Getting Literary with Your Students: ESL Poems for Adults

Roses are red, violets are blue.

Adult ESL students can benefit from learning poetry too.

Did you know that poems are a great tool for teaching English?

Poems come in all shapes, sizes and moods, so you can find a poem for every level, age and occasion—even adult students learning English for career purposes!

Make Poetry Exciting: 7 Fun Exercises Using ESL Poems for Adults

There are a plethora of ESL poems for adults and activities you can do to make your lessons more fun and engaging. From working on pronunciation and intonation with beginning level students to getting into nitty-gritty literary devices with advanced students, poems are a rich source of material for teaching.

Continue reading to learn how you can turn poetry into a fun learning experience for your adult learners.

Activities and ESL Poems for Adults

1. Reciting poems in class

Are your students struggling with pronunciation?

Or perhaps their intonation is falling flat?

Poems are useful for practicing all the subtle and not-so-subtle sounds of the English language. From the hard consonant sounds of “Ts” and “Ds” to the softer sounds of “Ss” and “Gs.”

The vocabulary, repetition and rhymes found in poems can help all your students improve their English speaking voices. Additionally, students who grapple with strong accents can benefit from studying and reciting poems too.

When presenting a poem to your class, it’s important that you first recite the poem for your students so that the pronunciation of each word is clear and they can hear the changes in intonation. Also, define any words that they don’t know and answer any questions they may have.

Then, together as a class, read the poem aloud. Once finished, you can call on individual students to recite the whole poem, or just one or two lines in a verse. The activity can end here, or you can ask your students to memorize a section of the poem or the whole poem as homework. In the next class, give each student a chance to recite the poem from memory.

I like to use “January” by John Updike for this activity. Any of John Updike’s calendar poems are great for memorization and recitation because they’re short and catchy, and contain an intermediate level of language that most adult learners can benefit from.

2. Find the rhyme

Another activity that helps students to engage in poetry is finding and analyzing a poem’s rhyme scheme.

Start by pre-teaching basic rhyme schemes. For lower-level students, focus more on the individual words used in the rhymes.

This activity can be done as a class with you asking leading questions. You might also want to prepare a list of questions to accompany the poem. Then, ask the students to work in pairs or small groups to analyze the rhyme of the poem among other things. When finished, go over the findings as a class.

Tip: Even if you don’t intend for the students to recite the poem, I recommend reading the poem to them once before you get started. It’s important for the students to hear the poem’s flow correctly before they begin to examine the language and rhyme scheme.

Here are some questions or types of questions you can use to help your students recognize and engage with the poem’s rhyme scheme and other literary aspects of the poem. These questions are based on the poem “The Crocodile” by Lewis Carroll:

  • In which line is the first rhyme?
  • Is it a true rhyme or a slant rhyme?
  • Where’s the second rhyme? Is it the same or different than the first?
  • What’s the rhyme scheme?
  • What do you think the modern translation of “doth” is in the first line?
  • List as many synonyms for “grin” (first line, second stanza) as you can.
  • Can you find all three adverbs in the poem?

“The Crocodile” by Lewis Carroll is an ideal poem for this activity. It’s set in the common ABAB rhyme scheme and includes various examples of true rhymes (“crocodile”/”Nile”) with a surprise slant rhyme that students will have to look for (“tail”/”scale”).

Tip: If you decide to have the students work in small groups, consider giving each group a different poem to analyze with a different set of corresponding questions. Save time at the end of class for each group to read the poem to the class and present their analysis of the rhyme scheme.

3. Order the poem

This activity works best with long, narrative poetry. It requires the students to think critically about the poem’s language and logic. Before class, you’ll need to select one or more poems, print them and then cut the poems up so that they’re divided into individual verses.

In class, arrange your students into small groups or pairs, then distribute the deconstructed poems. The students must read the verses and order them correctly. If the whole class is working with the same poem, the first group to succeed in restructuring the poem “wins” and should nominate one person from their group to read the poem to the class. At this point, feel free to analyze or discuss the poem as you see fit.

If the student groups are working on different poems, have each group share their reconstructed poem when it’s ready. If time allows, encourage discussion about the poem. Ask questions like:

  • Do the students like the poem?
  • What’s the story in the poem?
  • Was it hard to order the verses correctly?
  • What made the activity hard?

If you’re working with lower-level students, be sure to choose a simple poem. Prepare it in the same way, cutting it up by verse. In class, read the poem and have students listen as you read. As they listen they should try to re-order the verses based on what they hear.

