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!

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!

Poetry Lesson: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes

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

Langston Hughes was a central writer in the Harlem Renaissance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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