Why should English language learners read poetry?

Poetry. Many people–even teachers of literature–cringe a little (or a lot!) at the very word.

More than that, there is a perception that it is more useful for English learners — whether ESL or TEFL or TESL — to read mostly informational texts and learn to write practical things like emails and resumes. With so much English to learn, why spend time on something as useless as poetry?

Poetry brings out the meanings behind the words. Poems aren’t meant to be read literally (which may be why so many people feel they don’t “get” poetry). A poem can be taken in like a painting, like music. Reading poetry as an experience of the sound of language and image, felt more in the body than the mind, connects English learners with a deep understanding that moves beyond the limits of their current English comprehension level.

Language Beyond Words. Poet Archibald MacLeish writes in “Ars Poetica” that “A poem should be wordless / As a flight of birds.” Can you feel what that means? The flight of birds one can picture when reading a poem is more important than the words that point to it. There is an understanding that is wordless, and that understanding is where English learners can connect and feel that there is more to language than words on a page.

This “wordless,” deeper meaning is true in everyday communication, too. We read tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, situation; in fact, often we’re reading those cues more than listening to what’s said. Think of the difference between, “You’re my best friend,” said lovingly with a smile and “You’re my best friend,” said with anger, betrayal. It’s freeing for the language learner to realize that one doesn’t have to speak and understand every word perfectly to pick up on what is unspoken. There is much more to understanding, such as cultural context, to get the humor of a joke. Poetry and literature can immerse a reader in the cultural knowledge necessary for that deeper understanding.

Fewer Words! Let’s be honest: There are simply fewer words to deal with in a poem, and that makes poetry much more approachable to an English learner than a big chunk of tightly packed prose. There are poems I teach that have two lines, or four — and that spark rich discussion in just a few lines, which brings me to my next point…

Word Choice, Sound, Shades of Meaning. Because a poem contains so few words, every word counts. As one teacher of mine described it, a poem is “language working overtime.” A poem contains so many opportunities to talk about the shades of meaning in a word — far more than in an article meant to communicate information.

For example, in Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” (one of my absolute favorites to teach), the speaker asks “What happens to a dream deferred” (deferred means to or put off, wait to a later time). One of the lines asks, “Does it stink like rotten meat?” What are some other possibilities for the word “stink,” for example? Why would Hughes use “stink” and not “smell” or “give off odor”? Well, first, the sound of stink versus smell; stink is harsh! Smell sounds almost pretty with the “ll” sound. Also, the rhythm: Hughes needs one word there, where we kind of stop for a minute on that harsh word “stink.” A phrase like “give off odor” would sound too nice, too formal, and clunky in the rhythm of the poem. It wouldn’t have the power of that one, harsh-sounding syllable. “Stink” conveys the disgust and anger in that moment in the poem.

See what I mean? What valuable conversations to have about the intricacies of language — the shades of meaning of words, the sound and rhythm of English — while also having an engaged discussion about the poet and the poem’s human experience, in this case, how it feels to not be able to acheive a dream, about racism. These discussions about one word or one piece of background information can be so much more impactful than pages of news.

Wealth of Speaking, Reading, Listening, Writing Activities. There are so many possibilities for poems in a classroom. Students can read aloud and work on their pronunciation and speaking delivery, do activities exploring word choice and sound, try their hand at writing their own poems. Poets play with language, and what better way to teach someone a language than inviting them into it to play, to sculpt their own poem?

Final Thoughts. Poetry is feared because often teachers themselves don’t have great experiences with it or don’t feel comfortable teaching it. But if we, as teachers, ourselves wade into poetry and let ourselves also explore the questions it raises (why would he use that word?) without having to know the answer to tell students, if we could realize there isn’t one answer, we can bring this valuable form of language into the classroom and let students connect with the culture, history, and human experience that poems carry.

Poetry is not reserved for the academic, native-speaker, or privileged honors student. In fact, poetry is often most powerful in places where the least advantaged people of a society treasure it as a form to speak truth against dictators and the established power structure. Learning language is part of stepping outside of one’s nation, culture, and native experience into another. Perhaps nowhere else can language learners better connect with people who have done the same, with poets who sing of the journey.


I created ELLiterature to help make poetry and literature accessible — especially to English language learners. Read more about ELLiterature and about me.

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  • coming soon … book club! Stay tuned for the first (poetry!) book club selection in September 2020.

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