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Integrated holistic approach to poetry instruction.


The use of poetry in EFL/ESL instruction can provide learners with an opportunity for meaning-filled engagement with English language texts along with integrated development of all four language skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Such a holistic and integrated instructional approach has a strongly grounded rationale for support. An instructional unit with specific texts and a teaching guide offers an illustration of the practicality and advantages of this kind of English language pedagogy in the EFL/ESL classroom for students from low intermediate level.


Current theoretical and pedagogical approaches see reading as a meaning-centered process relative to different texts, social contexts, and purposes. Instructionally, reading should be integrated with speaking, listening, and writing, along with critical thinking, and involve students in actively creating and using meaning for particular purposes. Within such an instructional approach, "students become intellectually/ cognitively engaged in language and content" (Blanton, 1992, p. 291). It is essential for students to have opportunities to formulate and express their thoughts, opinions, and feelings, and to relate knowledge and information on matters within their life-experiences and in the society around them. In this way they may enhance their awareness of themselves as well as their own society and culture, and thus be able to widen and deepen their understanding of other peoples, cultures and issues on a global scale.

A focus on meaning within reading texts promotes language acquisition (Krashen, 1982). But more: "As language teachers, we are fundamentally educationalists and not just instructors, and it is our duty to contribute to the emotional, imaginative, and intellectual development of our learners" (Tomlinson, 1986, p. 34). This article will explore the role of poetry to advance such a holistic and integrated instructional approach for college students of English as a foreign language or second language (EFL/ESL). The rationale underpinning the use of poetry will be presented, with supporting references to several scholar-teachers who have very cogently made the case, along with the outline of a specific unit of instruction developed by the author for illustration.

The rationale for poetry

Poetry is universal among all societies and deals with themes that are common to all cultures and human experiences, such as love, death, nature, despair, and hope. Poetry texts can be excellent material for promoting the integration of skills for language learners. As Maley & Duff (1989) succinctly note: "Poetry offers a rich resource for input to language learning" (p. 7). In poetry, all the resources of language are used as in no other literary or non-literary medium. "A poem offers a ready-made semantic field for the learners to enter" (Mackay, 1987, p. 53). The language landscape includes the features of vocabulary, expressions, syntax, structure, morphology, and stylistic devices. Within this framework, Tomlinson (1986) affirms: "The main objective of using poetry in language lessons is ... to find a means of involving the learners in using their language skills in an active and creative way, and thus to contribute to the development of their communicative competence" (p. 33).

Carefully selected poems (see Lems, 2001) provide opportunities for learners to examine the expressive possibilities of the language. They provide learners with "meaningful and memorable contexts for processing and interpreting new language" (Lazar, 1993, p. 17). As most poetry is written economically and meaning is compacted, there is need for elaboration and interpretation. "In order to retrieve these meanings and talk about them, it is necessary to expand and extend the words on the page. From a small language input one can generate a large and varied output" (Maley & Duff, 1989, 12).

A reader's transaction with the text of a poem is unique. Learners are able to respond to it in their own way. In the construction of meaning, the interactive process between the reader and the text involves one's background knowledge and experience, as well as one's feelings and emotions. Maley & Duff (1989) make clear the pedagogical implications:
 Poems speak subtly different messages to different people ... In
 teaching, this is an enormous advantage. It means that, within
 limits, each learner's personal interpretation has validity ...
 [This] personalized reaction to texts--i.e. one which engages not
 only the intellect but also the feelings--is ... a very important
 part of the language learning process (p. 10).

Eur (2000) expands on this point with reference to group discussion in class moderated by the teacher. "Each personal meaning found in the poem is shared, exchanged, negotiated, reinforced, valued, or loosed in the process of interacting freely, safely, funnily with others' findings" (p. 7).

Tomlinson (1986) is entirely correct in asserting: "Poems which achieve affective responses from learners can stimulate them to unusually intelligent and creative use of language in follow-up activities" (p. 34). Students can realize expression of their reactions to the content of a poem, with its images and inferences and other devices, through an integrated skills approach that includes guided small-group discussions, appropriate writing tasks which link the processes of reading and writing, and oral recitation of the poems. Speaking of learning within the whole language model, Blanton (1992) remarks: "With all language skills brought to bear on a topic--as students listen to others, discuss their ideas, read various texts, and write about various aspects of the topic--their command of English grows, as does their sophistication in working with ideas and texts. Their confidence grows as well" (p. 289).

