Writing Poetry with English Language Learners
By: Kristina Robertson
In this article:
I Have to Write a Poem for Class
By Jack Prelutsky
I have to write a poem for class
But don't think I'll succeed,
I know I don't know all the words
That I am going to need.
I cannot quite imagine
How my poem's supposed to be —
I've got a sinking feeling
I'm not good at poetry.
My poem must have a meter
And it also has to rhyme,
It's due tomorrow morning
How I wish I had more time!
I do not think that I can write
A poem the way I should —
But look this is a poem right here,
And it is pretty good.
Writing poetry is a great exercise for English language learners. It gives them a chance to experiment with language and vocabulary, and to freely share their ideas without the confinement of perfect grammar or firm structures. Many ELLs have also had rich life experiences that range from memories of their home culture to saying good-bye to loved ones and adjusting to a new life in the U.S. They may very well welcome this opportunity to create heartfelt poems to share with their classmates and family. Here are some suggestions for getting started:
- Read a variety of poems first. I would recommend a couple of different kinds of poems before assigning any writing activities. For more ideas on how to start a unit on poetry, be sure to take a look at Introducing and Reading Poetry with English Language Learners. While the introduction doesn't have to be too in-depth, giving students time to read and think about poems will help them feel more comfortable when it's time to write.
- Introduce different poetry forms as models. Read some poems that fit the structure or format, discuss unique rhyming or line patterns, and then have students try writing on their own, using the poems read in class as a model. Focus on each form before moving on to the next one so that students have a chance to master it.
- Use poetry throughout the curriculum. You may also wish to use poetry writing as an activity in other content-area lessons, or trying having students write some of these poems as riddles that their classmates have to figure out.
My own knowledge of poetry forms was pretty limited before I began teaching poetry, but here are some poetry forms that work effectively with students, as well as some ideas of how to help students try their hand at writing! I recommend beginning with simple poetry styles such as the ones that follow, as these forms offer a lot of structure and students of all English levels will find them easier to work with.
I have linked to a number of online resources throughout the article from websites such as PoetryTeachers.com, Education World, Poets.org, PBS, ReadWriteThink, EdSitement, ArtsEdge, and Scholastic, but there are many, many more websites devoted to teaching poetry out there — this is just a sample!
Poetry Forms for Beginners
Video: The Power of Poetry
This is a good place to start before students create their own poems. Ask students for poem ideas and then choose one of those ideas for the poem. Have students brainstorm all the words they can think of that are associated with the topic of the poem. If learning a new form, work with the class to figure out how to use that form with the suggested words. Little by little, the poem will be created. You may want to help the students review their poem and make any changes to improve it. For example, the students may want be able to find more descriptive words than the original suggestions. Once the students have done a couple of group poems they will be ready to create poems in pairs or on their own. (This strategy can be use with all of the forms listed in this article.)
Students write their name or a key vocabulary word in capital letters down the left side of the page. Then they insert a word that begins with each vocabulary word. It may be helpful to brainstorm first. The vocabulary words can be descriptive or can refer to things that are important to the student, such as a favorite sport or musician. For example:
Rio de Janeiro
You may wish to start with a class acrostic poem about a word, historic figure, or person that everyone in the class will know. Then have students write poems about their classmates — keeping the descriptions positive, of course! Students can also try writing acrostics about everyday objects, places, feelings, or ideas.
- How to Write Acrostic Poems (PoetryTeacher.com)
- Acrostic brainstorm activity (Scholastic)
- Building Classroom Community Through an Exploration of Acrostic Poetry (ReadWriteThink)
"I Am" Poem
This format can be used by students to describe themselves, or to describe a figure from history, literature, current events, or anywhere else!
- "I Am" poem (ReadWriteThink)
Another (auto)biographical form is the name poem. While many name poems use acrostics, another common format uses this 10-line structure, which encourages students to think about themselves, their family, and what matters to them.
- Name poem (ReadWriteThink)
A bio-poem is a poem that a student writes about herself. Not only does it give students a chance to reflect about their own lives, it allows the class to get to know each other better!
5 W's Poem
This format is a great tool for teaching students about the 5 W question words (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) As you can see below, students can get pretty creative with something very simple!
- 5 W's poem (ReadWriteThink)
This is a take-off on the magnetic poetry people have on their fridge. Students receive little cards (index cards cut into smaller pieces) with known vocabulary words on them, and then work in pairs to create a poetry message. The cards can be saved and used throughout the year in a little box, or you can cut magnets (such as the kind you get from a store or restaurant) into little pieces and gluing them to the back of the cards to play with on the white board or file cabinet.
