be used to introduce or practice new vocabulary, language structures, and rhyming devices, and shorter poems often give ELLs a chance to explore an idea while working with a more manageable amount of text than a short story or essay.

Culture

In addition, many ELLs come from cultural backgrounds rich with poetry and folktales. From the epic poems of ancient civilizations to more modern political poems written during the 20th century, poetry opens an interesting historical and cultural window, and students may already be quite knowledgeable about the poets and poems that are an important part of their heritage.

There are a number of ways to use poetry in the ELL classroom. This article focuses on how to introduce poetry to ELLs and integrate it with reading instruction. For ideas on teaching poetry writing to ELLs, take a look at Writing Poetry with English Language Learners.

Introducing ELLs to Poetry

Video: The Power of Poetry

Francisco Alarcon

Take a look at these different perspectives on reading and writing poetry from some of our favorite poets, featured in our poetry section!

Poetry offers wonderful opportunities for reading, writing, speaking, and listening practice for ELLs. Poetry also gives students a chance to expand vocabulary knowledge, to play with language, and to work with different rhythms and rhyme patterns. The benefits of using poetry are not simply anecdotal, however — they have been well documented. Research by Dr. Janette Hughes at the University of Ontario, for example, demonstrates the positive effects of poetry on literacy development. As Dr. Hughes points out, "paying attention to vocabulary and rhythm develops oral language skills," (Hughes, 2007, p. 1) and the development of oral language skills has a strong correlation to proficiency in reading.

Where to begin, then, as you consider how to begin a unit on poetry? Here are some ideas to get you started:

Draw on students' background knowledge

It may be helpful to start your poetry instruction by finding out what kinds of experiences your students have had with poetry. Do students know poems in their native language? Is there a particular poem from their country or heritage that they like? Would they be willing to share a translation? Who are the famous poets from their country? Have students written poems before? Was it in English or their native language? Did student enjoy writing poetry?

Getting students to think about poems they are familiar with can help make the transition into English-language poetry smoother. You may also wish to have students look at bilingual collections of poetry in English and their native language when available, such as many of the titles in Colorín Colorado's Poems for Everyone booklist. How do the translations of the same poem compare? Are there words or phrases that don't translate well from one langue to the other?

Working with poetry from different countries and languages also is an excellent opportunity to encourage students to share their cultural heritage with the class, and to take pride in an art form that is part of their identity and may have been passed down across many generations.

For example, Carol McCarthy, a teacher in Queens, NY has capitalized on her students' poetic heritages by creating a unit called Poetry in Translation, in which students "translate the work of poets from their native country or ethnic heritage, and then write and translate their own poems" (McCarthy, Academy of American Poets website). She offers a number of ideas for guiding students in their exploration of poetry from their own cultures, which then provides a foundation for the comparisons students do of poems from different cultures later in the unit.

Using Poetry in Reading Instruction

Familiarize students with different kinds of poems

Poetry can range from simple and fun to complicated and abstract, which may be one reason it is daunting for many teachers and students alike. Start by choosing simple poems that aren't too abstract or complex — you'll get to Shakespeare eventually! Depending on the English level of the students, there are a variety of ways to start bringing poetry in the classroom.

  • Talk about the differences between stories and poems. Provide students with a copy of a short story they've already read and a short poem. Ask them to work in groups and make a list of the differences between the two pieces, noting characteristics such as length or style. Have students share those differences with the class.
  • Start with poems that are manageable. Make sure the poems you present first have simple and familiar language, images, and themes so that they are accessible to ELLs. One ESL teacher recommends using poetry with "predictable language patterns, repeated words, phrases, lines, and identifiable rhymes" so that they are easier for students to read (Alpha, 2009).
  • Give students a chance to illustrate poems. Have students work in pairs to discuss and illustrate a short poem, or one or two lines of a longer poem. This will encourage them to think about meaning, and then express their interpretation in their own way. Ask students to share their illustrations with the class so that everyone has a chance to think about the different meanings that their classmates discovered.
  • Read a variety of poems out loud. Reading a poem out loud brings it to life. Students will begin to understand and notice different rhythms, rhymes, and feelings represented, as well as understand how the language creates an image or mood. The poem should be read in a natural voice, and the teacher can highlight the fact that you do not always stop at the end of each line, but instead use the poem's punctuation as a cue to where the pauses should be.
  • Be sure to include some poems written for kids and young adults. Children's poetry can be so much fun, and it also gives students a chance to talk about important ideas and feelings. For younger readers, you may want to introduce them to Jack Prelutsky (the first Children's Poet Laureate), Shel Silverstein, or Nikki Giovanni. If you're looking for poets whose work that might resonate with ELLs, check out Francisco X. Alarcón, Pat Mora, and Janet Wong. Older students may appreciate the work of poets such as Nikki Grimes and Billy Collins, as well as these video interviews with poets from PBS Teachers.
  • Discuss the vocabulary used in different poems. Poems offer a wonderful opportunity to teach new vocabulary related to a topic or idea, as well as a chance to think about language. Why did the poet choose a certain word? How does that word make you feel? What kind of sound does the word convey? Students may want to pick a word or phrase that is meaningful from a poem and write it on a "poetic word" wall — sort of a graffiti wall of sentiments. Students can continue to add to the wall as they discover new items, or even as they write their own poems. Another idea is to use a bubble Thinking Map®. Students working in pairs take a word of interest from a poem and place it in the center bubble. They then fill in as many bubbles around the word with as they can with synonyms or related words. For example, if the word is "longing," students may write words in other bubbles such as, "missing, nostalgic, sorrow, homesick, desire, etc." Students can discuss how the poem would be different if one of the other words had been used. Pairs can share their word lists with other students and ask questions about new words they learn.
  • Give students a chance to read poems out loud together as a class and to each other. Reading poems out loud will improve students' confidence and oral language skills, as well as their reading fluency. See more ideas below.
  • Look for opportunities to include poetry in other contexts. There is a wide variety of poems that can accompany social studies, history, science, and even math lessons! Poems are also wonderful additions to a discussion on culture and holidays.

