Empowering English Language Teachers through Poetry Work


Until recently, literature, to most teachers of English language in Indonesia, is so often taken for granted. The interest of English teachers and teachers to be in English literature has been decreasing for the past few years. They have argued: “Why bother to read it? With life as short as it is, with so many pressing demands on our time, with books of information, instruction, and discussion waiting to be read, why should we spend precious time on works of imagination?” (Perrine,1988). It has been taken so much for granted as to be largely lost sight of. In addition, they have to cope with the abstract thought and rhetoric of the author. That is bound to be very complex (Wallwork, 1978). The measurement of literary work is a much more complex process and it cannot be done as exactly (Perrine, 1988).

Salasar (1992) in his article ‘A New Approach to Teaching Literature’ cites that life in the universe is a continuous step forward, however, one thing has remained stagnant: the teaching of literature. The great majority of our teachers teach the same way our grandparents did half a century ago. The teachers have been primarily interested in the forms of the language, for instance, the sound, grammatical, and lexical system of the language.

In addition, the interest of English teachers and teachers to be in English literature, notably poetry, has been decreasing for the past few years. They have little understanding of the origins and purposes of poetry; many of poetry’s greatest charms- its conciseness, its appeal to the intuition, and its richness of language (Kirkpatrick and Goodfellow, 1965). Furthermore, they miss word arrangements that may create an effect both rhythmic and poetic, and “speaking picture” of some thing and event more effectively and quickly than does an ordinary language of speech or writing.

Most people find poetry difficult to read, and much poetry is indeed difficult to read. If most people today were asked the question, “When did you last read a poem just for the fun of it?” the answer would probably be “Oh, I can’t remember,” or, perhaps honestly, “I never have.” Why is it that today, when so many people read, so few read poetry?

As a matter of fact, the reading of literature is in itself an experience; we take part in what is happening. We become involved in literature to the same extent that we are involved in life. What is important for us as a reader is to apply our previous experiences to our reading in some way that will permit us to think, to feel, and thereby to gain a new insight, a new experience (Jones, Jr.) Certainly, one cannot readily characterize poetry precisely. However, almost anyone who can read, in fact, can read poetry. One can learn what it is, learn how to read it, practice reading it, and so gain pleasure from it.

Moreover, certainly in the majority of community, the most highly literate are the most powerful (Hallwork, 1978).It seems likely that literary work, directly or indirectly, ultimately does today affects every one of the world’s inhabitants. In a literate community today, their effects are pervasive and almost incalculable.

In studying a complex individual human being and his language, teachers should have some qualities to enhance their students’ study of language and its use as a vehicle of communication with the complex enterprise of language teaching and learning. In addition, the teachers must pay attention to the cognitive, aesthetic and moral development experienced by their students. It is Literature that seems to me to be helpful and valuable to empower the teachers and further their professional development. It would be best now to revive Literature in the world of teaching.

This article discusses how poetry plays an important role in empowering teachers of English and how it is applied in classroom activities and will make materials relevant and meaningful to their students.

It is hoped that this article will provide a starting point for the teachers to integrate one of the literary works, poetry, in empowering themselves and ultimately in their teaching methods. It seems worth making an attempt to trace some of the significant strands in poetry to reveal its depth and to make them aware of its effectiveness to give dynamics in teaching.


Literature is a body of usually written works related by subject matter, by language or place of origin, or by dominant cultural standards. The word “literature” has different meanings depending on who is using it and in what context. One can, however, equate a literature with a collection of stories, poems, and plays that revolve around a particular topic (Wikipedia, 2008). The study of the classical and contemporary English literature can be beneficial in at least three ways: (A) it presents for consideration and discussion the universal human values that permeate all great literature, and which transcend cultural boundaries; (B) it can provide educationally useful insight into other literary and cultural traditions; (C) it can gain, through objective analysis, reflection, and discussion, deeper insights into their own cultural values and literary traditions, in the same way that the study of another language helps us perceive the structure of our own. (Forum,1985). Moreover, literature fosters our imaginative and emotional growth (Hallwork, 1978)

Moreover, Androsenko (1992) in his article ‘A Refresher Course in Communicative Teaching’ suggests that literature can broaden the teacher trainees’ comprehension of culture. The most involving games practiced in the refresher course are the ones with a developing plot (criminal investigation) looking for the Loch Ness monster, unraveling the mysteries of Stonehenge. They enjoy the unpredictability of the plot and the amount of language such games generate. An imaginative teacher can think of many ways to vary the trip. Stories, pictures, slides, songs, quizzes and questionnaires can be easily incorporated in the activity. This will increase his awareness of new ideas in language teaching and put them into practice. At this point, the practice will foster the students’ motivation and make the learning more efficient.

