Volume II - 1994

Using Songs to Introduce Poetry to ESL Students
by Loretta Frances Kasper

      Dr. Loretta Frances Kasper is assistant professor of ESL at Kingsborough Community College, which is a part of the City University of New York. She makes frequent conference presentations, usually on topics that involve the imagination.


      While short stories and novels are routinely used in ESL reading classes, poetry is often neglected because of its extensive use of figurative language. Understanding the meaning of such language requires inference and interpretation, making it less obvious and so, more difficult for ESL students. Yet, poetry has the power to stimulate the imagination and motivate students to be creative in their use of the English language and is well deserving of attention at all levels.

      Whereas traditional poetry may be somewhat intimidating for ESL students, songs evoke and suggest themes and emotions through their melodies as well as through their words. In short, they offer a more comfortable and less threatening access to the excitement of this literary genre. After listening to a song, students can explore and share, both in discussion and in writing, the feelings the song evokes in them. The class can then discuss the literary or poetic techniques, as well as the themes, present in the song, and then apply what they have learned to more formal poetry.

"At Seventeen"

      In this paper, I will describe a method for using songs to introduce ESL students to poetry and to the literary techniques used in poetry (Kasper, 1993). I will detail a two-part lesson built around the song, "At Seventeen" by Janis Ian (CBS, Inc., 1975) and the poem, "Beautiful Old Age" by D.H. Lawrence ( de Sola Pinto & Roberts, 1964 ). This will provide one example of how to use a song to introduce a poem with a corresponding theme. A list of additional songs and poems is provided in Appendix 1. The lesson described takes approximately four hours of class time, and may be taught to an Intermediate or Advanced level class. The overall lesson theme is: Reality vs. Expectation, examined at two stages of life, youth and old age.

      The first part of the lesson focuses on youth, and students study the popular song, "At Seventeen," which evokes reminiscence and nostalgia about a period of life which, for many, was bittersweet. Students identify with the feelings expressed in the song, and so, are encouraged to speak and to write about their own feelings at seventeen. The second part focuses on old age, and students consider the poem, "Beautiful Old Age." In that second part of the lesson, students apply the concepts and techniques taught in the context of that particular song to Lawrence's poem. Finally, students write an essay comparing the themes of the song and the poem.

      The lesson, which integrates the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, consists of a four-stage approach suggested by Gajdusek (1988) to maximize students' comprehension of the text. The four stages are (1) the prereading stage, (2) the factual stage, which consists of listening to and reading the song or the poem, (3) the discussion and analysis stage, which examines in detail the literary techniques used and the themes present in the song or the poem, and (4) the extending act narrative or expository essay based on the theme of the song or the poem. The lesson begins with a prereading exercise in vocabulary development. The students are given a list of new and unfamiliar words in the song and asked to guess meanings after they are put into the context of a sentence. The next prereading exercise is designed to introduce the students to the topic of the song and to get them personally involved in the material. They are asked to describe the expectations people have of life at seventeen, and then the reality of life at seventeen. Their answers are written on the board. This activity provides everyone with insight into the cross-cultural differences in the life and behavior of the seventeen-year-old. Next, a tape of the song "At Seventeen" is played. After students have listened to it, they are asked to describe the tone of the song and the emotions it elicits in them. They are then given the song's lyrics (provided in Appendix 2) and a handout defining various poetic techniques, including rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, and personification. The students go through the song and line-by-line, describe the rhyme, and identify examples of alliteration, personification, and symbolism in the song.

      We then discuss and analyze the song in terms of the theme, tone, and the effect of the poetic techniques used. I ask them to answer the following questions: "What is the truth that Janis learned at seventeen? Why did Janis feel the way she did? What caused her to have those feelings? How old do you think Janis was when she wrote the song? What clues in the song led to your answer?" After the poetic techniques, tone, and themes of the song have been discussed in detail, students listen to the song once more, with the lyrics in hand. By this time, almost all of the students are singing along with the tape. The extending activity for this lesson is a writing assignment on the following topic: "Describe an important event that happened to you when you were 17. How did it affect you at the time? Why do you remember it now? What significance or importance did the event have in your life? Was the effect temporary or permanent? What similarities or differences were there between your expectations of what would happen and what, in reality, did happen." This activity provides the students with the opportunity to express their own feelings and experiences and in so doing to synthesize what they have learned. "At Seventeen" is an excellent song to use to introduce ESL students to the world of poetry because it contains many poetic techniques, yet it is relatively easy for ESL students to understand. Moreover, the song stimulates student involvement in the lesson by activating personal memories, so that students identify with the emotions expressed. My own students have produced insightful and often poignant essays describing their memories of life at seventeen. In producing these pieces, they needed to make creative use of the English language to convey the emotions they felt at seventeen. The results of this lesson were very satisfying both to me and to my students as we all remembered and explored through our imaginations what life was like at seventeen.

"Beautiful Old Age"

      The basic format for part two of the lesson is the same as that used for part one. It begins with a prereading exercise which introduces and develops new vocabulary. In the second prereading activity, students are asked to describe what they think old age should be like, and what it is really like. Their answers are written on the board.

      Next, I read the poem aloud as the students listen, and I ask them to describe the tone of the poem and how it makes them feel. I then hand out the text of the poem (provided in Appendix 3), and we talk about the poetic techniques used and their effect in the poem. Lawrence uses many visual and other sensory images in the poem, and I ask the students to describe what they see, hear, smell, taste, and feel as they read it.

