Poetry Reaches the Parts that Prose Can’t

by Alan C. McLean

Poetry in the ELT classroom. Is it a turn on or a no-no? Even in Britain, introducing poetry into the English classroom can be a tricky business. There can be resistance to subject matter and odd language. Then there is the idea that poetry is somehow soppy. In the ELT classroom, however, there are additional problems – some cultural, some linguistic – that have to be reckoned with.

Given these difficulties, is poetry worth the effort? What can a good poem offer the language learner that a good newspaper article or authentic dialogue can’t?

The answer has to do with things such as richness of meaning, diversity and ambiguity. In ELT textbooks students are usually presented with oral and written texts whose meaning can be fairly confidently ascertained: these texts have a meaning and you, the learner, can discover it. Poetry is different. The reader is a much more active participant in working out the meaning – or rather the range of meanings – of the text. The reader brings his or her own experience to the poem. The idea that the meaning of a text can vary according to the person reading it, will be a new and refreshing one for many students.

A well-chosen poem encourages teachers to ask questions such as, What do you think this means?. When students realise that “I’m not sure” is an acceptable answer to such questions, a whole new way of thinking about meaning is opened up.

So using poems in class encourages a diversity of views and a healthy debate about meaning. What else? Well, good poems deal with issues and concerns that are important to studentsgrowing up, love and loss, the animal world and our relationship to it, perhaps even (sadly) war and peace.

The key phrase here is well-chosen. You’ve got to find poems that are at the right level for your students, both linguistically and in terms of content. This isn’t easy. On the other hand, there’s no point in feeding students an unrelieved diet of whimsy.

There are poems written specifically for children, many of them witty and original, and good for a quick laugh. But if you stick to poems that are a kind of extended joke, you’re selling poetry short: it can offer so much more than that. On the other hand, of course, a premature introduction to classic or difficult poems can turn students off poetry for life.

Robin Williams as Professor Keating in Dead Poets Society © 1989 Touchstone Pictures

I’ve recently been making a selection of poems to go with an intermediate coursebook designed for Arab world learners. I had a number of criteria in mind when making my choice. First, they had to be worthwhile poems – not necessarily classics, but well-written and with some kind of point to them. I wanted poems that could stimulate thought and discussion. They should also complement some of the themes treated in the course itself.

Linguistically the poems couldn’t be too difficult. So no Wallace Stevens or John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins. I stuck mainly to poems written in the last century: getting ELT students to cope with thou and hath seemed unnecessarily cruel. Bearing in mind the cultural background of the course’s target audience, topics such as sexual love and religion were out.

I also wanted the poems to be varied in terms of authorship – male and female poets, American and Commonwealth poets, as well as those from the British Isles. A pretty tall order, you may think. Well, here’s an example of a poem that seemed to meet these criteria, by the West Indian poet Grace Nichols.

Like A Beacon
In London
every now and then
I get this craving
for my mother's food
I leave art galleries
in search of plantains
saltfish / sweet potatoes
I need this link
I need this touch
of home
swinging my bag
like a beacon
against the cold

In introducing this poem, you could ask students to imagine they were living in a foreign country. What kind of food from home would they miss? Is there a special dish that would particularly remind them of home? When students read the poem, you could ask them to say where the poet is now. Is London her home? What food reminds her of home? Who cooks that food? You could also focus on the title of the poem. What do students associate with the word beacon? Do a quick brainstorming session. Expect to get words such as bright, light, warmth, illumination. How does the food in her bag act like a beacon? It’s a beacon against the cold: is she only talking about the weather here? And so on.

Another criterion that may be applied to poems you choose for the classroom use is the extent to which they inspire students to produce creative writing of their own. Some poems make us see a familiar object with fresh eyes, and could encourage students to write in a similar way. I’ve found an excellent poem about a blind boy describing colours in terms of senses other than sight. Asking students questions such as, What does red smell like, taste like, sound like? can produce some startlingly original responses even from students whose grasp of English is quite limited.

It is often surprising how students who have struggled through coursebook material can be sparked into producing works of originality and freshness by reading a poem that strikes a chord with them.

Poetry, then, need not be daunting or frightening. Instead it can release springs of creativity that more conventional ELT texts are incapable of doing. It can, to adapt Grace Nichols’ image, be like a beacon of light in the ELT classroom.

Alan C. McLean is a British-based ELT writer. This article first appeared
in the Learning English supplement of the Guardian Weekly.

