Poetry has long been considered a powerful tool of human expression throughout history as it has been a part of human culture for thousands of years. The earliest known poems date back to the 3rd millennium BC, where in ancient Sumeria, poetry was found on cuneiform tablets in the form of hymns and prayers (Black, 2006).  Poetry served a variety of functions throughout the centuries. In Ancient Greece, poetry was used for entertainment, religious rituals, and political commentary.  Whereas in Ancient Rome, it was also used to commemorate important events and individuals.  Ancient India and China used poetry to convey philosophical traditions and thoughts, while during the Middle Ages, poetry was an important means of storytelling as well.  No matter the function or the time, poetry has served as a medium to communicate complex emotions, ideas, and experiences in a concise and memorable way.  It has been used to address social and political issues, explore personal identity and relationships, and capture the beauty of the world around us.  Poetry has the ability to evoke emotions in both the readers and the listeners, and to create a shared sense of connection and understanding.  As such, poetry has played an important role in shaping cultures and societies, but what role does it have in shaping teaching and learning, especially within the scope of an English as a Second Language (ESL) setting?

The use of poetry in an ESL classroom has been found to have numerous benefits, from improving language skills to enhancing critical thinking and creativity.  One obvious benefit of using poetry is that it can help students improve their reading comprehension, as they must pay close attention to the words, phrases, and meanings within poems.  It is a good way to learn new vocabulary words that also make a strong reader. Additionally, poetry can help students develop their listening and speaking skills, as they can practice reciting and discussing the poem.  Furthermore, using poetry has also been found to enhance critical thinking and creativity.  As students analyze and interpret the poem, they must use critical thinking skills to understand the meaning and purpose of the poem.  They also must use their creativity in writing their own poetry or to apply the themes and concepts from the poem to their own lives.  This article will go beyond those reasons to explore some of the lesser thought of benefits of using poetry in an ESL classroom and how it is a powerful tool in teaching English Language Learners (ELLs). 

Poetry is a Universal Language

“Poetry is the mother-tongue of the human race” – Johann Georg Hamann

Spanning time and cultures, poetry has existed in spoken form before the written word, and was passed down from generation to generation.  Being a universal language, its key benefit is that it transcends cultural and linguistic barriers.  Though different cultures have their own unique styles in poetry writing, the fundamental elements of poetry such as metaphor, rhythm, and imagery are shared across cultures making poetry a familiar space for ELLs.  This means that ELLs from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds can connect with emotions and experiences conveyed in poetry, as well as connect with each other.  In turn, this gives them the opportunity to develop friendships; an important aspect in the success of a newcomer and ELL.  Incorporating poetry into ESL instruction can foster a sense of community and cultural exchange among learners.  By sharing and discussing poems from different cultures, learners can gain insight into the experiences of others, while developing their own expressive and communicative abilities.  Let’s not forget to mention that with poetry being universal, it becomes a somewhat familiar “language” for learners, which in turn lowers their anxiety and affective filters when learning a new language.  Overall, the universality of poetry makes it a versatile and effective tool for teaching ELLs. 

Poetry is Less Intimidating

Poetry can be beneficial for ELLs because it often breaks the rules of standard grammar and syntax allowing for more flexibility in language use.  Poets often use unconventional sentence structures, word order, and punctuation to create specific effects or convey meaning.  This can be especially helpful for ELLs who may struggle with rigid rules of standard English and may find it easier to understand and communicate in a more fluid, expressive style.  Some fun, whimsical poems also use invented words that allow for creativity and imagination and in lower level ELLs, it can develop the learner’s phonological awareness especially in rhyming poems.  A prime example of such is the work of Dr. Suess, in which he does both – breaks the rules of language and uses invented, nonsense words.  Let’s look at an example in his poem “The Sneetches” that goes:

If you go to Aw-Wahoo

And walk down the beach, 

You’ll notice a sort-of-a-bird called the Sneetch

Dr. Suess’s use of his word “Sneetch” is an invented word that phonologically rhymes with beach, making a funny word while at the same time encouraging phonological awareness that educators can use as a teaching opportunity.  

Poetry is also less intimidating in that it breaks down language and sentences into chunks.  The structure of poems is fundamentally different from prose in that it relies on unique and deliberate line breaks in its formation, typically to emphasize meaning and create rhythm.  Such structure makes it more appealing for reading and less intimidating as it appears less complicated than prose and offers “bite-sized” learning.  The different structures of poems makes it more accessible for ELLs and allows them to play around with language and create their own.  Here is an example from one of my books, “Stanza Extravaganza”, written in the style of a limerick that naturally chunks the sentences, is simple, and allows ELLs to mimic the structure to create their own:


There once were aliens from Mars

Who thought they were superstars

They formed a band

But it didn’t go as planned

As they had no fingers to play the guitars!

