Creative Writing Prompt: Art as Inspiration

“East River Divers” by Aruthur Leipzig. Source: MFAH

Here’s a creative writing prompt inspired by art. Looking at art can stir the senses and serve as an inspiration for words. Read more about my own inspiration and this photo below.


1) Sit with this photo for at least one minute: just look and take it in.


2) Set a timer for 3 or 4 minutes.

In that time, write all the words or phrases you think of that relate to the photo.
Think of the 5 senses: sight (shapes, colors), sounds, smell, taste, feel. Yes, even sounds and smells — what does the photo make you imagine? Really explore and write down everything you imagine without judgement.


**3) Extended version: Now, think of just one image or association you have with the photo. Write for 3-4 minutes just on that one image, exploring it even further!


4) Now look over your words and phrases. Circle the ones you really love, that are most vivid for you.


5) Make a 5-7 line poem with those words or phrases. Put them together in a way that feels good to you — they don’t have to all make sense or flow logically. The idea is to find interesting contrasts and associations between the images you created.


**6) Extended version: Edit your poem even more!

With a thesaurus, explore some of your word choices to see if you can find words that “fit” even better. For example: If you wrote “run’ in your original poem, type in “run” on thesaurus.com or other site.

Sit with, think about each option. Do you see how all these synonyms have slightly different meanings, or give different feelings (connotations)? Do you see how it would be different to say “race” vs. “jog”? Or “rush” vs. “fly”?

You can do this exercise with your own word choices. Maybe just try one or two for this poem. You can not only express yourself more precisely, you can also learn more vocabulary in the process.


I would love to see your poem if you do this prompt! Feel free to comment below or on Facebook.

This is just a small example of what I offer in one-on-one lessons or classes.

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More about this photo & prompt …

I personally find art very inspirational for my writing. (Writing in response to art is called ekphrasis — or ekphrastic poetry.) Often, when I see a painting or a photo like this one, I’m flooded with images, ideas — something is sparked.

Years ago, I saw this photograph at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and that kind of “flood” happened. I had been kind of bored that day and decided to take the afternoon for myself. I needed inspiration. So I went to the museum really to look and see what I found.

And there I was, with my notebook, standing in front of Arthur Leipzig’s painting, all these memories and associations coming to me. The photo felt like my grandfather. It felt like the story of a man I’d talked to a few years before and had been wanting to write about. He was a steel worker, and like other workers bound in by the salary, the healthcare, the union. He knew what he would be giving up to quit, and yet he knew he was breathing in these chemicals every day. Somehow, in my mind, his story and this photo connected.

Seeing the photo allowed me to write what I hadn’t been able to put into form. It drew out of me the words to set the story down — to put it into a bigger context — of all workers, of what it means to build bridges, to make anything, to be part of a moment of history.

Keep looking around until you find art that inspires you. There are many organizations who have made their collections open and online during the pandemic. I hope you find art that prompts your own words, or gives you something meaningful to write about in English.

The Power of I, Too

Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too,” first of all, has all the qualities I look for in a poem for English learners. The vocabulary is not too challenging, though there are some interesting word choices to think about. The length is manageable for reading and discussion in the same sitting. In fact, instead of struggling with too many words — and too many new words — all at once, the English learner can take in the text of the poem and get to the deeper realm of discussion of history, of culture of life, of society, of humanity, which is actually much more challenging. Isn’t that kind of conversation why we’re here, why we’re learning langauge in the first place? To connect. To experience the world through a slightly different lens. To experience the world through another language and immerse in the culture it carries.

And this poem does carry so much history, culture, and meaning in its few words. I recently read that Julia Alvarez, herself a bicultural, bilingual person, read this poem when she was young. She had, with her family, escaped the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and landed in New York City an immigrant, “different.” As she read the poem in a school textbook, she realized that she, too, could make a life in this country and could be a writer. (Here is a lesson on her piece “Snow,” all about being an immigrant and loving language.)

I think about people right now, maybe you, who might be in the US in a similar situation and who will read this poem and think — yes — I, too. Maybe you’re in another country reading in English, and this poem can do for you what great literature does: gives a valuable glimpse into another culture and country without even getting on a plane. This poem asks: What does it mean to be an “American”? Who is included, and should be? What is the ideal vision of this country?