Also read Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important

Miss Congeniality (2000)


Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock), an FBI agent, is asked by fellow agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) to prevent the bombing of the Miss United States beauty pageant. So she must undergo a beauty makeover, led by Victor Melling (Michael Caine), to become a contestant.

Η Γκρέισι Χαρτ (Σάντρα Μπούλοκ), πράκτορας του FBI, καλείται από τον Έρικ Μάθιους (Μπέντζαμιν Μπρατ) να εμποδίσει την βομβιστική επίθεση στα καλλιστεία Μις Ηνωμένες Πολιτείες. Μόνο που θα πρέπει να υποστεί μία δραματική αλλαγή εμφάνισης από τον Βίκτορ Μέλινγκ (Μάικλ Κέιν) για να συμμετάσχει.

” I am in a dress, I have gel in my hair, I haven’t slept all night, I’m starved, and I’m armed! Don’t *mess* with me!”      © 2000 Castle Rock Entertainment and Village Roadshow Pictures


Although the movie embodies everything a feminist loves to hate – objectification of women, the ugly duckling turned regal swan-   it also gives an empowering message for women when, for example, Gracie shows self-defense moves. Almost a decade before Sandra Bullock got acknowledged for her dramatic performances, this movie proves she is also a comedienne.

Παρόλο που η ταινία ενσωματώνει όλα εκείνα που μία φεμινίστρια αγαπάει να μισεί (καλλιστεία που αντιμετωπίζουν την γυναίκα ως αντικείμενο, το ασχημόπαπο που έγινε κύκνος), καταφέρνει να δώσει μήνυμα γυναικείας χειραφέτησης όταν η Γκρέισι δείχνει κινήσεις αυτοάμυνας. Περίπου μία δεκαετία πριν η Σάντρα Μπούλοκ αναγνωριστεί για τις δραματικές ερμηνείες της, αυτή η ταινία αναδεικνύει και το κωμικό της ταλέντο.

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt

Written by: Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford & Caryn Lucas

Directed by: Donald Petrie

Why Listening is Difficult

by C. N. Grivas

For a student of English, listening is difficult for two main reasons. The first is connected with the difficulty anyone –even a native speaker– might have with listening comprehension exercises as they are often presented in teaching books. To understand this we need to consider what happens in real life when we listen to someone. The second reason is based on the fact that students are trying to listen to a foreign language. To examine this second issue closely we need to think about problems that foreigners have when listening to English.

What listening involves

If we examine what is involved in the task of listening in real life, we may be better able to understand what is often difficult about some listening comprehension tasks. In our everyday lives, we often listen to things which we cannot (or do not) reply to directly: recorded messages, TV or radio programmes, music, someone giving a lecture or making a speech, etc. In other situations we take part in some sort of exchange: making arrangements, giving an interview, chatting, getting advice (e.g. from a doctor), etc. These situations are quite varied but they generally have some things in common.

First, we almost always have a basic idea of what we are going to hear. We have certain expectations and the facility to predict what we are about to hear. For example, we turn on the radio at a certain time to listen to the weather forecast. We listen for key words and phrases and we have an idea about what kind of vocabulary will be used. It is very unusual to begin listening to something without knowing what the subject will be, and it would take a native speaker some time to work out what the conversation is about; it is far harder for a student of English. That is why pre-listening tasks are important.

Secondly, we can usually see the speaker. Of course, this is not true for (all) phone conversations, but in most other situations we actually watch the speaker. It helps us to understand what is being communicated when we can see the interlocutor’s mouth move, the facial expressions and the gestures he or she makes. Students who are played a recording do not have this visual assistance.

Thirdly, in most conversations there is a great deal of repetition. Speakers in real life conversations tend to use fragments, instead of full sentences, as they are often interrupted and have to start again. We often say something in two or more different ways, usually to give emphasis. Someone describing a house might say:

Oh yes….well….it was really big, you know…
      I mean, a huge big place…
You just couldn’t believe the size…. massive….

If the person listening to this happens to miss the first adjective big, he or she can still easily understand what is meant by the repetition of big and the use of synonyms: huge and massive. Fortunately, every recording is played twice for students to get what they missed the first time around.

Finally, a characteristic of listening in real life is that we usually respond to what is being said, even if that means simply nodding or murmuring Hmm. This shows the speaker that his or her words are being understood, but it also helps the listener, because the speaker slows down when it appears that the listener isn’t following. Students listening to a CD recording don’t have this help either.

