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Lesson Ideas for Teaching Poetry

Lesson Ideas for Teaching Poetry

When I say the word “poetry” in class, I am often met with a sonorous groan. As a fan of poetry, this always breaks my heart a little. But over the years, I have managed to change a few minds about poetry—or at least about individual poems.  How? By choosing a poem carefully, and then engaging the learners with a recipe of interactive and communicative activities. Plus a dash of creativity.

One good example is a lesson I have taught numerous times using a poem by W.H. Auden called “Funeral Blues.”  This article includes two lesson plans with the same poem: one for lower level students (A2 to B1), and a different version for higher level (B2-C1) students.

Lesson One

1) Lead-in

The teacher elicits fifteen words related to poetry on the board—anything that comes to the students’ minds. Last time I taught this lesson I got beauty, death, syllable, rhyme, among others.  In pairs, the students then create categories to put all the words into.  (Full disclosure: this brainstorm activity was filched from Teaching Unplugged (2009) by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings.)

2) Poem

On a paper folded in half, the students are then given one stanza of the poem with gapped words:

He was my North, my ________, my East and _________,

My working ____________ and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my ___________, my talk, my ___________;

I thought that _________ would last for ever: I was _________.

In pairs, the students guess the missing words.  Then the teacher reads the stanza aloud.  There are also YouTube videos of people reciting the poem, including one from Four Weddings and a Funeral.  Here is a link:

One reading is usually enough.  (Students can compare if necessary.)

The students then unfold the paper and check with the full poem:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The teacher then elicits which of the words from the brainstorm activity during the lead-in apply to this poem. How are they related? It’s usually surprising how many of their words link in some way to this one single stanza.

3) Translation

In pairs, the students then translate the poem into their own language.  The language in this poem is pretty simple, so it usually doesn’t take long.

In a monolingual class, I’ll then provide the students with two slightly different versions of the verse (easily found by Googling the poem).  In English, the students then comment on any differences with their own translation, and which of the official translations they like better. Usually this leads to a bit of a discussion about how much liberty a translator should take with the meaning of the poem, whether how it sounds is more important sometimes, etc.

In multilingual class, I’ll have each student translate it into their own language, and then take turns reading it aloud.  Never heard the same poem read in Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and French in one lesson? I highly recommend it!

4) Rewrite the poem

In the final stage of the lesson, the students are given an opportunity to rewrite the stanza in small groups. They maintain the same structure and rhyming scheme but change some the of the words.  For example:

He was my sun, my moon, my morning and my night

In my experience, students may need a bit of help getting started, but then they really get into the activity. Some groups will take it seriously, producing equally mournful verse, while others (teenage boys especially) will employ humor: He was my Xbox, my Playstation, etc.  Both strategies should be equally encouraged!

The students finish by sharing their new verses. You could finish by having them discuss which version they liked best and why, which was the saddest, funniest, most original, etc.

Lesson Two

1) Lead-in

To start with, the students discuss the following question in pairs: what makes poetry different from prose? (You might have to pre-teach prose.) The teacher could elicit or teach: line breaks, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, meter, metaphor, simile, etc.

2) Dictogloss

This dictation activity will be familiar to most foreign language teachers, but for the uninitiated: the teacher reads the stanza below at a natural pace three times. Each time the students furiously take notes and then are given a chance to try to reconstruct the poem in pairs or small groups. With each reading they get closer and closer to the original. A poem like this one lends itself particularly to this activity because of the use of repetition and rhyme. You could correct by eliciting it to the board or simply passing out a written copy.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The teacher then elicits which of the words from the brainstorm activity in the lead-in apply to this stanza. This poem, for example, employs alliteration (working week), rhyme (rest, west), repetition (my, my, my), metaphor (basically everything!), etc.  The teacher could point out how we usually capitalize words at the beginning of lines, or how the spelling of forever has changed over time, etc.

3) Full poem

Before giving students the whole poem, pre-teaching some vocabulary might be a good idea, for example, “moan,” “scribble,” or “dismantle.” A gist task could be noting down emotions that are expressed in the poem, counting metaphors, etc.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.

Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,

Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Ideas for more detailed tasks could include:

  • asking the students to replace certain words with synonyms (dismantle, take apart). Does the poem still sound as good?
  • role playing a conversation with the author of the poem and a close friend
  • write a new verse (to put in the middle or at the end)

4) Recite

Prior generations were expected to memorize poems and recite them in class.  This to me does not seem like an entirely bad idea. In this lesson, I usually finish by giving each student a stanza to memorize. For larger classes, form groups of four.  The students then go around and recite the entire poem, stanza by stanza.

Some final words

Dictation, translation, memorization—these types of activities might seem a bit old fashioned to many of today’s foreign language teachers. But I hope you have seen how these techniques can be tweaked a bit fit to the modern day communicative language classroom. Over the years, my students have been almost uniformly enthusiastic about this lesson, enjoying the activities and also the poem itself.  Poetry is often (fairly and unfairly) labeled as “hard,” but this can actually work in the teacher’s favor with the right poem. Understanding and really engaging with something “hard” in a foreign language can be very motivating and satisfying for students. 

Give these lessons a try and share your experience in the box below. What other poems might these lessons work well with?

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