October 2014
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Dr. Sumeeta Patnaik, INTO-Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia, USA

Creative writing courses are popular electives in ESL program curricula where students often look for opportunities to express themselves creatively in English. With several different writing genres to choose from, creative writing teachers can provide students with a wide range of activities that allow students to learn about the social uses of the English language. With the use of literary devices, such as metaphor, simile, and alliteration, being so pervasive in social use, it is imperative for ESL students to learn how to use literary devices when speaking, writing, and pronouncing complex vocabulary. Using literary device exercises, creative writing classes can provide ESL students with additional practice in speaking and pronunciation that will improve student proficiency by focusing on the cognitive process of language.

Literary devices are commonly used in ESL courses in reading, vocabulary, and writing, but these devices are rarely used in speaking and listening courses where pronunciation is emphasized. Research shows that the use of literary devices in speaking often limits nonnative speakers’ comprehension (Finch, 2003). One of the best ways to explore language via literary devices is through the genre of poetry. Green (2014) notes “the use of poetry in the ESL classroom enables students to explore linguistic and conceptual aspects of the written language without concentrating on the mechanics of language” (p. 1). Still, many language teachers resist using poetry in classes due to concerns that their students may not have the cultural or linguistic understanding to learn poetry or understand the literary devices used in poetry. Nevertheless, current research shows that literary devices can be used to explore issues important to students in depth and provide them with a means for speaking and pronouncing new vocabulary.

The use of literary devices to practice speech and pronunciation can allow ESL students to conceptualize the language (Hoang, 2014). Hoang (2014) points out that literary devices, such as metaphor, are “pervasive in everyday language, and more important, that metaphor can structure thinking.” Furthermore, Hoang asserts that using writing in conceptualizing language allows students to process the language and structure thinking. Finally, Zyoud (2011) points out that creative activity in the ESL classroom “draws upon both cognitive and affective domains, thus restoring the importance of feeing as well as thinking” (p. 1). Using literary devices can help students learn the “process of making meaning” (Hoang, 2014).

In teaching my creative writing class this summer, I wanted to focus on helping students learn meaning by engaging language through all six skills that the students were studying in their core classes: reading-vocabulary, writing-grammar, and listening-speaking. More specifically, I wanted to use literary devices to focus on speech and pronunciation because the current data from the Academic English program shows that our students need more practice in these two areas. For this practice, I chose to use our poetry unit, in which literary devices are most often used in writing and concentrated on metaphor, simile, and alliteration. The focus of this unit was poetic annotation, and we took a four-step approach to deconstructing three poems: (1) reading the poem aloud several times, (2) identifying the image that inspired the poet to write the poem, (3) underlining any sensory description, and (4) finding any major examples of metaphor, simile, and alliteration. Each step in the approach required students to practice speaking, pronunciation, and writing and helped students learn how to process language.

This approach allowed me to assess how students were processing the language. One of the biggest difficulties for nonnative speakers in learning a language is their confusion “of different senses of a lexical item or different lexical items” (Hoang, 2014). We began our process by reading each poem out loud. For this part of the practice, I used simple poems such as “I Sing the Battle” by Henry Kemp. I looked for poems that had simple language, used multiple literary devices, and used consistent repetition. I had each student read the same poem and recorded him or her reading for further analysis of his or her pronunciation. The second part of the process was for students to identify the image that inspired the poet to write the poem. During this step, students examined specific vocabulary and identified words that provided imagery to help them interpret the poem. The third step of the process was for students to underline any sensory description. This step helped students identify parts of speech that are used in sensory description, such as adjectives and adverbs. From there, the final step in the process was to identify the literary devices. It is through the use of literary devices that students learn how to identify abstract concepts through metaphor, how to identify rhythm through alliteration, and how to make comparisons through simile. These identifications can help students learn how to conceptualize and pronounce new vocabulary as well as how to use that vocabulary in everyday speech.

In conclusion, the use of literary devices in an ESL classroom can provide students with greater understanding of language and enhance their English proficiency. Poetry is an excellent way to explore how literary devices are used in speaking and listening, and reading simple poems can enable students to learn how these devices use everyday language to express meaning. The use of literary devices can expand ESL students’ thinking, which helps them make gains in their speaking and listening.


Finch, A. (2013). Using poems to teach English. English Language Teaching, 15(2), 29– 45.

Green, E. M. (April 2014). Honoring ourselves, creating community through poetry. TESOL Connections.  Retrieved from http://www.tesol.org/read-and-publish/newsletters-other-publications/tesol-connections

Hoang, H. (August 2014). Using metaphor to teach second language writing. TESOL Connections.  Retrieved from http://www.tesol.org/read-and-publish/newsletters-other-publications/tesol-connections

Zyoud, M. (2011). Using drama activities and techniques to foster teaching English as a foreign language: A theoretical perspective (Unpublished manuscript). Al Quds University.

Dr. Sumeeta Patnaik is the academic English coordinator for INTO-Marshall University, in Huntington, West Virginia. She has been working in ESL since 2001 and is interested in second language writing and speech and pronunciation. Dr. Patnaik received her doctorate in education (curriculum and instruction) from Marshall University in 2012.
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