TESOL Connections

Lesson Plan: Using Poetry to Engage and Empower Students

by Brittany Ober

April is National Poetry Month in the United States! Poetry is a vehicle for cross-cultural learning and discussion, and it offers authentic means to practice a number of skills, including pronunciation and identifying thought groups. Use this lesson plan to teach your adult English language learners a way to concretely comprehend poetry. 

April is National Poetry Month in the United States. Many teachers I know shy away from teaching poems, but using poems in class can have an empowering effect on students. Poems are a vehicle for cross-cultural learning and discussion and offer an authentic means through which to practice intonation and thought groups in pronunciation, among other activities. By providing a chart for students to break down the figurative language in poems through paraphrase, teachers can offer students a way to concretely comprehend poetry. Students will also have the chance to experience English language learning in a fun and novel way and still achieve learning outcomes that will help them in more academic genres. 
Materials: Computer with Internet, speakers, YouTube video of Alan Rickman reading the poem, handout (.docx).
Audience: Adult learners of all ages, upper intermediate proficiency +.
Objectives: Students will be able to practice reading a poem using English thought groups and intonation; analyze, understand, and explain an English language poem by paraphrasing figurative language; discuss their opinions about and the benefits of poetry before and after the activity. They will also discuss the content of the poem and how they would feel if they wrote or received a similar poem.
Outcome: Students will feel empowered and confident because they have read and understood an English poem, which is typically thought of as a text too difficult to navigate.
Duration: 1 hour

Prereading and Discussion

Pass out copies of the handout (.docx) that focuses on “Sonnet 130” by William Shakespeare. Ask the class if anyone has heard of or read Shakespeare before. Provide a brief bio of Shakespeare, and then ask students to discuss the prereading discussion questions on the worksheet as a class:

  1. How do you feel about poetry in your first language? Why do you feel this way?
  2. Do you think you could read and understand a poem in English? Why or why not?
  3. What are the benefits of reading or writing poetry? What are the benefits of using poetry to practice English?

Explain that they will be reading a poem in class and that you want to gauge their initial thoughts about the activity. This will take about 5 minutes total.


Have students look at “Sonnet 130.” Assure students that right now, meaning is not important but that the poem will be used as a text for practice in pronunciation. Assign each student a couplet (or line, depending on class size) to read out loud.

Play the YouTube video of Alan Rickman reading the poem. As they listen to Rickman read the poem, they should mark their parts for intonation and thought groups, or phrases that form a unit of meaning. The video can be played twice if time allows. Answer any additional questions about pronunciation that the students may have.

When they are ready, ask the class to read the poem by going around the room. Read once through and give pointers on any pronunciation features they are having trouble with. Then, read the poem as a class again. If there is a student who would like to read the entire poem for practice, this can also be done if time allows. This will take about 10–15 minutes.

Reading and Analysis

Begin by teaching the difference between literal and figurative language. Use an example: “Love is a red rose.” What is love literally? What is a red rose literally? (Drawing a picture of a rose with thorns on the board helps).

Now elicit from the class what the saying means figuratively. Why is love a red rose? Why is the metaphor used? Answers I have received from students include:

  • Love is both beautiful and dangerous like the red petals of the rose and the thorns on its stems.
  • Love can hurt people even if it makes them happy.
  • Love is the color red because blood is the color red.
  • Love is passionate and angry

Tell the class they will use this kind of paraphrasing of metaphors (a type of figurative language where a writer compares two unlike things) to understand the poem. This will take 5 minutes.

Call the class’s attention to the glossed words at the bottom of the worksheet, page 2. These words are not important to remember in the future but will help them to unlock the poem when they analyze it.

Ask students to look at the chart on page 3 of the handout. Walk them through the first example, which is done for them. Have the students write Shakespeare’s description of the physical feature in column 1, their paraphrase of his description in column 2, and whether the meaning is positive or negative in column 3. Students will work through the charts for about 15–20 minutes.


