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Using Simple Poems to Teach Grammar

HAWANUM HUSSEIN
Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN ), Malaysia
For many teachers, teaching grammar is a chore; for many students, grammar is a
bore. In Malaysia, teachers have been debating on the best method to teach
grammar for generations. A few prefer the old style discrete and explicit
explanations of the English syntax while many prefer the Communication
syllabus. Some academicians in the field of TESL suggest a blended approach
while emphasizing the need to explain the grammar points, and not to merely
teach it. This paper will discuss this blended approach and the use of creative
writing to teach and reinforce grammar points as well as language structure. This
is done through a creative writing class at UNITEN where students are taught to
write different kinds of simple poems using patterns that reinforce understanding
and correct usage of word classes and syntax. This paper will also discuss some
pedagogical issues concerning the teaching of grammar through creative writing
at an Intermediate Level.

Introduction
Not many English teachers relish the thought of teaching grammar due to the
complexity and irregularities in the syntax of the English language. Many more teachers
find it difficult to make students learn the correct syntax and grammatical rules. This is
even more compounded by the fact that Grammar as a subject is incredibly boring to
students and many turn off as soon as the grammar teaching begins. Teachers often ask
what exactly is the best way to teach grammar? What do the experts suggest? To answer
this question, a quick review of the methodology of teaching grammar might prove useful
as in actuality, it has undergone many transformations. In the early days of grammar
teaching, the grammar translation method required students to do the tedious tasks of
translating sentences into English based on grammar rules. However, many critics
including found fault with this method as it was too methodical and arithmetic-like as this
method encouraged the construction of sentences on a word by word basis. Thus,
students may end up constructing grammatically correct sentences but would be
perceived as ‘unacceptable’ by most native speakers. (Howatt 1984)
In the 1940s and 50s the audio-lingual method was popularized by behavioural
psychologists such as Skinner and Watson. Teaching grammar was simply making
students learn language habits through numerous drills and pattern practices.

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Ellis (1994) also noted in his review of research in the 1970s that much of the Communicative L2 teaching focussed on meaning only. Sysoyev (2003) stresses this need for L2 students to receive both form and meaning. 1984. lending more credence to this theory of the importance of meaning over form. did well on the grammar test but poorly on global and integrative test. This approach focuses on meaning rather than form (grammar rules) as it is believed that it is meaning which drives language acquisition and development.305 ). The question teachers now often ask is . For each kind of poem. The control group as expected. 1985) showed that students who received meaning-based instruction did well on the meaningbased test but poorly on a grammar discrete-point test. Both fluency and accuracy are desirable and cannot be taught in isolation.(Brown. Discussion of the grammar lessons will focus on how grammar and structure can be taught and reinforced through the creative writing of a variety of simple poems. In the 1970s and 80s the Communicative Approach propelled by sociolinguists and the collective works of Krashen.’ Musumeci (1997) went on further to say that students should learn grammar explicitly but should also be given the opportunity to practise them in communicative and authentic / simulated tasks. Proponents of this method cite numerous examples of individuals who have learnt a foreign language without any formal instruction. teachers should now try and find a way to bridge this gap of providing meaning-based communicative lessons and the formbased. replaced the audiolingual method. the teaching of grammar and the many issues surrounding it has come to its logical conclusion. In the 1980’s our own schools embraced this communicative approach and our own conundrum began. While the Communicative Approach simplified the teacher’s task. conscious planning and internal processes of the learner” (Stern. there were problems with this method as there was no focus or emphasis on “the intentions. a knowledge of the rules is sorely needed. But again. schools began seeing hordes of students who could provide ‘meaningful’ sentences but which were often riddled with grammatical mistakes. grammatical lessons. Classroom experience and management such as instant feedback and correction will also be discussed. This is supported by CelceMurcia. specific teaching points will be highlighted. Spada & Lightbrown (1993) postulated that “form focussed instruction and corrective feedback within the context of communicative interaction can contribute positively to second language development in both the short and long term” (p. A research by Prabhu (cited by Beretta & Davis. thinking.205). which he labelled as Integrative Grammar Teaching. For our Malaysian students for which English is a second language. Pavel V. This paper will discuss an integrated or blended approach to teaching and reinforcing grammar. 1994). Dornyei and Thurrell (1997) who suggest that the integration of form and meaning is gaining importance in what they refer to as the ‘principled communicative approach. communication is important but for effective communication. Halliday and Hymes. It would seem that after many evolutions. The paper will also examine other incidental learning experiences such as the use of dictionary skills and cooperative learning through group -2- . p. Thus.which is the better way to teach grammar : implicitly or explicitly? Is a return to grammar teaching necessary? Research indicates that a combination of form and meaning may be the best teaching approach.

