When You Have No Idea What It’s Saying…

I’ve written about Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” here before, and I have a full lesson on it here. It’s a great story, and it’s one I teach frequently to people learning English.

But, there’s a problem I’ve seen again and again.

It starts early, by the second paragraph:

Sometimes he would walk for hours and miles and return only at midnight to his house. And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows. Sudden gray phantoms seemed to manifest upon inner room walls where a curtain was still undrawn against the night, or there were whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomb-like building was still open.

The first paragraph is fine; Leonard Mead enjoys walking out alone at night in this world of 2053 AD. Got it. Even the first sentence above — he’d walk “for hours and miles,” sure. But then, look at the next sentence. Do you see the challenge? Many times by this point, a student says, “What?” Are we in a graveyard? What are “glimmers of firefly light” or “flickers”? “Phantoms,” “manifest upon inner room walls”?

The issue is not just vocabulary, though some of these words may not be common or immediately known. Vocabulary can be dealt with in context. The challenge here is poetry.

The language itself becomes poetic. We’re in a simile, a comparison. Walking on this street “was not unequal to walking through a graveyard,” meaning: Walking on this street was equal to, was “like” walking in a graveyard. The flickers of light are described like fireflies, and ghosts (phantoms) seemed to appear. We maybe hear “whisperings and murmurs,” and a building is described as “tomb-like.”

All of this is hypothetical — maybe, usually. And there is so much figurative, not literal description here. What’s happening literally? It’s dark. It’s creepy. There are no people around. It feels like everything’s dead. There are small “flickers” of light coming from the houses, but very little sound.

So, what do you do when you’re reading a text like this and you have no idea what it’s saying?

One strategy is to “dig in.” I see students do this a lot, especially while reading in a second language. You already feel unconfident in your reading, already anticipating those words you won’t know. The underlying thought is, “I should know more vocabulary.” or “My English isn’t that good.” or “I should work more on my English.”

So when you come across these passages, you’re frustrated. You find the dictionary and look up every word, write definitions above the words on the page. I can see the intensity in your eyes. You dig in and try to solve the puzzle like a watchmaker fixing every tiny part of a watch’s gears with the tiniest screwdriver. Your eyes are strained and tired; you have a headache. You back away from the story and need to take a breath.

Here’s another way: You realize, “This is poetry,” and so you read it that way. You step back from the words. You see the whole paragraph like looking at the Earth from space, the whole, round image of it. You picture what you do know from the words, the images that you see without any intense digging. You take a breath and let your mind and heart and body take it in. Look for the words you do understand. You might be surprised at how much you see without understanding every word.

Then go back to the text. Pinpoint a couple of phrases that are really mystifying. Look up a word or two, still with the goal of seeing the whole image, not getting hung up on every meaning like you’re decoding a legal brief or reading a real estate contract.

A story is poetic, a creative piece. Remember the author is not arguing a point or trying to communicate logical information from A to Z. Remember the author is describing something, creating a mood, a feeling, showing you a world, a person. Your goal as the reader is to see, feel, hear, take in those images and feelings and senses — not to pick apart every word.

The meaning goes beyond the words; the words are only the signs on paper that create a whole world. Your job is to understand the world. Reading poetry is feeling, sensing, seeing — different from logical understanding.

Now, I know that if you really don’t know those words, you’re not going to see the images, not going to understand enough to picture it. Yes, that’s true. So there’s a balance between the “big,” Earth-level view and the intensive, picky, “watch-maker” view. The key is to remember that balance and let yourself shift between ways of reading.

And remember, even native speakers read literature and struggle to understand everything. Native speakers read literature and don’t know every word, sometimes many of the words. In our native language, we tend to skip over what we don’t understand and don’t even realize it. I’ll ask native-speaker students, “Do you know the meaning of ______,” whatever word is in the piece, and many times, they realize, “Oh, no, I don’t.” When we talk about it, they understand the passage differently, get a different “shade” to what they understood before. This is a normal process of reading, whether or not you’re reading in your native language or a second one.

So, give yourself a break. It’s important to find texts that verge on challenging but not frustrating. Texts are enjoyable when you can read much of them easily but encounter new words, ideas, structures. I try to strike that balance with students, listen to where they struggle and understand their reading level in choosing texts.

