Any authentic material exposes students to some ‘real English’ and can be very motivating for your students, provided they are supported throughout the task. The other great thing about poems is for students to have the opportunity to see the language work creatively and freely. Poems can be used in many different ways and the more you use them the more uses you’ll find for them.
Where can I get the poems from?
Finding poems to use is now incredibly easy with the internet. You can find lots of poems by simply typing in the author and the first line or title. There’s a site called Poem Hunter which makes this even easier. So even if you only remember a few lines of a poem that you like you’ll probably be able to find it. The site is http://www.poemhunter.com/
If you make worksheets using the poem be sure to acknowledge the author’s name and the source.
How do I choose the right one for my class?
The first thing to consider when you’re selecting a poem for your class is the level of language. If you end up having to explain every single word then the poem may well lose its spark. On the other hand, students won’t need to understand every word to get the general idea of most poems so don’t be put off if you think the language level is slightly above what they would normally be able to handle. As with songs, if the students are supported throughout and are pre-taught some of the vocabulary, or given some visual aids to help them, they will be able to tackle more challenging texts than they are used to.
What activities can I do with a poem?
Introduce a topic
- Poems can be a really nice way into a topic. A colleague recently recommended using a poem called The Ghoul by Jack Perlutsky as a way to introduce a Halloween lesson. He had made a gap fill by taking out the rhyming words. The students loved the poem and later on we took it in turns reading out the verses with the correct intonation and taking care to make the rhyming words rhyme. (Thanks to Johnny Lavery for this idea.)
- To introduce the topic of old people and talking about grandparents in a class I’ve used Jenny Joseph’s poem called Warning. The language is simple and the ideas are clear and can easily be supported with visual aids for very low levels.
- In the Language Assistants Manual you’ll find a poem about smoking called Smoke-Loving Girl Blues by John Agard. This would be a great introduction to a lesson on smoking or the Essential UK class on smoking bans.
- These are just a few examples of linking a poem to a topic. By using a poem as a spring board into a topic you will make the class memorable for your students.
Ordering the poem
- When you have chosen a suitable poem for your class, copy it onto a worksheet and cut up the verses. If the poem tells a story and the order is logical, ask student to read the verses and put them into the correct order. If the order isn’t obvious, you can read out the poem and they can listen and put it into order as you read. From here you can go onto to look at the vocabulary, the rhyming words or to talking about the meaning of the poem.
- Obviously, some poems lend themselves well to looking at pronunciation. Whether you want to focus on individual sounds, rhyming pairs, connected speech or intonation patterns, poems can be a great way into it. Getting students to read out chunks of a poem as they copy the way you say it can be excellent practise for their pronunciation.
If you have higher levels and really want to get them thinking about English pronunciation try the Pronunciation Poem which can be found on the Learn English website. Practise saying it to yourself a few times before the class. It’s harder than it looks!
The Pronunciation Poem
Here is some pronunciation.
Ration never rhymes with nation,
Say prefer, but preferable,
Comfortable and vegetable.
B must not be heard in doubt,
Debt and dumb both leave it out.
In the words psychology,
Psychic, and psychiatry,
You must never sound the p.
Psychiatrist you call the man
Who cures the complex, if he can.
In architect, chi is k.
In arch it is the other way.
Learn a verse
- Once you have chosen the poem and have worked with it with your class, encourage the students to learn one verse by heart. It can be really motivating for younger students to be able to say a whole chunk of English perfectly. Ensure that they want to learn it and that it has some useful language in it which will be helpful in the future. Try not to get students to memorise chunks of language just for the sake of it or because you want to fill in the last few minutes and have run out of activities! However it can be really satisfying for students to be able to be able to say a nice chunk of language and to be sure that their pronunciation is good, as they will have practised it with you.
Record the students
- Getting students to record themselves saying a poem can be a nice way to help them improve their pronunciation. You could put students into pairs or small groups and get each student to read out aloud one of the verses of the poem. Then listen back to it in the class.
Write a new verse
- If you are teaching higher levels you could ask the students to create a new verse for the poem or to change one of the existing verses. This would be a challenging activity for most students so make sure you offer ideas and help to support students through the task. Be ready to give an example verse to show them that it’s do-able!
Role play – dialogues
- If the poem you are using has any dialogue, you could use it as a springboard into a role-play. Poems with characters can also be used to inspire role-plays. An example of a poem that would be good for this is A Bad Habit by Michael Rosen and can be found in the Language Assistants Manual on page 117.
For most teachers poems are an under exploited resource that we have available to us. Although introducing your students to a poem or two throughout the course will take a lot of thought and a bit of preparation time on your side, I think it will be worth it. If you do try any of the suggestions here or have any other ideas of how to use poetry with your students please send them in to the discussion list to share with the other Language Assistants.
http://benjaminzephaniah.com/ Information about the poet Benjamin Zephaniah. I haven’t yet managed to work him into a lesson, but I think there’s lots of potential to use his work in the classroom. Great for teenagers..
https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/stories-poems - The British Council’s Learn English website has a huge archive of poems. You’ll find any topic under the sun.
http://www.poemhunter.com/ This is a great site to help you find poems. It’s especially useful if you can only remember a few lines.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/english_literature/poetryrelationships/ - BBC bitesize website has some great resources for older teens
By Jo Budden
First published 2007