poems-to-learn-english

7 Ingenious Poems with English Lessons Hidden Inside

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…”

Many of us have heard some famous English-language poems like this one—Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

Maybe you had to read a bit of translated English poetry in school. Or maybe you’ve heard some poems referenced in your favorite English TV shows or movies.

What did you think of those poems?

Whether you liked them or not, you might’ve assumed that English poems are best for native English speakers.

But that’s simply not true.

Poems can be unique and powerful tools to learn English.

Below, I’ll tell you exactly how to practice English with poetry and get you started with seven of my all-time favorite modern and contemporary poems.
 


 
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Why Should English Learners Read Poetry?

Poetry helps learners improve their speaking, writing, reading and listening skills in many different ways.

For starters, poetry can teach you tons of new vocabulary. Not only will you encounter many new words, but many poems rhyme as well, which offers an incredible memory boost.

Poetry will also teach you the art of word choice. Poems are very different from prose (how language is normally written). Poets must convey a powerful message within a small amount of space. Because of this, poets are very careful about the words they select.

By paying attention to a poem’s word choice, you can learn how to choose the best possible English word to convey your own thoughts in both speaking and writing.

Furthermore, poets pay special attention to the stress and intonation of words and sentences. If you want to improve these areas of your English speech, poetry is one of the best ways to do it.

Punctuation is also an important part of poetry. It changes the way the poem sounds when read aloud, and it can even alter the poem’s meaning. Reading poetry will help you learn exactly what punctuation conveys and how to use it correctly.

Want your reading comprehension to improve? Poems will teach you about literary devices in English, which are creative writing techniques—often the author will discuss something in a figurative (non-literal or unrealistic) way. Examples of literary devices are metaphors, allegories and symbolism.

If you can begin to identify these through poetry, then you’ll have a better understanding of most things you read in English. You won’t get confused by interpreting something too literally.

For advanced learners, reading English poetry is one of the biggest ways you can learn to experiment with the English language. Poetry is famous for breaking English language rules. Knowing how to successfully bend these grammatical rules to convey meaning is part of mastering English.

Finally, reading poetry is a fun way to gain insight into English-speaking cultures and history since literary works reveal a lot about society.

How to Turn Any English Poem into a Language Lesson

Believe it or not, there’s so much you can do with poetry that goes beyond simply reading it.

  • Get your highlighter. The first thing you can do is make notes about any language elements that seem crucial to the sound of the poem. For example: words that you think should be stressed, words that rhyme, etc.
  • Listen to the poem. After marking it, listen to an audio or video recording of the poem. Not only will you practice your listening skills, but you’ll also be able to see whether or not the speaker follows the patterns you’ve marked.

Did you put the word stress in the right place? How is the rhythm of the poem different than what you expected?

poems-to-learn-english

We’ll point you to audio recordings of all the poems we’ll cover in this article. FluentU is also an incredible tool to hear native English recordings and be sure that you learn from them. That’s because every FluentU video and audio recording comes with interactive subtitles, vocabulary lists, full transcripts, flashcards and other learning tools.

You’ll find inspiring English poems like this one, along with many other real-world English videos, conveniently organized by genre and learning level.

  • Recite the poem aloud. It’s your turn! Mimic what you heard in the audio recording. As I mentioned earlier, poetry is so concerned with stress and sound that it’s like a bite-sized lesson in learning to speak English naturally.
  • Take this a step further and try memorizing the entire poem! Most poems are small enough that you can achieve this in a short amount of time—another benefit of learning with poetry.

Memorizing a small poem is a fantastic way to learn new vocabulary. That’s because you’re not just memorizing the words and their definitions. You also have context for the words, which makes memorization easier.

  • Get your pen! Finally, you can benefit enormously from trying to write your own poem using the same form or style as the poem you’ve just read.

Writing your own poem is the ultimate way to master what you’ve learned. Poems are usually short, so you can quickly get a sense of the writing style. Then, try to imitate the style in your own poem.

There are so many different poetic forms that you’ll never run out of writing types to try.

7 Ingenious Poems with English Lessons Hidden Inside

If you’re ready to try some of the great learning strategies we just discussed, here are seven iconic modern and contemporary English poems to get you started!

“This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams

About the Poem

“This is Just to Say” was published in 1934 and written by one of the most significant modern American poets, William Carlos Williams.

Williams was inspired by another American poet, Walt Whitman, who started a movement to write poetry that reflected the poet’s life and didn’t follow strict rules. Williams liked this idea and decided to write poems about his everyday life. He was particularly interested in what life was like in the American suburbs (the neighborhoods outside of a city).

