ESL Journal
Poetry in the Language Classroom to Assist in Development of Speaking Skill


One foremost reason for introducing and using literature in the language classroom is to encourage expand students" creativity and the faculty of imagination. However, deciding an appropriate text for the class is a crucial issue mainly because, when choosing a text, language difficulty has to be considered, so that access is not restricted and the learners can attain a basic level of comprehension.

McKay (1986) however, cautions against simplification of text, since this may result in diluting information and reducing cohesion and readability. Students also need to be able to identify with the experience, the thoughts and situations depicted in the text, in order "to make connection to personal or social significance outside the text" (Brumfit, 1985: 108).

Therefore, as McRae (1991:126) suggests, a good choice would be any text that encourages or invites interaction with the world of ideas, a text that "affirms, confirms and expands the indispensable human capacity to read the world".

Assessing Usefulness

How can one assess the Usefulness of poetry as a text in the classroom enhancing learner"s language ability, especially speaking?

It is important that texts should provide good potential for a variety of classroom activities, in order to give students more chance to gain true familiarity with any work as a whole. Most importantly, the texts should have the capacity to engage the interest of the student. For example, as noted by Collie and Slater (1987), short stories offer greater variety than longer texts, offering greater chance of finding something to appeal to each individual"s tastes and interests, whilst poems offer a rich, varied range and are a source of much enjoyment.

However, a poem may not always be a favoured item in the classroom mainly because of its deviant and densely metaphorical use of language. Teaching poetry becomes especially difficult when the emphasis is put on correctness in grammatical form. In the EFL teaching scenario, there was little place for literature, poetry in particular, with its deviations and deviant image uses, since "it [poetry] is a misleading as a model [in teaching approach] that insists on the gradual accumulation of correct forms" (Widdowson, 1984:162).

However, use of poetry in teaching language has been seen as a road to learning making by ESL practitioners from both philosophical and practical perspectives (Bakhtin 1986; Carter and Long 1990; Widdowson, 1975). As pointed out by Hess (2003:20):poetry, seems to bring out emotions and entering a literary text, under the guidance of appropriate teaching, brings about the kind of participation almost no other text can produce. When we read, understand and interpret a poem we learn language through the expansion of our experience with a larger human reality.

According to Holten (1997) literature is quintessential language content and Collie and Slater (1989), in their practical approach to literature in language teaching, promote literature as authentic material that deals with universal human concerns, and invites personal involvement. They add that the brilliant concision and strong imagery of poetry enable the learner to experience the power of language outside the straightjacket of more standard written structure and lexis. Poems often explore themes of universal concern and embody life experiences, and thus initiate strong response from the reader. There is also the initial advantage of length as many poems are appropriate to a single classroom lesson. Provided that learners are given help with the personal and linguistic resources they will need, they are expected to attain the fuller enjoyment of a poem that comes from a sense of sharing the poet"s created world and becoming, as reader, a new creator of meaning.

Widdowson (1989) also argues that poetry has characteristics as a use of language which make it especially well qualified to assist to develop in learners the ability to use language, to put linguistic forms to the service of meaning. He adds that in the interpretation of poetry, there is a necessary interdependence between the understanding of formal structure and the recognition of a communicative effect. Meaning is a function of a focus on form and an increased awareness of the subtleties of poetic representation inevitably entails an increased awareness of the signifying potential of grammar. Although, poetry and grammar, linguistic analysis and literary interpretation, have by tradition been seen as distinct polarities and in opposition, according to Widdowson (1989) however, they can be combined for mutual benefit, and can initiate practical pedagogy with a broader educational perspective.

According to Hess (2003) through its drama, intensity, and tightly controlled emotional context, a good poem is suitable for a close reading, with much language unfolding and, as a result much good language practice. In dealing with a poem in the classroom, she suggests a nine step technique that includes, trigger; vocabulary preview; bridge; listen, react, and share; language; picture; more language; meaning and spin-off and provides a description of each step and demonstrates how they should work to initiate the best output. Hess claims that she had applied the formula to any number of poems, and always found it enjoyable, linguistically rich, and communicatively satisfying.

Moreover, Maley and Duff (1989) point out that although, for many years now, literature, in particular poetry has not been regarded as "proper" material for foreign language learning, the rhythm and cadence of poetic language that we have had taste of during childhood, continues to flow as a deep undercurrent through our lives. The whole thrust of the structuralist approach tended to exclude literature, and the utilitarian favouritism towards the communicative approach deflected attention away from anything which did not seem to have a practical purpose. When literature is included in language programmes, the emphasis remains on the use of texts for commentary and analysis or merely for illustration. In the case of poetry, for teachers, it is simply an optional extra rather than an integral part of the language programme. However, Maley and Duff (1989:7) suggest:

Poetry offers a rich resource for input to language learning. As such it is at least as relevant as the more commonly accepted types of input (e.g. contrived dialogues, isolated texts for reading comprehension, simulations, etc.). So, it should be given at least equal weight.