A. proficiency course designed for school leavers who wish to enroll in UNITEN. A description how simple poems were used to teach grammar point through a series of classroom lessons will is included. This indirectly helps students improve their vocabulary while giving the teacher a chance to introduce dictionary skills. Basically students select a name of a classmate and write an acrostic poem based on that name. The majority were Malaysians but there were three Arab speaking students from Sudan and Yemen. The name Diana is done this way: Diligent Intelligent Angelic face Nice Active ( Nur Dalila Hamdan. even average students can write good poems. The following are writing activities adapted from Holmes and Moulton’s “Writing Simple Poems “. Poems are often rhythmic in structure and are pleasing to the mind and ear. Poetry writing challenges students to develop their creativity while at the same time providing an excellent opportunity for them to practise structure and syntax in a natural way. In the writing class. some general advantages of using simple poems as observed in the classroom will be mentioned. the basic acrostic poem To start off the writing class.work. To conclude. The Acrostic i. a series of poems were used to review and reinforce grammar rules the students should have ‘learnt’ while in school. Using Simple Poems to Teach and Reinforce Grammar Why use poems to teach grammar? Vicki Holmes and Margaret Moulton ( 2001) suggest that poetry is an effective way of learning and reinforcing the sounds and structures of a first and second language. This was deemed necessary as most of the students have limited to average English proficiency. An added advantage observed in the writing class is the frequent use of dictionaries by students as they try to complete their poems. The Intensive English Program at UNITEN is a preparatory. students were introduced to one of the simplest forms of poems – the Acrostic poem. Types of Poems Used in Writing Class. The paper will also present some examples of poems written by students enrolled in the Intensive English Program at UNITEN demonstrating that with guidance from the teacher. 18 ) -3- .

Luckily. 1. i. Students were then asked to re-write their poems before marks were given for creativity. and word class. students made many grammar mistakes which were corrected by the teacher in class and afterwards in written form. All my friends tried to get her. But I am to shy to tell her. -4- . many of the students were able to correct their own mistakes when these were pointed out to them. students were instructed to write a variant of the acrostic poem called the run-on acrostic and the grammar consciousness lesson officially begins. I have like her since I was in form 3. 18 ) Predictably. ( Muhammad Suffian Zaharia. Adjective Poems Teaching Points : Adjectives Adjectives after linking verbs Basic sentence structure Dictionary usage The next few classes focused on parts of speech. she also likes me. The following is an example: TRIBAL There is a girl in my school that I like. Not surprisingly. The Run-on Acrostic Poem Teaching points : Spelling Vocabulary Dictionary usage Simple Present / Past Tense In the next lesson. Rita Rudaini is her name.ii. The lesson began with a revision of the basic structure of an English sentence Subject verb predicate (noun) is/are ( complement ) Subject verb object. Students revised the past and present tenses and then were asked to write a run-on acrostic.

adjective 4 Line 6 : New related noun/ They were also shown examples of this kind of poem before they actually started writing their own poems. nouns and adverbs ( adv) -5- . magnificent. magnificent. To help them students use the structure. the teacher monitored their work and pointed out problems with the structure and subject verb agreement. moderate Woman. splendid. adjective 2. Bitter. It was also observed that many had problems with adjectives and used nouns to modify the subject. the adjective poem pattern was shown to them. merciful. marvelous. 18 ) As the students wrote their poems. Coffee Bean (Nur Asma Hussain. Is magnanimous. adjective 3 Line 5 : Adjective 1. satisfying. 18 ) Coffee Coffee is bitter Coffee is bitter. satisfying. (Yuhanie A Rusli. Mom is magnanimous. merciful. adjective 2 Line 4 : Is or are + adjective 1. PATTERN Line 1 : Noun Line 2 : Same noun + is or are + adjective Line 3 : Same noun + is or are + adjective1. Magnanimous. Mom is magnanimous. marvelous. This presented an excellent opportunity for the teacher to point out markers in their dictionaries to help them differentiate adjectives ( adj) . magnificent. marvelous Is bitter. A typical mistake would be : She is success.( noun) ( action verb) ( noun ) The teacher observed that students had difficulty identifying the basic structure and word class. The following are a few examples of adjective poems written and revised by students : Mom. adjective 2. adjective 3.

