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Poetry and the ESL classroom: how rhyme can work for your students

Diverse Elementary ClassPrior to becoming an Editor for Oxford University Press, Mexico, Lysette Taplin worked as an English language teacher and author for a number of primary and secondary series. In this post she promotes World Poetry Day by sharing some practical tips to use in the ELT Classroom.

Poetry is an effective tool in English language teaching as it enlivens the class, giving the students a motivational buzz while stimulating their creative writing. The emphasis on the sounds and rhythm of language aids students’ phonological awareness, building a foundation for correct pronunciation and intonation, which in turn has a strong correlation to proficiency in reading and listening. In order to celebrate World Poetry Day, this blog aims to present a selected poem from the OUP series Step Inside and provide ideas for ways to exploit poetry in the English language-learning classroom.

As an ELT Editor for OUP, I had the opportunity to work on an inspiring series of reading anthologies for primary school students. The series Step Inside promotes extensive reading by using texts from a variety of genres, including poetry, fables, myths and legends, fairy tales, fiction, non-fiction, and comics.

The following excerpt has been selected from a poem included in Step Inside, level 4:

Wayne the Stegosaurus

Written by Kenn Nesbitt

Meet the Stegosaurus, Wayne.

He doesn’t have the biggest brain.

He’s long and heavy, wide and tall,

But has a brain that’s extra small.

He’s not the brightest dinosaur.

He thinks that one plus one is four.

He can’t remember up from down.

He thinks the sky is chocolate brown.

Using poetry to teach pronunciation

This humorous poem can be used to focus students on English pronunciation by working with rhyme.

In your class, put students into pairs and give each pair the lines of the poem cut up into strips. Have them work together to identify and group the lines that end in rhyming pairs. Tell students that rhyming pairs are two words that end in the same sound, for example Wayne and brain, tall and small. Highlight some of the difficult spelling patterns, for example Wayne, brain; tries, eyes; white, night, etc. while emphasizing the pronunciation of each of the sounds. Then, tell students that they are going to create a rhyming chain. Instruct students to choose four rhyming pairs from the poem and write down as many other words that rhyme as they can. Have some volunteers write their rhyming words on the board to check answers as a class. Next, read the poem aloud and have students order the lines from the poem. Ask volunteers to read the poem aloud to check answers as a class.

Rhyming Schemes

The pattern of rhymes in a poem is labelled with the letters A, B, C, D, etc. To identify the rhyming scheme, tell students to look at the last word in each line. Tell them to label the first set of lines that rhyme with A, then label the second set B, etc. In the case of the poem above, the rhyming scheme for each stanza is AABB because the first two lines in the stanza rhyme with each other as do the last two lines.

Below is an example of an ABCB rhyming scheme, excerpt taken from Step Inside, level 2:

Art Class

Written by Penelope McKimm

Art class can be lots of fun,

With so many things to do!

Cutting, coloring, painting, drawing,

Sticking things with glue!

Have students illustrate the poem

Have students work in groups of six. Encourage them to think about what happens in each of the stanzas and then, choose one of the stanzas to illustrate. When they have all finished illustrating their stanzas, have them put them in order and present their work to the rest of the class.

Writing

Give students a handout of a poem with some words missing. It could be the same poem students were working with before, or a different poem.

Wayne the Stegosaurus

Written by Kenn Nesbitt

Meet the Stegosaurus, __________.

He doesn’t have the biggest __________.

He’s __________ and __________, __________ and __________,

But has a __________ that’s extra __________.

Put students into pairs and have them brainstorm words to complete the gaps. Encourage them to include rhymes, but tell them that they can change the rhyming scheme if they wish.

Another activity which provides students with scaffolding for their poem is to tell them to write a five line poem with the following structure:

First line: a noun

Second line: four adjectives

Third line: an action

Fourth line: how you feel about the noun

Fifth line: the noun

This activity can be carried out individually or in pairs or small groups. Encourage students to use a thesaurus to think of exciting adjectives, for example superb instead of good. Below is an example of a five-line poem

T. Rex

Fierce, fast, green and scaly

Goes out hunting daily

Makes me shiver to the bone

T. Rex

Both students and teachers often tend to fear poetry, but by providing the proper scaffolding, we advocate creativity and give our students sense of accomplishment. As teachers, we need to make it clear to our students that it is okay to make mistakes. The most important thing is to let their imaginations run wild, and then have them go back and edit their work once they are finished.

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Creative Writing in the Language Classroom: 8 Collected Poems

Group of teenagers studyingFollowing a webinar entitled “Creative Writing in the Language Classroom” on 9th and 15th March, Jane Spiro, author of Creative Poetry Writing (2004) and Storybuilding (2007), presents 8 Collected Poems generated by the participants of the webinar over both dates.

During our two webinars we experimented with language and language play, and ‘wrote’ together 8 poems, which I am delighted to share with you in this blog.

