P is for Poetry

10 10 2010


The Lake Isle of Innisfree (by W.B.Yeats)


A couple of days ago I got the following email:

I am a fellow kiwi (like so many, living in Australia) preparing for the DELTA which has led me to read a rather large number of your books (among other authors) which I have really enjoyed and I just wanted to say how interested/ inspired I am to see your frequent examples using poetry in the classroom. I have a fondness for poetry but have always been a bit wary of using it in the classroom especially as even colleagues will label poetry as “elitist” or “obscure” and therefore not fit to use in a communicative environment.

Now, however, I feel ready to sally forth and use poetry in the classroom more frequently, ignoring what my other colleagues have to say,

To which I replied:

Thanks for your message — it’s nice to know that the poetry is appreciated. The fact that poetry is open to multiple interpretations, exploits repetition and figurative language, breaks rules, is generally short, and encodes interesting cultural information, all make it exploitable in the language classroom, I figure.

How, then, would you use a poem in class? Here’s what I said about the classroom use of literary texts in Beyond the Sentence:

Essentially there needn’t be any major differences between the approach to using non-literary texts and the approach to using literary ones. However, you might have to work harder at the pre-text stage, providing any helpful background knowledge (including cultural and biographical information), and you might have to intervene more at the comprehending stage, i.e. the stage where learners are attempting to construct a coherent mental schema of the text. What is important (as with non-literary texts) is that at some point you should solicit the learners’ response to the text, including their feelings about it: did they find it moving, funny, difficult, thought-provoking, etc? And why, or why not? At some point, and especially if the text is a poem, learners should be given the opportunity of hearing the text read aloud. Often … the text doesn’t properly come alive until it is heard.

In order to demonstrate how this might work, let’s take an example by one of my favourite poets, W.B. Yeats:

The Balloon of the Mind

Hands, do what you’re bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.


...that bellies and drags in the wind.... (photo by Saeid Shahin Kiya)


1. Project or dictate the title, and ask “Why is the mind like a balloon?” Brainstorm possible answers.
2. Read the poem aloud, naturally but at an easy pace. Students listen. (Or play this recording).
3. They then write down any words or phrases they caught on this first hearing and compare notes.
4. Repeat stages 2 and 3.
5. Project the poem, or write it on the board. Read it aloud again.
6. Check the meaning of bid (= order), bellies (from the noun belly), drags, and shed.
7. Ask some check questions: Who is addressing whom, in order to do what? What is the object of do? What is the object of bring? What or where is the narrow shed? Elicit a translation, if feasible.
8. Ask “Why is the poem a good example of its own message?”
9. (Optional: Draw attention to the (half-)rhymes and the rhythm (three prominent syllables in each line) and ask the students to practise reciting the poem, in pairs and as a group).
10. (Optional: Ask students to draw an image that “describes” the poem; compare).
11. “Think about a way that the poem reflects your own experience”. Discuss and report.
12. “Hide” the poem, and see if the class can re-construct it from memory.
13. Ask students to write a poem beginning “X, do what you’re bid” – where X stands for any of the following: eyes, ears, tongue, heart, feet etc.

Do you have a “poem lesson” that you’d like to share? Or a favourite poem you have used in class?


Yeats, W.B. (1950) The Collected Poems of W.B.Yeats (2nd edn). London: Macmillan.