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Reading Poetry (With Your Whole Self)

Often, when we read poetry, we set ourselves up for failure. We read with our minds — the intellect — scanning the words, already analyzing. “I don’t get it!” the intellect whines.

But poetry is not akin to a news story or encyclopedic article, and we don’t “get it” just by reading on an intellectual level. Poetry is art, more like a painting, a sculpture. When you take in art or even something beautiful like a sunset, you stand back and let it wash over your senses; you enjoy it. Poetry requires the same sort of whole-self sensing not only to be enjoyable, but to be understood.

I’m a poet myself, and I can say that at least this poet writes with her whole self. I feel poetry, listen to the sounds of it. I often don’t understand what I’m writing but just go with what feels right. When I’m writing it, often mulling over a line or idea on a walk or while cooking or taking a shower, I’m mostly listening. Many times I’m overcome with the urge to write, and I set down a stream of words that I can’t quite claim as “mine.” As Leonard Cohen has famously said, “If I knew where the great songs came from, I’d go there more often.” My most true poems come from that mysterious realm. And even when I have the raw words on paper, most of the time there’s a line that I hear, like a melody that gets stuck in your head, that prompts the poem to take shape. Then, somehow, line by line the poem starts to form.

So you’ll notice — I’m giving a lot of agency to the poem as almost writing itself, to the mystery working. It’s not just “me,” or the “me” of my intellect that’s writing, though it is very much involved, especially in the later stages of writing, the polishing and firming up. It was this experience as a poet that made me rethink how I was teaching poetry. The teaching methods I learned — based on analysis and critical thinking, the methods used in most any classrooms I’ve been in (and I’ve been in a lot of classrooms) — just didn’t seem to capture poetry’s art, the resonance of mind, heart, and body that I feel when I’m writing. And so many students struggled with and didn’t enjoy poetry when they knew they’d have to answer a multiple choice question on the “correct” interpretation of a metaphor. Teaching them to find and talk about metaphors just seemed empty.

So the question became: How can I teach people to read poetry and tune into all of the ways it works and communicates, not just by annotating its black and white words? I began teaching practices of listening, absorbing, noticing, practices more characteristic of mindfulness or meditation than analysis. I teach students to read and read again and read aloud again and listen and sit with a poem, hearing and sensing until something resonates. I hope students respond not only to what thoughts enter their minds but what sensations enter their whole selves. I hope they can wade into the mystery of meaning the poem evokes for them, more in the dream realm than the analytical one.

This whole-self approach is especially beneficial to English language learners. In poetry, as opposed to other texts, so much meaning — maybe even most meaning — is communicated through sound and rhythm. I will never forget my years attending the International Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicaragua. Poets from around the world would read their poems in their native language first, and then another reader would read the translated poem in Spanish (my second langauge). So I’d sit there listening to the sounds and the inflections and rhythms of Swedish or Polish or Japanese — and then vaguely understand some words of the Spanish translation. But it was an incredible experience: With this hazy understanding of the actual words, I could still feel so much of what the poem was when I could only listen to its sounds. It was sort of like watching a conversation and only understanding the body langauge, watching facial expressions, hearing the tone. I thought, maybe I can actually appreciate the sound of this poem more than a native speaker of the langauge, knowing none of the dictionary meaning of its words. There is so much value for language learners realizing, as they fret over how many words they don’t know or thinking they can’t understand until they look up each word in the dictionary, how much they can understand through listening and watching and sensing all the other ways communication takes place. There is so much more to understanding language, communication, and each other, than just through our words.

And then we always come back to the problem of the classroom, where we must quiz and test and evaluate on the level of words and intellect-only understanding. Well, there are always ways to cope with those realities, but, I’ve realized, just because I’m teaching within a system and culture that has chosen to value those metrics doesn’t mean that I can’t teach the whole of what this art form is. Bringing in a more complete reading of poetry into the classroom will only help students better analyze and articulate their understanding through the intellect, or learn new vocabulary. Ultimately, I’m teaching poetry because I hope people read poetry as whole people, in their lives, long after they leave the classroom. I won’t let them miss the opportunity to really see what it can offer, to find connections to this art that will resonate throughout a lifetime.


I’ve developed an online course: How to Read Poetry (With Your Whole Self) and a professional development session for teachers who want to introduce the mind – heart – body approach to poetry in their classrooms. I started ELLiterature to help make literature accessible to English learners and to all readers. Please check it out and feel free to contact me to continue the conversation!

3 Poetry Books for English Language Learners

*This is an updated re-post in honor of the Septebmer 2020 launch of the English Learning Book Club (on Instagram)!