The lesson began with what Pavel Sysoyev (2003) would identify as the Exploration Stage in the Integrative L2 grammar lesson. As this was happening. They were instructed to use at least three adjectives in a row to describe their favourite things (nouns). Present Progressive Tense To help students learn the placement of adjectives. the teacher went around to monitor the activity and asked students to correct grammar mistakes in their poems as necessary. The following are two examples of the adjective placement poem: -6- . This was done to introduce to them the concept of peer editing which is an integral part of any process writing class. size. origin 11. age. The teacher gave each group of students three sets of cards consisting of adjectives and a noun. 2003 ) To write the poem.B ii. nouns as adjectives 12. general description 6. determiners possessive words ordinal numbers cardinal numbers 5. 3. height. they were asked to exchange papers and check the correct order of adjectives. 4. colour 10. temperature 9. 2. The first and second line and part of the last line were given to the students. After the writing stage. length 7. they were shown the correct way to order adjectives: Order of Adjectives 1. shape 8. students were told that they were going on a long trip and must decide what to bring to keep them happy. head noun ( Holmes & Moulton. After some discussion. an adjective placement poem was used. They were then given time to sort the adjectives out in the correct order and to explain what grammar rule was used. Adjective Placement Poem Teaching Points : Adjectives Placement of Adjectives Subject Verb Agreement.

This group poem required the students to use their dictionary extensively and to work together to collate group ideas into one group poem. a functional automatic radiator.Pluto Hawaii We’re taking a jet plane to Pluto And we’re taking a long our favourite things: A complete set of hi-fi system. 18 ) 2. A pair of sexy. brown Camel Active shoes. Cooperative Leaning through group work An alphabet poem can be used to teach parts of speech or sentence structure while reinforcing dictionary skills. A comfortable. students were put into groups to write two kinds of alphabet poems. Japanese horror movies. Some scary. ultra high frequency radar. ultra high voltage power generator. German sweater. One pack of Pokemon cards. my beautiful grandmother. To write the second poem. A brand new Malaysian made WAJA. each group was asked to list on the board all the things that could be found in a teenager’s closet alphabetically. A big. black. To warm up the class. And most important. new. ( Lau Chin Yun. Zarif Kamrdin. thick jackets. super. A huge. A big. This enabled the class to revise their verbs in the simple past tense while writing some wacky and often hilarious group poems: -7- . 18 ) I’m taking a trip to Hawaii And I’m taking along my favourite things : My sporty. Twenty warm. students had to start each letter with a verb in the past tense. ( Muhd. plasma TV. Alphabet Poem Teaching points : Verbs Past Tense Dictionary Usage. Three sets of romantic Japanese series. And most important. old swimming trunks. Since this kind of poem is rather long.

slept Turned into a good boy Urged my father to buy me a car Video-conferenced with my friends Wiped all my cards X-rayed my body parts Yelled at my neighbour Zoomed into my neighbour’s room.What I Did The Last School Holidays ( Verbs ) What I Did The Last School Holidays ( Verbs ) Accessed information from the internet Babbled with my friend Conversed with my principal Donated some clothes to the orphanage Escorted my best friend to see her boyfriend Fought often with my sister Gave my football cards to my friends Hacked into the computer system Insisted on colouring my room pink Joined the army for a week Kicked my neighbour’s dog Learned how to cook Murdered my brother’s girlfriend Nagged my neighbour’s daughter Opposed my parents’ plans to go to Langkawi Puzzled why my parents went to Langkawi without me Qualified to join the Newboyz group Rebuilt my tree house after my brother threw stones at it Sold my hand phone because it was broken Took my young brother to his friend’s house Unfertilized the soil behind my backyard Vandalized a bus stop with my friend Waited for my girlfriend at the bus stop which I had vandalized X-rayed my body Yelled at the field Zapped my discipline teacher’s car. Mohd Khairy. Acted like superman Broke up with my girlfriend Crashed my father’s car Demolished my house with my friend Entered a disco with my neighbour Found a short cut to the Mall Gathered with my ex-schoolmates at a restaurant Hopped all over my house Invited my friends to dinner Jumped from the top floor into the swimming pool Killed my lecturer’s cats Loitered around UNITEN Made contact with my best friend Named all my kittens Overflowed my bathtub Partied all night Quarreled with my family Relaxed. Nur Syahida ) 3. slept. After the class discussion. they were shown the poem pattern which was very similar to the adjective poem. Suffian. fast. To restrict topics and to help students overcome that “Have no idea. Mohd Khairul. teacher “ phenomenon. the next class focussed on adverbs and how they are used to modify verbs. Nur Dalila. Shahab. relaxed and relaxed Slept. students were asked to give some nouns which were written on the board. The students were shown that adverbs often end with –ly but may also take other forms such as often. Nur Asma ) ( Mohd Zarif. ( Hanief. Adverb Poem Teaching Points : Verbs Adverbs Articles / Determiners Phrases Clauses Dictionary usage Logically. Nurfadhilah. the teacher -8- . As they wrote their poem. and high.

