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.

Read more on ELLiterature!

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

Prose Poem Lesson: “Hairs” by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street is full of short passages perfect for beginning and intermediate English learners.

The vocabulary is not overly challenging, and yet you’ll find new words to study. And best of all, even with very simple language, these short pieces of fiction resonate. There’s so much meaning and feeling packed into every word and every page.

See the free lesson on “Hairs” on ELLiterature here. (Includes a creative writing prompt inspired by the story!)

The narrator of House is Esperanza, a girl growing up on Mango Street in a neighborhood that doesn’t match her dreams. Here’s what Cisneros said about creating Esperanza:

MONTAGNE: Sandra Cisneros, give us a little sense of what the world was like when you created Esperanza.

Ms. CISNEROS: Well, I was fresh out of graduate school. I had started Esperanza in Iowa at the University of Iowa, feeling very displaced and uncomfortable as a person of color, as a woman, as a person from working-class background. And in reaction to being there I started to have some Mango Street almost as a way of claiming this is who I am. It became my flag. And I realize now that I was creating something new. I was cross-pollinating fiction and poetry and writing something that was the child of both. I was crossing borders and I didn’t know it.

She goes on to say:

Cisneros: When I wrote “House,” when I started it, I didn’t think I was giving voice to Latino women. I thought I was just finally speaking up. I had been silenced, made to feel that what I had to say wasn’t important.

I wanted to write something in a voice that was unique to who I was. And I wanted something that was accessible to the person who works at Dunkin Donuts or who drives a bus, someone who comes home with their feet hurting like my father, someone who’s busy and has too many children, like my mother. I wanted this to be lyrical enough so that it would pass muster with my finicky classmates, but also open to accept all of the people I loved in the neighborhood I came from.

Source: ‘House on Mango Street’ Celebrates 25 Years. NPR. April 9, 2009. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102900929


Cisneros articulates here why I think this book is so accessible for English learners, both in readability and meaning. The cross between poetry and prose she has created (which she didn’t even realize she was creating at the time of writing) makes the stories accessible in length and at the same time, as is characteristic of poetry, so much meaning resonates in every word. With a few vocabulary clarifications, readers can connect with complicated emotions and questions of life.

She’s also created pieces that busy working people would read right alongside the literary crowd. These “borders” she walks in both form and writing style make House moving and real. In unassuming language, Cisneros gives us a voice in Esperanza and an experience of her family and neighbors that feels real for all those on their own version of Mango Street, which doesn’t quite match up to the ideal, for all those who dream.

I’ll leave you with a snapshot from another interview. Here’s what Cisneros said when asked how she felt about her book being taught so widely in American schools today. It’s something I think about as a teacher: Sometimes when we bring a book into a classroom, it can lose its magic, its connection. When we’re asked to analyze it, to answer questions, to break it down, the experience of reading is often different than if we connect to it on our own. Yet, gaining the skills to read more closely in a language classroom can also help us appreciate what we read more. Her answer reminds me why I teach literature and to strive to let the book do its work, “play its music,” in addition to what I feel is important to teach students:

Q: What is it like knowing that this book is taught so widely in American schools today?

A: I don’t take it personally. It has nothing to do with me, or with my book. The book is being taught because it is telling a story that has spiritual resonance at this time in history. It is serving a need, it is doing its healing, it is transmitting light, but I was just the conduit for that light, not the source. I am grateful that the timing was right for my labor to be recognized, and that the readers were ready to hear this story at this time. I am fortunate and blessed to be the flute, but I recognize and acknowledge I am not the music.

Source: Interview with the Chicago Public Library: https://www.chipublib.org/interview-with-sandra-cisneros/


See the free lesson on “Hairs” from ELLiterature here! + a creative writing prompt inspired by the story.


ELLiterature was created as an answer to a problem I found in teaching ELL students. “Classic” literature (though it has its place) had too much antiquated vocabulary and was difficult for students to connect to. “Abridged” texts were … boring. I’m creating a collection of accessible poems and short stories for those learning English and for their teachers. Find texts, lessons, and teacher resources on ELLiterature!

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!