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 students – growing 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.
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
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
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