They claim that the use of a poem as the centrepiece of a unit of material does not prevent the use of other types of language in relation to it. For example, they illustrate that the language used to agree and disagree about "meaning" in a poem will not be essentially different from the language of discussion central to any interactional activity. Therefore, if poetry is integrated with other forms of language, and thus demystified through a direct approach, students will come to an understanding of what is special about poetry as a mode of language use. And to the further understanding that it is no more "special" than any other forms of language (e.g. sports report, advertisements, labels, etc.).

Maley and Duff also consider the many advantages which poetry seems to offer. Poetry as a form of language use is universal among all human beings. The themes (e.g. love, death, nature, religious belief, despair, etc.) of poetry are common to all cultures, and the conventions (for example, rhythm, rhyme, metre, alliteration, repetition, etc.) governing the language of poetry are likewise familiar, which are readily recognisable to foreign language learners from their mother tongue experience.

Therefore, the only unfamiliarity would be the foreign language which they may not know, but will know the conventions. Although at first sight, poetry in the foreign language may appear impenetrable, however, the familiarity with the conventions of poetry in the students" mother tongue would make it more readily accessible to him or her. Moreover, the realisation that, though they may be relatively inexpert in the language, they can still appreciate (to a degree) what is thought to be a "difficult" use of language, would work as an added advantage. The opportunity to play with language also helps the learner learning it and poetry is per excellence the medium as all poets stretch the language by coining new words, creating new collocations, experimenting with sound, using old words in new ways, and so on. The ambiguity of a poem evokes individual interpretations which are not necessarily shared by all readers, thus opens up opportunity for discussion.

Moreover, poetry deals with important experiences and heightens the readers" perception not only of such experiences, but also of the seemingly trivial or unimportant ones. Poetry thus provides a content which will appeal to learners because they are able to respond to it in their own way, adding to the motivating factor in learning. The possibility of having multifarious interpretation will also let each individual student feel that he or she has a valid contribution to make while discussing a poem. The suggestive, colourful and associative quality of poems suggests that each learner"s personal interpretation has validity and because each person"s perception is different, it initiates an almost infinite fund of interactive discussion and creates the necessary atmosphere for a genuine exchange of ideas. The development of a personalised reaction to texts engaging the intellect as well as the feelings is a very important part of the language learning process.

Moreover, the memorability feature of a poem offers the natural ability to unconsciously absorb language that enables the learner to retrieve grammatical and lexical information he or she did not know they had. In language teaching, stress and rhythm are often taught through the imitation of model sentences. According to Brown (cited in Maley and Duff, 1989:11), rhythm "is not something extra; it is the guide to the structure of information in the spoken message", and therefore, even though poetry may not focus expressly on rhythm, it can help develop a sensitivity towards it. Moreover, some of the essential features of fluent speech, such as clarity of diction, phrasing, stress and rhythm, control and variation of pace etc. flow naturally from the reading of poetry aloud. Poems also offer a complete context in compact form and the meanings conveyed in poems are usually expressed very economically. In order to retrieve these meanings and talk about them, it is necessary to expand and extend the words on the page, thus, from a small language input a large and varied output can be generated.

However, there may still remain some doubts about the value and practicability of using poetry as a major element in language teaching because of the conception that "poetry" is equivalent to a special register which is characterised by archaisms, peculiar inversions, heightened vocabulary, and so on. Nevertheless, in the classroom, there is no need to choose poetry with these features, rather choose the ones which are closer to "normal" language. Moreover, modern poetry does not necessarily use special language features and choosing this kind of poetry minimises the problem of the language that is "too special". When the teacher comes to select poems he or she will need to take into account which poems are suited to the learners" interests, language and maturity levels. Therefore, as far as possible, the level of difficulty of the poem should approximate the level of competence of the learners. Learners should be offered access to poems through carefully chosen activities and tasks that are designed to help them appreciate the lyrical and melodic qualities of poetry as well as its metaphorical richness in order to facilitate comprehension.

McRae and Vethamani (1999) observe that the growth of strong local literatures in English has triggered a corresponding interest in incorporating such texts into language teaching materials. Vethamani (1996) argues that new literatures are unjustly overlooked in many teaching contexts, whereas their inclusion in the classroom can broaden students" perception of the use of English in wider cultural contexts, thus will continue to fuel interest in using literary texts for cross-cultural exploration. As such, literature lends itself well to investigating similarities and differences between self and others, and to an awareness and understanding of "the other" (Kramsch 1993).