This question of who belongs can be found in every culture, every human group. So can writing, literature, art, which explores those essential questions. I think about Hughes writing this poem and Julia Alvarez reading it as a girl, and another student somewhere reading it now, I am, again, astonished at that cloth of connection through generations, at the power of literature, of poetry.

Why do poets write, and why do we read? I think, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, for love — of words or an idea or a phrase that goes out into the world to become “part of the human gain.” Poets write and artists create not to get much for themselves but to send something out, to add another strand to the tapestry. Poets speak — for themselves, for others. There is value in saying. There’s value in imagining. In this poem, there is the gain of solidarity in saying “I, Too,” and a declaration, a vision of a country of equality, of valuing every person at the table.

We may learn another language to get a better job or to communicate at the grocery store or bus stop. But why do we really learn language, beyond its utilitarian function? I think deep down our motivations are a lot more akin to poetry — to connect, to speak to other people we wouldn’t have been able to speak to, to more thoroughly know our world. So for me, reading literature to learn language isn’t a luxury or too academic or too difficult — it’s at the heart of why we speak and an insight into a language’s depths.

Read more and see the lesson on this poem here.

Thanks for reading!

This month, December 2020, on Instagram, I’m doing a series on the value of poets & poetry. I’ll share posts with poems about poetry and short video reading/discussion of the poems. Head on over & follow along!

Poetry & Protest

I have a new lesson up this week: William Stafford’s “At the Bomb Testing Site.” Just from reading the title, you can see that this poem points to protest, to pacifism.

But the poem is mysterious. It doens’t argue an outright position but shows us a tense lizard, gripping the ground. Our view pans out to a curving road, a vast continent, an “indifferent” sky. I’ve read this poem many times, and I still don’t quite know “what it means.” Clearly bombs are not “good.” This is not a case of “for” or against,” an opinion piece enumerating one side or the other. I’m not saying there’s not a place for that — there is! — but it’s not necessarily poetry’s place.

Poetry doesn’t divide into two sides. It’s not netural or indifferent, but it doesn’t put forth a soundbite message like propaganda. Poetry sees a multitude of sides and explores them, like holding up a prism and watching the everchanging colors and light reflect off a room, then another room, and another. Poetry looks for truth, which is sometimes complex and multifaceted, sometimes utterly simple.

I learned long ago that minds aren’t changed through theory, through abstract discussion of an issue. People shift and see things anew when they experience. You can debate for or against an environmental issue, but when you live by a forest cleared for a crop, the land going dry and mudslides down the mountainthat trees once held firm, or you live by a river where a company upstream dumps chemicals, you know the issue — and it becomes more than an issue.

Poetry and fiction create images, scenes, situations where we experience instead of only intellectualize. Poets aren’t saying, “Think this!” but “Look at this?” As a poet myself, I know that what inspires my poems is not so much wanting to say something but to look at something. That doesn’t mean I’m not bursting with anger at injustice; it means I really want to understand it, to show it. I desperately want to see, want people to see. For the reader and the writer poems are about experiencing and absorbing a little more of life than we’d experienced before; or seeing from another point of view; or examining something we’ve experienced a thousand times before and never really seen, now somehow fresh and different there on the page.

Or, poems ask questions. A great example is Langston Hughes’s “Harlem,” where the entire poem is made up of questions, beginning with, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The questions open a space for experience, for people — white society — to really consider: What is the pain, the cost of living in a society where people can’t pursue their dreams, a society which proclaims the pursuit of dreams? But it’s not indifferent or nice or banal. It’s last question is: Or does it explode? You can feel the anger, the frustration, the tragedy, the protest. The poem’s power is in its questioning and in every visceral image in which I feel just for a moment what “Harlem” feels.

In “At the Bomb Testing Site,” we see human action through this little anxious lizard, waiting for something to happen — unbeknownst to the lizard — a literal huge, destructive bomb to drop. We feel this potential loss of the smallest life, feel a disturbing anxiety about the potential we humans have for destruction, and see the vast time of the Earth, of stone, in which we ourselves are so small. We become small like the lizard.