The poems here have all been generated by you the participants, coming from 52 different countries and writing your lines and ideas online during the sessions. I have merely organised them, pared down words here and there where less might express more, cut out repetition where several of you said the same thing, sometimes grouped ideas together that seemed to fit semantically, creating verse forms of 2 or 3 or 4 lines. So, although I have acted here as editor, every word in these poems comes from you, the participants.

Download the full PDF of Collected Poems generated from the webinar.

We started by sharing and comparing ways in which we write ourselves, and use creative writing with our learners. I have collated some of these comments into the first poem Writing Creatively.

We then experimented with the different components of language, starting with the phoneme, the smallest unit of language. Here we tried to ‘describe’ to one another in writing, the sounds participants were hearing all around the world in their rooms and classrooms. This led to the second poem Our sounds with spring and summer sounds from Brazil, Italy, Portugal, India.

We then looked at the next biggest component of language, the morpheme, with our example being the prefix ‘man’. This idea comes from a poem by Andy Brown which we used as a starting point. Which words can be constructed with the prefix ‘man’? Participants wrote their ‘man’ words and built this into the sentence ‘It’s a man—– world’, as in the poem by Andy Brown. Our results are in the poem Mankind World – just as good as the published one, which became part of the UK school exam syllabus!

Next we looked at negative and positive connotations in words: how do we interpret words and where do our associations come from – our experience of life, stories, cultural influences? We compared responses to the words ‘red’ and ‘rose’, and all these associations formed the poem Rose Red.

Our next activity looked at the way words collate – or do not naturally collate – with one another. So, for example, if we compare someone human to something inanimate, we have immediately generated a metaphor – ‘finding similarities in dissimilarities’ as Coleridge said in his treatise on poetry. We listed people in our lives: then objects in the natural world, and joined the two with the verb form ‘is like’. Participants very rapidly joined in with this idea, creating metaphors about mothers, boyfriends and girlfriends, wives and husbands, sons and daughters. The results are in the poem My mother is like a flower.

Another way to create a metaphor is to compare something abstract – for example, ‘learning a language’, with something concrete such as seashells, a white room, or a mountain. Participants were asked to choose which metaphor they related to most from a choice of three, and to explain their choice. The results are in the poem Learning a language is like

Next we moved onto  sentence patterns. The first pattern ‘I remember’ was used to trigger memories of schooldays, and in particular first days at school. This very simple sentence opening could be completed by just a single noun or noun phrase, or a whole clause – but all convey past memories and even a sense of nostalgia. The results are in the poem I remember schooldays.

Finally we looked at complex sentence patterns, and the structure ‘If I were ____, I would’. When we introduce ‘language play’ and allow ourselves to ‘be’ inanimate as well as animate, abstract as well as concrete, this sentence structure yields all kinds of interesting metaphors. You can read these in the poem If I were, I would.

These ideas and examples are offered to you, the reader, so you can try them out for yourselves, in the  classroom and outside, and compare and add your own results to those we have here as our poems become more and more international. Happy writing!

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Creative Writing in the Language Classroom

Jane Spiro, author of Creative Poetry Writing (2004) Storybuilding (2007), looks at how, why, and with what effect we can include creative writing activities in the language classroom. Jane will be hosting a webinar entitled “Creative Writing in the Language Classroom” on 9th and 15th March. You can find more information and register to attend here.

Why introduce creative writing activities?  

Our use of the mother tongue is full of the same ‘creative’ strategies that poets use when they are shaping a poem. When we tell jokes we are often playing with puns and the shape and form of words: when we use idioms we are often invoking a metaphor or simile that has become part of the language. The names of products, or the nicknames we use for people we like and dislike often play with the sound of words – alliteration and internal rhymes, the connotation of words, or multiple meanings.  So one reason that creative activities in the language classroom are worthwhile, is because they mirror the strategies we use in our mother tongue.

Another, perhaps even more important reason, is that an effective creative writing strategy brings the whole learner into the classroom: experiences, feelings, memories, beliefs. Of course other activities can do this too – but the creative writing activity can lead to an outcome which is memorable, which the learner may want to keep, or even ‘publish’ to others: a Valentine poem, a poem of thanks to a parent, a birthday poem for a sibling or friend.

How do creative writing activities fit with language learning?

Many teachers say there is no time for poetry activities, or creative activities, alongside all the language goals of the classroom. Another objection, is that the language of poems and stories is quite different from the everyday language students really need.

This webinar will answer these two concerns.  We will explore the ways in which creative writing activities can be developed as part of the language syllabus, helping to make vocabulary, structures and patterns memorable and engaging.  We will also consider how creative writing activities allow opportunities for connecting language skills so that writing leads to informed reading, and vice versa. Our discussions and activities will also prove that these strategies are within the capacity of all learners (and teachers too!) and do not require special ‘genius’ or talent to be achievable.

Don’t forget to find out more information and register for Jane’s upcoming webinar.

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