How to Use Poems in EFL Teaching

By Tony Penston

This is an example of how to use a popular poem to engage students and improve pronunciation using old-fashioned but effective drilling.

Benefits and rationale

Poems are written to be read aloud and usually have a rhythm that can be shown and enjoyed. Unfortunately, being authentic material they make little concession for language learners, hence I don’t recommend their use below a strong intermediate level. However, they are ideal for certain classes. Choose a poet that is well known or otherwise of interest as this ensures higher motivation. Short and manageable is best.

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Don’t be afraid to drill

Most TEFL training courses, to my knowledge, pay little attention to the skill of drilling in the classroom. Yet we know the value of repetition. Here’s a quote from the polyglot Tim Doner*: “One of the most important things to do is have a lot of audio input. … I think by repeating to yourself over and over, it’s a very good way to train.” And here’s one from one of the most respected EFL experts, Henry Widdowson*: “There must be some aspects of language learning which have to do with habit formation.”

At upper intermediate level and beyond, only a small amount of drilling may need to be done. Nevertheless, the option to read poetry aloud following the teacher’s model should be offered to all, and in my experience is taken up by most.

A poem about a choice

Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is widely known and liked, perhaps because we can all recollect a moment when we had to decide on a course in life, or maybe just a path in a park, when the decision seemed to hold some importance or led to an important event. This is one of those topics that engages students from the start.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN THE ROAD NOT TAKEN by Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Method

1. Pre-teach in the normal way:

Elicit how we make choices when there’s not much between the options: which boy/girl to ask for a date (sigh about the romance, about having to make choices), which film to watch, subject to study, etc. Of course you should reminisce on how you decided to be a teacher, turning down the offer of vice president of Microsoft(!) Show/draw (and elicit) a wood, undergrowth, leaves (what colour is a wood?); tread on some realia, include trodden; show paths diverging, ask how would they know the better path, ask which is worn, which has more wear; ask which path they would take and why. Which did the poet take (prediction question)? Elicit how making a small choice can influence the rest of one’s life.

You could ask pairs to chat for a while, comparing choices they have made in their lives. This part of the lead-in doesn’t suit all types, so monitor and cut short if necessary.

Ask if a four-line ABAB would suit the theme (show a simple example as below, blanking some end-of-line words and eliciting:
I stopped at a path in a wood,
It was pretty in parts, but grey,
Then another path looked (good),
But which was the better (way)?
or is there a way to show the indecision (I always feel the fourth line in Frost’s poem does that somehow, delaying till the fifth)? And that’s another prediction question.

2. Hand out the poem (better than projecting because some students like to add translations and pronunciation marks).

Tell students to read it quietly. Answer some questions on the vocabulary but explain that not all the words need to be understood to get the poet’s message.

There may be some challenging questions on the grammar: the unusually reduced clause, as [it was] just as fair, may be put down to poetic licence, but other items like adverbial clause (sorry I could not travel both) and –ing participle clauses, the preference of shall (with 1st person) for inevitability, etc, can be explained if brought up.

Why is the wood yellow? Perhaps to explain the autumn leaves on the path, maybe to signify maturity, or maybe it was the only decent word to balance the rhythm (iambic tetrameter)!

3. Read the whole poem aloud.

4.  (Optional) Ask students how they feel about the rhyming scheme.

There may be a question about the rhythm, about the use of the dash in the last stanza and other techniques but normally there’s no need for close literary analysis in ELT – this is where we just enjoy a poem!

Ask students if they think Frost was happy about his choice in the end. The poem was published in 1916, a year after Frost and his family returned to the US from England, where they had been since 1912 (he came back along that path!). In England Frost had befriended the writer Edward Thomas, whom he found to be most indecisive, even about which path to take in a park.

5. Drill the first stanza line by line with the whole class, tapping out the stressed syllables.

You may think students will resist, but those who want to improve their pronunciation will readily cooperate. Don’t redrill in the case of any errors as this breaks the momentum.

Before saying “Repeat” you may wish to follow Adrian Underhill’s* advice and allow a little time for ‘inner replaying’.

6. Carry on likewise with the other stanzas. Make a mental note of some serious errors.

7. Elicit any further comments.

8. Deal with two or three serious mispronunciations on the board, showing any relevant phonetic factors.

Optional free practice – points 9 to 12

9. Ask students to write three sentences about a choice they made and the resulting situation.

Real or invented. Give help, e.g. “This is how I chose my (first) job/my (first) car/my (first) phone/my language school/my jeans/my pet…” “This is how I took up my hobby/sport…” “This is how I met my spouse…”.

10. Monitor the writing and fix serious errors where possible.

11. Get students into groups of three to share their experiences/stories.

12. Ask for a couple of interesting findings. Repeat important sentences aloud.

A little more repetition

13 Read each complete stanza aloud and invite a student to read it after you (one stanza per student). Correct only one or two serious mispronunciations. If more students request a turn and the class is amenable, comply, but if there are signs of disapproval leave this for another poem on another day.

In conclusion

Repetition is a key factor of immersion learning. At lower levels especially, and for students whose L1 phonology differs greatly from English, drilling should feature regularly and positively.

Post Script The editor of this magazine has informed me that by pure coincidence, another article has been was submitted explaining how the same poem has been used in a secondary (middle?) school in India. Two different ways of using the same poem for different ages and environments of learners! This will be published in the July issue.

REFERENCES

  • Doner, T. (2013) Teen speaks over 20 languages, Youtube, accessed May 2018.
  • Underhill, A. (2018) ‘Grammar without pron… is like food without taste (part 2)’ Modern English Teacher 27/2, pp53-56.
  • Widdowson, H. (1990) Aspects of Language. Oxford University Press, p11.
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