Poems in the ELT Class
Poems are near impossible to find at the lower levels where I specialize. Because I work with many nationalities, Marc Helgesen’s great material on haiku wouldn’t work either, though it is stimulating for a group of students who have a shared concept of haiku .
There are a few poems – I found a memorable one on math, ‘The Art of Probably’ by Marilyn Burns for Grapevine / Main Street, and I used a poem from ‘Pictures From Brueghel’ by William Carlos Williams in Streamline Directions. It was the visual opportunity of illustrating the poem with the Brueghel painting it describes that motivated me. I often wonder why no publisher has done the same with all the poems in the collection.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading for likely candidates with very little success. I kept thinking there’d be a perfect Shel Silverstein, William Carlos Williams or Adrian Henri, but they never quite made it at the levels I was interested in. I looked at popular humorous poetry like Pam Ayres or Victoria Wood, but again it was so hard to balance the amount of explanation needed against the amount of production that resulted. The rationale for using poems would be memorability, rhyme, rhythm of language and hopefully a degree of aesthetic appreciation of what a poem can do. It’s another form of text which has stress / intonation pay-offs. As I rarely venture beyond intermediate level, I’ve limited my interest. I’ve played and read great poems aloud but focussed on the roll and sound of the language rather than meaning. On the whole, songs and chants do the same job better. I have composed little doggerel rhymes as chants in A Grand Day Out, because it was intended for a younger age group.
I guess I was put off literary poems in the ELT classroom for life by doing teacher-training in Italy in the early 80s, where literature was part of the curriculum. This meant that a great deal of authentic poetry was laboured through very slowly with students at a pre-intermediate level. It was not a total waste of time, but it was not an efficient use of very limited time either. It was a waste of time according to most teachers struggling to change the system.
There is often a mistaken subliminal view by language teachers (often literature graduates themselves) that students are motivated to learn English so they can read sonnets in the original. There is and has been an academic bias in ELT materials in the broadest sense when there should be a communication skills bias. Use poems where they are appropriate- upper-intermediate and advanced level. An English poem would only be a sensible approach for those who read and appreciate poetry in their own language. Work out the percentages.
PS- “Poetry As A Foreign Language” sounds like an interesting take on this subject. It consists of poems written by teachers and learners about elt. Here’s one, lifted from the teflfarm review:
I’m an expert – it’s written in the contract –
And classes sit at my feet four days a week.
Outside the classroom I revert to ignorance.
The lady selling roasted melon seeds
Has to hold up fingers for the price.
by Sarah Lawson – China