The poem isn’t a protest poem in that it gives us a catchy take-away like a slogan. It asks us to see for a moment from this small little life, see that we are small little lives, asks us to step outside of what we “believe” or what we might be yelling at a rally and sit for a minute at this place of almost-destruction, to live for a minute in feeling that awful potential and also our own smallness. “Ready for change,” like the lizard, I can feel the potential of this societal decision — either change toward destruction or change toward — peace? Toward making different decisions as a society? And so much more it’s hard to articulate.

That’s the beauy of this poem — that I can’t quite say it, and I don’t have to. I live the scene each time I read it, and it somehow changes me, now that I’ve experienced it. When I teach poetry, I try to remember this, and I try to model not “This is the answer!” but “What do you see right now? … And now? How else could we see it?” I love teaching this poem especially to English learners because it’s such a great example of how you can access the same challenging questions about life even through the simplest vocabulary. If you know enough words to grasp the image of the scene, then you’re in the pool of experience, swimming around these deep questions about humanity that can’t be so easily articulated — in any language — or fully known or solved.


Thanks for reading! Again, here’s the full lesson.

And here’s a creative writing prompt based on “At The Bomb Testing Site.”

Visit ELLiterature to see more of my little project here.

And feel free to send me a message if you’d like to discuss how I can help in your literature or English learning journey!


The power of fiction is to create empathy. It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down into someone else’s point of view. It differs drastically from a newspaper, which imparts information while allowing you to remain rooted in your own perspective. A newspaper could tell you that one hundred people, say, in an airplane, or in Israel, or Iraq, have died today. And you can think to yourself, “How very sad,” then turn the page and see how the Wildcats fared. But a novel could take just one of those hundred lives and show you exactly how it felt to be that person rising from bed in the morning, watching the desert light on the tile of her doorway and on the curve of her daughter’s cheek. You would taste the person’s breakfast, and love her family, and sort through her worries as your own, and know that a death in that household will be the end of the only life someone will ever have. As important as yours. As important as mine.

Barbara Kingsolver, from High Tide in Tucson

How Studying Sound in Poetry Can Help Language Learning

I just wrote this lesson on Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” While I’m trying to include diverse, contemporary literature on my site (which helps make literature more accessible, especially for language learners), this poem is just so beautiful, so I had to include it.

And as I started to write, I found myself pulled to making a whole section about analyzing the most un-contemporary quality of this poem: its meter and rhyme scheme. Most poets today don’t write in form. And analyzing these elements is exactly the sort of thing that makes students fall asleep, that seemingly takes the joy out of poetry in school. That’s what I want to avoid here! So why do this analysis?

Of course we can read the poem and enjoy it without thinking about its meter. But I suppose it’s like any literary device that we stop and take time to notice: a certain amount of analysis, of understanding what the poet is doing, or how the poem works, can add to our appreciation of it. When you understand the tools and possibilities of poetry, you understand and appreciate its artistry. You notice things that add to your enjoyment.

Even more important for the langauge learner, you can focus in on elements of language — sound and rhyme and rhythm — that add to your knowledge and appreciation of English. Like painters who revel in the color and texture and smell of paint (this is a reference to Annie Dillard, by the way), poets revel in words, in language and how it works. As a poet myself, I always love meeting students who are learning English and who have discovered that joy, seem fascinated by the sound of words, how they can rhyme, how one word can resonate with many shades of meaning.

So in “Stopping by Woods,” analyzing the rhyme scheme can make you more aware as you read, as your ear tunes to the rhyming sounds in English. While imagining the scene of the poem, you’ll feel the beats, the syllables, and you’ll hear the rhythm of this particular combination of English words. You’ll start to feel how that music actually helps you “see” the images. As you listen and feel the langauge, your ear absorbs subtleties you might not even be conscious of, like our brains are made to learn language as children. You practice listening closely — to the workings of the language itself — rather than just grasping for the literal meaning and analyzing it rationally, as you would in everyday communication.

Ready to dive in? Read more of the lesson here!

Visit to see more free lessons on literature!

“Eating Together” by Li-Young Lee

Go straight to the complete lesson here!

And see a creative writing prompt based on this poem here.