Introducing her own particular instructional process, Hess (2003) notes: "A very structured approach to the study of poetry can use the compactly condensed text of a poem to create meaning-filled language lessons that integrate the four skills, allow for the cohesion of text with the life experiences of students, and heighten both interest and involvement in the language lesson" (p. 20). This paradigm parallels the instructional illustration that follows.

An instructional unit with three texts

To illustrate the value of poetry in EFL/ESL classes and how it may be used in various ways, here is presented the outline of an instructional unit for college level that might last several weeks of a term with one 90-minute class per week. It centers on the lyrics of a song, She's Leaving Home by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and two poems, The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost and Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson. (N.B.: These texts are available on innumerable web sites by simply entering the titles into a search engine such as Google.) They are placed together with the common theme of personal choices that are made at different stages in life and their consequences. This has particular relevance for college students, most of whom face imminent entry into "the real world" and important life choices regarding, for example, jobs, marriage and family, military service, and many other adult responsibilities.


Some of the instructional objectives for students for such a unit include:

* using reading strategies and skills appropriate for the texts

* responding to the way in which the poems and song lyrics affect them

* using their existing knowledge and experience, as well as imagination and interpretation, to construct meaning from the texts

* understanding and identifying lyrical devices such as rhyme and rhythm

* delivering skilled oral presentations of the poems

* appreciating and enjoying reading poetry and having confidence in their ability to understand and respond to it

* working through the recursive stages of the writing process

The tasks and activities prepared by the teacher for this unit of instruction should be carried out in pairs or groups of three or four students in a cooperative learning environment. Such a classroom is characterized by the interdependence of all the learners in a group; the interpersonal interaction among the members; the individual accountability of each learner; and the assessment by the groups of their own performance. Students work together to maximize their own learning and that of everyone else in the group. Teachers maximize the opportunity for students to promote each other's success by helping, supporting, encouraging, and praising each other's efforts. (See Johnson and Johnson, 1999.)

Integrating language skills: Speaking, Listening, Reading

The work for each of the three texts of this unit of instruction could begin with a student-centered discussion in small groups based on an outline guide prepared by the teacher on points related to choices and passages in life, as represented in the texts. She's Leaving Home concerns adolescence; The Road Not Taken speaks of youth and later adulthood; and Richard Cory deals with points in life when some choose to end it. The role of oral support in assisting students to read and write is very significant. Students relate their thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences, and perhaps those of some family members and friends, as well. This pre-reading oral activity serves to motivate students, activate their background knowledge, and clarify the themes to be encountered in the texts.

For She's Leaving Home, students then would listen a few times to the recording of the song by the Beatles, looking at the words at first, then listening without viewing them in order to better sense the feelings in the lyrics. Following this, they would read the lyrics aloud and silently, employing appropriate strategies and skills in pairs or small groups. These would include clarifying the meaning of words and figurative language, discerning the effects of the language and the impact of the imagery, and drawing inferences. The first two narrative stanzas also provide a wonderful opportunity to include students' physical response to the lyrics by their acting out the description of the sequences of action of the daughter awakening early and leaving home, and her parents later rising and reading the letter she left behind for them.

The teacher would present at least two readings of each poem as that component of the instructional unit is introduced to the class. For each of the three texts, in turn, small groups would work through reading tasks and activities given in a worksheet. These could include guiding questions to explore the themes of the texts, the meaning of particular elements, poetic structures and lexical components, and students' personal responses. For She's Leaving Home, a response item might address students' views as to whether the young woman treated her parents "thoughtlessly" as her mother feels; for The Road Not Taken, on the mood created in the poem by the poet as he stands at the juncture of "two roads diverged in a yellow wood"; and for Richard Cory, why a person like him whom all in town "thought that he was everything / To make us wish that we were in his place" might in fact have been in such despair as "one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head."


