Today, I want to introduce you all to the benefits and joys of using poetry to learn English! Poetry is an incredible, yet underused, resource for English learners that I believe will be of help to many of you listening.
A friend of mine recently published a poetry book. Sanam, who has been a previous guest on Thinking in English, is an incredible writer with an ability to create images and describe feelings that makes me jealous.
Reading her poetry collection made me realise that poetry is a fabulous, but massively underrated resource for English learners to incorporate into their study routines. I want to change this!
When I ask my listeners what books they like to read, the answer is usually a piece of non-fiction: something about finance, a self-help book, a biography, or maybe a book about history or current events. I rarely receive answers of fiction books: and it is even rarer for someone to tell me they enjoy reading poetry.
And this is such a shame. While non-fiction is great if you are interested primarily in that content, fiction is one of the best resources for language learners. Compared to non-fiction, novels, poems, and plays tend to use much more diverse and creative language. Fiction can help you develop your imagination and empathy in English. And it can develop cultural understandings.
I believe more people should be using fiction, and especially poetry, to expose themselves to interesting, complex, and unique language patterns. I, while living in Japan, started writing Haikus (a Japanese style of poem) to improve my language skills. Recently, we also started a poetry and fiction chat room on the Thinking in English Discord server which has introduced me to so many new and interesting poets and authors.
And, inspired by the Thinking in English philosphy of “learning in English”, Thomas Brock (part of the Thinking in English team) is about to start a 6-week poetry course designed for English learners. If you join Thomas’ course, you will encounter, study, and examine classic poems in detail (an incredible way to deepen your understanding of English) and be able to discuss poetry with other similar-minded English learners (if you are a Thinking in English Patreon subscriber you will get 20% off the entire course!).
In this episode of Thinking in English, I want to provide you all with a guide on how to use poetry to study English. I’ll start by discussing why you should use poetry, then look at what poems you should include, before suggesting a few methods to incorporate poetry into your study routine. Even if you don’t like poetry, you can probably apply the same tips to novels, plays, non-fiction books, or maybe even TV shows and movies!
Why use poetry to learn English?
One of the big questions I think I need to answer in this episode is “why should I use poetry to learn English?” What are the benefits of reading poetry? How can analysing poems contribute to your language learning journey?
There are a lot of benefits!
As poetry often uses rich vocabulary and figurative language, it is a great resource for expanding vocabularies and improving understandings of the nuances of the English language. Poets are masters of twisting sounds, using double-meanings, and crafting images with their words. I often think of Maya Angelou’s words in her classic poem Still I Rise,
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Such emotive and powerful language is a feature of poetry. Poems have always been a powerful medium for emotional expression. They can inspire and provoke a range of emotions and can help develop emotional vocabulary and the ability to articulate complex emotions.
As a form of artistic expression, poetry can require a unique perspective to understand it. Unlike other forms of writing, poetry may need you to imagine, be creative, and adopt new approaches to really comprehend the meanings!
By studying poetry, you can develop your creativity and imagination in English, your English critical thinking skills, and improve your cultural understanding! I’d say it’s definitely worth considering using poems to study English!
More specifically, poetry can help you with language acquisition. It is great for vocabulary expansion as poets use a variety of brilliant words and phrases (including colloquial terms and slang). Poetry is awesome for introducing you to new grammar and syntax. Poets are known for their creative and unconventional use of sentences, and exposure to this is a great way to deepen your understanding of the rules and patterns of the English language.
Poetry can even help with pronunciation and intonation. How? Poetry is an excellent source of examples of how words are pronounced and how sentences are stressed and phrased in real life. Poets use intonation and pronunciation to provide meaning! For example, in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” he uses hesitations, repetitions, mistakes, and fragmented syntax to convey uncertainty and self-doubt.
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table
“Etherized” is a mistake (it should be anaesthetized) and throughout the poem the speaker pauses and corrects himself constantly (he keeps saying “Do I dare? Do I Dare?) to show his uncertainty. You don’t get exposed to this kind of language in normal English articles or writings!
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Choosing the right poem to learn from
Ok, now that I’ve convinced you poems are a great resource for English learners, we need to know how to choose poems for you to read! There are probably millions of different English language poems, from hundreds of thousands different poets, and written in hundreds of different styles. How do you know what to choose?
The easiest method is let someone else choose for you! For example, taking the upcoming course with Thomas Brock will introduce you to five classic poems from five famous poets!
But if you want to read poems by yourself, there are a few things to consider. When selecting a poem to read or study, it’s important to choose one that is appropriate for your English level.
Consider the length of the poem. Longer poems can be more challenging to read and understand, especially if they contain complex language or themes. If you’re new to reading poetry in English, start with shorter poems that are easier to digest.