Review the chart with the whole class. The teacher should give feedback on content, grammar, and pronunciation when reviewing the poem.

After the poem’s analysis is resolved, ask students to discuss the final questions in pairs. Review the answers as a class. Again, the teacher should give feedback on content, grammar, and pronunciation. This will take about 10 minutes.

Final Activity

Now that the class has a full understanding of the poem and the benefits of reading poetry in English, have them read the poem one last time, paying special attention to intonation. You can tell the students to pretend they are performing the poem for someone they care about. The class should end on a happy note, and the students should feel empowered that they can actually understand a poem in their second (+) language. This will take 5 minutes.

Additional assignments for homework may include having the students go home and explain the poem to a friend or family member, video recording themselves reading the poem to further practice intonation and thought groups, or writing a poem to someone they love.

Download this lesson plan (PDF)
and the handout (.docx)


Brittany Ober has been teaching ESL since 2010. She is a lecturer at Columbia University’s American Language Program. Her master’s degree in TESOL is from the New School, where she earned an Academic Excellence Award, and her BA in English and art history is from Muhlenberg College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Her academic interests include incorporating poetry and art into ESL instruction and teaching academic writing.

Quick Tip: 3 Tips for Personalizing Feedback

by Brooke Eddington

Providing effective feedback can be difficult and time consuming, especially for English language learners, who depend heavily on teacher comments. Learn several ways to give personalized feedback to your students, which can help improve student-teacher rapport as well as increase student motivation. 

Audience: ESL teachers of all levels

Providing feedback is an essential component of ESL teaching. Hartshorn et al. (2010) suggested that feedback is effective when it adheres to four principles: “meaningful, timely, constant, and manageable for both student and teacher” (p. 87). I propose a fifth component to improve the process of providing written feedback: feedback should always be personal. Here are three simple tips for personalizing feedback.

In any classroom teaching situation, individual students cannot receive the attention that would be possible in a one-on-one context such as tutoring. Providing personalized feedback can help in a variety of ways, including an improvement in student-teacher rapport and an increase in student motivation.

1. Assign and Utilize Student Reflections

First, teachers can have students submit a brief reflection with every major assignment (e.g., exams, essays, portfolios). This reflection may elicit a variety of information by the teacher asking questions such as: “How is this class going overall?”, “How was this week specifically?”, and “What were your challenges? Successes?” The reflection does not need to be formal or academic in nature. It should encourage openness and candid retrospection. A reflection serves multiple purposes, including providing an opportunity for students to communicate openly with the teacher, thereby reducing the time spent outside of class in one-on-one meetings to discuss concerns.

A crucial component of this process is that teachers respond to students’ reflections. If a student expresses regret regarding lack of sleep before an exam, simply writing “next time, aim for 8 hours” can help that student feel the teacher’s awareness and concern. Students should feel comfortable writing about everything from issues with roommates to pedagogical or content knowledge concerns, and teachers should respond accordingly. This practice is not meant to invade students’ privacy or function as a confessional, but to provide an avenue for students to convey any personal or academic concerns.

2. Use Student Names

The second tip, in conjunction with the first, is to always use students’ names in response to their reflections. The simple inclusion of a name helps the student feel heard, appreciated, and individually recognized. Students will know that a teacher is not repeatedly writing a trite comment (e.g., “good job”). Instead, write something like, “I’m sorry you felt unprepared for this exam, [insert student’s name]. Next time, try meeting with a program tutor to review material.” Or, “The issues with your roommate sound unfortunate, [insert student’s name]. Good luck with these difficult interpersonal situations.” A personalized response includes a name.

3. Address Student Goals

Third, relate feedback to each student’s goals. Throughout the semester, students should be setting personalized goals in relation to their performance. Perhaps a student in a reading class desires to read 200 words per minute, or a student in a grammar class is working toward writing a paragraph that is entirely free of grammatical error. As a teacher, be aware of each student’s individual goals and, if the goal is met or improvement is made, explicitly acknowledge and congratulate the accomplishment. This helps reinforce that working hard to meet goals is a rewarding process.