“This Is Just to Say” was based on a note that Williams left on the refrigerator for his wife. The note let his wife know that he’d eaten the plums she was probably planning to eat later.

You can read and listen to the poem recited by Williams at PennSound. There’s an introduction included in the audio and the poem starts at minute 1:04.

Poetic Notes

Some readers have considered whether there’s a metaphor (a literary device where one object or idea represents another) behind this poem that goes beyond the plums. For example, many think the sweet fruit could be another way of talking about Williams’ affairs outside of his marriage.

Readers should also pay attention to the lack of punctuation and to the type of details provided in the poem, as these keep the poem true to its original nature: a simple note on the fridge.

Practice and Learn

This is a wonderful poem for practicing identifying adjectives, as the plums are described with three different words—see if you can find them!

It’s also an extremely short poem, which makes it the perfect one to try and memorize first.

Lastly, while there’s no punctuation, listening to Williams read his poem is a great way to pay attention to the natural pauses in English. The fact that this poem comes from an ordinary situation (leaving a note on the fridge) means that it reflects natural speech and writing.

Try reciting the poem with the same pauses and intonation that Williams, a native English speaker, uses.

“The Chaos” by Gerard Nolst Trenité

About the Poem

“The Chaos” was written by Gerard Nolst Trenité, a Dutch traveler and writer.

Trenité’s very popular poem highlights the difficult spelling and pronunciation of a number of English words. Its focus is the English language itself, making it perfect for language learners.

You can read the poem online and listen to the audio with the YouTube video below. Note that a few stanzas (groups of lines that form verses) are skipped in the audio—it’s a very long poem and almost all recordings leave out a few.

Poetic Notes

Consider the tone of the poem and whether or not you think the speaker is being funny or is actually frustrated.

It’s worth noting the rhymes at the end of each line and the abundance of alliteration (words that start with the same letter), both of which help shape the tone.

Practice and Learn

This poem is, of course, fantastic for learners, its intended audience. You have countless words in the poem to aid you in pronunciation and spelling.

The whole point of the poem is to show the different letter combinations in English and what they look and sound like.

Apart from this more obvious takeaway, you’ll also be exposed to tons of great new vocabulary words!

“A Pizza the Size of the Sun” by Jack Prelutsky

About the Poem

Jack Prelutsky is one of the most well-known American contemporary children’s poets. “A Pizza the Size of the Sun” comes from a book of poetry he published under the same name in 1996.

The poem is about exactly what its title suggests: the speaker making an enormous pizza.

You can read the poem on PoemHunter, but I wouldn’t listen to the recording on the site because it’s just a computer recording that won’t give you the correct intonation. Instead, listen to this reading by Little Readers on YouTube:

Poetic Notes

Take some time to think about what each of the metaphors in this poem means. Then come up with some other metaphors you could use instead to depict the same ideas.

Practice and Learn

This poem is great for beginners since it was written for a kid’s English level. Not only is the concept simple, but the metaphors and vocabulary are also easy to understand.

The poem’s simplicity and its easy rhymes make this an excellent choice for memorization practice.

It would also be a good poem from which to copy the style and write your own piece about a type of food. The sheer number of food vocabulary words in the poem will help you get started with ideas for your own piece.

“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks

About the Poem

“We Real Cool,” published in 1960, is arguably the most famous of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems.

Brooks was the first African American poet to win a Pulitzer Prize and was a truly brilliant writer. Her poems gave a voice to the everyday urban life of American Blacks in the 20th century. “We Real Cool” has such incredible rhythm that it’ll give you chills (you’ll be so impressed, it’ll give you goosebumps on your arms)!

The poem is written from the perspective of a couple of young teens who are skipping school to hang out at a pool hall.

You can find the poem and listen to an audio recording of it being read by Brooks at Poets.org. Brooks first talks about her inspiration for the poem, then the poetry reading begins at 1:43.

Poetic Notes

Here’s another poem that’s perfect for memorization, since it’s short and rhymes. This rhyme combines with alliteration like “Jazz June,” and assonance (words with the same vowel sound) like “Thin gin,” to create a smooth, musical poem that’s easy to remember.

Consider how these sounds reinforce the content in the poem and how certain words may have deeper meanings for the poem’s speakers.

Practice and Learn

This poem is absolutely perfect for practicing English vowel sounds, which can be difficult for learners to distinguish at first. (Just think about how easy it is to be misunderstood when pronouncing the vowels in words like “bat,” “bit,” “but” and “bet.”)

So many English words differ only by their vowel sound and this poem contains a ton of those for you to practice.

See if you can use the rhyming to match these sounds and find which combinations and placements of these vowels produce them.

“Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand

About the Poem

Mark Strand is a poet known for using surreal imagery and carefully chosen language to convey his poignant (causing deep emotion) messages.

