Introduce Haiku in Elementary EFL Writing with HaiKlues

Ben Taylor, International English Language Institute, Humboldt State University

For this issue’s Teaching Assistance, the author helps us to reflect on the value of pre-service teaching experiences and demonstrates why it can be useful for education majors to travel abroad for a year as volunteer teachers prior to entering graduate school.
In the U.S., where most teacher preparation programs culminate in a master’s degree, university seniors I spoke to at a TESOL convention chimed in that “I think I want to go to teacher’s college, but I’m not really sure.” Elementary, middle and secondary teachers must complete a teacher training program and obtain a state license before they can work in a public school. For seniors thinking about going on to teacher’s college, the year following graduation looks like a great time for travel, making a contribution through a service experience, and a well-deserved break before entering graduate school. Referred to as a “gap year,” seniors seeking synergy from travel, service, and teaching experience can apply for assignments in Asia and the Pacific as volunteer teachers. Dispatched by US government agencies, these programs aim to help pupils in the receiving country learn about American culture, public service, and healthcare. An interview with a volunteer dispatched to Vietnam (McMurray, 2010) revealed the challenges these gap year volunteers in teaching placements often face when developing courses for use in different learning contexts, in which students and teachers follow a different pace of life and have little direct access to the world beyond their own community.
I met Ben Taylor during a poster session for master’s students at a TESOL convention in Toronto. A graduate from Humboldt State University, his campus on the northern California coast is surrounded by towering redwood trees. Having returned from teaching abroad, he shared anecdotes about the pupils he came to admire and a colorful display of creative writing inspired from the Pacific Island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. Peace Corp volunteers on Pohnpei experience a two-year teaching practicum in a classroom where the blue of the Pacific waters can be seen blending on the horizon with azure skies. All the towns on the islands are small and rural-feeling, and even the capital, Kolonia, has a limited variety of goods and services. The remote villages and the outer islands are truly adventurous places to visit.
There are endless kinds of lesson activities to choose from, but the author suggests we can help students toward a greater awareness of the world by introducing them to haiku. Ben Taylor came to this conclusion after considering the ethical and pedagogical ramifications of teaching English in a foreign country. To ensure that he would do no harm to his pupils during his pre-service teaching experiences, the American Education Major carefully designed lesson plans that included teaching the shortest poem in the world.

Teaching Assistance: Introduce Haiku in Elementary EFL Writing with HaiKlues

Ben Taylor, International English Language Institute, Humboldt State University

As a Peace Corps volunteer EFL teacher on the Pacific Island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), I was forced to consider a wide range of ethical and pedagogical variables in lesson planning and instruction. Many students aspire to move to the United States, as the FSM has a compact agreement by which citizens of Micronesia can move to, work, and live freely in the US indefinitely. When coupled with the Peace Corps’ goal of introducing American culture to volunteer service sites, this motivation risks leading a volunteer’s lessons towards a mono-cultural (American-only) or monolingual (English-only) focus.
At the same time, as second-language instructors we are reminded of the need for international and multilingual agency in a classroom environment. In his closing plenary address at TESOL 2015’s convention in Toronto, Jim Cummins called for teachers “to reclaim agency at the school level and have a Hippocratic oath for teaching: First, do no harm” while speaking about the need for first-language agency and legitimacy in second-language classrooms (TESOLConv, 2015). In a previous issue of Teaching Assistance Yoshikawa (2015, p. 41) similarly observes that “[w]e must also consider how we are developing our students’ worldview as to what it means to be a part of the global community.” The need for global perspectives, and for presenting English as an international language in league (as opposed to competing) with other languages, is clear.
The proposed activities take the popular Japanese poetic form of haiku and introduce it to students in a manner that encourages fun and engaging group- or pair-work. Though often used merely as a tool for counting syllables in English lessons, haiku alternatively “can give any English teacher a powerful new tool for teaching poetry and, more importantly, helping students toward greater awareness of the world” (Cheney, 2002, p. 79). The activities were created in conjunction with local co-teachers in a Pohnpeian public elementary school but could be adapted for a wide range of ages, ability levels, and cultural contexts.