These tips will ensure that feedback does not become rote or mundane. Requiring a reflection, responding to that reflection using the student’s name, and relating feedback to a goal can improve student motivation and student-teacher rapport.


Hartshorn, K. J., Evans, N. W., Merrill, P. F., Sudweeks, R. R., Strong-Krause, D., & Anderson, N. J. (2010). Effects of dynamic corrective feedback on ESL writing accuracy. TESOL Quarterly, 44, 84–109. doi: 10.5054/tq.2010.213781


Brooke Eddington received a BA in Linguistics and an MA in TESOL, both from Brigham Young University. She is currently BYU faculty and serves on the administrative board of the intensive ESL program.


Five Missteps of First-Year ESL Teachers

by Crissy Smith
New to English language teaching? Learn from someone who's been there: the five mistakes often made by beginning ESL/EFL educators—and how to avoid them. 

Three years ago, I sat at my teacher’s desk and stared vacantly at the blank walls canvassed before me. In a few short weeks, the classroom would be full of moderately proficient upper-school students still jet-lagged from their journey halfway across the world from China. What those poor Chinese students did not know was that the teacher who had been hired to help them, whose sole responsibility was to improve their English, was just as wary about the upcoming school year. Even though I was approaching my seventh year teaching, it was my first year teaching ESL, and I felt like a novice teacher starting from scratch.

Eventually, I made my way through the unchartered waters and proved to myself that perhaps the powers-that-be who hired me knew what they were doing. I was fit for the job, even if inexperienced. If only I could go back in time and expedite the learning curve for my former self.

For those newly licensed ESL teachers, staring at their own blank walls, here are a few missteps I stumbled upon and the advice I wish I had.

Misstep 1: Staying in Your Comfort Zone

As a former English teacher, my natural inclination was to focus on reading and writing and pay less attention to the other two areas of learning a language: listening and speaking. I was in my comfort zone when I was teaching a novel or the difference between a strong thesis statement and a weak one.

In order to overcome this mistake, chisel out a chunk of time where you focus on the area that you tend to neglect. I often neglected explicitly teaching pronunciation, so I devoted Fridays to this area. Every Friday, I focused on teaching stress, linking, intonation, and proper mouth formation. Additionally, have a few token activities that are your go-to activities. My go-to activities for speaking were character reenactments, debates, and dialogues. For example, whenever we read a novel, I would have the students assume the role of a favorite character and reenact scenes from the novel to practice their speaking skills.

It is important to note that class time should be allotted to students’ needs, not teacher preference. Even though the four areas of learning a language are intertwined, more focus should be given to the areas where the students are weakest.

Misstep 2: Speaking Is Not the End-All Be-All

I often found that faculty would mistakenly jump to the conclusion that a student was more proficient than he or she actually was if he or she was talkative. Faculty was more inclined to steer the more verbal second-language speakers into more advanced classes, despite their placement tests. Just because a student can adequately and confidently express him- or herself through spoken language does not mean he or she is more proficient than less verbal peers. In fact, some of my strongest writers, and most proficient ESL students, were the quietest. These students would produce grammatically correct, eloquent sentences in the written form, but barely utter two-word responses in conversation. It is important to remember that personality, and not just ability, has a lot to do with a student’s confidence and how readily he or she converses.

Misstep 3: Finding Age-Appropriate Reading Material

As a high school ESL teacher, I found it challenging to find age-appropriate novels for my students. I learned in my master’s courses the golden rule—one should never “water down” material for students. This was especially true in my case, because I was teaching extremely intelligent, if not gifted, Chinese students. Their minds needed a challenge. My solution to this problem was to stick to literary classics from the modern and postmodern time periods. I found that classics such as The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Lord of the Flies (William Golding), Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini), and Night (Elie Wiesel) worked well. Short stories like Animal Farm (George Orwell) and "The Metamorphosis" (Franz Kafka) were also well received by my target audience. These pieces allowed for rich discussions and had challenging vocabulary. But because these pieces were written more recently than say, Chaucer, the language was familiar. I also tried to avoid pieces that were heavy on dialect (e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird; Harper Lee). English is tricky enough in its most straightforward form.

