Acrostic Poems in ELT

When starting out in teaching, Newly Qualified Teachers tend to be enthusiastic collectors of in-class activities. It’s not unusual to hear in the staff room cries such as “Anyone have any good ideas that I can do with my intermediate group?” or “That sounds like a great activity, I’ll use that!” In short, new teachers will try just about anything once.IMG_0058

With a bit of time and experience, however, teachers come to realise that some activities work better than others. They tend to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t work with their learners, making statements such as “that sounds like a nice idea but I just don’t see it working with my group.” And sometimes you have to stop using an activity because you fear you might over do it – this rings particularly true of vocab games.

With years of experience and plenty of development, some teachers then start to question the value of in-class activities. They cast a critical eye over them and start to ponder what principles of learning are behind the activity. This is when you start to hear statements, such as “well, this activity is good fun and they enjoy it, but what are the learners actually getting out it?” That is to say, you start to take a Principled Approach to activities and their design. 

How Principled is an Acrostic Poem?

For anyone who doesn’t know, an acrostic poem is the kind shown in the photo above. You take a key word and using the letters in the word, you make a list of associations, as seen in the example.

I’m not sure how much of it is actually poetic, but what is for sure is that people rarely write poems in their day to day lives. So, acrostic poems aren’t very authentic.

Learners usually need to communicate in more than single words. While it is true that talking about a single topic, lexis from the topic will be used through a text to create cohesion, it still requires more than single words to get the message across, so they aren’t very representative of the communicate needs of learners.

 They also have no communicative purpose. While it is true that you can get learners to display their poems to others in the classroom, it is highly probable that they will come up with similar words: it is after all a word-association exercise. So the end result won’t be very enlightening for learners.

So far, there doesn’t seem to be much in favour of the principled value of acrostic poems. However, there is one way they might prove very useful and, above all, principled.

Receptive Skills Preparation

Although they should cover plenty language, such as grammar and vocabulary, English language courses should also prepare learners to be effective communicators in the real world.  That means teaching them strategies and skills for dealing with language – both spoken and written. One invaluable skill teachers can help their learners to develop is how to deal with unknown lexis.

One way of helping learners to deal with unknown lexis is by getting them to explore the topic before reading or listening. Imagine you are going to read a text about commuting. If the learners were reading this text in the real world, they woulnd´t have much opportunity to check words. However, they could rely on their knowledge of the topic to help them understand the text despite the unkown lexis and possibly even help them to get an idea of what they mean, couched within the topic of commuting.

So, preparing learners by activating their previous knowledge on a topic is one great coping strategy, and it´s where the acostic poem can come to our aid. Get the topic up on the board, such as commuting, and get the learners to come up with associated words, like in the example picture above.

What about the New Lexis?

While it is important for learners to develop coping mechanisms, they also need to be encouraged to be autonomous learners, always building and expanding on their knowledge of the language. So how can that be achieved in this context?

One idea is to tell the learners to check any unknown lexical items at home in a dictionary. That might sound a bit boring, but each learner will struggle with different lexical items. What is more, don´t forget the famous words of Benjamin Franklin:

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

When they come to the next lesson, see if they can make another acrostic poem, but this time incorporating the new words they came across.

What About You?

If you try this out, please leave a comment below and let us know how it went. And if you have done any other work with acrostic poems, I would love to hear about it!

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