As Maley & Duff (1989) have noted: "One of the most important conditions for learning a foreign language ... is the opportunity to play with it, to pull it this way and that, to test its elasticity, to test and explore its limits. Poetry is par excellence the medium in which this can be done" (p. 9). Nearly all poetry gains from being read aloud and the integration of oral presentation with the other instructional exercises in this unit involves students in direct, active, meaning making engagement with and response to the texts. It is a marvelous opportunity for students working in small groups, reading the text aloud many times in various ways, to share, discuss, and critique their efforts while developing individual expressive interpretations of the text based on all the prior work done on it. Recitation practice is also a stimulating and effective way in which students can develop skills to speak with better pronunciation, articulation, phrasing, intonation, rhythm, pace, fluency, and voice projection and control. The teacher should allow ample time within the instructional unit for recitation practice followed by presentations before the full class.


Writing tasks for the song lyrics and the two poems can effect the integration of writing and reading as described by Zamel (1992): "In the same way that writing a text necessarily involves reading it, reading a text requires writing a response to it. Thus, just as the teaching of writing should involve the teaching of reading ..., the teaching of reading is necessarily the teaching of writing. Just as reading provides 'comprehensible input' for writing, writing can contribute comprehensible input for reading" (p. 480).

The writing tasks for the instructional unit could be set up as joint constructions by pairs or small groups or as individual assignments, in either case employing a process mode of production that includes brainstorming, drafting, peer review, and revision. Upon completion the products could be presented orally to the full class and/or in print for reading.

For She's Leaving Home, students could be assigned to write the letter that might have been left by the young woman for her parents. In The Road Not Taken, the traveler says: "I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence ..." Students could be assigned to write scripts imagining the traveler speaking with his grandchildren many years later about the "road" he took in life and its consequences. For Richard Cory the writing task might be the composition of an obituary for Richard Cory to appear in the town newspaper. The obituary may be taken as a genre. Before the students begin their work, the teacher should introduce several examples from newspapers to serve as models. Students should be particularly aware of the assumed audience for the writing and that they would need to use their imaginations to construct the details of the life of Richard Cory beyond the transformation of the lyrical descriptions in the poem to suitable prose language.


All of the instructional activities and tasks referred to have been performed by mostly low to middle intermediate level students of the author in the intensive English program at a two-year vocational language college and in courses at a university in Japan. Their responsiveness to the material and their level of effort have been notable, and the quality of their production has been satisfying and rewarding to both them and the teacher.

This article has presented a rationale that supports the use of poetry in EFL/ESL classes for college students to advance their language skills in an integrated manner. It has shown the importance and the potential of integrating reading and writing tasks and activities with oral language. Furthermore, as Tomlinson (1986) states: "Poetry ... can open and enrich the content of language lessons, can provide useful opportunities for gaining experience of the world, and can contribute to the development of the 'whole person' as well as the 'learner of a language'" (p. 34). A specific unit of work for students was presented to illustrate how appropriate poetry texts and supporting materials can be used with advantage in the classroom. The benefits to students of such a holistic and integrated approach to language learning are real and their satisfaction with and enjoyment of their engagement with poetry can be long-lasting.


Blanton, L. (1992). A holistic approach to college ESL: integrating language and content. ELT Journal, 46 (3), 285-293.

Eur, Do-seon. (2000). English language acquisition through English poetry in ESL/EFL. Paper presented at Korea-Waseda University graduate seminar (June 19). [Online].

Hess, N. (2003). Real language through poetry: a formula for meaning making. ELT Journal, 57 (1), 19-25.

Johnson, D. and Johnson, R. (1999). What makes cooperative learning work. In D. Kluge, S. McGuire, D. Johnson, and R. Johnson (Eds.) Cooperative Learning. Tokyo: The Japan Association for Language Teaching.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Lazar, G. (1993). Literature and language teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lems, K. (2001). An American poetry project for low intermediate ESL learners. English Teaching Forum, 39 (4), 24-29.

Mackay, R. (1987). Poems. Hong Kong: Modern English Publications.

Maley, A. and Duff, A. (1989). The Inward Ear: Poetry in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tomlinson, B. (1986). Using poetry with mixed ability language classes. ELT Journal, 40 (1), 33-41.

Zamel, V. (1992). Writing one's way into reading. TESOL Quarterly, 26 (3), 463-485.

James W. Porcaro, Toyama University of International Studies, Japan

Porcaro is a professor of English as a foreign language.. His interests include sustained content language instruction, materials development, and teacher training.
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Author:Porcaro, James W.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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