To sum up, the importance of English Literature, in empowering English teachers includes: (1) it assists to obtain a better understanding of life and culture of English-speaking countries, (2) it teaches moral and aesthetical values, and (3) it enhances the teacher’s linguistic competence and performance, and (4) it motivates learning experience and promotes cooperative learning.


It is felt that the teacher’s job is not much offer descriptions of language or models to be learnt, but rather to create conditions in the classroom that will enable students to learn by becoming engaged in activities or working on tasks. The teacher is no longer expected to dominate all work in the classroom; he sets up conditions and activities that will make it possible for students to operate with language because they have a real interest in the outcome of the tasks. The teacher’s success is therefore closely linked to his ability to stimulate interest in a subject. (Androsenko, 1992)

Literature, in particularly poetry, offers a change from routine classroom activities. It is a valuable tool to contribute to the growth of the teachers’ profession. The forms of poetry that may serve that purpose include:

A. The Use of Famous Poems

Poetry involves perception. Even more, it involves the poet’s use of feelings, so all of us can responds to perception and feelings (McConochie and Sage, 1985). To try out a poem, we should:

(1) start with the story, with what happens.

(2) look again at the speaker’s words, thinking not only about their literal meanings or denotation, but also about their associations, their connotation.

(3) move to underlying cultural assumptions and implications. After that, take time to admire the poet’s technical skill in using the sounds, words, and syntactical structure of the language.

(4) help our students to explore what universal feeling or principle, what theme has emerged from the poet’s efforts.

(5) ask your students to read the poem again, perhaps memorizing some of it to enrich the students’ own stock of words.

The following is a poem written by Robert Frost (1874-1963). Robert Frost is both the most famous and the most widely read American poet of the twentieth century. It is because he uses simple words and familiar settings, mostly rural New England. Frost’s poems are often presented to American students as early as elementary school. Because his themes are universal and the poems reveal additional meaning as one examines them closely, his work is also read by college students and by adults who enjoy poetry. The poem can be used to improve our teaching performance:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow

Shook me down

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved my part

Of a day I had rued

In relation to the structure of the previous poem, the words are short, each line has only two strong beats (“the WAY a CROW/ shook DOWN on ME”), and it is grammatically sophisticated; the first stanza or group of lines forms a subject of a sentence, the second stanza forms the predicate and the second part of the predicate includes a subordinate clause in the past perfect. Moreover, in each stanza, the first and third, and the second and fourth lines rhyme.

To unfold the story or what happens in the poem, let us consider the connotative elements in dust, snow, crow, and hemlock. Dust refers to what a clergyman says (“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”) as he sprinkles earth on a coffin before it is lowered into a grave. Snow is gold, covering the earth with a lifeless blanket of white. Hemlock is the name of a tree that stays green all year, but it is also the name of a poisonous plant. As we have known that the Greek philosopher Socrates was executed by being made to drink its juice). A crow is black- the color of death. Thus, we have ample symbolism in those four words. The poem could be a commentary on the relation of life and death as we refer to the other two words in the next lines, heart and day; heart essential to life and day has been often interpreted as the symbolic representation of a lifetime. In other words, the author is telling the tale at the end of a day when the crow appeared. He has begun to sense that something negative unexpectedly result in something good. In this case, a symbol of death has appeared at the end of a life and saved some part of it. Of course, saved, for a Christian, connotes life after death. The underlying suggestion of the author, then, may be that death will provide a welcome solace at the end of along life.

The essence of the story in the poem is that an unexpected event changed the poet’s mood and saved what was left of a day that he or she had regretted living through. The change was, then, from sorrow or remorse to some degree of acceptance, perhaps even happiness. We know that the change was deep, for it was a change of heart rather than of mind.

B. The Use of Teacher-Made Poems

To reach this understanding and to understand the meaning of poems written by famous poets will probably take years. We may present other poems written by other poets. The basic procedure is to:

(1) find a poem that speaks to us,

(2) examine it to discover something of how it is put together, decide which of our discoveries may interest our students, and try it out.

To fully respond to a poem, we must be aware of sound, rhythm, syntactic structures, and connotative values. Being able to find more will be a sign of a good reader and when we keep up this good work, will know that we have discovered the greatness of poems.

Another way of presenting a poem is, by creating our own. Here is one created by the author, describing relatively the similar story as described in Robert Frost’ s Dust of Snow, under her pen name Dyra Hadi:

The Past

Dyra Hadi

The rain is so loudly crashing and drumming

with a voice like a waterfall, it’s pouring.

A blur of face in my adolescent memory appears

with the crown of the past fun and fear;

All as before, as once upon a time,

with the voice drifting along the wind.

The rain ceaselessly rustling and chattering

with soft tiny drops of crystal water;

He had a long ago invented a whole new life for me

as the daylight was breaking rapidly.

