Teaching Poetry an ESL Teaching Technique


According to Sidhu, Fook and Kaur (2010), literature-enriched curricula facilitate learning of target languages through avenues of life experiences and composition in an ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom. Furthermore, he asserts that these curricula have the capacity to improve reading and writing skills where development of grammar and vocabulary can be internalised by learners. Poetry is often viewed as a predominant genre of literature, where learners can explore the potential of poetry instruction as a technique in an ESL classroom. This is a valid assertion, which has recently gained significant attention in relation to ESL classrooms (Hess, 2003). Therefore, this essay will detail poetry as an ESL learning technique and justify its validity as an effective ESL teaching tool. In addition, this essay will outline methods and techniques that teachers can apply to help their students understand and appreciate poetry. Furthermore, the essay will detail how poetry can facilitate the teaching of listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. The target learners analysed in this essay are high school students who learn English as a second language. The ideas presented in the essay will be validated by current research studies and teaching pedagogies.

Selection of a TESOL teaching technique

Teaching poetry as a technique has been selected for this essay as it expresses emotions and experiences from life. Correspondingly, students may be able to relate effectively to meanings they come across in poems they study. McRae (1991) argues that literature is language ‘in use’, possessing the potential to motivate learners to explore and read as they enjoy text and unconsciously learn language.  Furthermore, Savvidou (2004) augments this claim with the assertion that studying literature, unconsciously improves learners’ linguistic knowledge including syntax, morphology, semantics and phonetics. In this way, poetry as a predominant mode of literature, can be explored as an ESL learning technique where its study and analysis can motivate learners and develop their skills.

This technique will focus on exploring thinking, speaking, reading and writing skills of ESL learners through poetry instruction. Some of these techniques and elements are flexible and can be applied to other forms of literature such as stories and also drama. This essay will deliver insights into the ‘9 step formula’ that Hess (2003) presents as an effective technique for teaching poetry. Furthermore, it will explore Praveen’s (2003) guide to appreciating and learning from poetry. These steps/techniques will be analysed and tailored to meet the learning needs of the target learners in a lesson plan.

The application of poetry instruction in ESL classrooms has been substantially researched where there are numerous case studies that validate its efficacy (Saito, 2008; Gulla, 2012; Savvidou, 2004). Sidhu et al., (2010) states that teaching poetry provides learners the opportunity to discuss literary elements such as plot, point of view, setting, values and themes. In discussing these elements, learners are challenged to think critically and creatively. The critical thinking takes place when learners study poems, whilst the creative materialises when learners construct their own poems. However, Praveen (2007) asserts that there are three crucial areas that require focused attention for a poem to have maximum effect and develop appreciation. These areas are: cultural background of poems, rhythm and poetic craft. Learners have to be guided to understand the functions of these three areas in order to develop appreciation for a poem. 

Explanation of the TESOL teaching technique

The two academic articles that will augment this chosen TESOL teaching technique are: Real Language through Poetry: A Formula for Meaning Making by Natalie Hess (2003) and Guiding ESL Learners to Appreciate Poetry by Chandrasekharan Praveen (2007). These two articles will be discussed in detail with close reference to my own experiences of poetry instruction.

Both Hess (2003) and Praveen (2007) assert that with appropriate instruction, poetry has the potential to enhance language competencies as poetry serves as an extension of our experience in life. Correspondingly, learners can easily relate to poetry as its learning becomes natural and intersects with their own lives. Learners are able to easily relate to poems they study as they begin to appreciate poems as vehicles of thought in constructing language. Whilst Praveen (2007) presents essentials for appreciating poetry, Hess (2003) theorises a ‘nine-step process’ for poetry instruction. These nine steps are: Trigger, Vocabulary Preview, Bridge, Listen (react and share), Language, Picture, More language, Meaning and Spin-off.

