Spoken Word Poetry and Language Learning and Teaching (by Jennifer Burton)

Have you ever felt words? 

Like, really felt them. 

Maybe in response to a story that you read.

or perhaps something someone important once said.

I took my friend to a spoken word poetry slam last night. I’ve been to several slams myself, but this was her first time attending one. Together we watched seven performers take the stage, sharing snippets of their lives with us. If you’ve attended a poetry slam yourself, you’d be familiar with the finger snaps and the oooos and aaahs from audience members. 
Some poems evoked laughter; other poems left us feeling angry, empathetic, encouraged and hopeful—a myriad of emotions. All of the poems were deeply personal to each poet; yet, in spite of this, we could both relate. There is something incredibly powerful about this shared experience. It is no wonder that Low (2006) says the poem “comes to life in performance and exists in the communion of poet and audience” (Low, 2006, p. 104).

How often do we pay attention to that

which the eye cannot see?

I’m talking, shiver down your spine

an emotional connection, nothing short of divine.

Let’s pause momentarily to feel these words: 

3 ways to speak English – Jamila Lyiscott

Spoken word poetry is written on a page but performed for an audience. It is a popular form of live poetry, delivered in events called slams, where anyone regardless of experience can take the stage. At slams, performers compete for points given to them by randomly selected audience members who evaluate a performance based solely on their affective response to the piece.  There are no strict scoring criteria. The rules for poets are simple: no props and penalty deductions for performances over three minutes and ten seconds. The timer begins the moment the poet begins engaging with the audience.

Spoken Word Poetry and Language Learning and Teaching
“I want to explore the possibilities of spoken word poetry in additional language learning and teaching,” I say when people ask me the topic of my dissertation. 

I have teamed up with spoken word artist and workshop facilitator Cat Abenstein to collaborate in designing a spoken word poetry pedagogy that can be used with adult English language learners and integrated into existing ESL/ EAP programs. This pedagogy will be offered as a series of two-hour workshops once a week over the course of six weeks, and will conclude with a student poetry slam. During the series, students will be introduced to personal voice, slang, word-play, figurative language, and poetic devices such as alliteration, metaphor, and simile. In addition to playing with language in written form, students will learn the importance of stage presence, and how intonation, speed, volume, and tone play a role in communicating a message and connecting with others. 

Scholars and educators alike have asked will language learners be able to write and perform poetry? One might question the pedagogical feasibility of this hybrid genre—blurring the boundaries between the written and the oral—as an approach to language learning and teaching in the classroom. Though I acknowledge the potential difficulties in using spoken word poetry as pedagogy, I see in it transformative potential. This form of expression is a vehicle for exploring life stories, situating the experiences and lives of students at the center of pedagogy, and communicating a clear and critical message to them: “hey, your language, culture and lived realities matter! Bring them into the classroom. Share them with us. We’re listening!” Also, it is the very openness of this genre that allows students to play with language, to push back against the rigidity of strict grammatical rules and standard academic writing conventions. Students can exercise linguistic agency. 

And this linguistic agency is what forms the basis of my doctoral dissertation research. 

Stay tuned!


Low, B. (2006). Poetry on MTV? Slam and the poetics of popular culture. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 22(4), 97.

One thought on “Spoken Word Poetry and Language Learning and Teaching (by Jennifer Burton)

  1. This is a wonderful idea! I look forward to reading the dissertation when you are done. I teach verbal art, performance and speech play to students of linguistics and anthropology. I think poetry is an effective pedagogical tool in any discipline. The subject does not always have to be about their personal lives but can be about the concepts and processes they are learning in the course. And to answer the question of whether language learners are capable of writing and performing poetry, I would point out that children start playing with language as soon as they start learning it. Three year olds love to make up rhymes and use alliteration. Five year olds make up their own songs. Language learning and language play go hand in hand. Some of the most poetic sentences I’ve read in English have been written by ESL students I was teaching trying to express something within the constraints of the language as they knew it.

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