As a teacher, I struggled to find collections of poetry I could bring in for ESL, ELL, TEFL learners. I wanted rich language and meaningful issues to discuss. [Abridged texts or “See Spot Run” seemed to lack both]. But I also needed poems that were accessible for English learners — in vocabulary and length in particular.*

Here are three contemporary poetry collections — in current language, not Shakespeare’s, as much as I love him! I think you’ll enjoy these, whether you’re a teacher looking for classroom materials or a student wanting to read something that moves you.


Within US: Purchase on Bookshop / Or find on Amazon.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967). I highly recommend this particular collection of Hughes’s work; it contains all of his poems I would want to read or teach. Hughes constructs vivid images and writes with distinctive rhythm and sound (some of his work is influenced by jazz). Not only do these qualities of language make Hughes’s work ideal for learners, but his work also sparks valuable conversations about history and the African American experience. Recommended for upper middle school through adults.

Read more and see a free example lesson of “Harlem.” More Hughes lessons to come!

Within US: Purchase on Bookshop / Or find on Amazon.

Naomi Shihab Nye (1952- ). Words Under the Words is a packed collection of most of my favorites of Nye’s poems, but she has many other books that would be ideal for students, including one specifically for young girls. Born to a Palestinian father and American mother, Nye addresses her heritage and her travels in the world, which would appeal to cross-cultural readers of English. But more than that, Nye explores big issues of humanity–kindness, grief, childhood–through relatable images and language, which makes these concepts tangible and can spark meaningful conversations. Recommended for upper middle school through adults.

Read a poem from this book and see a free lesson on “Making a Fist.”

Within US: Purchase on Bookshop / Or find on Amazon.

Claudia Rankine (1963- ). Citizen: An American Lyric is a beautiful and complex work of prose poetry and essays that explores structural, hard-to-detect racism and prejudice in the United States today. Told in many short scenes, the poems use “you” to put readers in the place of those experiencing everyday encounters of racism, encouraging connection and empathy. These pieces and their focused, short episodes could be touchstones for TEFL and ESL readers learning about current American cultural and social issues. Recommended for upper high school through adults.

Check back soon to see an excerpt from Citizen and lesson ideas.


*EnglishLearnerLiterature is my solution to the challenge I and other teachers and students have in finding quality, accessible literature for English learners. It’s, first, a collection of useable ELL or TEFL poetry, short stories, and nonfiction. I’ve also developed free teacher resources and student lessons that go step-by-step through the literature.

*NEW: I’m now offering online tutoring (especially on reading and writing poetry and stories!) and teacher coaching. Coming in September: English Learning Book Club!


*ELLiterature is a Bookshop (which supports independent bookstores within the US!) and Amazon Affiliate and receives a small percentage of your purchase using the above icons or links. Your support helps sustain the work of providing resources to English learners and teachers!

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.

Read more on ELLiterature!

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

Ernest Hemingway – Every Word Tells

This short passage (Chapter VII from In Our Time) packed full of poetic prose is a great first lesson on close reading, I have never taught a group who didn’t connect with this powerful block of words, or who were not moved by both the will to survive and the pointlessness of life contained in these lines — as well as the power and complexity that so few words can evoke.

*click to purchase on Amazon

These short interludes, neat little blocks of prose, interspersed throughout the longer short stories are so powerful. They’re a great example of William Strunk’s famous phrase when describing the importance of omitting needless words: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Let’s start with just the first sentence. Read it a couple of times. Underline all the details you can find about setting, character, and the conflict of the story just in the first sentence. Don’t read ahead!

While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here.

What details did you find about setting?

  • Fossalta (Where do you think that is, Italy?)
  • a trench
  • there’s a “bombardment” – a war?

Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy during World War I. What do you know about WWI and trench warfare?

Ernest Hemingway, September 1918, Milan, Italy
Credit: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston. WikiCommons.

You could do a bit of background research if you’d like. One important aspect for this piece is how futile, or worthless and hopeless, soldiers felt; they went to war expecting honor and glory, and they spent their days sitting in trenches waiting to attack or be attacked, with very little movement in contrast with intense moments of mass death and violence. Later in the war, the introduction of poison gases made the deaths they witnessed nearly unspeakable.

  • Who are the characters we see already in this first sentence? What do we know about them?

READ MORE …


*ELLiterature participates in the Amazon Affiliate program. Any purchases you make using these links will contribute a small percentage to this site’s work. Thanks for your support.

See more poetry and fiction lessons on ELLiterature!

Connecting English Learners with Books That Inspire

Here is a thought-provoking piece by Mayra Linares who shares her experience as an English learner feeling disconnected from characters who didn’t look like her or speak her language.

When a teacher handed her a biography on Diego Rivera, she says “it changed [her] relationship with books forever,” prompting her to read because she enjoyed it and not just because it was an assignment.

Linares also cites research showing that reading comprehension is improved when learners connect with their reading (not surprising!). Don’t we all remember and understand material better when we’re connected to it?

