Classroom Poetics

Susan Carbery, Obirin University


  • Key Words: Writing
  • Learner English Level: Beginner through advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: High School through adult
  • Preparation Time: 10 minutes
  • Activity Time: 45 minutes

I have been using various styles of short-form poetry as an alternative to essay composition and have been surprised not just with the poems my students have written, but also with the valuable learning experiences derived from the act of writing them. Short-form poetry is a great way for students to express themselves in English without the pressure of sentence and paragraph construction that so often eludes lower and intermediate-level students. I have found that acrostic, cinquain, and haiku are ideal short-form poems for practising adjectives and as an introduction to descriptive writing.


Teaching short-form poetry is relatively simple. The poems have very easy rules to follow, so once the students are aware of the rules, they can be left to their own creative devices. The teacher, after describing and demonstrating the rules to the class, merely facilitates-offering advice and suggestions on word choices or the composition of short phrases.

Step 1: Choose a short-form poem; write its rules on the blackboard and explain them.

Step 2: The whole class brainstorms ideas for a class blackboard example. This not only shows the students the procedure for writing the poem, but also illustrates the point that poems are not difficult to write.

Step 3: Give students a topic to focus on. This is a good way to introduce a theme, or simply choose whatever is appropriate to the time of year-Christmas, Spring, 0-bon, etc.

Step 4: Let the creative juices flow!

Short-form Poetry: Acrostic, Cinquain & Haiku

Acrostic: a poem in which the first letter of each line forms a word, usually the topic of the poem, when read vertically. Although this can be any topic I usually introduce it at the beginning of a course as a Name Poem. Students write their name vertically down the page, then horizontally compose words or sentences to describe themselves, each line beginning with the corresponding letter of their name. Lower level students usually choose just one adjective per line, whilst higher level students write sentences or phrases. The students automatically try to choose words that accurately describe themselves, and this offers teachers a great insight to their characters. These name poems can be decorated and used as the title page of student notebooks or folders.


Examples . .



















Cinguain: a five line poem which conforms to a strict form, thus making it easy for any student to write:

Line 1-one word (noun and topic of the poem)

Line 2-two words (adjectives describing the topic)

Line 3-three words (verbs associated with the topic)

Line 4-four words (a sentence or phrase giving the author's opinion of the topic)

Line 5-one word (an alternative noun for the topic, often a metaphor)

This form of poetry is a good exercise in nouns, adjectives and verbs. In addition, higher level students can be taught the concept of a metaphor for Line 5.






Beautiful, pretty


Growing, blossoming, swinging


Flowers make people feel




Haiku: I have had a lot of success with haiku poetry. The basic form is a 17 syllable poem describing one thing, traditionally a moment in nature, but for the purposes of my class anything is okay. The poem is written in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively.



The flowing water
Is like nature's silk curtain
Beautiful and soft



Thunder in the storm
Is like anger from the heavens
At man's evil deeds


Because haiku poems rely on the rhythm of syllables it is also an excellent exercise in pronunciation. Students will begin by counting the syllables according to their Japanese pronunciation, but by the end of the lesson will be counting on their fingers and carefully mouthing the correct English pronunciation.

Hints and Variations

  1. Choose a form of poetry that you are comfortable with and that suits the purposes of your writing class. There are many different short forms to choose from, but I have limited mine to acrostic, cinquain, and haiku as I feel that they lend themselves best to descriptive writing and to any students language level.
  2. Use props, music, videos or a visit to a nearby park as pre-writing activities and inspiration. This is especially useful if you teach an integrated skills class and composition is just one part of the unit.
  3. Bring coloured pens and plain paper on which students can write and illustrate their final draft poems. These can later be collated as a class anthology.
  4. Don't tell students at the beginning of the lesson that they will be writing haiku as it intimidates them. Let them know after they have succeeded in writing it.



Hamilton, E. & Livingston. J. (1981). Form and Feeling: Poetry for Senior Students. Melbourne: Longman Chesire

All poetry examples were written by ESL college students in Japan.