Misstep 4: Wasting Time Searching for the Best Resources

As I created my own curriculum, I wasted countless dollars and planning time searching for the best resources. If I could go back in time, I would point myself in the direction of Betty Azar, who is, in my opinion, the English grammar guru. Her texts in the series Understanding and Using English Grammar (Pearson Longman), coauthored with Stacy Hagen, are a must-have for any secondary ESL classroom. The texts are complemented by easy-to-follow, free, online PowerPoint presentations and other supplementary materials.

As far as pronunciation, Judy Gilbert’s Clear Speech series (Cambridge University Press) is another must-have for any secondary classroom. The lessons are clearly laid out and have an auditory portion easily accessible online. There is even a Clear Speech app that allows students to play games to practice their pronunciation. Of course, there are several free ESL websites that are helpful as well. However, some of these cost or are so plagued by advertisements they are not user friendly. My favorites are A guide to learning English and Guide to Grammar and Writing. On these two sites, students can find additional grammar and vocabulary practice. There are interactive quizzes sorted alphabetically by grammar concept, and the overall layouts of these sites are advertisement free and easy to use. 

Misstep 5: Fighting the “English-Only” Battle

Every day, one of my biggest challenges is persuading my students to speak English. Because they are predominately Chinese, they like to speak Mandarin whenever possible. Unfortunately, this leaves the few Dutch students, and one Korean student, feeling left out. Sometimes, I see them gesticulating wildly, and I, too, want to know what is behind the passionate conversation. Beyond curiosity, I like the students to speak English inside and outside the ESL classroom. I argue they will never achieve full fluency if they are always retreating to their comfort zone and speaking their native language. Yes, sometimes it is inconvenient to search for words in English when the Mandarin equivalent is right there. But it is just like lifting weights: Improvement will only come by pushing through this discomfort. I am still searching for solutions to this problem. Deducting points from assignments works in the classroom, but what about outside the classroom? My best advice would be to create opportunities (via homework and projects) for students to interact with speakers who do not share their same language, so it is impossible for them to revert to their native language.

The truth is there is no master’s degree or advice that can compensate for experience. With every new year and new crop of students, new challenges will arise. If anything, I hope these tidbits of advice lend some perspective to the new teacher staring at his or her own blank walls. Think of it as a gentle pat on the back. You are not alone; and soon, you will be writing your own list of missteps.

Download this article (PDF)


Crissy Smith is a Virginia Beach native who received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia. While there, she majored in English language and literature and minored in bioethics. Mrs. Smith has a master’s degree in education with a major in TESOL from Regent University. She currently teaches ESL to upper-school students at a local private school.


Tips for Writing a Successful Convention Proposal

by Diane Carter
Read the tips and advice from 10 convention chairs—past, current, and future—to ensure you put forth your best possible convention proposal.

On the drive home to Indianapolis, Indiana from my first TESOL convention in Chicago in March 1988, my colleague and I decided that we would write a proposal for the 1989 TESOL convention to be held in San Antonio, Texas. Colleagues who had been attending TESOL conventions for years were not particularly encouraging about our proposal being accepted, but we knew that we certainly wouldn’t get accepted if we didn’t try.

You may be in a similar state of mind: You hope to submit a proposal that will be accepted for presentation at the annual convention, and you’d like some suggestions about how to make that happen. Here are some ideas and recommendations that may help you. Before sharing excellent advice from past convention chairs, I’d like to share my own invented acronym to use for writing, as relevant for proposals as any other kind of writing: PARCOS: Purpose, Audience, Resources, Content, Organization, and Style.


Do you want to share information, persuade or motivate your audience to try a different approach to some task, or take them through a process? You will especially want to consider which of the possible formats for presentation best suits your purpose (a regular presentation, a panel session, poster session, or perhaps a workshop). Learn about the session types on the Call for Participation.