HaiKlues is a guessing game that uses student-written haikus as clues. As an example of how to begin the game of HaiKlues I usually model a haiku about my favorite food; students at my service site were practicing syllabic counting, so the example here is in 5-7-5 form, but teachers should feel free to do this any way they would like. The haiku should fit whatever forms and restraints the lesson calls for, and should give students some sense of a subject without actually naming that subject explicitly:

Delicious patty

Lettuce, cheese, mustard on top

Two toasted bread buns

Students in my class were given a short amount of time to guess the subject of the haiku, which in this case is a cheeseburger. In this activity, the student with the correct guess is the next person to read a haiku for the class to guess. Once the class demonstrated an understanding of how the game works, all students wrote their own “favorite food” haikus, without naming the food specifically. In my classes, I gave 10 minutes for this, though times may fluctuate in other environments and contexts.
Students with finished haikus joined with a partner and took turns reading their haikus for their partners to guess. Partners had to check syllables first and then had to guess the subject of the haiku. Students who were still unclear about a subject could be given additional clues; for more advanced students, a partner could potentially write another haiku about the same subject to provide extra information. Finished pairs regrouped with new partners, moved around the room and tested their haikus in new pairs. After enough time had passed for all students to complete at least one pair cycle, students returned to their seats. From there, local teachers and I would introduce another topic—favorite animal, favorite singer, etc.—and students would try the process over again as a means of reinforcing gameplay, syllabic accuracy, and creative writing in the activity.
In the culminating stage of HaiKlues, students wrote about other people (in my class, about other classmates). I have found in the past that writing about the appearance of another person—the clothes they are wearing, or what seat they sit in in class—is easier for students to do initially than writing haikus about a student’s personality. This may depend on student writing abilities, and other environmental factors (cultural mores, observing people of an opposite gender, and so on) may alter this focus in a different context. A sample HaiKlue can be as simple as the following (provided students have a knowledge of idiomatic phrases, e.g., “lighten up”):

Third row in the back

Shirts always brightest colors

Lightens up the class

After a certain period of time, when students have finished these haikus, they read them to partners, guessing the students being written about in other haikus. In my experience, group reading is most enjoyable for students when they are guessing the identity of another student; 4 to 6 students was a good group size in Pohnpei, though teachers will obtain varying results with different group sizes. Once students have finished appearance-based HaiKlues, new poems could focus on the personality of another student. It can help here to provide students with a list of personality-related adjectives, and modelling the activity on a board or transparency for the class to see can help as well.
It is important that all students understand their writing may be shared with the class. Student writing errors can be recast if a haiku is read aloud, but information which could embarrass a student (the writer or the subject) should be avoided.
HaiKlues can be a good game for a given week in an English writing class (as a means of enforcing syllabic awareness, appreciating Japanese poetic structure, or engendering creativity in writing), or it can be used every once in a while to get students’ creative energy going.

Extensions and Conclusion
The underlying principles of HaiKlues could be used for anything that students need repeated practice with or for learning new and unfamiliar terms and concepts. Target vocabulary for a given weekly lesson would be a great place to apply the game, and teacher-generated HaiKlues could be used as a review tool for subject-specific material.
Another idea would be to retell a short story in the form of linked haiku, where each student writes a haiku introducing some sort of character or narration. In this activity, students would pass their haikus on to a partner, who would read that haiku and continue the narrative by writing an additional complementary haiku. This could continue in similar fashion until some semblance of a story was collaboratively written.
Variations on the HaiKlues model will conceivably produce positive results in an EFL setting. The realization that haiku can be used for more than syllabic awareness in my lessons has provided me with a powerful new tool to help students toward greater awareness of the world, a far more important achievement than the particulars of a given activity. As Matthew Cheney (2002, p. 82) has noted, if a student can appreciate the “amusement, joy, wonder, and sometimes even a new way of engaging with the world through language and poetry” inherent to haiku, any activity is a success in its own right.


  • Cheney, M. A. (2002). Expanding vision: Teaching Haiku. The English Journal, 91(3), 79-83.
  • McMurray, D. (2010). An interview with volunteer teacher Elliot Waldman in Vietnam. The Language Teacher, 34(5), 62-64
  • TESOLConv. (2015, March 28). Cummins: Teachers need to reclaim agency at the school level and have a Hippocratic oath for teaching: First, do no harm #TESOL15. [Tweet]. Retrieved from
  • Yoshikawa, E. (2015). Teaching assistance: Developing an understanding of the role of learning in internationalization. The Language Teacher, 39(4), 41-43.