The poem “Eating Poetry,” first published in the 1960s, describes a speaker who’s literally eating poetry.

Both the text and audio are available from the Poetry Foundation.

Poetic Notes

Probably the biggest thing to consider when it comes to understanding this poem is the metaphor behind the act of eating a poem. Think about what the poet is trying to convey by this idea of happily eating a poem.

There’s also some rhyming used—see if you can find it—and a lot of sharp imagery, from ink running down the speaker’s mouth to dogs rolling their eyeballs and a librarian stamping her legs (picking up her legs and then pressing them hard onto the ground). Think about why Strand used these devices and how they change the poem and its meaning.

Practice and Learn

This poem is a great choice for learners who need help with English verbs. It contains many colorful action words that you may not have heard before like “snarl,” “romp” and “stamp.”

See if you can identify all of the verbs and then use context clues to figure out what they mean before looking them up in a dictionary.

Additionally, this poem is great for beginners to get an idea of how to form simple sentences. Strand uses proper punctuation, and many of his sentences are short and sweet, highlighting one of the most common types of simple English sentences: subject, verb, object.

“So you want to be a writer?” by Charles Bukowski

About the Poem

Charles Bukowski was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century.

In his poem “So you want to be a writer,” the speaker details exactly what they think makes a real writer, and the poem is a fantastic example of Bukowski’s style.

The poem can be read at Poets.org and there’s an audio recording available on YouTube.

Poetic Notes

What’s perhaps most striking about this poem is the amount of imagery used. Consider which images have the most impact on the speaker’s message and why you think the poet chose to include them. My personal favorite is the writer hunched over the typewriter searching for words.

There are also many great metaphors and similes (where one idea is compared to another with the word “like” or “as”). One example is when the poet talks about words coming “out of your soul like a rocket.”

These devices work together with the repetition in the poem to create a strong tone. In other words, the speaker sounds very powerful, and it’s clear that they completely believe in their message.

Practice and Learn

Bukowski’s poem is the ultimate choice for learners who need to practice the imperative (commands), interrogative (questions) and conditional (the if/then structure).

The poem is really just a compilation of these three types of sentences, and learners will greatly benefit from identifying these and trying to imitate their intonation based on the audio recording.

Additionally, the poem is full of good vocabulary for English learners, with rich, intermediate level words like “consumed,” “madness” and “gut.”

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant” by Emily Dickinson

About the Poem

Most people have heard of Emily Dickinson, the famous American poet whose works were published posthumously starting in 1890.

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant” is one of her most important pieces. It’s a complicated poem about the concept of not telling the truth directly.

The poem can be read at the Poetry Foundation and there’s an audio recording of it available on YouTube.

Poetic Notes

Dickinson’s poem has many unique elements. For starters, there’s her use of the punctuation mark called the “dash,” which can be interpreted in various ways.

She also capitalizes certain words throughout the poem and uses metaphors. Whenever considering what Dickinson means in a poem, readers must always consider the form of the poem itself, something that she was very focused on throughout her writing.

Practice and Learn

This poem, along with all of Dickinson’s work, is definitely for the more advanced English learner.

It’s an excellent poem with which to practice reading comprehension at a higher level so that you can begin deciphering more difficult texts.

It’s worth trying to figure out exactly what Dickinson means when she talks about the truth being told “slant” and developing an argument as to whether you think that concept is right or wrong.

Practicing with difficult ideas such as this one will help you better understand English arguments and participate in discussions of complex ideas.

 

I hope you enjoyed these few poems and that you won’t stop here. English poetry is a vast and diverse genre that’s being added to every day. Who knows… maybe you’ll even be the next famous English-language poet!?


 

And One More Thing…

If you like learning English with authentic poems and readings, then there’s a lot more waiting for you at FluentU.

FluentU teaches you English the way native speakers really use it, in culture and in everyday life. You’ll find everything from classic movie clips, to interviews with  famous writers, to funny TV commercials, as you can see here:

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If you want to watch it, FluentU’s probably got it.

FluentU makes it easy to understand native English videos. It has interactive captions. Tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.

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FluentU lets you learn engaging content with world famous celebrities.

Tap on the word “brought,” and you would see this:

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FluentU lets you tap to look up any word.

This way, videos become English lessons. With FluentU’s questions, you can always see more examples for the word you’re learning.

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FluentU helps you learn fast with useful questions and multiple examples. Learn more.

The most interesting part? FluentU knows the vocabulary that you’re learning. It recommends you examples and videos based on those words. You have a 100% personalized experience.

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.


Camille Turner is an experienced freelance writer and ESL teacher.

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