For TESOL, your audience will likely be focused on a specific interest section (IS), to which you will submit your proposal. The selection of the appropriate IS for your topic is one of the most crucial parts of proposal submission; your presentation must have relevance to that IS. Think about the “hot topics” of this IS when developing your proposal. You also want to think of your audience in terms of demographics, experience, education level, beliefs, practices, knowledge of the subject, and any other germane information as you shape the proposal. For example: Do likely attendees have large groups of students with various language levels in a classroom, or are they doing research on some aspect of the field in a different setting?


You must consider physical resources such as copresenters, room size, seating setup, and equipment. Will your physical resources affect the length of your presentation? What will make it lively as well as packed with great information?

Other resources are less tangible, such as information. Talk to members of the IS to which you are submitting. Has this topic been overdone? Is there new research or are there new ways to think about old findings? What is the interest in the topic? Is this a hot topic that could attract a lot of proposals—of which only one or two might be accepted? Find out, so you are informed. There is nothing worse to derail your credibility with a well-informed reviewer than making an uninformed statement. Talk to others who have presented or attended sessions. Ask what works and what doesn’t. Ask which presentations they remember.


Each type of presentation listed on the Call for Proposals has a designated time limit. Which of these will best suit your topic, your audience, and your resources? What information do you want to include, and what can be cut if it doesn’t help to accomplish your purpose with the designated audience? It is almost as important to consider what to leave out as what to put in.


The description of the types of presentations on the Call for Proposals will also help you to plan the organization of the presentation. Workshops differ greatly from discussion. An audience of university teachers may prefer a very different format from early childhood teachers. What will best help you to accomplish your purpose with the audience you expect, and the resources and content you have chosen?


The proposal reviewers will assess your proposal based on a rubric and the appropriateness of your content to the type of presentation. The proposal must be written in clear language that avoids acronyms, slang, and imprecise or vague ideas. Poor grammar, misspellings, and incomplete sentences will usually cause reviewers to question the expertise, and possibly the presentation skills, of the submitter. Clearly explain how you will make the presentation captivating for this particular audience.

Tips From Past Convention Chairs

Former (and illustrious) convention/program chairs agree on several pieces of advice, so, rather than have them repeated below, I’ll outline them here:

  • Proofread: Grammar, spelling, punctuation, and readability count. Be sure to have your proposal looked at by a colleague with strong writing skills and a good critical eye to proofread your proposal.
  • Choose the correct interest section: Selecting the correct IS to submit to is one of the most important choices you make.
  • Follow directions: It is essential to follow directions and/or the rubric. Putting in something that is not allowed will disqualify your carefully worded proposal immediately.
  • Seek feedback: Contact your colleagues, or someone whom you know who has presented before (names and email addresses are in the program book), and request a review of your proposal to obtain feedback for improvement. Have them check to ensure that your ideas are comprehensible, coherent and connected to the theme. If possible, have them score your proposal against the scoring rubric.
  • Accept rejection: Rejection happens to everyone, even “famous” people (especially because review is blind, and the acceptance rate is about 20%). If your TESOL submission is rejected, do not take it personally. Understand that rejection does not mean the session is not worthy but it can mean simply that there were too many proposals with similar topics—and also remember that the process can be a bit subjective. Space is very limited for sessions, so we do have to turn away good proposals, too, sometimes!

Mark Algren (2003)
Learn from others first. Go to the meetings of your IS if you can. Talk about your presentation ideas and visit with those who have been proposal reviewers for ideas about critical errors and what leads to successful proposals. Read the previous year’s Program Book for topic ideas; also, the abstracts will be good models for you to emulate. Don’t be discouraged if your proposal is rejected: Seek advice on future proposals with an open mind and a willingness to hear critiques. Celebrate when you are accepted, and extend your hand to help the next new proposal writer.