Listening as a foreigner

Foreign students of English encounter difficulties of varying degree when faced with the listening comprehension exercises. To begin with, some sounds in English do not exist in other languages, which makes it hard to produce them when speaking and of course to hear them. For instance, in Greek there is an /s/ sound, similar to the English /s/, but the English voiceless /ʃ/ doesn’t exist. Greek students who hear the word “shock” may be convinced that they have heard the word “sock“. (An interesting corollary to this is that students frequently produce written words with mistakes, such as “I was socked“). English vowel sounds, especially diphthongs like wait, and consonant like /sks/ in risks, are also hard to produce and hear accurately.

Furthermore, English intonation and stress can create immense problems for foreign listeners. The habit of stressing one syllable in a word and swallowing the others adds to the difficulty of comprehending a listening task. Intonation is also used to convey the speaker’s feelings, such as anger, sarcasm, disappointment, enthusiasm, but the foreign student may not pick up on the emotional cues.

Moreover, some students of a second language may develop the habit of switching off when an unknown word is encountered. The student believes I can’t understand that word, so I won’t be able to understand the rest either. Native speakers continue to listen, perhaps remembering the unfamiliar word so that they can ask its meaning later, but more often deducing the meaning of the word from context.

Finally, foreign students often fail to predict what is likely to come next, while native speakers do so naturally. Some of this ability may be connected with knowledge of idioms, colloquial expressions and slang, so that when a speaker says: And of course, while the cat’s away…. the native speaker knows what comes next, ...the mice will play. (an account of someone having fun while authority is absent).

However, a great deal of the skill of prediction as well as other listening skills can be taught, leading to the elimination of the difficulties outlined above. Besides, when difficulties are perceived as challenges, the student’s performance is bound to improve. There is no difficulty that attentive listening cannot overcome.

Sur un Arbre Perché/Perched on a Tree (1971)


Henri Roubier (Louis de Funès), a French politician, picks up a young hitchhiker (Olivier De Funès) who in turn invites Mrs Muller (Geraldine Chaplin), whose car broke down, to join them. When Henri’s car runs off the road and over a cliff, they land on the top of a tree above the sea.

Ο Ανρί Ρουμπιέ (Λουί ντε Φινές), Γάλλος πολιτικός, είναι καθ’οδόν για ένα ραντεβού όταν ένας νεαρός (Ολιβιέ Ντε Φινές) κάνει ωτοστόπ. Ο νεαρός προσκαλεί την κυρία Muller (Τζέραλντιν Τσάπλιν), της οποίας το αμάξι χάλασε, να επιβιβαστεί κι εκείνη. Το αμάξι του Ανρί βγαίνει από τον δρόμο, πέφτει στον γκρεμό αλλά σταματά την πτώση ένα δέντρο πάνω από την θάλασσα.

Louis de Funés, Geraldine Chaplin and Olivier De Funés.

Louis de Funès, Geraldine Chaplin and Olivier De Funès © 1971 Lira Films


Given the comic talent of Louis de Funès, I expected a comedy. But, it was a drama with few comic reliefs (black comedy?). And how could it be otherwise when three people are in a dire situation waiting to be rescued or die. Positive surprise the resourceful script with lots of action, despite the confined space.

Με δεδομένο το κωμικό ταλέντο του Λουί ντε Φινές και τον παραπλανητικό ελληνικό τίτλο “Ο Βασιλιάς της Τρέλας”, περίμενα μία κωμωδία. Αλλά ήταν δράμα με λίγες κωμικές πινελιές (μαύρη κωμωδία;). Και πώς θα μπορούσε να είναι διαφορετικά αφού τρεις άγνωστοι περιμένουν να σωθούν ή να πεθάνουν. Ευχάριστη έκπληξη το ευρηματικό σενάριο με μπόλικη δράση παρά τον περιορισμένο χώρο.

Starring: Louis de Funès, Geraldine Chaplin, Olivier De Funès

Written by: Pierre Roustang, Serge Korber and Jean Halain (dialogue)

Directed by: Serge Korber

Teaching Young Learners

by Olga Leondaris

Teaching the very young could be considered as a special art because of a number of sensitive issues that arise with young children. It is important to highlight some of these issues for we are, after all, laying the foundations for future language development. Moreover, how we teach may determine an attitude or a language learning style that could affect a child’s performance in language classes for a number of years.

The most obvious point to make about child learners is as language learners, they have clearly defined qualities and needs that distinguish them from their older and more mature counterparts.