amazingly. adverb 3. Alone. Fantastically. 18 ) The bride The bride walks silently. adverb 3 Line 5 : Adverb 1. energetically In the bush. 18 ) The goat The goat bleats happily. When it sees a female goat. disturbingly. confidently. time or place.assumed the regular role of monitoring their writing and helping them correct their own mistakes as necessary. Jumps alone. quickly. 18 ) . quietly. beautifully In the church. ( Romlydiawati Mohd Sarazlee. amazingly. quietly. amazingly. The goat bleats happily. adverb 2. The bride walks silently. The bride walks silently. quickly. Students also asked the difference between ‘ a frog’ and ‘the frog. ( Nursyahida Mohd Jaafar. nervously. Happily. Common mistakes noticed and corrected were subject-verbagreement and the omission of articles before the noun. emotionally. Bleats happily. disturbingly. Silently. In the quiet room. sensationally. calmly. The poet The poet writes fantastically. The poet writes fantastically. confidently.’ The following are examples of their adverb poems following the pattern shown below: PATTERN Line 1 : Noun Line 2 : Same noun + verb + adverb 1 Line3 : Same noun + verb + adverb 1. adverb 2. weirdly. ( Amyra NA Draman. Writes fantastically. adverb 2 Line 4 : Verb + adverb 1. ( Mohd Khairy Effendy. disturbingly. confidently. nervously. wierdly. adverb 4 Line 6 : Phrase or clause showing condition. sensationally. 18 ) -9- A frog A frog jumps alone A frog jumps alone. quietly.

students revised commonly used prepositions and also some not quite so commonly used. students were asked for other prepositions that they know of and the function of prepositions. During the input stage. Preposition Poems. students were shown the chorus from Nick Kershaw’s song “The Riddle” and were asked to identify the prepositions in the song : “ near a tree by a river there's a hole in the ground where an old man of Aran goes around and around and his mind is a beacon in the veil of the night for a strange kind of fashion there's a wrong and a right but he'll never. Teaching Points : Prepositions Prepositional Phrases Clauses Prepositions are small. the pattern for the poem is shown to them. In this class. they were asked to orally present a prepositional phrase.10 - . To review prepositions. very handy words which are often misused. Following that. along with some examples: . The teacher then showed a list of commonly used prepositions : About Above Across After Against Along Among Around At Before behind below beneath beside between beyond by down for from in into of off on over through throughout to toward under underneath until up upon with within without To help students revise the use of prepositions. “ To make the set induction more interesting.D. the teacher agreed to sing the chorus if the students could correctly identify all the propositions. never fight over you.