Encourage students to immerse themselves in poetry

As students' comfort level increases, it will be possible to begin more in-depth conversations about different poetry forms, meaning, and language. Here are some ideas for more advanced students:

  • Use graphic organizers. These tools can be helpful when talking about a poem's structure or rhyming scheme so that students can reinforce their knowledge about the poetry form and meaning.
  • Discuss grammatical/syntax patterns found in poems. Poems may have unusual sentence structures that students will not encounter in prose text. Analyzing such sentences can help ELLs develop a better understanding of conventional English syntax.
  • Continue reading poetry out loud to your students. When introducing more complex poems with increasingly difficult English vocabulary, read the poem through and ask students for an initial impression regarding the meaning of the poem. A student might say, "I think it's about someone who lost someone theylove." This can begin a discussion with questions such as, "Why do you think that? Is there a certain word or phrase that makes you think that? Does someone else have a different idea?"
  • Encourage students to share their personal interpretations. Students will soon see that each reader finds a different meaning in the poem, and that's ok. Students shouldn't be bogged down looking for the right and wrong answers.

Using Poetry to Develop Oral Language Skills

Give students the chance to read poems out loud

Reading poetry aloud is a great way for ELLs to practice pronunciation and fluency, as well as a chance for students to play with rhymes and language.

In order to increase confidence and fluency, have students start by reading some poems together as a class. Then have students choose a poem that they enjoy and then practice reading their poems aloud in pairs, experimenting with expression, volume, and speed. After students have had time to practice, listen in and offer some feedback on expression and pronunciation. Once students have one more round of practice, ask students to share their poems aloud with the class.

Poems can make wonderful class presentations, whether students read different poems from a collection aloud, act out a longer dramatic poem, or take turns reading a rhyming text. Here are some poetry theater ideas from PoetryTeachers.com. Andrea Spillett, an ELL teacher who blogs for Scholastic, describes a program in which students presented poems from Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak to their parents: "The book has a rhyming text about the months of the year. Students recited the poem of the month they were born. Simple costumes and a backdrop were used for the presentation" (Spillett, 2008). This demonstrates that poetry doesn't have to be complicated to be effective — even simple poems can be engaging!

There are many resources online that offer ideas for using poetry in the classroom — those listed in the Hotlinks section below are just the tip of the iceberg. I hope you enjoy your exploration of poetry as much as I have enjoyed mine. Once you get going, you'll wonder why it took you so long to get started!

References

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Alpha, J. (2009).Utilizing poetry as an ESL teaching tool and resource. Retrieved April 22, 2009 fromhttp://www.brighthub.com/education/languages/articles/7143.aspx

HughesJ. (2007). Poetry: A powerful medium for literacy and technology development (What Works? Research into Practice Research Monograph #7). Retrieved April 23, 2009 from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/Hughes.pdf.

McCarthy, Carol. Poetry in translation. Lesson Plan published by the Academy of American Poets. Retrieved April 22, 2009 fromhttp://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/17106.

Spillette, Andrea. (2008, April 5). Celebrate Poetry Month with Your English Language Learners. Message posted to http://community.scholastic.com/scholastic/blog/article?blog.id=ELL_strategies&message.id=54.

Kristina Robertson (2009)

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