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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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.