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Poetry as a device for learning pronunciation

Written by Karl H. Purnell, a writer, playwright and journalist who began his career as a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot, and then became a newspaper editor in Lewisburg, PA. Karl has been teaching students in various part of the world via Skype technology for the past three years.

I was brought up in a generation when the importance of memorizing poetry was on a par with learning to pitch a fast ball. That seems to have changed and unfortunately not many students today recognize the importance of poets like Wordsworth, Tennyson, Whittier or Whitman to say nothing of writers from non-English speaking countries.

Fortunately, there are individual teachers throughout the world who do bring poetry to the classroom, but the pressure to produce test results and complete assigned academic material all too often leaves little time for literary works.

When it comes to teaching English as a second language via Skype, however, poetry must once again move to front and center if a real education in the English language is to be attained. Why? It’s the best method imaginable for teaching students proper pronunciation and the subtle meaning of words.

Recently at Teach the World Online, we decided to have our students around the world learn Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening. At first there was hesitation. Then, after a reading and discussion of the poem’s meaning about the beauty of nature, the students jumped into the project.

My own students in Russia and Nepal said they would be ready to recite the entire poem in four days. I assigned a verse per day and at the end of four days many students said they were ready. I was surprised and quite frankly, suspicious. When Dolma, one of the Tibetan girls in Nepal, rattled the poem off perfectly, I was sure she had a printed copy behind the webcam. Consequently, I asked the girl behind her to hold her hands over her eyes while she said it again. Here she is proving me wrong:

In Russia, the students also performed magnificently and I was astounded at the dramatic flair they brought to the Robert Frost poem. Here is Alana’s rendition:

Still, the pronunciation by both the Russians and Tibetan students made the recitations almost incomprehensible.

But wait! Now is the time when our students can really learn proper pronunciation and adjust their speaking to the subtle meanings of each word. So, for the next few weeks, we’ll work to achieve perfect pronunciation. It will be a great learning experience because our students have a personal investment in this project since they know it by heart. It will also be a lifelong gift they will never forget.

The students have also asked if they could have a competition between the Russians and the Tibetans to see who can offer the best rendition of Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening. If there are any teachers reading this blog who would like to enter their class in the competition, let me know. Maybe, we can have a worldwide poetry reading tournament on Skype. …our own Skype’s Got Talent! E-mail karl@teachtheworldonline.org for more information.

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