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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Reading Poetry (With Your Whole Self)

Often, when we read poetry, we set ourselves up for failure. We read with our minds — the intellect — scanning the words, already analyzing. “I don’t get it!” the intellect whines.

But poetry is not akin to a news story or encyclopedic article, and we don’t “get it” just by reading on an intellectual level. Poetry is art, more like a painting, a sculpture. When you take in art or even something beautiful like a sunset, you stand back and let it wash over your senses; you enjoy it. Poetry requires the same sort of whole-self sensing not only to be enjoyable, but to be understood.

I’m a poet myself, and I can say that at least this poet writes with her whole self. I feel poetry, listen to the sounds of it. I often don’t understand what I’m writing but just go with what feels right. When I’m writing it, often mulling over a line or idea on a walk or while cooking or taking a shower, I’m mostly listening. Many times I’m overcome with the urge to write, and I set down a stream of words that I can’t quite claim as “mine.” As Leonard Cohen has famously said, “If I knew where the great songs came from, I’d go there more often.” My most true poems come from that mysterious realm. And even when I have the raw words on paper, most of the time there’s a line that I hear, like a melody that gets stuck in your head, that prompts the poem to take shape. Then, somehow, line by line the poem starts to form.

So you’ll notice — I’m giving a lot of agency to the poem as almost writing itself, to the mystery working. It’s not just “me,” or the “me” of my intellect that’s writing, though it is very much involved, especially in the later stages of writing, the polishing and firming up. It was this experience as a poet that made me rethink how I was teaching poetry. The teaching methods I learned — based on analysis and critical thinking, the methods used in most any classrooms I’ve been in (and I’ve been in a lot of classrooms) — just didn’t seem to capture poetry’s art, the resonance of mind, heart, and body that I feel when I’m writing. And so many students struggled with and didn’t enjoy poetry when they knew they’d have to answer a multiple choice question on the “correct” interpretation of a metaphor. Teaching them to find and talk about metaphors just seemed empty.

So the question became: How can I teach people to read poetry and tune into all of the ways it works and communicates, not just by annotating its black and white words? I began teaching practices of listening, absorbing, noticing, practices more characteristic of mindfulness or meditation than analysis. I teach students to read and read again and read aloud again and listen and sit with a poem, hearing and sensing until something resonates. I hope students respond not only to what thoughts enter their minds but what sensations enter their whole selves. I hope they can wade into the mystery of meaning the poem evokes for them, more in the dream realm than the analytical one.

This whole-self approach is especially beneficial to English language learners. In poetry, as opposed to other texts, so much meaning — maybe even most meaning — is communicated through sound and rhythm. I will never forget my years attending the International Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicaragua. Poets from around the world would read their poems in their native language first, and then another reader would read the translated poem in Spanish (my second langauge). So I’d sit there listening to the sounds and the inflections and rhythms of Swedish or Polish or Japanese — and then vaguely understand some words of the Spanish translation. But it was an incredible experience: With this hazy understanding of the actual words, I could still feel so much of what the poem was when I could only listen to its sounds. It was sort of like watching a conversation and only understanding the body langauge, watching facial expressions, hearing the tone. I thought, maybe I can actually appreciate the sound of this poem more than a native speaker of the langauge, knowing none of the dictionary meaning of its words. There is so much value for language learners realizing, as they fret over how many words they don’t know or thinking they can’t understand until they look up each word in the dictionary, how much they can understand through listening and watching and sensing all the other ways communication takes place. There is so much more to understanding language, communication, and each other, than just through our words.

And then we always come back to the problem of the classroom, where we must quiz and test and evaluate on the level of words and intellect-only understanding. Well, there are always ways to cope with those realities, but, I’ve realized, just because I’m teaching within a system and culture that has chosen to value those metrics doesn’t mean that I can’t teach the whole of what this art form is. Bringing in a more complete reading of poetry into the classroom will only help students better analyze and articulate their understanding through the intellect, or learn new vocabulary. Ultimately, I’m teaching poetry because I hope people read poetry as whole people, in their lives, long after they leave the classroom. I won’t let them miss the opportunity to really see what it can offer, to find connections to this art that will resonate throughout a lifetime.


I’ve developed an online course: How to Read Poetry (With Your Whole Self) and a professional development session for teachers who want to introduce the mind – heart – body approach to poetry in their classrooms. I started ELLiterature to help make literature accessible to English learners and to all readers. Please check it out and feel free to contact me to continue the conversation!