To me, Li-Young Lee writes some of the most complex and layered and beautiful poetry I know. Yes, his work can be difficult for even the native English speaker with a big vocabulary and with lots of poetry reading experience.

But at the same time, he relies so much on memorable images that langauge learners can quickly surpass the langauge on the page and access the visual, tactile, sensory world the language only points to. And isn’t that the beauty of poetry, the reason to read a poem?

That characteristic of poetry — relying on the image and the symbol more than literal language — makes it a form especially rich and rewarding for those learning English. If we can make it past those initial black and white letters on the page, we can see and hear and taste the meaning, particularly with a poet like Li-Young Lee.

And in “Eating Together,” we see also how the simplest language, the first words you might learn in the language — “brothers, sister, my mother” –become so important. This is another advantage for the language learner: if you know even these basic words you can read this poem — and feel how just by saying their names he honors them. In a beginning English textbook, these words might seem so elementary. But here, in this poem, these most basic English words are carefully, intentionally used in a way that creates a feeling of honor and love.

In poetry, simple language does not mean a lack of meaning. Because in poetry, the way a word is used, its position on the line, the amount of space devoted to a subject, the sound of the words themselves, all contributes to the meaning. These poetic signals are like having conversational cues in addition to the literal words being said — and with these cues people learning a language have much more help in understanding the exchange.

Here’s an excerpt from my lesson on the power of naming and the importance of these poetic signals:

Poets often do this listing or naming in poetry to honor things, to acknowledge their presence — even things that seem commonplace, that we see every day. Think about how many objects or people you see everyday without really seeing them. Somehow when poets write things into poetry, give them that attention — like placing “brothers, sister, mother, together on that one line — it honors them.

(Walt Whitman, one of poetry’s most famous “namers,” wrote many poems simply listing the people he would see on the street in this country, and somehow bringing them all together in a poem brought them together even if they didn’t notice each other or feel connected in everyday life.)

So Lee, here, devotes half of this poem to naming the food, the people together at the table — a way to give honor and appreciation for their presence, for the moment of gathering.

Read more


After you read the lesson, see a creative writing prompt based on Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Together”!

And see more lessons on ELLiterature.

Visit ELLiterature homepage.

Langston Hughes: Dream Theme and Variations

I’m excited about my first book club session live on Instagram on a poem I’ve mentioned here before: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. I demonstrated the activity and some of the key ideas from my lesson on the poem here. (And of course I’d love for you to follow the book club if you’d like!)

There’s a reason I chose to think about Langston Hughes this month, or rather why his poems just won’t leave me.

Let me try to explain — through looking a bit closer at his poems!

Hughes published a whole series of poems on dreams, where the “dream deferred” line comes up again and again, like a thread through the poems.

Here is the first stanza of “Dream Boogie“:


Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?


Hughes brings up that theme — dream deferred — again like a musical theme. His musical intention is reflected in titles like “Dream Boogie” and “Dream Variations.” The idea of dreams weaves through the poems like theme and variations in music: the main line, the variations in melody and harmony, the eventual bringing together of the theme, now layered with all its strands.

And “Dream Boogie” reflects another one of Hughes’s projects: to capture the life and sound of “his people,” as he says in one of his autobiographies I Wonder as I Wander. We can see this in the language, which sounds like the music streaming out of a club in Harlem.

But what happens in the poem? We hear (We’re even told to “Listen closely –“) the rhythm of the music in this poem, and then there’s a shift, or several shifts as the poem breaks up with dashes, lines, italics, pieces of lyric:


Listen closely:
You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—

You think
            It’s a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
something underneath
like a—

What did I say?

Sure,
I’m happy!
Take it away!

Hey, pop!
            Re-bop!
            Mop!

            Y-e-a-h!


“Is it a happy beat? … Sure, I’m happy.” There’s almost this address to the reader, an imagined conversation with the performer, emphasis on “performer. It’s obviously not a happy beat that he goes on performing. The upbeat “boogie,” covers the reality. Or actually, the performer doesn’t even think about how he actually feels, doesn’t have a chance to reflect on the reality because the music interrupts the speech, with dashes, with stanza breaks, even the question, “What did I say?” He just goes on performing, and the lyrics get more sound-based and non-logical. “Re-bop,” “Mop,” as if to say, forget it. I can’t hear you anyway — or you can’t really hear me …

Read “Dream Variations” to compare, to add another layer to our exploration of the dream theme. What comes through for you in this poem?