Poetry: Realm of Intuited Truth

According to Kermode (1957: 128) poetry is "concerned with intuited truth, not with what is discursively explicable by the reason". This section of the article will try to expand the idea of "intuitive truth" and will demonstrate how a poem can be effectively used in the language classroom.

The imaginative space which poetry allows the reader is exactly in the realm of "intuited truth", and that is what gives the reader the widest range of intuitive possibilities. Many poems rich in language and imagery represent aspects of human experience in direct but intuitive and concise but rich terms. Although poetic diction and the concept of the poet as a kind of seer contribute to the distancing of poetry from day-to-day reality, in the "average" mind, nevertheless, there are texts that can be approached as a simple functional message. The poem titled "This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams is a fine example of use of such daily language. The poem can be presented in a message form and when it is done as presented below, it gives the reader a very simple every day message, may be written on a piece of scrap paper, left on the tea-table for the host to read.

"This is just to say I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me, they were delicious, so sweet and so cold."

A whole range of ideas will emerge if questions are set on the poem such as, where the message could be found, what its function might be, etc. The text, as presented above, is both a simple message and an open text: a note of apology, and a description of feelings of enjoyment. The text does not look like a poem, however, if it is now presented as it was originally written as presented below, the pertinent question arises whether it does suddenly change from being "not a poem" to being a poem.

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
The plums
That were in
The icebox
And which
You were probably
For breakfast
Forgive me
They were delicious
So sweet
And so cold

- William Carlos Williams

This original presentation will certainly promote further discussion. In order to keep the discussion going, the learners have to make use of their "experience" and "knowledge of the world". In this particular case, the intensity of longing and the after effect of the event when the reality takes the apologetic turn. Experience can also initiate questions like:

· Have you ever felt tempted before about eating/doing something? What did you do then?
· Do you think it is okay to behave this way?
· Was the person your friend whom you have done something similar before?
· What was his/her reaction to the incident before?
· What might be the reaction of the host after reading the note?
· Do you think you should replace the fruit next time you turn up? Why/why not?
· How would you have felt if someone had done the same to you?

Knowledge of the world may initiate questions such as:

· What is a "plum"? Is there any fruit that grows in your country, which resembles "plum"?
· Why do you have to apologise if you could eat the fruit without permission, when the host is your friend or someone very close to you?
· What age group do you think the person belongs to? Was it is very mature thing to eat the plums without permission?

There are also poems written in the form of dramatic monologue. We quite often talk to ourselves while alone. We talk about tit-bits of life and also sometimes create imaginary situations and build up imaginary conversations on those. There are many poems written in the form of a dramatic monologue which form a very rich resource for developing spoken skills, for example by many classic poets such as John Donne, Robert Browning, Samuel Coleridge, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and many others, from different times. These poems can be used to compare and contrast human nature and what goes on inside their mind at a given point of time or situation.

Poems that relate universal personal experiences and focus on memory and the passing of time are all obvious advantages and show that a theme can be a very good source on which to base a discussion. Thus a theme-based approach to poetry can help students to relate the situation to their own experience and talk about it in order to develop their interpretative and conversational skills. They can also be asked to imagine situations made complicated by chance and then initiate solutions through negotiation.

Moreover, songs can also be an impetus as resource materials within the category of poetry. According to McRae, (1991) songs belong to the very best motivational texts to be found. They contain a basic element of "story", or of a character clash, a point of view or an engagement with a social or other issue, all of which can be very useful in initiating interpretation and discussion. Universal subjects such as love, relationships, freedom, political repression, and minority views are of worldwide interest and can stimulate students" imagination and thoughts. The entertaining element of a popular song is an added advantage in motivating the learner in the classroom.

To add further, as pointed out by Halliday (1985), the distinction between speaking and writing is that they give two complementary perspectives - the synoptic and the dynamic. The written language presents a synoptic view of the world, defining it as "product rather than process", whereas the spoken language presents a dynamic view, defining "its universe primarily as process". Carter and Long (1991) add that it can often be useful to relate songs with this dynamic quality to other more static, more synoptic texts. Songs can also be used as part of a theme-based set of texts or can be related to visual stimuli, to advertisements or to other songs.


In many EFL contexts there are constraints/restraints on the teacher’s part in terms of availability of books, or the set curriculum they are to follow. If the texts are imposed and used year after year, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain one’s originality and enthusiasm, both on the parts of teachers and students. Goodwyn and Findlay (1999) point out that teachers teach best when they are enthused about a text/topic they are teaching. Nevertheless, it has already been observed that the available texts and materials including poems and songs suitable for the target group can be successfully used to achieve objectives if used properly and systematically.


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About the Author

Salma Ainy, PhD (University of Nottingham, UK) is associate professor (English Language and Literature) in the School of Social Science, Humanities and Language at Bangladesh Open University.