Poetry’s Rhythm Enters The Brain in a Different Way 

The rhythm of poetry is a unique feature that sets it apart from other forms of writing.  The cadence of the words and the way they flow together can create a musical quality that can be both soothing and exhilarating.  This rhythm stimulates our brains in a way that can’t be replicated by ordinary prose.  Findings show that poetry is easier to recall than prose and that the rhyming offered in poetry is an aid to memory (Fabb 2015).  Fabb argues that the use of rhyme, meter, and other poetic devices can create a memorable pattern that helps readers or listeners remember the poem.  Additionally, he notes that because some poetry often draws on cultural traditions, personal experiences, and emotions, it makes it more memorable.  Another study offers evidence that the form-based schemas found in poetry enable sound patterns to be anticipated and provide structure through constraints that can persist in memory (Rubin, 1995).  Remembering linguistic structures, grammar structures, and vocabulary words therefore becomes an easier task for ELLs.  In fact, in a study published in the journal Brain and Language, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of participants while they read different types of text, including poetry.  They found that reading poetry activated the right hemisphere of the brain, which is associated with processing emotions as well as making connections between different concepts (Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, Dela Paz, Peterson, 2013). As educators, we fully understand the importance of making connections in our teachings to facilitate learning, make it more comprehensible, and commit it to memory. 

Poetry Offers Repetition and Rhythm

The repetition and rhythm found in some poetry are important aspects that can benefit ELLs and help them gain a better understanding of the specific rhythm of the English language.  Through the repetition and rhythm of poetry, ELLs can improve their pronunciation, intonation, and stress patterns.  The repetition of words, sounds, and phrases in poetry can also help ELLs to memorize vocabulary and develop their understanding of syntax and grammar.  Repetition is the exercise needed for the brain to commit something to memory, and poems are an excellent source for that.  The rhythmic patterns of poetry can also aid that process.  A study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that students who learned a poem with a regular meter were able to recall more lines of the poem than those who learned a poem without a regular meter (Cook, Mitchell, & Goldsmith, 2013).  The researchers suggested that the rhythmic patterns in poetry can serve as a scaffold for memory, helping learners to chunk information into manageable units.  The rhythmic patterns help in the development of language fluency and phonological awareness of the English language.  The musical quality of poetry also helps ELLs to develop their listening and speaking skills as they practice mimicking the rhythm and intonation of the language.  By engaging students in poems with repetition and rhythm, ELLs can improve their language proficiency and gain a deeper understanding of the English language.  

Overall, incorporating poetry into ESL instruction can provide students a rich and rewarding language learning experience that goes beyond the mechanics of grammar, reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  Educators can search for poems that can be used to target specific language aspects they would like to address. For example, the poem “If I Were in Charge of the World” by Judith Viorst can be used to teach and reinforce conditionals, and Shel Silverstein’s “The Voice” can be utilized to encourage writing and critical thinking.  I have written a few myself that target specific grammar points that can be found in my book, “Versed in English: Using Poetry to Tackle Common ESL Issues”.   When incorporated effectively, poetry can be a fun and advantageous approach to teaching ESL and its many facets!  I will leave you with this thought.  A study has also shown that using poetry in an ESL classroom helped students feel more confident about their language skills, as they were able to express themselves in a creative and personal way that can be accommodated to their linguistic abilities (Herrera, & Kavimandan, 2015). So if for nothing else, increasing a student’s motivation and confidence is in itself a great reward to using poetry in an ESL classroom!


  • Black, J. A. (2006). The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford University Press, USA.
  • Seuss. (2018). The Sneetches and Other Stories. HarperCollins UK.
  • Shaqareq, L. (2023). Stanza Extravaganza. Amazon 
  • Fabb, Nigel (2015) What is Poetry? Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge University Press
  • Rubin DC. (1995) Memory in Oral Traditions. Oxford University Press; New York and Oxford.
  • Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2013).  Bookworms Versus Nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds.  Brain and Language, 117(1), 7-15
  • Cook, S. W., Mitchell, Z., & Goldsmith, T. (2013).  The Effects of Rhythm and Rhyme on Recall of Verbal Information in Elementary School Children.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 105 (1), 108-118
  • Shaqareq, L., Baucom, C. (2018). Versed in English: Using poetry to tackle common ESL issues. Silent E Publishing. 
  • Silverstein, S. (1998). Falling Up. HarperCollins UK.
  • Herrera, M, & Kavimandan, S. (2015).  The Impact of Poetry in an Adult ESL Classroom;: A study of language acquisition, identity and confidence. The Journal of Poetry Therapy. 28(1), 21-35