Teaching EAL Learners Poetry

I’ve been co-teaching with an English teacher this year with a group of Year 11 students (15 – 16 years old) that are all EAL learners. They have been studying Power and Conflict Poetry via the AQA exam board. It is a pretty tough ask for them as they have only been given this year to learn the poems. They are a combination of New to English (Beginners) through to Developing Competence (pre intermediate) proficiency in English.

Some of the poems are no doubt easier to learn than others but I have found that a few things have certainly helped with developing their knowledge and understanding of the poems.

All EAL learners benefit from building background or making explicit links to prior knowledge when they encounter any text. Poetry is no different. It is vital that they understand the context of the poems as with any other student and a range of activities and strategies can support building background. Key images, videos, and discussion around the context can help. Because many of our EAL learners come from very different educational backgrounds we have to spend quite a bit of time building background but it is certainly worth the investment of time.

When we encounter the poems I am always aware of the distinction between top down and bottom up approaches to reading texts. Professor Pauline Gibbons (2009) describes such an approach in her excellent book English Learners: Academic Literacy and Thinking. Gibbons (2009) states that the top down or whole language approach focuses on the meaning at whole text level. For poetry this might mean looking at the key themes and how they relate to the poem, or the overall meaning of the poem. Due to the complexity of language used in some of the poems, EAL learners, that are at the beginning stage certainly benefit from knowing the overall meaning of the poem before engaging in some of the more complex language techniques. A top down approach to the overall meaning will help with this. I always remember one particular CPD session I had from Professor Gibbons who spoke about Shakespeare actually being not that difficult for EAL learners as it is all about big ideas. I keep this thought in mind when the grey clouds form over my head about how can I possibly support my beginning EAL learners. It leads me to think of how I can support my learners in engaging in some of English literature’s more complex plays, poems and novels.

So, after looking at a top down approach we then need to look at the poem from the bottom up, from the point of view of how the poet uses language. Sometimes this can be quite tricky but I think if we stick to some of the less complex language techniques (to begin with) we can support our beginners in analysing how poets use language. Of course, they need to understand language techniques and lots of ground work needs to be done on this to ensure they can do some form of analysis. There are various strategies that I have used in the past to support my EAL learners in developing knowledge of language techniques and these include:

In addition to the above strategies, there is also the possibility of allowing learners to use their first language to learn the meanings of language techniques. I have done this before by creating a list of them and then translating them, I find Google Sheets has an excellent ‘add on’ called ‘Translate my sheet’ for this.

Once my EAL learners have an understanding of some of the language techniques they will find in the poems they now need to locate them in poems. There are different ways that this can be done. Firstly, it can be teacher led, maybe for the first stanza or first few lines etc. After this you could get learners to work collaboratively to identify language techniques in the poem. It is important to pair more proficient / first language English speakers with less proficient EAL learners so that they can work together. You could also have learners with the same first language working together to find the techniques. I don’t think it is effective for these types of activities to be completely teacher led as learners need practice in finding techniques and cannot be spoon fed by the teacher the entire time. I have also used strategies such as read alouds and think alouds at the identification of language techniques stage. These read and think alouds allow learners to hear the types of thought they should be using as they work their way through the poem. If done properly I think read and think alouds can be really effective and scaffold the process of analysing poetry.

One other strategy that I highly recommend for EAL learners, especially those at the beginning stage of their proficiency, is a kind margin questions. Margin questions focus learners attention on the parts of the poem and takes away the need to identify parts of the poem where language techniques occur. A slightly different version of margin question is highlighting or underlining key parts of the poem (as you can see in the image below). In addition you can see that I have given my learners multiple choices of the correct answers, they have to decide if the underlined word or phrase is one of the choices given. This is effective because (a) they have been pre-taught the vocabulary and know what they are looking for (b) they know where to locate the techniques.

The AQA Power and Conflict set of poems certainly contain some poems that are very challenging for all learners not just EAL learners. This post has sort to identify some specific techniques and approaches that can support our EAL learners in accessing poems.

2 thoughts on “Teaching EAL Learners Poetry

  1. Great post! Lots of interesting ideas, and relevant to my transition into EAL. As an EFL teacher I make use of Tomlinson’s text-driven approach quite a bit – here’s an example of how I’ve used it with poetry:
    Cheers again, I’m looking forward to delving into your site a bit more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this post. I have learnt about margin questions but never used them. I feel inspired to give them a try now.

      Liked by 1 person

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