Leslie Barratt (2016)
Prospective proposal writers should read the rubric carefully and obey what it says about length, about giving concrete examples, and about what the audience will get out of it. Clear, simple language is easiest for reviewers to read. People should have others read their proposals—especially non-TESOL people and nonnative speakers—to make sure that they are being clear.

Eric Dwyer (2003)
Your proposal should have a statement relating your topic to its importance in the field, to theory, or to research; a statement describing what you're going to do; and a statement of what participants will get out of the session.

Recent feedback to the convention planners from attendees is that a great number of sessions, while useful or informational, are still boring. Thus, more and more, readers will be on the lookout for ways in which presentation skills somehow come through in the abstract. If you can convince the reviewers that your writing translates into a captivating hour (or more) of convention presentation, you may have an advantage.

Bill Eggington (2005)
The #1 thing to remember is to select a topic central to the mission and interests of the convention. You can find out what the priorities of the convention are by examining previous convention programs and adapting accordingly.

Ryuko Kubota (2015)
Clarity, focus, and originality are key factors for effective proposals. Think of a topic and content that truly inspire fellow professionals. Craft your proposal by clearly explaining what topic you want to introduce, what the purpose of your presentation will be, in what way the content of your presentation is significant, how you are going to present, and what outcomes you expect.

Suzanne Panferov (2007)
Be sure to review the rubric in advance and meet all of the criteria but also be sure to submit addressing the correct IS. If the target audience is not clear, reviewers have a hard time evaluating a proposal.

John Schmidt (2014)

  • Start “good and early,” ideally, at least 2 weeks or more before the deadline.
  • Consider teaming up with at least one fellow presenter or more and confer repeatedly.
  • Print out and carefully read the detailed proposal guidelines, marking key items to remember.
  • Review the most recent convention program book for topics of interest. Note titles and summaries that catch your attention.
  • Draft, edit, draft, edit, draft, edit your proposal abstract and summary.
  • Avoid dull, routine, and wordy text in your abstract and summary, and a dull title.
  • Check to make sure that the word count is close to the maximum without going over.
  • Attend fully to all categories in the scoring rubric, and then read and score your proposal against the rubric.
  • Send it in at least 2 days early to avoid hasty mistakes and technical glitches.

Gertrude Tinker Sachs (2009)
In writing your proposal, start with the big picture, as you need to share and communicate your passion while connecting the passion to the convention theme—how are the two connected? Once you have established this connection, make sure that you check what the literature says about your topic. You are not just speaking about what you have done but also about what others in the field of TESOL say about your topic.

After writing your proposal and seeking and receiving feedback from colleagues, complete your revisions and upload your proposal at least a week before the due date, as waiting for the last minute can invite trouble. Technology is not always reliable. Once you have submitted your proposal, watch for the acknowledgement; if you don’t get accepted, try again until you do. If you are accepted, begin to prepare your presentation, and submit a new proposal the next year and every year thereafter!

Beth Witt (1994, 2002)
Three rules for proposal writing:

  1. Follow the directions
  2. Follow the directions
  3. Follow the directions

The consequence for not following the directions can include rejection of the proposal! Convention planners carefully wrote the directions so that proposals will be evaluated fairly and without bias. If you follow the directions set forth for proposal submission, then the important information, your proposal content, will be considered and evaluated for inclusion on the convention program.

Write the proposal summary from the perspective of potential session attendees. What information do convention-goers need to make an informed decision about attending your session? Tell them what they will learn, and how they will learn it. Give them an honest, clear, and straightforward description of the session. Attendees want to be sure that their precious, limited session time is profitably spent. Be specific, so that attendees who do decide to come to your session will leave feeling satisfied and eager to use the information that you shared with them. It is also preferable to write your summary in an engaging style, and even to demonstrate a sense of humor in your description. Everyone wants to enjoy and have fun learning. Give people a reason to make the choice to attend your session.
I thought you would like to know that sometimes you do get accepted (oh the joy of that first acceptance!). We were successful in our bid for the 1989 convention in San Antonio and were invited to do one of the first PCIs at the 1990 convention. Here I am with colleagues Becky Crosbie and Harriet Wilkins ready for the PCI. I’m the one on the left wearing the blue balloon on my head. And, just so you all know, I had at least five of the people above look at this and suggest edits. Good luck with your submission from all of us!