But the “level” of the text is only half the battle; the mind that reads the text is the other. The more you understand how your mind engages with a text, that you’re engaging in normal “struggles” any reader would have, or can equip yourself with reading strategies, you can not only use reading to build your language, but you’ll enjoy reading more.


Interested in doing this kind of reading work? Send me a message and let me know what you’d like to work on, how I can help! I offer private lessons and small group courses.


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Literature as Vision in “The Pedestrian”

In Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian, Leonard Mead is the last pedestrian in a city of millions in 2053 AD. He walks just to walk, to breathe fresh air, to see. He walks every night in the desolate streets while everyone else is inside watching “viewing screens. Leonard walks, “occasionally picking up a leaf as he passed, examining its skeletal pattern in the infrequent lamplights as he went on, smelling its rusty smell.”

I love this image of Leonard smelling a single leaf, himself the single lit soul remaining in a world made lifeless by screens.

Bradbury wrote the story in the early 1950s as the first TVs made their way into American homes; the story, therefore, projects 100 years into the future. In my lesson on the story, I talk about analyzing setting and character. The real conflict in this story derives from a character (Leonard) so at odds with his own society (2053 AD).

I give some guidance for developing statements of theme. The story brings up so many thematic questions: How does technology impact a society? What happens when an individual chooses to live differently from their society? What does it mean to live? What is necessary for human life? Bradbury’s poetic writing and his loving and tragic portrayal of Leonard, who loves nothing more than to walk and to breathe in the smell of a skeletal leaf, has imprinted in me. As many times as I read the story, I feel it again or I see something anew, every time I read it. I’m so grateful to Bradbury for writing it.

I suppose the story imprints its pattern upon me, or I feel this gratitude, because sometimes I, too, feel like Leonard Mead walking my solitary walk a bit at odds with any society I’ve lived in. I’m a poet, and I love nothing more than to write some words in a notebook which may never see a printing press. I’m a teacher of literature and love nothing more than to guide other people into a story or poem which I believe can change a life. Yet sometimes I still doubt the value of it all. I struggle to justify the hours spent on these most important tasks when there are bills to be paid and current events to act on, and when a day must be useful, productive. I get lost again in those loud cultural messages to do, to earn, to buy, to go, to produce.

So Bradbury, in writing this story years ago, connects to me here today. I read Leonard’s story. and I feel the solidarity and connection in living a bit at odds with my surroundings, in being a poet of words and of life. At one point in the story, Leonard is asked, “Do you have a profession?” And when he answers, “I’m a writer,” the character answers, “No profession.” He gets a similar quiet judgment when he says he’s not married. But Leonard smiles. He knows his own values. I can’t help but think Bradbury must have felt similarly to Leonard. I saw in an interview recently that Bradbury never owned a car or learned to drive. I imagine him walking just as Leonard walked, as people raced home to flick on the TV; I see him smiling a bit when people asked if he had a “real job.” He didn’t. And how valuable his work was.

This connection I feel through this story (and many, many others) Bradbury had the gall to set down on paper despite the demands of his society and of even well-intentioned voices urging him to be a bit more “normal,” is the kind of connection I hope to offer as a writer and a teacher. I can only hope that something I write, or a lesson I give, can continue that chain of support, of value for life and its questions. Even in my doubt, I trust the value of words and stories, and I want to give a bit of that faith to others — a middle school kid who has a story to write, a person in some faraway country who is learning language.

Literature offers vision. Bradbury sees trends in his own time, his own society, and projects 100 years into the future. Look what is happening now. What will the world look like if this continues? What could happen if … Sometimes we’re astonished when writers or thinkers are able to predict the future. How could they see, even then? We mistake this for magic. But the truth is, the seeds of what will be are already around us; most of the time we’re too wrapped up in the way we see now, our daily duties, or “real jobs” to see the patterns and possible trajectory. Stories allow a space for imagination and vision to be explored and seen. Oftentimes I think the tragedy of humanity is our failure to see clearly what is happening now, to accept the truth, and to act collectively. I feel pretty cynical about this most of the time, apart from great examples like Civil Rights movements in the US or South Africa. The ending of Bradbury’s story, you’ll see, is pretty cynical about what society does to visionaries, writers, thinkers. Or maybe it’s a warning, a reminder of the value of writers and of words. What gives me hope is the stories themselves that continue to be told. What would these movements be without Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eloquent words, the story he told to mobilize action? Stories can envision, articulate, connect us, and heal.