Not that learners can’t connect with characters who don’t look like them: Finding common and starkly differing experiences in the lives of literary characters — in both real and imagined worlds — is one of the invaluable gifts of literature and one of the most inspiring reasons to read.

I’ve taught Chinese teenaged students who resonated deeply with Edna Pontellier’s stifling wife-and-mother role in The Awakening. I’ve had students of many backgrounds whose most impactful novel was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which portrays colonialism in Nigeria in the late 19th century. It’s hard to predict sometimes why students connect with certain pieces and not others, and we certainly shouldn’t stereotype or pigeonhole students into identities we place on them.

The point is that students can more likely find literature that moves them (thus strengthening their reading comprehension and enjoyment of reading) when teachers give them “a large room of literary characters to connect with” (says Candis Grover at ReadyRosie, quoted by Linares). If educators can strive to offer a wide range of texts, authors, characters, contexts, and time periods in the curriculum (and enlarge our own banks of resources and networks so that we can help find connections for particular students) learners are more likely to find affinities in literary characters as well as be captivated by a completely different experiences, feeling the resonance of common humanity.

You’ll find a leaning toward contemporary literature on this site because most school curricula already include a heavy emphasis on “classic” literature. You’ll (hopefully) find a diversity of authors and backgrounds, again, in an attempt to offer as wide a room of literary characters as I can. I always welcome suggestions and enjoy hearing about your successes as a learner or as a teacher, as I’m only one person, and together we can hopefully create a wide network of resources!

  • Below are two more suggestions from author Gary Soto. Stay tuned for lessons on his poems or short stories!
A native of California, Gary Soto was born to Mexican-American parents. Themes of childhood and borders weave throughout his poetry and short stories.
Soto has also written several short story collections, including many for young readers.

ELLiterature participates in the Amazon Affiliate program. Any purchases you make using the above links and icons contributes a small percentage to this site. Thank you for your support.


ELLiterature was created to connect students and teachers with quality, original, and accessible texts for English language learners. Visit to see the collection of poems, short stories, and creative writing lessons, and please reach out with any lesson requests, ideas, collaborations, or questions!

Prose Poem Lesson: “Hairs” by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street is full of short passages perfect for beginning and intermediate English learners.

The vocabulary is not overly challenging, and yet you’ll find new words to study. And best of all, even with very simple language, these short pieces of fiction resonate. There’s so much meaning and feeling packed into every word and every page.

See the free lesson on “Hairs” on ELLiterature here. (Includes a creative writing prompt inspired by the story!)

The narrator of House is Esperanza, a girl growing up on Mango Street in a neighborhood that doesn’t match her dreams. Here’s what Cisneros said about creating Esperanza:

MONTAGNE: Sandra Cisneros, give us a little sense of what the world was like when you created Esperanza.

Ms. CISNEROS: Well, I was fresh out of graduate school. I had started Esperanza in Iowa at the University of Iowa, feeling very displaced and uncomfortable as a person of color, as a woman, as a person from working-class background. And in reaction to being there I started to have some Mango Street almost as a way of claiming this is who I am. It became my flag. And I realize now that I was creating something new. I was cross-pollinating fiction and poetry and writing something that was the child of both. I was crossing borders and I didn’t know it.

She goes on to say:

Cisneros: When I wrote “House,” when I started it, I didn’t think I was giving voice to Latino women. I thought I was just finally speaking up. I had been silenced, made to feel that what I had to say wasn’t important.

I wanted to write something in a voice that was unique to who I was. And I wanted something that was accessible to the person who works at Dunkin Donuts or who drives a bus, someone who comes home with their feet hurting like my father, someone who’s busy and has too many children, like my mother. I wanted this to be lyrical enough so that it would pass muster with my finicky classmates, but also open to accept all of the people I loved in the neighborhood I came from.

Source: ‘House on Mango Street’ Celebrates 25 Years. NPR. April 9, 2009. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102900929


Cisneros articulates here why I think this book is so accessible for English learners, both in readability and meaning. The cross between poetry and prose she has created (which she didn’t even realize she was creating at the time of writing) makes the stories accessible in length and at the same time, as is characteristic of poetry, so much meaning resonates in every word. With a few vocabulary clarifications, readers can connect with complicated emotions and questions of life.

She’s also created pieces that busy working people would read right alongside the literary crowd. These “borders” she walks in both form and writing style make House moving and real. In unassuming language, Cisneros gives us a voice in Esperanza and an experience of her family and neighbors that feels real for all those on their own version of Mango Street, which doesn’t quite match up to the ideal, for all those who dream.

