English Language Learners? Give Their English a Boost with Poetry

Every day, ELLs and ESL students face a barrage of grammar, readings, and comprehension checks. Offer them a language victory through poetry and memorization.

Barbbytes Poetry in ClassMemorization, long thought to be the “bad boy” of education, has a respectable history of function and use if one scans back over the ages. Our grandparents and theirs held forth on lofty topics, declaiming for a quarter hour or more with nary a crib-note to be seen. In schools all over the country, students committed lengthy poetry, speeches, and historic documents to memory and performed in front of their fellows, teachers, parents and civic leaders, counting each text in their repertoire as an arrow in a literary quiver. In the last few decades, these habits of memorization and sharing have slipped quietly into an educational closet that also holds times-table charts, grammar and sentence outlines, and extensive homework schedules.

The Cognitive Benefits of Memorization

Rather than bemoan all that has gone, I’d like to apply a literary cattle prod to the practice of memorizing poetry, particularly on behalf of non-native speakers of English, although native-speakers would certainly benefit as well. Ideally, of course, we would rely on awakening our memory rather than memorizing to anchor memory. However, I have found that the “awakening” comes after memorizing in a manner that would please even the most stringent advocate of “applied learning”. Paul Ricoeur clarifies the distinction between the process of memorizing and the resultant ease of recall. “…memorization can be held to be a form of habit memory. But the process of memorization is specified by the methodological character of the ways of learning aiming at an easy actualization, the privileged form of happy memory.”

After all, musicians memorize all the time, and no one accuses them of demeaning their intellect through rote learning. Like musicians, students learning a poem incorporate a selection of learning strategies as they move through the process, thus enhancing their understanding of the piece, and enabling their minds to make connections to other information related to the poem. The specific benefits of memorizing poetry include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Introducing a dance of words to students in whose homes no books are found.
  2. Bringing light to features of culture and literature that immigrants would not connect with in the normal course of events.
  3. Creating an environment in which the rigorous application of effort results in a demonstrable accomplishment.
  4. Providing access to words, sounds and ideas that take the student far beyond the classroom.
  5. Enhancing vocabulary and improving language rhythm.

Where to Begin the Memorization Process?

Often I start with a humorous, lyrical gem from Edward Lear. “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” Barbbytes Owlpussycatoffers a great story with lots of twists and irrational turns. Discussions before memorizing reveal features of the story that tantalize even high schoolers. A list of questions meant to stimulate discussion, laughter, and considerations for real life is an effective way to introduce the poem.

  • Is this a case of running away to the circus or exploring the unknown?
  • Owls and pussycats come from different cultures, yet they fall in love? How is that possible?
  • Why a pea-green boat? Are we to think of nausea in relation to the sea?

Getting Down to the Words in the Poem

Each student should have his or her own copy of the poem and they should be encouraged to mark it up in any way that furthers the task of learning, understanding, and memorizing. Often, by the time the student is ready to memorize, his or her sheet is so smudged with pronunciation cues, pause marks, questions about meaning, etc, that a clean copy is required.

  • The Words – Having ready a list of words and phrases unfamiliar to your students will help when, after the first reading, you ask, “Were there any words you didn’t know?” Tricky phrases in “The Owl” are: five pound note, fowl, tarry, shilling, mince, quince, runcible spoon,
  • The Nonsense – Pointing out to students the phrases or identifiers that have no place in proper English beckons them into the spirit of the piece. Ask them why the author made up words such as Bong-tree and Piggy-wig.
  • The Rhythm – Reading the poem with expression and rhythm will aid in both comprehension and memory. Students can mark which words carry the stress as one mnemonic device. Usually, this is the last word in the line for this poem.

The Process of Memorizing

Barbbytes Memorize-a-Poem-Quickly-Step-1-Version-2Student may stare, mouths agape when you tell them they will be memorizing a poem. Use that moment of silence to tell them that there is a process and that literally anyone can do it. Ask who knows the lyrics to a song. Have the students share, within the pounds of propriety of course, given the songs they favor. Then, have them copy these simple steps to knowing a poem by heart.

  1. Listen to the poem.
  2. Read the poem to yourself. Underline and check on difficult words.
  3. Read the poem aloud. This is only the first of 50 times you will do this.
  4. Be sure you know how to pronounce all of the words.
  5. Start with the last verse. For some people, knowing the ending creates an comfortable path to the beginning.
  6. Use the rhythm and rhyme of the poem. They were put there to create a kind of mind music, the same kind of music that allows you to learn the words to songs.
  7. Repeat, repeat, and then repeat again, gradually dropping the typed copy and relying solely on your memory.

Jim Holt, in his NY Times essay, “ Got Poetry?” asserts that, “…then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance…It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within.” My students agreed, practically shining with the light of a genuine language victory.


4 thoughts on “English Language Learners? Give Their English a Boost with Poetry

  1. Fabulous. I have I have fond memories of memorizing and reciting poetry in Canada when I was in grade school I don’t know if I’ve told you but I used to run an oral interpretation contest and Andrew Hill high school that fell by the wayside when my friend and fellow teacher who did the contest with me you moved away thanks for writing up the peace and joy did Barb.

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. I am currently teaching a Pronunciation class and poetry is one of the first projects they take on after the IPA. It really builds their confidence and motivates them to really work the language. Thank you, Marie.

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