I have taught English as a Foreign and Second Language for about seven years. I taught in Brazil, Japan, Taiwan and in a university in the U.S.A.
I have always used poetry as a tool to help my students improve their pronunciation. For example, in Taiwan I taught at a vocational high school. Students attended this school in order to go on to jobs, not academics. But I chose a team of my English students to compete in a national storytelling contest. They would be competing against several impressive schools that had great reputations for their academics and especially their English programs. My team practiced for four weeks. We did a story/poem called “The Cremation of Sam McGhee.”
My team of vocational students won second place. They were stunned, but I had been telling them they were going to do well. Why? Because poetry is an ideal tool for teaching and practicing pronunciation. Here is how to use this great tool:
Focus on sounds
Good poetry is composed of not just figurative language and sensory images, but also nicely arranged sounds. Assonance and rhyme, for example, are basically repetitions of similar sounds. If you feel your students are having trouble with a certain sound or even a certain type of consonant cluster, choose a poem that uses these phonemes (sounds). If it is a good poem, it will become an enjoyable drill for your students as they work on the sound you are focusing on.
Reading poetry also requires enunciation. Enunciation is when each word is said clearly and completely. Many English learners have a problem with not finishing their English words. For example, some of my students from Taiwan had difficulty finishing words that ended with ‘m’. Reading poetry can help with this.
So as you have your students read a poem, have them read it to a classmate who has the same poem in front of them. When the student reading alound comes to the end of a stanza, or verse, the student listening can point to the words that needed to be better enunciated. The practice is repeated and the students take turns, rotating from verse to verse. As the teacher, you can also give tips and pointers and draw attention to problem areas.
English and all languages have certain patterns of intonation. Indeed, Mandarin Chinese has tones that change the meaning of certain sounds! In any case, teaching students to use the right pattern of intonation can help them actually widen their focus from sounds and increase the naturalness of their spoken language. The truth is that some students become so focused on individual sounds that they lose all natural patterns of speech. Using poetry to raise awareness of intonation and to make your students speak more fluently is invaluable.
To do this, simply have them repeat after you as you read lines, then verses of a poem. Then have them read it aloud, both to themselves and to a partner. Then give them a new poem to read and practice by themselves with.
I found that using poetry to help my students work on individual sounds, enunciation and intonation greatly increased their pronunciation. Thus, they could be understood. What is more, their confidence increased as they felt more comfortable with the sounds of the language they were learning.