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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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!

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!

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“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.

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!