Poetry for English Language Learners

Teachers often ask me, “How can ELs write poetry?  They don’t know English.  They aren’t writing yet.  It’s much too difficult.” Indeed, I have found that poetry is the perfect vehicle for teaching English!  Poems are short and concise and create pictures with words.  They don’t have to rhyme!  Moreover, poetry promotes academic English and vocabulary development as the poet needs to choose precise nouns and verbs to create a specific word picture (Bearse, 2005). What I have found is that writing poetry with EL students creates confidence and connects to the background knowledge of their native countries. When students can emotionally connect their families and special places, they will retain the vocabulary used in a more meaningful way (Sousa, 2011). Further, we retain knowledge to a greater degree if the knowledge makes personal connections and can transfer to real world situations (Medina, 2008). Poetry, too, is a nonthreatening way to learn about diverse cultures.  Countries as diverse as China, Iran, Mexico, and Senegal have rich traditions in poetry, both oral and written.

Hearing and reciting poetry also develops oral fluency and intonation at all grade levels. Jazz chants, which reinforce vocabulary and pronunciation through rhythm, rhyme, and repetition (Graham, 2000), are enjoyed at all levels. Reading aloud poems in two voices by Paul Fleischman is another way to incorporate choral reading in the classroom (1998, 1985).

Getting Started: Writing With the Five Senses
I have found that using the five senses in poetry writing is a good way to begin. Using pictures from calendars, travel brochures, family photos, or postcards, students are asked to imagine being in the pictures and then write what they imagine seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting in the scene in front of them. I model several examples and then students can write using this possible template: 

I see
I hear
I touch
I taste
I smell

As students progress in their English, three lines can be added to each stanza creating a fifteen line poem. The first step is talking about the images in very concrete terms, using nouns and verbs that create a picture of someone or some place we remember. We can add similes later in the process. A Word Wall or Word bank can also be used to facilitate choices of vocabulary. The same thing can be done using sentence strips for each line with each strip containing a sentence starter, such as I see.

Special People
Following these poems using the senses, students are asked to think about a person that they remember vividly. I talk about how the smell of mint always evokes the memory of my grandmother, because she carried a piece of mint in all her pockets, but especially in her old gray sweater. I then show the beginning of a poem that I wrote about my grandmother that uses the five senses:

When I remember my grandmother,

I see her silver hair tied in braids on the top of her head.

I see her smile that always greeted me with love.

I see her black garden shoes that she wore when she dug in the roses.

I hear her voice calling me “Sugar.” 

I hear her warning , “Prosexi kala” which means “Be careful” in Greek. 

I hear her stories about Greece.

I smell Easter bread baking, chicken soup with lemon…

When we remember things vividly, they come back to us with our strongest senses. I point out the words I have chosen and what they mean to me. I encourage students to use words in their own language so they can draw upon their rich cultural heritage. The following are excerpts from an EL eighth grade student poem about her mom (second year EL student):

When I think of my mom, I see the lovely smile on her face each morning

I see her brown eyes looking at me when she is talking to me

When I think of my mom, I hear her soft voice when she calls me to do her a favor

When I think of my mom, I smell her flowery perfume

I smell the garlic she puts on the Brazilian rice and beans she makes.

I have found that students enjoy writing these poems and reading them to their friends. They then publish their poems on the classroom walls or in small accordion books.

Special Places
It is an easy step from writing about special people to writing about special places using the same format of incorporating the five senses. We read model poems from Nikki Giovanni, Francis Alarcon, and Lori Carlson that speak about special places. Using the five sense imagery making, we remember some of our favorite places from our previous or present homes. I tell students that they need to bring me on a trip to these places with their words. A partial example from another second year EL eighth grader follows:

Come with me to my Puerto Rico where you can find some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, like Luquillo beach

Where you can see people having fun while they are swimming in the blue clear water

Where you can feel the soft white sand in your feet while you are walking on the sand

Where you can feel the heat of the sun in your skin

Where you can hear coconuts falling in the ground

Where you can hear the wind whispering in your ear.

I encourage students to extend their lines by adding prepositional phrases, always asking for more specifics. In working with students I focus on the content and the beauty of the language first, then move on to correcting grammar and usage errors as part of the editing process. Finally, reading and seeing class poems is a huge confidence booster.

So, take a risk, and write a poem this school year!

Poetry Bibliography

Alarcon, F.X. (1996). Laughing tomatoes and other spring poems. San Francisco: CA: Children’s Book Press.

Carlson, L. (1994). Cool salsa: Bilingual poems on growing up Latino in the United States. New York: Ballentine Books.

Giovanni, N. (1985). Spin a soft black song. New York: Hill & Wang.

Bearse, C.I. (2005). The sky in my hands: Accelerating academic English through process writing. Cambridge, MA: Language Teaching Innovations, Inc.

Fleischman, P. (1998). Joyful noise: poems in two voices. New York: Harper & Row.

Fleischman, P. (1985). I am phoenix: poems in two voices. New York: Harper & Row.

Graham, C. (2000). Jazz chants old and new: Student book. New York: Oxford University Press.

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Sousa, D. ( 2011). How the ELL brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


Carol I. Bearse is an associate professor of educational leadership and literacy at Touro College in Manhattan. In this capacity, she has taught courses in both literacy and English language acquisition. With more than 25 years of experience in the public schools, including urban areas, Carol brings to her research the seasoned leadership of a teacher practitioner in the areas of literacy and ELs. She has designed the curriculum for OELA funded Language in the Context of the Disciplines program, working intensively with New York City high school teachers in the content areas.

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