Teaching programmes have to respect these qualities and needs and should reflect this adult-child distinction in very direct ways. What are some of these special qualities?

  • Children are programmed to learn.
  • They are naturally enthusiastic about learning.
  • They lack inhibitions.

Programmed to learn

Children appear to be biologically programmed for language in a way that has so far failed to be entirely understood. They acquire basic structures and an impressive word store for their first language (L1) in the first three years of their life almost effortlessly, without any formal instruction. Mother tongue learning is a natural ongoing process.

Later at school, language skills are taught which enhance and develop a complex language system that is already intact. For the next ten to twelve years, schooling and life experiences will continue to develop these linguistic skills, expanding resources to allow for more complexity of expression.

What about the second language (L2)? Our young learner is already experiencing formal instruction. Also, there is insufficient if any direct exposure to the target second language so as to rely purely on acquisition. The first language (L1) experience appears to be non-transferable unless we are dealing with bi- or multi-linguals.

However, course designers often overlook the importance of the ongoing capacity for natural acquisition. Instead, teaching methods typically rely on direct formal language instruction featuring explicit grammar teaching and many of the practice activities are often inappropriate for this age group. The burden of coping with an entire second language system and all its components (structure, vocabulary, sound and script system) against the background of an often demanding Greek school programme, can be overwhelming.

We need to think about what we as course writers and teachers can do to alleviate this burden. One way to help would be to provide conditions in the foreign language classroom which promote as much natural learning as possible. By stimulating interest and engaging children in real and relevant life tasks, we can activate this dynamic potential for acquisition.

Enthusiastic about learning

Involvement and commitment to learning presupposes interesting and relevant material and of course good teaching methods. The materials have to be appropriate to this age group and well-pitched in terms of level. Important prerequisites are: step by step progression, attractive and clear presentation, interesting contexts, people and places children can relate to, flavoured with the all-time favourite ingredients of adventure, humour, fun, songs, games, etc.

Children are easily intimidated by theoretical issues about language. Teachers should opt for as many indirect teaching methods as possible, encouraging participation and involvement rather than focusing on analytical treatment of language items which is guaranteed to strip pupils of their innate enthusiasm.

No Inhibitions

The spontaneous and natural responses that characterise children bring an added advantage to the language class. Children, unlike their adult counterparts, do not hold back in learning situations, are not afraid to take risks with language and are rarely inhibited when expressing themselves physically or verbally.

As well as special qualities, young learners have special needs in these teaching situations. Some special needs include:

  • a need for well defined routines and clear teaching models
  • a need for physical involvement and a hands-on approach to learning
  • affective needs

Well defined routines

Both materials as well as classroom routines and procedures ought to be well defined at this early stage of the young learners’ development. This should not be misinterpreted as prescribing rigid and inflexible teaching styles. We often take certain things for granted and fail to instruct properly. Children like to know, for example, where to write things, how to organize themselves and their work.

Teachers can help by guiding, demonstrating, illustrating and checking that instructions have been understood at the beginning of each activity. Coursebooks in turn, help by clearly signposting activities for students. Also tools to help the young child learn how to organize his/her notes, e.g. picture dictionaries, can be very useful.

Physical involvement

It is common knowledge that children learn best when doing things in class. For this age group a hands-on approach to learning is very important. Cutting and pasting, colouring in and making things are indispensible activities.

If we confine our pupils to a desk for an entire lesson, we subject them to the worst possible punishment. Coursebooks should ideally provide activities that encourage movement and physical involvement. Teachers can think of additional ways to provide extra opportunities e.g. inviting pupils to the board, setting up group activities, mimes, short performances, etc.

Affective factors

Children should feel good about what they are doing. Ideally learning should be taking place in a non-threatening environment where they feel comfortable, capable and also ‘liked’ by their teacher and peers.

An ideal coursebook will reflect the special qualities as well as the needs of young learners. Relevant, attractive and correctly-pitched input which appeals to the very young will create the potential for natural language acquisition in the foreign language class. Book themes, characters and activities should be varied and appropriate for the age group and presented clearly in a bold, appealing manner in order to stimulate and sustain interest and involvement.

For their part, teachers will continue to be responsible for executing lessons, assisted by guidelines in teachers’ books on how to exploit the potential of lesson material. Additional demands for varying the pace, providing clear instructions, assigning manageable tasks etc. are in line with keeping a clear view of the uniqueness of this young learner.