18 ) ( Nur Dalila Hamdan & Diana Mohd Shukor ) Before the break of dawn Outside my hometown Into the woods Beneath the milky twilight Along with my friends The scouts are searching for a better place to build a campfire.11 - . 2. Some common problems observed was the wrong use of prepositions and some confusion between the use of ‘through’ and ‘throughout’ as well as ‘ under’ and ‘beneath’. In the mansion in the big room Near the window By the fireplace On the couch An ragged. Overall. some of the poems written by the students were quite good as seen by the following which were rewritten and corrected by the students: Here I live In my house In the village In a state In my country In Africa On earth. Use prepositions in the middle of the line. Beside the beach Under the palm tree On the lazy chair With my binoculars After the sunset I’m watching the moonlight. A quick lesson on phrases and clauses was necessary to facilitate the writing of the poem. old man cries alone.PATTERN : 1 Line 1 Line 2 Line 3 Line 4 Line 5 Line 6 PATTERN 2 : : Prepositional phrase 1 : Prepositional phrase 2 : Prepositional phrase 3 : Prepositional phrase 4 : Prepositional phrase 5 : Main clause about an event or object 1. Use prepositions to show sequencing logic. ( Ahmad ElFadilfathal Rahman Taha. ( Rabiah Mohd Rais & Nur Adwa Abu Jamil ) ( Mohd Fawwaz Mohd Jais & Norfadhilah Ismail ) .

This poem proved more challenging as it required creativity as well as grammar accuracy. words or phrases that described them. the last lesson discussed in this paper is a longer poem which students write in pairs or threes. Examples were also shown as a model to help the students write their poem. We are We are loving guys We wonder about the girls and our families We hear voices of ladies We see beautiful girls We want to get married We are loving guys We pretend to be fathers We feel important about getting married We touch the rings of our wives We worry if our wives will find another husband We cry if our children die We are loving guys We understand that marriage is a new life We say that our plans will be true We dream that we are having children We try to make our wives happy We hope to have a nice life with our family We are loving guys. d. hear or touch what they often wonder about or imagine what they worry and/or cry about.E “ I am “ or “We Are “ poems Teaching Points : Sentences Subject Verb Agreement (Subordinate Clauses ) After the numerous lessons on parts of speech and word class. ( Hazimin Mohd. dreams wants things they often say. The most amusing of the lot is the one below written by three boys: a Malay. e. The web included a.12 - . Abdul Aziz Rabea Omar Lashram. the students were given an interest web aimed at generating ideas. This poem required students to use complete sentences and write three stanzas. special things about themselves their hopes. b. c. & Ahmed Elfadilfathal R. Taha ) . a Sudanese and a Yemeni.. To begin writing.

The more proficient ones were challenged to write creatively. It can be said that the first module of the writing class was partially successful as there were some marked improvement in some of the students’ writings. While it may have made English classes a tad more interesting. is that many students leaving schools and entering universities do not have adequate proficiency to excel in their studies. It was noted that they were able to identify their grammar mistakes when these were pointed out by the teacher. Many do not wish to teach grammar explicitly but are keenly aware that students need an understanding of the rules to achieve fluency as well as accuracy. the teacher was able to monitor and provide immediate feedback to the students by asking them to explain ungrammatical or ambiguous phrases/clauses in their poems. the students continue to produce the same grammatical mistakes in their writing. While the writing was in progress. However. This is even more crucial in private universities and Uitm where English is the medium of instruction. The Communicative Syllabus in place in our schools frowns upon the teaching of grammar per se and emphasizes meaning through communicative activities. the objective of achieving what is deemed as acceptable standard English still remains to be seen. the teacher may teach but it is the student who chooses to learn or not to learn. The students found the class enjoyable and even the weakest student could write a passable poem. And that is in itself.13 - .Generally. the students found the class challenging and interesting as evident from their poems. the most challenging task any teacher may face in his/her daily classroom. a major success to breaking the traditional view of grammar classes as dull and immensely boring. As with any lesson. It was designed to approach and correct grammar mistakes at an intermediate level before students moved on to academic writing which entails writing academic essays. providing the avenue for vocabulary expansion. This would suggest a lack of concern for accuracy. perhaps an indirect effect of the Communicative approach. One apparent advantage is that it takes the tedium out of teaching grammar. the teacher observed some benefits and advantages of using simple poems to review and reinforce and perhaps even teach grammar. This was more apparent in the weakest students and the foreign students. Conclusion The teaching of grammar is by far. An additional advantage is the frequent use of dictionaries which enabled the teaching of dictionary skills while at the same time. Those with average proficiency did not improve much. This paper is an attempt to share such an approach to teaching grammar and reinforcing structure as the first step in a multimoduled writing class. . What is apparent though. the blended or integrated approach to grammar teaching where there is a focus on the form but the activity is meaning based. One possible solution is thus. The introduction of Literature was primarily an effort to improve the proficiency of our students. In any case.

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