Diane Carter, 2010 Convention Program Chair

Download this article (PDF)


Diane Carter worked in K–12 ESL classrooms for more than 25 years.  She has taught at the university level and in workplace adult education programs. She is an advocate for students and teachers, as well as for the profession. She served as TESOL convention program chair in 2010 and on TESOL’s Board of Directors 2011–2014. Diane is now working as a coach for mainstream and ESL teachers. She is associate convention program chair for TESOL 2016.

Tell Me About the Personality of Your Word

by Patrick T. Randolph
What if every word had a personal identity? Try out this innovative, creative way of teaching vocabulary to your more advanced students.

Possibilities & Synesthesia

“I am large….I contain multitudes.”
—Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass [51]

Consider, for a moment, the following question: What if every word in your mind had a “personal identity,” “personal history,” or “personal psychology?” In such a scenario, “ambiguous” would be a shy, evasive woman from Wyoming; “meticulous” would be a tall, thin, and very punctual man from London; “the” would be a meditating monk from western Japan; “and” would be a curious angel flying above the skies of Turkey.

For a number of people, such a reality is not far from the truth. According to Cytowic and Eagleman (2011), about 1 in 23 people have a neural condition called synesthesia. Synesthesia is a very unique brain condition in which the senses crisscross and produce distinct perceptions that differ from their normal functions. For instance, synesthetes “hear tastes,” “smell colors,” and “touch sounds.” Another intriguing kind of synesthesia is personifying numbers and letters. One synesthete recorded in Cytowic’s and Eagleman’s research perceives the personification of numbers in a very detailed way. For her, the number 5 is “blue, deeper than sky blue…; male; a bit of a worrier but not without self-confidence; mature” and the number 7 is “dark grainy gray, with an almost beigey sense to it; male; playful, and impressively handsome” (2011, p.42).
Applying Synesthesia to Words and Creative Writing

With Cytowic’s and Eagleman’s (2011) research in mind, I asked the question: In order to personalize English vocabulary and make it more meaningful for my students, what if we “personified” the vocabulary items we learned in class, gave them all a “personal identity,” and wrote character sketches about them?

The day after posing that question, I thought I would give the idea a try. The results were more than inspiring. After our vocabulary review warm-up for the lesson, I asked my students to think of the word “meticulous” as a person. Then, I asked them to brainstorm as a class and come up with as many personality traits as they could related to the word “meticulous.” Within a mere 3 minutes they came up with 18 descriptive attributes. Here is their list: a 37 year-old man, serious, well dressed, British, very silent, uses a cane to walk, always hits the books at the library, lives in the library, is a bachelor, wants a wife, slowly but surely responds to people’s requests, has only a few (carefully picked) friends, always carries a small mirror, is traditional, wears a tie, is fashionable, is rather tall, and is thin.

As a result of the students’ positive and impressive response, I understood that they would easily be able to create character sketches about words and do so in very creative and intriguing ways. Based on the above activity, I set up the following creative writing procedure for my academic writing class.

The Procedure

DAY 1: Pair Up and Review

First, the students pair up and review the definitions and parts of speech for the week’s vocabulary items by quizzing each other. After they define and categorize each term, they provide original example sentences. The instructor should monitor this part of the project very closely.

Personal History and Characteristics of the Words

Next, the pair members ask each other what they think the personal characteristics and backgrounds of each term are. They address the following aspects: the overall personality of each lexical item, the body type, hair color, complexion, age, gender, culture, career, schooling, religion, marital status, sports the term might play, and its favorite kind of film, food, and drink.