Poets often use complex or unusual language to create meaning and evoke emotions, but this can be challenging for non-native English speakers. Look for poems that use simpler, more accessible language that you can understand more easily.
Poems can also cover a wide range of themes and subjects, some of which may be more challenging than others. If you’re new to reading poetry in English, look for poems that cover simpler, more universal themes, such as love, nature, or human emotions.
Many poems are available in audio form, and listening to a poem can help you to understand its language, rhythm, and meter more easily. If you’re struggling to understand a poem on the page, try listening to it instead.
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Different types of poems
There are many different types of poems, each with its own unique characteristics and structure. Let me introduce a few of the most famous.
A sonnet is a 14-line poem that typically follows a strict rhyme scheme and meter, and is often used to explore themes of love, beauty, and mortality. Haiku are three-line poem that originated in Japan. Haiku often focus on images from nature and seek to capture a moment or feeling.
An epic is a long narrative poem that tells the story of a hero’s journey. Epics often feature larger-than-life characters and events, and are often used to explore themes of honour, courage, and heroism. While a ballad is a narrative poem that tells a story, often set to music. Ballads typically follow a simple rhyme scheme and meter, and often deal with themes of love, loss, and tragedy.
These are just four of the common types of poem – there are many more to discover on your journey into poetry.
Suggestions for popular poems to study for different English levels
Here are some suggestions for popular poems to study based on different English levels:
If you are a beginner to poetry, maybe try reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. This popular poem has a gentle, rhythmic structure and uses simple, descriptive language to paint a picture of a snowy landscape.
If you want an intermediate level poem, why not read “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. This poem uses powerful, evocative language to explore the theme of mortality and the struggle to hold onto life.
And for a more advanced poem, “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot is perfect. This complex and challenging poem uses a fragmented structure and a wide range of literary and cultural references to explore themes of decay, disillusionment, and cultural crisis. But these are just a few suggestions – there are millions of poems out there for you to choose from
Strategies for learning from poetry
So I have explained why you should use poetry to practice English, the benefits of studying poetry, and how to select the perfect poem. Now I’m going to give you a few quick tips on how to read, analyse and use poems to study English!
Tips for reading, listening, and analysing a poem
Poetry is often dense and rich with meaning, so it’s important to read the poem several times to fully understand it. Take your time, and read the poem slowly and carefully, paying attention to each word and phrase.
Many poems are meant to be read aloud, so listening to a recording of the poet reading their own work can help you understand the rhythm, pacing, and tone of the poem.
Look for patterns in the poem’s structure, such as rhyme scheme, meter, and stanzas. This can give you clues about the poem’s meaning and help you understand how the poem is structured. Pay attention to literary devices such as metaphor, simile, personification, and imagery. These devices can help you understand the poem’s deeper meaning and the emotions it is trying to convey.
Think about what the poem is trying to say or what message it is trying to convey. Identify the themes of the poem and how they relate to your own experiences.
Understanding the poet’s background and the context in which the poem was written can give you insights into the poem’s meaning and significance.
After reading and listening to the poem, write your own analysis of its meaning and significance. Use evidence from the poem to support your ideas, and consider how the poem relates to your own experiences and understanding of the world.
Exercises and activities to help learners practice their English skills using poetry
And here are a few ways to practice English while reading poetry!
While reading a poem, identify any unfamiliar words in a poem and use context to determine their meaning. Look up the words in a dictionary and create flashcards to help remember the new vocabulary.
You should also read the poem out loud and pay attention to the stress and intonation patterns. Maybe listen to a recording of the poem being read aloud by a native speaker on YouTube and try to imitate the pronunciation.
Poets also tend to use interesting grammar. Try to identify different types of sentence structures, such as simple, compound, and complex sentences, in a poem. Also look for examples of verb tenses, adjective use, and other grammatical elements.
After reading a few poems, you should try to write your own poems in English, using the techniques and devices you have learned. This can help you practice your vocabulary, grammar, and creative writing skills.
And, as always, group discussion is a great way to improve your English. This is why joining Thomas Brock’s course would be a great idea for as many Thinking in English listeners as possible! You can share your interpretations of the poems and explain how the poem made you feel. You can practice your speaking and listening skills while also gaining a deeper appreciation of the poem.
Overall, using poetry in language learning can be a fun and effective way to improve vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and literary analysis skills. By engaging in a variety of exercises and activities, you can build your confidence and become more proficient in English.
Poetry is an amazing tool for English learning. It can introduce you to a wide variety of complex and unique vocabulary, grammar rules, and sentence structures. It can increase your understanding of culture, and develop both your critical and creative thinking skills!
Hopefully, after listening to this episode you have a better comprehension of poetry and how to use it!
What is your favourite poem?
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