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Tending to Raw Spots

I was talking to a student the other day who said she relies on visual art because she feels like a weak writer. But she knows the audience needs words, or that her art would be stronger with solid writing. So by seeking out teaching, she’s inviting growth. She’s willfully beginning a process, she knows will be challenging.

I admire that willingness: to ask for help, to invest in learning, to begin a process that you know will challenge and push and frustrate you.

I know that growth begins with the small, delicate things. Seeds, eggs, sprouts, baby creatures learning to scoot then crawl then walk. Growth begins in things that are unripe, raw, just emerged. Growth is inevitable. Yet it is so difficult, espeically as adult people, to even become aware of, to admit (both: to say out loud and to allow) the vulnerable places in ourselves.

Logicially, I know that people who do things really well are constantly learning. A friend who speaks another language almost to native proficiency for years carried around a dictionary to constantly study words and pronunciations, look up synonyms. A master teacher I admire is constantly attending workshops, trying new teaching methods, exploring new lessons to bring into the classroom, and refines her approach after each class. People who embrace growth are willing to say, “I don’t know; let me look it up,” and so they become masterful in thousands of small, willful actions.

On the other hand, many people who avoid learning, who don’t want to admit they don’t know how to pronounce x word, don’t ever grow, won’t ever learn to pronounce it. And so they remain stagnant. Instead of seeking growth, we often defend our delicate spots and become fearfully protective of them instead of opening them to the fresh air of exploration and tending, like letting a wound breathe.

So I, as a poet ever-interested in language, was looking for a word to describe these places in ourselves that feel so vulnerable, and settled on “raw.” Why raw?

source: Dictionary.com

This is why I love language. I was trying to find a word: weak, vulnerable, sensitive, undeveloped, unripe. None of these seemed exactly right. I wanted a word that meant both unfinished and sensitive, almost painful. I was picturing a soft spot on fruit, a bruise or small cut on an arm that keeps getting prodded.

Life does that, right? It keeps prodding us, poking those weak places, those vulnerabilities, until we notice and tend to them. It prods until we stop pushing up our hands in defense and begin the process of healing and new growth. We might call these “weaknesses,” but they’re weak only because they haven’t been through “processes of … finishing, refining.” They’re painfully open and exposed, just asking to be addressed. They’re unprocessed, unevaluated, inexperienced, untrained — which means they can be, they’re waiting to be processed, evaluated, experienced, and trained.

And these untrained, undeveloped parts of us are “grossly frank.” They’re painful, calling our attention, and we must be grossly honest to acknowledge them. Kids are so brutally honest in that way. They haven’t learned the adult, socialized way of polite white lies or ignoring what should politely be ignored. They stare at people and speak up and comment on whatever is happening. If these raw parts of ourselves are like small children ready to grow and experience, they can serve us in the same way — by forcing us to be brutally honest with ourselves about who we are, where we are, who we’d like to be, what we’d like to be able to do. Raw in one sense means unadorned, uncovered by our usual ways of performing our competence. Raw is brutally, honestly, saying “I don’t know.”

And children are also usually unabashedly curious and courageous in learning; they fall and stumble and recover quickly. They poke around and get excited, like my friend learning language, my friend thinking of new ideas for her classroom. Maybe we develop more fear as adults in exposing ourselves to falls and wounds. There’s a courageousness, a verve in children learning to ride a bike or take on a new skill. There usually isn’t shame in not knowing — but joy in gaining something new, gaining a new ability, being enabled to do new things.

Learning is difficult. It’s challenging. It’s uncomfortable. To begin, first we have to admit to “I don’t know” or “I need guidance.” But that utterance frees so much new potential. In the pain and sensitivity in those tender spots, the not-yet-developed state, there’s this excitement of what will be. When we begin to feel that “click” or resonance of new knowledge, seeing in a new way, how good that process of work and becoming feels, even when it’s a struggle. We can hide in defensiveness and protection, or we can open up those raw spots to air and move forward, imagining the small seedling one day bloomed.


See more about my work with learning: language, literature, mindfulness.

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!

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.

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.

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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!