Free form (or free verse) is exactly that — free from grammar rules or conventions of writing. This is definitely a type of poetry that students should see a few examples of so that they understand just how free it is! Students choose an idea or theme and create vocabulary words that evoke the emotions and visual they want to share. Then they string the words together in short sentences or in vocabulary sequence to create the poem. Students may even wish to experiment with the layout of the poem on the page. If students need a structure to start with the teacher can show a model with a three word refrain at the beginning and end. Students can also be told to keep sentences to six words or less so it doesn't become a story.
- Colors of the Seasons Writing Activity (PoetryTeachers.com)
- Writing Free Verse in the "Voice" of Cesar Chavez (ReadWriteThink)
I enjoy teaching Cinquain poetry because of the easy format and the opportunities for developing the nuances of vocabulary. My students of all English levels were able to create a wonderful selection of poetry — funny, sad, and beautiful. I really loved introducing this poetry form to my students because they could put so much of themselves into it and they worked well with the format. The outline follows:
One word = topic
Two words = description
Three words = adverbs
Four words = actions (-ing verbs)
One word = sum it up word
gently, playfully, quickly
napping, whining, purring, jumping
Depending on the English level of the students, the format could be changed to fewer lines. Students can work in pairs to review each other's poems and suggest some options of different vocabulary words. Students can also write cinquains about themselves or each other.
- Bubbles (PBS Kids)
Lessons and activities:
- Getting to Know You with Cinquains (ReadWriteThink)
- Cinquain poem template (ReadWriteThink)
- Bilingual cinquain graphic organizer (ReadWriteThink)
- Best-Guess Poetry Square (Scholastic)
A shape poem (or concrete poem) describes a familiar object, and is written in the shape of the object. You may wish to start with an object that the whole class writes about before having students write their own poems. Shape poems give students a chance to brainstorm words and ideas connected with the object, and to delve deeper into the associations we have with everyday objects.
Lessons and activities:
- Writing Extraordinary Poems About Ordinary Objects (ReadWriteThink)
- Write Shape Poems (ReadWriteThink)
- Peace 2: Writing and Illustrating a Diamante Poem (ArtsEdge)
- Poetry with a Twist (Scholastic)
- Tips for Using Shape Poems (ReadWriteThink)
- Shape Poems online resource (ReadWriteThink)
This form of poetry is essentially a list that uses very concise language to describe something such as an emotion or a familiar object. It allows students to explore a single idea while at the same time practicing an economy of language.
- Put That on the List — Collaboratively Writing a Catalog Poem (ReadWriteThink)
- Put That on the List — Independently Writing a Catalog Poem (ReadWriteThink)
Poetry Forms for More Advanced Students
For students who are more comfortable with poetry forms and have a higher level of English I recommend the following forms as they require enough proficiency in English to be able to hear syllables and rhymes and enhanced descriptive vocabulary.
This is the Japanese poetry form that relies on a pattern of syllables: 5-7-5. The trick for ELLs is to be able to hear the syllables and get the wording right. If a student mispronounces a word they will not represent it correctly in the poem. Here is an example of a Haiku written by a student:
Smooth ocean shining,
Happy dolphins love to play.
Islands far at sea.
- Can You Haiku? (EdSitement)
- Reading, Writing, Haiku Hiking! A Class Book of Picturesque Poems (ReadWriteThink)
- Exploring Selected Haiku by Issa (Teachers' Domain)
Rhyming poems seem like they would be very simple. Everyone has recited the poem, "Roses are red, violets are blue." and filled in the rhyme. However, ELLs may not have a strong rhyming concept (depending on their first language and literacy skills) and they may not hear they rhyme of English words — not to mention the fact that you have to know quite a few vocabulary words to be able to come up with a rhyming word that makes sense. To introduce a rhyming format I recommend starting with something simple and then increasing difficulty as students work. For younger readers, many of Jack Prelutsky's poems have very accessible rhymes and rhythms. Older readers may enjoy the more lyrical verses of Langston Hughes.
Feeling and Place
Feeling and Place poems are really themes for any poem, although they lend themselves well to free form poetry. These poems require students to have an advanced vocabulary and the ability to describe emotions and places in detail. Students can start by brainstorming all the words they relate to a feeling, for example. If the word is, "Sad," they might make a list that includes depressed, tired, crying, missing, lost, father, distance, etc. Once they have the list of words they can choose some of them to begin creating metaphors, such as, "Crying is like you're turned inside out." Or "Missing someone is like an emptiness." Once students have compiled a list of vocabulary words and metaphors, they can begin putting the ideas together to make a poem. Throughout the process students can review each others' work and offer suggestions and feedback.
- How to Write Poems About Feelings (PoetryTeachers.com)
- A Picture of Your Feelings (Education World)
- I See by Your Outfit that You Are a Cowboy! (Oregon Public Broadcasting)
Invent Your Own Poetry Form!
