Poetry Has a Place in Adult Basic Education

Written by Paula Dincer, Program Communications and Data Management

poetry has a place in adult basic education first literacy blog

Adult English language learners working together to compose the poem “Blue Is…”

“Oh no!” “She can’t be serious!” These were the reactions, followed by stunned silence, of the adult English language learners in my intermediate ESOL class when I suggested writing poetry in English.

What they didn’t realize is that poetry writing in English is really only scary in the abstract. Many English language learners are already poets in their native languages, and poetry is a great way to help adult language learners build confidence in their English skills. After some further explanation and encouragement, my students were cautiously willing to give poetry a try in honor of National Poetry Month.

Why Poetry?

Poetry lets adult English language learners relax with the language and still tell their stories. A blog post from ProLiteracy explains why poetry is an important tool for English language learners … 

“Poetry allows for experimentation with language, vocabulary, rhythm and rhyme patterns, and the ability to share ideas and learn about different cultures without being restricted by firm grammar and sentence structure.”

The post also offers 4 ways poetry can benefit adult English language learners.

1) Expand – Read something different

Poetry is varied. Sonnets and limericks, haikus and song lyrics offer new kinds of written and verbal expression that can keep English language learners interested in the language beyond its every-day use and application. Adult English language learners are confronted with practical English every day, in all kinds of work and family-related scenarios. Poetry approaches some of the same topics they may already be addressing via a different use of the language. And poems can present American culture – even the mundane – in a new light or from an unexpected perspective.

2) Practice – Use your skills differently

Poetry is expansive, creative, and free. It can introduce English language learners to structures, vocabulary, intonation and voice – symbolism, metaphor, and alliteration – that they may have seen in English prose but will be invited to play with in poetry. Because poems can be short, they provide a simpler vehicle for testing new vocabulary, phrasing and even idioms, and for exercising the skills they have already acquired.

3) Experiment – Listening and Speaking

Poetry is musical. There is rhythm and rhyme. There are patterns of intonation, and opportunities for new syllable combinations and new word connections. It’s an opportunity for English language learners to stretch their listening and speaking skills to elicit meaning differently than from conversation.

4) Share – Tell stories unbound by convention

Poetry is flexible, and for the English language learner that’s a relief. Students have a lot to share around universal themes like family and memories, and common challenges like adapting to American culture and missing home. But they are also desperate to share their distinct life experiences. Poetry offers an immediate way to tell their stories unbound by the restrictions of grammar or structure.

Presenting Poetry to Adult Learners

The best way to present this form of writing to adult students wasn’t immediately obvious, but I was reminded of the steps we apply to other teaching challenges and found them to be helpful:

1) Find the resources: A First Literacy workshop titled “Integrating Poetry into the ESOL and Adult Basic Education Classroom”, presented by Lenore Balliro, a published poet and former Program Director at First Literacy, includes tools for two poetry projects, one collaborative and one individual, with many examples and templates for structuring poems.

2) Show examples: Reveal the templates that provide a model, structure or prompt, and show that poems aren’t always pieces that suddenly appear in perfect final form.

3) Test the process: A collaborative poem works well as a first step. This approach shows students they are all a little nervous and unsure of what to expect, and if one student is blocked, another may have just the word or phrase to break the log jam. For students, collaborative poetry is itself an opportunity to express feelings, intentions, and meaning in English.

After using this process to introduce poetry to my class I saw real interest, curiosity, and even excitement as they conquered their initial jitters and dove in. They were pleasantly surprised by the results!

Below is a collaborative poem that the student’s worked on titled, “Blue is…”. The group also worked on a compilation of individual pieces called “I am from …” .

Blue is…

A collaborative poem by four ESOL students representing Brazil, Italy, Norway, Spain and Japan.

April 24, 2018

Blue is the color of the earth from the moon, its deep oceans;
Blue is the Caribbean beach everyone loves and enjoys;
Blue is traveling around the world in a sailboat.
Blue is the “Royal Copenhagen” pottery that hangs on my mother’s living room wall.
Blue is a calm and peaceful color, although sometimes cruel.
Blue is keeping me calm, and keeping me awake.
Blue is baby-boy smell, my daughter’s eyes, and her favorite color.
Blue is the color of a new pair of jeans in the Spring and Isabel’s cardigan.
Blue is the ink on the letters we used to write before SMS.
Blue is water, clarity, and shadows at dusk.
Blue is an iceberg, cool and cold.
Blue is the sky in the U.S. — strong sunshine, and a little wind.
Blue is smart.
Blue are crocuses in the Alps, the dead frozen fish in the backyard pool, the recycle bins in the city streets.
Blue is my fingers after eating Maine blueberries on a summer afternoon.
Blue is freedom.

Looking for more tools and activities? The 4 resources below will help you incorporate poetry into the ESOL classroom during National Poetry Month and beyond.

To access even more free resources on a range of topics visit our Resources For Educators page.





April 7, 2022

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