All now renders in silence and solemnity

ablaze with the morning sun and the blue sky;

I’ve just come out of the maze in

which I have for so long wandered.

The beauty of the world gleams and glitters;

walking in joy and in glory.

I want from you nothing

for my life was very much rich within.

(Rochmawati, 2005)

In the above poem, structurally speaking, of course, it is not as good as ones created by famous poets. It seems, however, the author is trying hard in her effort to make the poem in uniformity; most of the sentences are complex ones; some lines rhyme (line#1-line#2 or drumming and pouring, and line#3-line#4 or appear and fear) and some others do not; a few lines have the same meter and most lines do not.

However, she has managed to bring about the images in the poem. Some are pleasant, such as ‘soft tiny drops of crystal water’, ‘ablaze with the morning sun and the blue sky’, the beauty of the world gleams and glitter’, and ‘walking in joy and glory’, and some are unpleasant, such as ‘so loudly crashing and drumming’, ‘fear’’ ‘rustling and chattering’, and ‘a voice like a waterfall’. They suggest the joy and sorrow the author once experienced. She also uses symbols, for instance, ‘rain’, ‘daylight’ and ‘maze’ to heighten emotions and impressions. The hard rain is a symbol of disaster; whereas the daylight is a symbol of the coming of a new day that means a new hope; and the maze symbolizes the mysteries in life. The figures of speech used in the poem are metaphor such as ‘the crown of past fun and fear’, ‘out of the maze’, and ‘the beauty of the world gleams and glitters’, simile, such as ‘like a waterfall’, and personification, such as ‘the beauty of the world walking in joy and in glory’.

In short, the narrator of the poem tells us that the sound of the hard rain reminds him/her of someone of his/her adolescent years who shared sadness and happiness with him/her. When the rain stops and he/she is greatly impressed with the beauty of the world he/she realizes that it no use wanting to have what he/she once had. But instead, he/she is so thankful what he/she has now.

As we have seen, poetry, is not, as some people think, just complicated way of presenting a simple message. It is the ultimate use of language because poets use words to evoke thoughts and sensations that are deeper than words. That is the joy of teaching poetry.

C. The Use of Songs

The value of songs in motivating students to learn English and enhancing learning involvement is widely acknowledged by ESL practitioners (Lo and Li, 1998). Teachers and students alike find singing songs entertaining and relaxing. Also, they are invaluable tools to develop students abilities in listening, speaking, reading, and writing, and can be used to teach a variety of language items such as pronunciation, vocabulary, sentence patterns, rhythm, and so forth.

There are basically four classroom activities using songs as the chief materials for teaching (Lo and LI, 1998):

(1) Song dictation

The purpose of this activity is to sharpen students’ listening ability, in particular, pronunciation.

To try this out, students are first handed out the lyrics with some words missing. They are asked to go through the lyrics and try to guess the words in the blanks. The teacher then explains difficult words and lets students read the lyrics. This is followed by the teacher asking simple questions to check the students’ overall comprehension of the song. Students can listen to the song three times: the first time purely listening and trying to work out what the missing words are; the second time filling in the gaps; and the third time checking to confirm whether the answers are correct or not. The teacher then discusses the answers with the students and practices pronouncing the words with them through further listening and singing with the tape.

These classroom activities may be followed up by assigning the students to do creative writing or speaking both individually, in pairs, or in groups, such as playing roles of the characters in the song or to do grammar or vocabulary exercises.

(2) Song reading

This activity aims at developing the students’ ability to comprehend the literal meaning of the song and at the same time analyze the hidden message.

To carry out this, the teacher first hands out the entire lyrics to the students with asset of comprehension questions. The teacher then plays the song to the students and gives them some time to do silent reading, focusing their attention on questions geared toward the surface understanding of the song. Students may work out the answers in groups to generate more conversation in English.

There is more follow-up work on the creative writing tasks. The teacher may ask the students to imagine themselves to be some characters in the song and play their roles and write a story about them.

(3) Split song

This activity provides an opportunity for the students to improve their comprehension ability. This is indeed a matching exercise.

The classroom activities are as follows: the teacher first identifies several stanzas that are suitable for this exercise. The teacher then divides each sentence of the stanza into two parts, creating two lists. The teacher then jumbles the order of the list containing the second half of the sentences. Students are required to restore the stanzas to their original forms. After the students complete the exercise in groups, the teacher may let them look at the entire lyrics to check their answers. They may also listen to the song several times and learn how to sing it.

This exercise may lead to more creative writing tasks. For example, in groups, the students write a conversation between or among the characters in the song then act it out.

(4) Word portraits

This activity attempts to stimulate students’ imagination through construction of a story based on the words selected from the song and given to them.