      Students are given comprehension questions which require that they interpret Lawrence's attitudes, images, and the message he is trying to convey in the poem. We discuss Lawrence's attitudes about what leads us to a beautiful old age. We talk about Lawrence's view of truth in life, and then we contrast his view with Janis Ian's view of truth. We examine the difference between the expectations people have of old age and the reality of old age; we analyze Lawrence's suggestions for how people can make those expectations become reality, and we decide whether we agree with his suggestions. The lesson concludes with a second reading of the poem, this time by one of the students. By this point in the lesson, students have gained confidence in their ability to read and appreciate poetry in English.

      As in part one of the lesson, a writing assignment provides the extending activity for this part of the lesson. This writing assignment not only provides an extension of the poem itself, but also requires that students consolidate what they have learned in the two parts of this lesson. The topic for the writing assignment is: "Lawrence states that a truthful life leads to a beautiful old age. Do you agree or disagree? Are there other characteristics of one's life that can lead to a beautiful old age? Compare/contrast Lawrence's image of old age with Janis Ian's image of youth at seventeen. Do you think Janis would agree with Lawrence's vision of a beautiful old age? Explain your answer and be sure to use specific examples from 'At Seventeen' and 'Beautiful Old Age'."

      A final step in this lesson may be an additional writing assignment which requires students to draw upon the themes expressed in both works and apply them to life in general. The topic for this writing assignment is: "Many people, as they get older, believe that 'youth is wasted on the young.' They believe that youth is the best time of life, but when we are young, we do not appreciate how good our life is. They say it isn't until we get older that we appreciate the 'good old days.' Do you agree that youth is the best time of a person's life? Support your opinion with specific examples."

      In addition to the activities described, students are encouraged to write their own poems in English. They may be given topics that build upon the theme of the lesson, or left free to choose their own topics. They are instructed to include some of the poetic techniques discussed and to make their poems as vivid as possible. This type of activity allows students to use their imaginations and helps to consolidate and concretize learning.

      The writing activities in part two of this lesson required students to make even stronger use of their imaginations because none of them has yet reached the stage of life described in the poem. Some answered the essay question by describing the experiences of grandparents or other elderly people they knew. Others inferred from these experiences what it must be like to be old. Many also commented on the hardships of the elderly in our society. Once again, the results of the lesson were very satisfying both to my students and to me.


      Using songs to introduce poetry helps ESL students to feel more comfortable with poetic language and techniques, to understand poems more easily, and to appreciate this often neglected literary genre. By teaching poetry to our ESL students, we provide them with a richer and fuller experience of the English language. We allow them to experience this richness through their personal involvement with the emotions and the attitudes expressed by the poet. Thus, we stimulate their imaginations and foster their creative use of the language.

Appendix 1: Songs and Poems with Corresponding Themes

Theme: Brotherhood/Humanity

Song: "Imagine" by John Lennon
Poem: "Any Human to Another" by Countee Cullen

Song: "We Are the World" by USA for Africa
Poem: "I Am the People, the Mob" by Carl Sandburg

Song: "Ebony and Ivory" by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson
Poem: "To My Brothers Everywhere" by Elias Lieberman

Theme: Mortality/Man versus Time

Song: "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas
Poem: "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Song: "The Windmills of Your Mind" (from "The Thomas Crown Affair")
Poem: "Ah, Sunflower" by William Blake

Song: "Memory" by Andrew Lloyd Webber, T.S. Eliot, and Trevor Nunn
Poem: "Preludes" by T.S. Eliot

Appendix 2: At Seventeen by Janis Ian (Copyright 1975, CBS Inc.)

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young, and then retired.
The valentines I never knew,
The Friday night charades of youth,
Were spent on one more beautiful,
At seventeen, I learned the truth.

And those of us with ravaged faces
lacking in the social graces,
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone,
Who called to say "Come dance with me",
And murmured vague obscenities.
It isn't all it seems at seventeen.

A brown-eyed girl in hand-me-downs,
" Whose name I never could pronounce,
Said, "Pity please the ones who serve.
They only get what they deserve."
And the rich-relationed hometown queen
Marries into what she needs,
With a guarantee of company
And a haven for the elderly.

Remember those who win the game,
Lose the love they thought they gained,
In debentures of quality,
And dubious integrity,
Their small-town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when payment due,
Exceeds accounts received, at seventeen.

To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came,
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball.
It was long ago, and far away,
The world was younger than today
And dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me.

We play the game, and when we dare
To cheat ourselves at solitaire,
Inventing lovers on the phone,
Repenting other lives unknown,
That call and say, "Come dance with me",
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me, at seventeen.

Appendix 3: "Beautiful Old Age" by DH Lawrence (from The Complete Poems of DH Lawrence. Copyrights 1964, 1971, de Sola Pinto and Roberts)

It ought to be lovely to be old
to be full of the peace that comes of experience
and wrinkled ripe fulfilment.

The wrinkled smile of completeness that follows a life
lived undaunted and unsoured with accepted lies.
If people lived without accepting lies
they would ripen like apples, and be scented like pippins
in their old age.

Soothing, old people should be, like apples
when one is tired of love.
Fragrant like yellowing leaves, and dim with the soft
stillness and satisfaction of autumn.

And a girl should say:
It must be wonderful to live and grow old.
Look at my mother, how rich and still she is!--

And a young man should think: By Jove
my father has faced all weathers, but it's been a life!


CBS Inc. (1975). "At Seventeen." In Between the Lines (Recording No. PC 33394). New York: Author.

de Sola Pinto, Vivian & Roberts, F. Warren (1964). The Complete Poems of D,H. Lawrence. New York: Viking Penguin.

Gajdusek, Linda. (1988) "Toward wider use of literature in ESL: How and why." TESOL Quarterly, 22, 227-258.

Kasper, Loretta F. (1993) "The Poetry of Song: Using Songs in the ESL Class." Paper presented at NJTESOL-BE Spring Conference. New Brunswick, N.J.: 20 May 1993.

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