The first step in Hess’s model (2003) refers to the ‘Trigger’, where learners can have more than one trigger that can create the initial spark and curiosity motivating learners to explore a poem.  The trigger initiates the creation of mental images, maps or landscapes that facilitate the process of comprehending the poem. They can consist of pictures, anecdotes, quotations, or any devices that may help the teacher discuss the possible contents of the poem. Hess (2003) uses pictures as triggers to start discussion about faces and opinions that we create about other people when we don’t even know them. The poem used by Hess (2003) in her article is ‘Richard Cory’ by Edwin Arlington Robinson. This initial activity focuses on speaking skills, as students work in pairs to present their ideas to the whole class. On the other hand, Praveen (2007) asserts that for learners to fully appreciate poetry, it is crucial that they understand the cultural background to a poem. The emphasis here is on prior knowledge that can augment the process of appreciating a poem. Therefore, teachers may have to provide cultural context and supplementary information so that learners can develop better understanding of a poem.

In my classroom I have often used the title of a poem as a trigger. Discussing the title of any poem helps the learners anticipate the possible content of the poem and also enhance their comprehension later when reading the poem. With certain titles, a pre-activity of writing their own poem on the same topic can also serve as a trigger where they can later compare the poem they wrote with the poem they are studying. I affirm Praveen’s notion (2007) about the importance of knowing cultural backgrounds of poetry.  I have facilitated poetry instruction requiring background information in order to fully appreciate a poem. 

The second step is the ‘Vocabulary Preview’ where Hess (2003) suggests presenting 7-10 words that are difficult but essential for students to understand a poem. Furthermore, she asserts that teachers should not explain the words before eliciting the meaning from learners.  In context of what Praveen (2007) asserts, the vocabulary concerned here can be words that are specific to certain cultures where it is important for the teacher to make students understand their context. In my classroom, I scaffold vocabulary that is important to understand poetry where in groups or pairs, I instruct students to discuss meanings and how words may be relevant to a particular poem. The third step is the ‘Bridge’. According to Hess (2003) the ‘Bridge’ is a sentence or two that links the trigger activity to the poem. In addition, the ‘Bridge’ helps to clarify key ideas within a poem by connecting the trigger activity to the content of the poem.

The fourth step is ‘Listen, React and Share’ where learners listen to the teacher reading the poem 2-3 times, write their first impressions of the poem and share them with classmates (Hess, 2003). Praveen (2007) states that in order to appreciate poetry, listening to the rhythm patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables is important as these sound patterns express different emotions. I find this activity essential as it provides learners the opportunity to develop listening skills and also tests their own understanding of the poem. Furthermore, learners may compare their thoughts with their friends by discussing the impressions they have acquired.

The fifth step in Hess’s (2003) technique is ‘Language’. It is the stage where the poem is critically analysed through the language that is used (Hess, 2003). This stage is important as the learners explore meanings of the poem focusing on lexical patterns and vocabulary that may connote numerous possible meanings. I find this stage very important and often see it as the most challenging, as the teacher must facilitate creative and critical thinking. Visualisation and imagination are key aspects of the sixth step, where both Hess (2003) and Praveen (2007) state that teachers must enhance the learners’ focus on images used in the poem to create visual images in their minds to understand and appreciate a poem. The seventh step, ‘More Language’ further explores the meaning of the poem, as at this stage learners develop adequate understanding of vocabulary and meanings that are associated with a poem. Applying critical analysis to interpret the meanings of the poem through juxtapositions with poems that have similar themes is a key aspect within this stage. The eighth step, ‘Meaning’ emphasises the theme/meaning of the poem where Hess (2003) argues that providing a list of possible meanings for learners to choose and justify enriches their overall understanding of the poem. Furthermore, students are encouraged to share their chosen meaning with their colleagues to compare and develop a broader understanding of the poem. Finally the ninth step, ‘Spin-off’ consists of real world activities based on ideas or themes from the poem that the teacher can use to assign writing and reading tasks. For example, Hess (2003) designs activities like interviewing Richard Corey’s housekeeper for a newspaper article, where students brainstorm the kind of questions they would ask and later role-play the interview.  

Lesson plan illustrating the use of the technique is given in the appendix.

Justification of how the lesson plan is representative of the chosen technique.

