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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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.