In this lesson plan, teacher Glori Chaika describes an activity in which students invented their own poetry form at the end of the year, and then had to describe how to write poems in their form to their classmates. If other students couldn't follow the form, students revised their form and/or instructions until everyone could use the style.
While form is important when writing poetry, there is much more to it. Poetry offers the opportunity to explore an idea and emotion, to describe a special place or object that we take for granted, and create an image that others will be able experience. For this reason, I think it helps to incorporate some instructional strategies that will help students develop these skills.
It may help get those creative juices flowing by doing some activities such as the ones suggested by teacher Faith Vicinanza. One of the activities involves students imagining that they are something else such as "a drop of rain, the color blue, a school bus, or a stalk of wheat." Then students must be that object, and write about what they see, and where they go, etc. Ms. Vicinanza has some other great ideas in Calling on the Muse: Exercises to Unlock the Poet Within.
Artwork and Visualization
Another good way to begin warming up to writing poetry is to ask students to close their eyes and go through a guided visualization. Instruct the students to think of a place. Is it indoors or outdoors? What do you see and hear? What colors and sounds? Are people there? What are they doing? How do they feel? How do you feel? When the students open their eyes they can draw the picture they formed in their head and then explain it to a partner. In this exercise, students begin to practice focusing on the process of visualization, and formulate the vocabulary they will need to add description and emotion to their poetry.
A quick warm-up for students before writing is the box toss. Make a little box and write words on all the outside surfaces of the box. You could also put post-it notes words on the sides in order to re-use the box. Students sit in a circle and take turns tossing the box or passing it around. The teacher gives the students a task using the word that is visible when the box is caught. For example, the teacher might tell the student to list three adjectives describing their word, and if another person gets the same word, they will have to think of three new adjectives. Or the teacher might ask them to think of two words that rhyme with the box, or to say the first thing they think of when they see that word. It is really an activity to get students thinking creatively and quickly about words, and to emphasize that writing poetry is about expression not being perfect.
I like to use this technique to model how to revise a poem to make it more specific and interesting. The beauty of poetry is finding just the right words and putting them together to create a picture or emotion. I put the following poem on the board.
I woke up.
It was a nice day.
I was happy.
I ask the students if they like my poem. Some are too polite to say, "No." Then I ask them if they can think of some other words I might use to make it more interesting. They think of things like "opened my eyes," "gorgeous" or "thrilled." Then we play with putting the words in the poem and create something much more interesting than the original. I have the students compare the two poems and then discuss why the second poem is more interesting. We practice with more vocabulary words and put them on a continuum of general to more specific. For example:
Good — happy — ecstatic
Using the Thesaurus
This is an excellent time to introduce the Thesaurus and how to use it. I taught my students how to use the Thesaurus with some music activities. I played a variety of music selections with my students and asked them to write all the vocabulary words that came to mind as they listened. One piece was sad and slow, one was cheerful, and one was a loud hard rock number. After the students had finished listening, I had them work in small groups to share their words and discuss any new vocabulary. As a class we discussed how each word may have a slightly different meaning such as the difference between "sad," "mournful," and "despondent." I introduced the thesaurus to the students and lead them through the steps to discovering different words for the same thing. I then reinforced the importance of knowing the meaning of the words because the Thesaurus may list words that have different meanings from each other. For example, the word "connected" might have words listed that could have different meanings such as "linked" or "related." These discussions help students begin to understand the nuance of the different meanings.
Using Songs and Music
Discussing songs and song-writing can complement a poetry lesson nicely, and may be of particular interest to students who enjoying listening to music and thinking about lyrics. Here are some ideas of how to use songs and music in your poetry instruction.
Sharing Your Students' Poetry
Another wonderful thing about teaching poetry is that it can be easy to share with others! Students can read it out loud at a poetry reading or family night event, or you post can student poems on the wall.
In her blog entry on poetry and ELLs on Scholastic's website, Andrea Spillett shares a great idea from one of her colleagues — he collects a poem from each student, and then binds all of the poems together in a book that he gives his students at the end of the year. The Academy of American Poets offers some other great ideas, publishing student poetry in your school's newspaper or magazine, holding student poetry workshops or a student poetry reading at the local library or bookstore. For other ideas, take a look at the Academy's Tips for Teaching Poetry, as well as some ideas for using presenting poems through PowerPoint for Open House or a Poetry Slam.
I encourage you to check out some of the Hotlinks for more resources and ideas on how to explore poetry writing with your students. You never know what their creative minds will come up with, and what they'll learn about themselves in the process!
Click the "References" link above to hide these references.
Spillette, Andrea. (2008, April 5). Celebrate Poetry Month with Your English Language Learners. Message posted to http://community.scholastic.com/scholastic/blog/article?blog.id=ELL_strategies&message.id=54.
Kristina Robertson (2009)