According to Gulla (2012), learners find authentic voices when they express their emotions and experiences in relation to the poems they study. In this way, language skills are learnt and acquired in a playful and effective manner. The lesson plan (see Appendix A) focuses on enhancing language skills like reading, listening, speaking and writing using a medium where learners are able to relate with the emotions that imagery in a poem represent. The topic of the lesson is poetry but the focus of the lesson is applying techniques that foster skill development. 

The first focus of the lesson plan is the ‘trigger activity’ (Hess, 2003) where learners brainstorm what they may expect in the poem. This technique emphasises interpreting the title to predict the content of the poem. Discussing the title of the poem facilitates prior knowledge development in relation to the content of the poem. Therefore, thinking aloud about the title of the poem or assigning students to write a poem using the same title provides the critical thought process for what the poem might be about. This technique can be used to teach all genres of literature.

Kletzien (2009) states that learners’ knowledge of vocabulary and teachers’ resourcefulness to make contextual meanings available for learners via scaffolding is crucial for comprehension. This lesson plan provides vocabulary that is important for learners to understand the poem but does not provide insight into meaning. Consequently, students within the lesson will be instructed to explore the possible contextual meanings in groups. According to Hess (2003), guiding learners to elicit the meanings of words on their own enhances vocabulary acquisition skills as learners learn to pronounce, spell and use these words in their own sentences. In addition, meanings can be explored in context of the poem as learners discuss the vocabulary used in the poem (Hess, 2003).

One of the key components of the lesson plan is the reading of the poem. The teacher models the reading and later students do ‘choral reading’. Both Hess (2003) and Praveen (2007) assert that reading the poem as many times as possible will enhance learners’ understanding of a poem. Therefore, the lesson plan places extra emphasis on reading the poem. Learners listen to the teacher reading the poem 2-3 times and then they do a ‘choral reading’ and also read in their groups and then individually.

One of the primary objectives of the lesson plan is to facilitate critical analysis of the poem. It is at this stage of the lesson plan that learners develop critical understanding as they analyse the language and meanings in the poem. The appreciation of the poem can be further emphasised where the technique focuses on the imagery used in the poem. The most important aspect here is to guide learners to develop critical appreciation of the language that is used to express varied emotions and experiences. The final ‘spin-off’ activity in the lesson plan reinforces creative thinking and enhances writing skills as learners explore the theme of the poem in context of their experiences.    


Poetry instruction is a valid and reliable teaching technique in ESL classrooms. As mentioned earlier in this essay, numerous studies have asserted the advantages of using poetry instruction as a TESOL teaching technique. Poems express emotions and real life experiences that learners can relate to personally and through the study of poetry language learning can also be enhanced. The techniques used in the lesson plan (see Appendix A) present a structured approach to teaching poetry demonstrating skills that are effective in helping students comprehend poetry and develop appreciation for language.  Hess’s (2003) ‘nine-step process’ to teaching poetry is a useful example of a structured approach that is inclusive of teaching language skills where poetry is the vehicle to explore and achieve language-skill development. Furthermore, this essay correlates the key aspects and concepts proposed by both both Hess (2003) and Praveene (2007), to develop a holistic approach to teaching English language through poetry instruction. The ‘nine-step process’ augments learning development as students develop adequate comprehension of the poem as a group.  Therefore, this essay affirms the efficacy of poetry instruction as a TESOL teaching technique with focused emphasis on integrating critical thinking, listening, speaking, reading and writing skills at various levels facilitate developments in English language proficiency.  

   Word count: 2305


Gulla, A. N. (2012). Make room for our voices: Using poetry in professional development for secondary ESL and ELA teachers. English Journal, 101(3), 92-94.

Kletzien, S. B. (2009). Paraphrasing: an effective comprehension strategy. The        Reading Teacher, 63(1), 73-77.