I’ll leave you with a snapshot from another interview. Here’s what Cisneros said when asked how she felt about her book being taught so widely in American schools today. It’s something I think about as a teacher: Sometimes when we bring a book into a classroom, it can lose its magic, its connection. When we’re asked to analyze it, to answer questions, to break it down, the experience of reading is often different than if we connect to it on our own. Yet, gaining the skills to read more closely in a language classroom can also help us appreciate what we read more. Her answer reminds me why I teach literature and to strive to let the book do its work, “play its music,” in addition to what I feel is important to teach students:

Q: What is it like knowing that this book is taught so widely in American schools today?

A: I don’t take it personally. It has nothing to do with me, or with my book. The book is being taught because it is telling a story that has spiritual resonance at this time in history. It is serving a need, it is doing its healing, it is transmitting light, but I was just the conduit for that light, not the source. I am grateful that the timing was right for my labor to be recognized, and that the readers were ready to hear this story at this time. I am fortunate and blessed to be the flute, but I recognize and acknowledge I am not the music.

Source: Interview with the Chicago Public Library: https://www.chipublib.org/interview-with-sandra-cisneros/


See the free lesson on “Hairs” from ELLiterature here! + a creative writing prompt inspired by the story.


ELLiterature was created as an answer to a problem I found in teaching ELL students. “Classic” literature (though it has its place) had too much antiquated vocabulary and was difficult for students to connect to. “Abridged” texts were … boring. I’m creating a collection of accessible poems and short stories for those learning English and for their teachers. Find texts, lessons, and teacher resources on ELLiterature!

3 Short Stories for English Learners

I started ELLiterature in response to a challenge I and other teachers and students had in finding accessible literature for English learners to read.

Maybe you’ve experienced what I’ve experienced. “Classic” literature, written hundreds of years ago, is valuable, but the vocabulary is just not suited for those learning English, at least at first.

And many abridged stories, with their original language stripped down, are just boring.

I’m creating a collection of useable ESL, ELL, TEFL poetry, short stories, and nonfiction. I’ve included free teacher resources and student lessons that take you step-by-step through poems and short stories. Bonus, I’m also adding creative writing activities.

So here are a few recommendations to get you started! There is a free lesson on Sandra Cisneros’s “Hairs” (link below) and many more lessons to come! Also check back for online courses and book club offerings. Happy reading!


*click to purchase on Amazon

Sandra Cisneros’s rich, poetic collection of very short vignettes is told from the point of view of Esperanza, who is growing up on Mango Street in a neighborhood with much to be desired.

Each story is a page or two long, and the vocabulary is accessible for ELLs and also rich and beautiful. There is so much value per word or page in this collection that English leaners will find much to enjoy and much to discuss. Appropriate for upper middle school through adults.

Read a sample and find a free lesson on “Hairs” here, PLUS a bonus creative writing prompt!

*click to purchase on Amazon


In “The Pedestrian,” the main character is the last person who walks at night, just for enjoyment, while everyone else sits inside watching “viewing screens” the size of their walls. Like in so many of his stories, Bradbury has a way of seeing what is to come (“The Pedestrian” was published in 1951).

His stories are fitting for ELLs because he poses interesting problems of culture and society with accessible language and vivid characters, images, and plot turns that make great discussion starters as well as points of entry to talk about literary elements.

Check back soon to see a free lesson on “The Pedestrian” (more stories to come)!

*click to purchase on Amazon

Flash Fiction is just what it sounds like — very short pieces of fiction that tell a story in a “flash.” The length alone makes these stories ideal for ELLs.

While some stories may contain very challenging vocabulary, this collection in particular includes engaging and meaningful stories such as Julia Alvarez’s “Snow,” a relatable piece for anyone who has moved (or dreams of moving) to the US and sees snow for the first time. You’ll find 72 different passages here, most appropriate for adult, university-aged, and even upper high school learners.

Check back soon to see a free lesson on “Snow” from this collection!


*ELLiterature is an Amazon Affiliate and receives a small portion of any purchase you make using the links here. Your support helps support its work of providing free quality resources for ELL teachers and students!

Poetry Lesson: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes

Check out the complete lesson for students & resource for teachers here!

Langston Hughes was a central writer in the Harlem Renaissance.

His poem “Harlem” addresses one main question: What happens to a dream deferred?

What happens to a dream that you have to keep putting off for a later time, that loses its passion, its sweetness?

It’s a powerful poem that uses rich image after image, question after question to leave a visual and emotional impression of the defeat, hopelessness, anger, and drive for change that people in Harlem — African American people in the US — experience(d).

*Bonus Fact: One line in this poem was used as the title of a play (also about the African American experience in the US) by Lorraine Hansberry: A Raisin in the Sun!

Listen to Langston Hughes reading the poem “Harlem” here — and then dive into the lesson!

Here’s the complete lesson on “Harlem,” where I walk you through and discuss the poem step by step. I created ELLiterature to help make poetry accessible – especially to English language learners.

Would you be interested in attending an online class about this poem or about other poetry by Langston Hughes, specifically for English language learners? Please comment if you’re interested!