To carry this out, the teacher first presents isolated words from various stanzas in the song and puts them accordingly into boxes. Each box consists of words taken from one stanza. Before asking the students to write, the teachers explain the difficult vocabulary. Students then work in groups to develop their own stories based on the words taken from one stanza. After they have finished, they present their work to other groups. The teacher lets students compare what they have written with the story described in the song by handing out the lyrics and playing the song to them.

D. The Use of Limericks

A limerick is a form of humorous poetry that has five lines of certain length, and the third and the fourth are shorter than others. The long lines share the same rhyme; the short ones share another. For instance:

There was a young fellow named Hall,

Who fell in the spring in the fall;

It would have been a sad thing

If he died in the spring,

But he didn’t, he died in the fall.

The basic procedure of teaching this is the teacher first hands the students a limerick. The teacher then discusses the difficult vocabulary. The students then are asked to identify the rhymes and the humorous part of the limerick. The students then learn and recite it.

To have a follow-up activity, the teacher gives the students jumbled sentences and then asks them to rearrange the sentence into a well-constructed limerick. Another is the teacher may give some limericks with some words missing. The students then are assigned to fill in the missing words. Finally, the students work in groups to create their own limericks and present the limericks in turn.

E. The Use of Other Poetic Works

Some other poetic works that may be presented to students can be taken from wise words, children’s rhymes, advertisements, slogans, etc. To present them, the teacher may employ the common steps of teaching poetry. To have a follow-up activity, the teacher may ask the students to develop their own wise words or advertisements depending on what is being presented to them.

F. The Use of Collaborative Poem-Writing

Collaborative writing presents not only a highly motivating learning experience for ESL/EFL students but also a creative pedagogical tool for teachers. A teacher may work with the poetry genre for the collaborative writing for a number of reasons. First, poetry works as a medium to spark emotions when used in recitation and literary analysis. Second, the poem is a relatively short form, as opposed to most prose forms, and a very effective one for a single class-hour exercise. Third, poetry allows students to free their emotions creatively (Montero, 2005).

The benefits of collaborative writing activities in language teaching are numerous. First, collaboration promotes individual participation, increases self-confidence, and encourages productivity. The groups work enthusiastically, sharing many ideas with which to create a new poem. The results will be inspiring and highly motivating. Second, teamwork enables students to learn from each other and stimulate each other’s sense of creativity. Third, the activity can be fun, which should always be a goal of instruction. By sharing and working together, students will find that poem writing can be an enjoyable activity that allows them to express their ideas with creative, humorous/serious, and beautifully poetic content. Sharing the poems creates a positive learning atmosphere that will produce a truly amazing work (Montero, 2005).


An important variable in the learning situation is the teacher himself. His skill is dependent on two factors: his proficiency in the language and his knowledge and expertise in methods and techniques of language teaching. Since the qualities of language teachers define their students’ potential limits of achievement, anything they can do to enhance their skills has a direct bearing on the learner’s achievement (Al-Ahmed, 1992)

As we have seen, poetry is not, as some people think, just complicated way of presenting a simple message. Poetry can open our eyes to new ways of looking at experiences, emotions, people, everyday objects, and more. It takes us on voyages with poetic devices such as imagery, metaphor, rhythm, and rhyme (Johnson, 2006). It is the ultimate use of language because poets use words to evoke thoughts and sensations that are deeper than words. That is the joy of teaching poetry.

This article will hopefully make teachers of English aware of benefits of adopting literature in their teaching and learning process to support their efforts to develop alternative classroom teaching strategies and respond to the immediate needs of their students.


Al-Ahmed, Fatima H. 1992. Assessing and Improving Teacher Performance. English Teaching Forum. Volume 30, Number 2.

Androsenko, Viacheslav P. 1992. A Refresher Course in Communicative Teaching. English Teaching Forum, Volume 30, Number 2.

Cook, Guy. 1994. Discourse and Literature: The Interplay of Form and Mind. Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Kitty. 2006. Poetry for the People. English Teaching Forum, Volume 44, Number 1.

Johnson, Kitty. 2006. Lesson Plan: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry. English Teaching Forum, Volume 44, Number 1.

Jones Jr., Edward H. Outlines of Literature: Short Stories, Novels, and Poems.

Kirkpatrick, Laurence and Goodfellow, William. 1965. Poetry with Pleasure. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Lo, Regina and Li, Henry Chi Fai. 1998. Songs Enhance Learner Involvement. English Teaching Forum. Volume 36, Number 3, Jul-Sept.

Montero, Amarilis. 2005. Motivating EFL Students through Collaborative Writing with Poems. English Teaching Forum. Volume 43, Number 3.

Perrine, Laurence. 1988. Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Fifth Edition. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Rochmawati, Dyah. 2005. The Story Book: A Collection of Poems. (Unpublished book)

Wallwork, J. F. 1978. Language and People. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Wikipedia. 2008. Literature. http://enwikipedia.org/wiki/Literature.

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