Praveen, C. (2007). Guiding ESL learners to appreciate poetry. The Internet TESL Journal, 13(8), 1-2. Retrieved from http://iteslj.org/Techniques/PraveenPoetry.html

Saito, A, P. (2008). Between me and the world: Teaching poetry to English language learners. Teaching Artist Journal, 6(3), 197-208. doi: 10.1080/15411790802134319

Savvidou, C. (2004). An Integrated Approach to Teaching Literature in the EFL Classroom. The Internet TESL Journal, 10(12), 1-2. Retrieved from http://iteslj.org/ Techniques/ Savvidou-Literature.html.

Sidhu, G. K., Fook, C. Y., & Kaur, S. (2010). Instructional practices in teaching literature: Observations of ESL classrooms in Malaysia. English Language Teaching, 3(2), 54-72. doi: 10.5539/elt.v3n2p54 

Hess, N. (2003). Real language through poetry: a formula for meaning making. ELT Journal, 57(1), 19-25. doi: 10.1093/elt/57.1.19

Appendix A: Lesson Plan

Lesson Topic: ‘We are Seven’ by William Wordsworth (Poetry)

Objectives: By the end of the lesson students will be able to:
·      Present (speak) their understanding of the poem.
·      Paraphrase (write) the poem.
·      Identify imagery that appeals to them
·      Justify the key meaning/theme of the poem

1.     Trigger activity (Introduction): In groups of 3-4, students will write a three-stanza poem of four lines each using the title, “We are Seven”. The students will be given 15 minutes to write their poem. After this time, one member of the group will read their poem aloud to the whole class. All the groups will share their poems. The teacher will then reinforce each poem’s connection to the title, ‘We are Seven’. The important factor in this activity is to facilitate the anticipation of what the poem, ‘We are Seven’ by William Wordsworth may be about.
2.     Vocabulary preview: The teacher will instruct students to explore the meaning of 7-10 words from the poem. They will discuss the contextual meanings of the words and present them to the class.
3.     Listening, Reading and writing (Body): The students will first listen to the teacher reading the poem and then the whole class will engage in choral reading. After 2-3 readings, the students will discuss in groups the poem and write their first impression about the poem. Later, one member from each group will share their impression with the whole class and the teacher will supplement.
4.     Critical analysis: The teacher will provide questions to guide student discussion to critically analyse the poem. The students will then discuss the questions (teacher to monitor and assist if needed) and answer them in their group, and will and later share them with the whole class. Questions:
a.     Who is the speaker in the poem?
b.     Where is the speaker?
c.      Why is the speaker there?
d.     Who does the speaker meet?
e.     What do they talk about?
f.      Why does the girl keep on saying they are seven?
g.     Why do you think the speaker tries to make the girl change her response?
h.     Why is the title of the poem, ‘We are Seven’?
5.     Visualisation and imagination: The teacher will share his/her favorite imagery from the poem and explain why it is appealing to him/her. Then the teacher will ask students to do the same.
6.      Activity on the central idea of the poem: The students will be asked to choose one theme from the given range. Their choice should be justified with evidence from the poem and then presented to the whole class. The themes include:
a.     Children are able to accept death because they are innocent.
b.     Children are not affected by their kin’s or a close friend’s death.
c.      It is better to be a child when experiencing the death of kin because they don’t fully know what death is.
d.     Death is a part of life and we should accept it.  
7.     Spin-off activity (Closure): For the closure activity to the lesson, students will complete a writing activity individually. They will discuss the death of kin in their family or the death of their pet in their group and then individually write (100 words) about how they coped with the tragedy.

Appendix B: Poem used for developing the lesson

We Are Seven
———A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.

She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.

“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.

“And where are they? I pray you tell.”
She answered, “Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.

“Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”

“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be.”

Then did the little Maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”

“You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.”

“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little Maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.

“My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.

“And often after sun-set, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.

“The first that dies was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.

“So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.

“And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”

“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
“O Master! we are seven.”

“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”


  1. THANK YOU so much, it was of great in inspiration for preparing my exam and also for teaching

  2. Wow! This is an exciting method of teaching English. You can also look at Work/Life English. We offer a variety of ESL teaching resources for all English learners and adults who want to improve their English skills. Our resources are designed specifically for ESL teachers and students and have proven effective in many adult education classrooms.


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