Olga Leondaris, teacher, course writer, B.A. & H. Dip. Ed. (Wits), RSA 
Diploma TESL, Msc English Teaching (Aston)

The Farmer’s Wife (1928)


Farmer Sweetland (Jameson Thomas), a middle-aged widower, decides to remarry. So he turns to his housekeeper Minta (Lillian Hall-Davis), who is secretly in love with him, to make out a list of eligible brides just to find out that the ideal candidate was next to him all this time.

Ο αγρότης Sweetland (Jameson Thomas), ένας μεσήλικος χήρος, αποφασίζει να ξαναπαντρευτεί. Στρέφεται στην οικονόμο του Minta (Lillian Hall-Davis), η οποία είναι κρυφά ερωτευμένη μαζί του, για βοήθεια στην αναζήτηση νύφης όταν διαπιστώνει πως η ιδανική ήταν ήδη δίπλα του.

Lillian Hall-Davis and Jameson Thomas

Lillian Hall-Davis and Jameson Thomas © 1928 British International Pictures


For a person who has been so used to talkies, watching a silent movie is not very tempting. But this one was not just any silent movie. It is the only romantic comedy directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Thanks to the British Film Institute which in 2010 undertook the restoration of his nine surviving silent movies, they are now added to Unesco’s UK Memory of the World.

Για κάποιον που έχει συνηθίσει στις ομιλούμενες ταινίες, οι ταινίες του βωβού κινηματογράφου είναι λιγότερο ενδιαφέρουσες. Αλλά αυτή πρόκειται για την μοναδική ρομαντική κωμωδία που σκηνοθέτησε ο Άλφρεντ Χίτσκοκ. Χάρις στο Βρετανικό Ινστιτούτο Κινηματογράφου το οποίο αποκατέστησε τις εννέα διασωθέντες βωβές ταινίες του τo 2010, αποτελούν πλέον μέρος της λίστας της Unesco για την παγκόσμια πολιτιστική κληρονομιά.

Starring: Jameson Thomas, Lillian Hall-Davis

Written by: Eden Phillpotts (play), Eliot Stannard (adaptation)

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

Idiom: Sands of Time

e.g. If you want to leave footprints in the sands of time, don’t drag your feet.

Meaning: the accumulated tiny amounts of time.

Origin: It relates the passage of time to the sand in an hourglass and it is usually found in the expression the sands of time are running out, to say that there is not much time left to do something, unless you take the chance now. It was first used in the poem A Psalm of Life (1838) written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Lives of great men all remind us 
We can make our lives sublime, 
And, departing, leave behind us 
Footprints on the sands of time

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)


Samuel J.Bicke (Sean Penn) seems to live an ordinary life working as a salesman, having two daughters with ex-wife Marie (Naomi Watts) and close buddy, Bonny (Don Cheadle). But he suffers a lot; so much to plot to kill Richard Nixon in 1974. The film is based on real life events.

Ο Samuel J. Bicke (Σον Πεν) φαίνεται συνηθισμένος άνθρωπος που δουλεύει ως πωλητής, έχει δύο κόρες με την πρώην σύζυγό του Μαρί (Ναόμι Γουότς) και τον κολλητό φίλο Μπόνι (Ντον Τσιντλ). Όμως υποφέρει πολύ, τόσο πολύ που σχεδιάζει να σκοτώσει τον Αμερικανό Πρόεδρο Ρίτσαρντ Νίξον το 1974. Βασίζεται σε αληθινά γεγονότα.

New Line Cinema

Sean Penn © 2004 Anhelo Productions and New Line Cinema


One would expect a political thriller, but it is a psychological drama. Sam, who has low self-esteem and poor social skills, chooses to blame others for life’s setbacks. Sean Penn’s voice over and his brilliant performance help us get into Sam’s head. To Sam’s mind, Nixon was responsible for his problems.

Κι ενώ κάποιος θα περίμενε ένα πολιτικό θρίλερ, πρόκειται για ψυχολογικό δράμα. Ο Σαμ, που έχει χαμηλή αυτοεκτίμηση και μειωμένες κοινωνικές δεξιότητες, επιλέγει να κατηγορεί άλλους για τις αναποδιές της ζωής. Το voice over και η εξαιρετική ερμηνεία του Σον Πεν βοηθούν να καταλάβουμε τον Σαμ. Στο μυαλό του, ο Νίξον είναι υπεύθυνος για τα προβλήματά του.

Starring: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle

Written by: Kevin Kennedy, Niels Mueller

Directed by: Niels Mueller