I see a range of feelings in “Harlem” of the dream deferred — drying up, festering, rotting, pretending to be OK, deep sadness and depression, the threat of explosion of anger and frustration. In “Dream Boogie” there’s a tragedy of not even acknowledging or being able to ask the question about a dream, or the pursuit of happiness, but going along playing this “happy beat.” But in “Dream Variations,” the dream is more overtly expressed: It’s simply “to fling my arms wide.” Just that. Freedom.

Through all these variations, there’s also a pride in “his people.” “Night coming tenderly / Black like me,” pride in the langauge and sound of people he highlights in the poems — the musicians, the everyday working people. There is something powerful about a poet who can articulate an experience, who can give reality to an experience usually not put down in literature. Here, on the page, is the sound of his neighborhood. Espeically in “Dream Variations,” there is beauty.

And this is why I can’t let go of Langston Hughes’s poetry, or why his poetry won’t leave me these days. He speaks — often very simply and bluntly — truth about the Black experience, about a country where people have to defer their dreams of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or never acknowledge them. In a poem I’ll address later in the book club, he says, “America was never America to me.”

The power of poetry lies in saying it on the page, bringing forth truths too long ignored. Through capturing the voice of people, the music, the complexity of feelings, the limitations of dreams and freedom and happiness, Hughes makes it hard to turn away — but if we do, we still hear the melody, the musical phrases, the sound of these voices now echoing through us.

How Poetry Can Heal Language Learning Anxiety

A student recently reminded me of something unique about poetry. We were reading a poem out loud, and her first observation was, “You read that much more slowly than I did.” She explained that when she speaks or reads in English, she feels pressure to be “fast,” to not make any mistakes, to pronounce everything “correctly.”

Her observation reminded me of my own language learning anxiety. When I speak Spanish, sometimes I can feel my whole body tensing up with that fear of not being able to understand, or speaking too slowly, or making mistakes and “sounding stupid.” Sometimes I become so self-conscious that I make even more mistakes, constantly correcting myself as I’m speaking. Fue, no fui, a la, no, a el, supermercado. A simple sentence can turn into a stuttering mess — on top of my frenetic, hurrying energy, imagining an impatient listener.

Yes, I admit to this constant anxiety, even as I reassure English students that native speakers of any language make “mistakes” all the time, or that communication is about so much more than just the words you’re using, or that the listener isn’t thinking about your grammar; they just want to understand what you’re expressing. I know all this, and yet the anxiety of speaking in a non-native langauge is real.

Some people find poetry intimidating. And yet, poetry is supposed to be slow and savored. That quality alone can make reading poetry a welcome respite for the English leaner. Unlike the point-A-to-point-B goal of everyday conversation that is supposed to rattle on quickly, in poetry every word counts, is chosen carefully. Poets can spend years working on one poem, playing with words until it sounds right. So as readers, when we read slowly, we honor and appreciate that work. We take time to sense the meaning that lies under the words, like taking in music. We can pronounce slowly, even play with pronunciation, take time to decipher a new word, linger on each line, each space or pause on the page. We can read several times and take in a little more understanding each time, not pressured to “get it” all on the first read-through.

Poetry slows us down, in the midst of a fast-moving, impatient daily life, daily interaction. What a relief for those of us immersed in foreign sounds everyday, challenged with the pressure of a still uncertain language every time we go to the supermarket or say hello on the street. A relief, too, for those committed learners battling with grammar textbooks, with getting it “right.” The pleasure of curling up with a short poem with only the goal to listen and appreciate and soak in language, to love language, is a welcome balm.


Here are a few suggestions of poems to savor today. Look for lessons on these soon.


For more on how to read poetry and savor it, check out my course “How to Read Poetry With Your Whole Self.”

For poetry, literature, creative writing help in English, contact me about tutoring.

If you’d like to join others reading poetry around the world, follow the Global English Book Club on Instagram.

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.

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