Cynthia BuhainBaello’s poem “The Hunter” is the perfect length for this activity. The language isn’t too challenging, but reordering the verses could prove tricky. There are several verses that seem like they could be the first verse, which should bring up some spirited debate among your students.

4. Fill in the missing words

This is a fun activity for lower-level students that also tests their listening comprehension skills.

You can pick poems based on vocabulary you’ve been studying in class, or choose from any specific subject that interests you. Once you decide on a poem, type poem out, remembering to omit certain words. Feel free to leave out words based on vocabulary from your lessons or take out certain parts of speech, like verbs or adjectives.

After you distribute the worksheets, read the poem out loud to the class. As the students listen, they should fill in the missing words as they hear them. At the end of the poem, check the answers as a class. Discuss any unknown words and read the poem once again, but as a whole class.

“Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou lends itself well to this activity. There’s a lot of repetition and the language isn’t too difficult, making it a very active poem that’s fun to interpret.

5. Write a New Verse

This is activity works best with creative, higher-level students.

Start by selecting a poem and printing it out. Make sure to choose a poem with some length and story that can easily be expanded upon.

Read the poem together as a class, going over any words that your students don’t understand. Examine the rhyme scheme and discuss the main ideas behind the poem. Then, divide the class into small groups or pairs and have each group add an additional verse while following the same pattern as the poem. Save some time at the end of the class for the students to share their new verses.

I like to use“My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music” for this exercise. While technically a song, it reads like a poem and is easy for students to flesh out. They can include their favorite things as an additional verse.

6. Analysis scavenger hunt

Each of the previous activities I listed includes a small analysis component.

With your advanced students, you can take that analysis one step further with this exercise.

Poets sprinkle literary devices throughout their verses, which you can turn into a language-learning activity. Simply find poems with similes, metaphors, allegories, imagery, assonance and alliteration, and have your students analyze them.

This activity can be done two different ways. You can work as a class to find the literary devices within a poem or you can divide the class into small groups and have them work together to analyze a poem. In either case, it’s fun to present this lesson as a scavenger hunt.

For whichever poem you choose, prepare a list of the literary devices included within the poem. For example, one simile, three examples of alliteration, one metaphor and two hyperboles. Students must then work to identify each of these literary devices.

“The Tyger” by William Blake is a highly literary poem. It’s one of William Blake’s most famous poems and is ripe for analysis. There are examples of personification (“When the stars threw down their spears/And water’d heave with their tears”) and alliteration (“Tyger Tyger, burning bright”) that can lead to some meaningful conversations about what the author was trying to convey.

7. Write your own poems

Best used as a follow-up to one of the previous activities, writing poems is a fun way to let your students get creative.

When having them write personal poems, you can decide whether you want to implement strict or loose guidelines based on the level of your students. Depending on your class size, you may also want to turn this into a pair or group assignment.

Below are three types of poems are especially useful for ESL students. They aren’t complicated and don’t require a lot of knowledge about the technical aspects of poetry.

Free verse poetry

Free-verse poems focus less on rhyme and more on vocabulary and story. This may be your best option for lower-level students, because free-verse poems let them practice more basic English sentence structure. To give your students an idea of what a free-verse poem looks like, have them read “So You Want to Be a Writer” by Charles Bukowski. Encourage them to write a poem in the same style. For example, maybe someone wants to be a police officer or a news anchor.

Acrostic poetry

Acrostic poems are poems based on the letters in one word, typically a name. This is an easy activity to do in class. Each student writes their name down the side of a piece of paper. For each letter, they must write a line starting with a word that starts with that letter in their name. Usually, the lines say something about the individual.

For example, Anna could look something like:

Always on time for work.

Not a fan of football.

Neat, nice, normal,

A loving mother, friend, and wife.

At end of class, have your students read their poems out loud.


Limericks are a little more tricky and should be used with your advanced students.

They follow a strict rhyme scheme which can be frustrating and confusing for students who don’t have a strong understanding of the English language. Edward Lear’s “There Was an Old Man…” is a great limerick poem that can be used as an example to get students to tell their own story using the limerick form.

Turning Your Students into Poets

You have a lot of flexibility when using poems in the classroom. If you’re feeling really ambitious, it can be interesting to work with poems from your students’ native country. You can do these activities with the corresponding poems included in this article, or you can mix and match, using one poem for multiple activities or selecting your own poems.

A good place to look for additional poems is PoemHunter. There, you can find thousands of poems available for free online, including classics and more contemporary pieces.

Overall, poetry is a great way to help adult ESL students strengthen their vocabulary and develop a deeper appreciation for the English language.

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