Choosing a Favorite Item and Creating an Oral Character Sketch

The third step is to choose one lexical item and present an oral character sketch. I have found that requiring the students to create an oral character sketch before providing a written character sketch is beneficial for a number of reasons. First and foremost, talking about any topic before one writes on it acts as a “creative-midwife,” in that speaking helps to elicit ideas in the “birthing” process. Second, students are apt to talk freely about their “word-characters,” and this gets the juices flowing and the pump primed. There is not the immediate hurdle of “Where do I start?”—they just talk about their character as if he or she were a friend. Third, given this ease with their character, they open up more easily and are less critical of what they are doing. The upshot is that they become more creative and less critical—an important step in this part of the process. And fourth, given that they are talking to someone, that someone can offer immediate feedback and help develop the character even more.

DAY 2: Writing the Lexical Item’s Character Sketches

Before I ask students to finally sit down and write the lexical item’s character sketch, I ask them to find a new partner and share their oral character sketch. This gives them the opportunity to make more adjustments and present the character with a fresh mindset. The remainder of the class (30 to 40 minutes) is given for the actual writing of the character sketch.

I prefer to have the students write these in class as opposed to writing them at home because they are more focused in class, and they usually produce better initial writing in class. It also gives me the opportunity to see how they write without help from others. I do give them the chance to edit, refine, and develop the details as homework, but the initial stages of writing are done in class.

DAY 3: The Final Stages: Reading Aloud and Revising

In the last stage of this project, I ask the students to make small groups of three and read their pieces to each other. The students who are listening are asked to close their eyes and imagine what the character looks like and get a feel for his or her personality. The listeners are required to write down one strong point and one point to develop or work on for the final draft of their classmate’s character sketch.

The final drafts are assigned as homework. However, if time allows, these can be done in class. The final piece is then submitted together with the first draft and the “listening” students’ comments so that I can see how the students incorporated their peers’ ideas and insights in the polished work. Here is a short sample of student work from an advanced writing class. The student gave permission for use of the work, but asked to remain anonymous:

Introducing “Miss Look Up To”

“Miss Look Up To” is a very polite Japanese junior high school girl. She is 15-years old and wears an extremely large smile on her face. She makes her little brother feel proud.

Her little bedroom is always neat, clean, and it is full of Japanese sunshine from the big window. Next to little “Miss Look Up To”’s bed is a photograph of her parents, Ayako-san and Katsu-san. She admires and respects them. “Miss Look Up To” considers her parents to be the stars in her life.

Like her name, she looks up to her parents with special love. Every morning she looks at their picture and says, “Arigatou!” Then she holds the photo in her small but strong fingers and looks up again to the sky and says again, “Arigatou for these friends!”

A Word on the Words

This activity can work with any kind of lexical item; however, adjectives, transparent idioms (e.g., shed light on, walk on air), and phrasal verbs will elicit the strongest images from the students’ imaginations.

The major benefit that this activity provides can be summed up in the words of one of my former students. He said, “How do you expect us to ever forget these words now that we have become friends with them and made them into people?” The notion that the students make emotional human contact with the words significantly helps them retain the items in their long-term memory after they have initially learned them and moved on from my class. In addition, the students begin to understand that words and idioms are no longer just mere lexical items, but rather they are unique and wondrous living beings that touch our lives on a number of intellectual and emotional levels.


Cytowic, R. E., & Eagleman, D. M. (2011). Wednesday is indigo blue. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Whitman, W. (1885/1986). Leaves of grass. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

NOTE: A version of this article was first published in CATESOL News, Volume 45, Issue 4 (2014). Modified and reprinted with permission.


Patrick T. Randolph specializes in creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. He continues to research current topics in neuroscience, especially studies related to exercise and learning, memory, and mirror neurons. He lives with his wife, Gamze; daughter, Aylene; and cat, Gable, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Randolph has published two best-selling volumes of poetry: Father’s Philosophy and Empty Shoes: Poems on the Hungry and the Homeless. All proceeds from these books go to benefit Feeding America and Loaves and Fishes. Recently, Randolph was awarded the “Best of the TESOL Affiliates–2015” for his work in vocabulary pedagogy.