A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Selecting Poems for EFL Students: Criteria and Bank of Titles

Gibreel Sadeq Alaghbary



Poetry is not written according to a graded list of words and structures and does not represent a reality that learners can unproblematically identify with. Instead, it represents a world of experience that is ‘designed’ to disrupt, or at least problematize, our perception of it, and this experience is couched in a language that is also “designed” to break away from ordinary language. As a result, poetry is disruptive of both language and world experiences. The issue of poetic text selection has always engaged the attention of poetry teachers in EFL contexts. This concern has been well expressed by Khan (2005), who argues that teachers “cannot just choose any poem from anywhere and then critically discuss it and finish our job without considering its accessibility and appropriateness for the level of students in question” (p. 90). Khan is concerned with the accessibility and appropriateness of texts for the level of students, indeed very important criteria for text selection. In fact, there have been several lists, comprehensive but not exhaustive, detailing the criteria of selection of texts to be used in the classroom.

Moody (1971) argues that when selecting texts, teachers should consider factors such as the students’ language ability, enthusiasm, interests, and aversions. Widdowson (1975, p. 81) underlines the importance of considering “the learner’s capacity to understand the language which is used”. To this list, Brumfit and Carter (1986), add previous literary experience and cultural inaccessibility. They point out that “we can help students to avoid disliking a book simply because they misunderstand the conventions being used, or because the language is too difficult, or because the cultural references are inaccessible” (p. 23). Besides language level and interests, Collie and Slater (1987) underscore the relevance of the students’ reading proficiency and their maturity levels. They recommend “non-serious” poems and poems with a fairly simple narrative structure at the early stages of poetry learning (p. 226).

However, is it possible to think of a literature course that contains no “classics” at all? Widdowson’s answer is “yes”. The criteria of text selection, he argues, should be “pedagogic rather than aesthetic or historical” (Widdowson 1975, p. 85). In practice, however, there is a heavy bias towards the classics of English literature. All courses on twentieth century poetry, for example, would include Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Yeats’ “The Second Coming”, the justification being that they cannot possibly be excluded. The assumption is that “if the students were continually exposed to the best uses of the English language, it would in some sense ‘rub off’ on their own performance in the language” (Short and Candlin, 1989, p. 180). Short and Candlin, however, find a problem with this assumption. “Much, after all, of what is best in English literature derives from ages linguistically very different from modern English.” Besides, “a worthy desire to read what is ‘worthwhile’ can result in an almost worthless reading process.” (Vincent, 1986, p. 210)

In the EFL context, there have been several outcries among educators against the selection of texts solely on the basis of their place in the canon. Thiong’o (1986), regrets that students in Kenya are made to recite poems in praise of the “retiring unreachable haughtily coy mistress”, poems which are “an English writer’s nostalgic response to his landscape”, poems which celebrate “the beauty of England” and its “changing seasons”, and poems on “roses and daffodils and may-poles and yellow fogs, not to mention songs of London burning and Baa Baa Black Sheep!” (pp. 224-225). These students, Thiong’o continues with his outcry, are taught “the history of English literature and language from the unknown author of Beowulf to T.S. Eliot so much that our children are made to look, analyse and evaluate the world as made and seen by Europeans”. Fifteen years later, Bisong (1995) reiterates Thiong’o’s concerns, “Literature teaching in secondary and tertiary institutions in Nigeria…is still very much an uncertain business. Now and again concerns are voiced about what literature to teach at school and how to teach it” (p. 290).

In the Arab world, the debate is no less heated. Marwan Obeidat (1997) addresses the issue of whether or not teachers should introduce the “threatening” and “culturally superior” English literature. Obeidat’s answer is affirmative, provided that instructors try to “avoid” the religious, moral, and cultural barriers. Layla Al Maleh (2005), however, takes the opposite stand. Though teachers of English literature may find it “more challenging to bring their students to an appreciation of English literature, which offers social, moral, and cultural values different from their own”, these teachers, in order to avoid alienating students, can always teach English literature “amorally and encourage free interpretation” (p. 269). Al Maleh argues her defence strongly, “The choice, then, for Arab teachers of English literature is not to ‘eclipse’ texts from the eyes of their students as much as to encourage them to adopt an amoral stance towards them, and to search for that universal paradigm which is found at the heart of all great literature.”

It may be concluded that there is no formulae that teachers can take off the peg into their classrooms. There is “no special magic attached to ‘big names’ or established reputations” either (Moody, 1971, p. 29). The choice of a text is therefore eventually a matter of local decision. The classroom teacher knows the students’ abilities and interests better than any theorist or critic, and so only the teacher decides which text to include or exclude regardless of its aesthetic value or established place in the canon.

Suggested Criteria for Text Selection

I would now like to suggest three criteria for text selection, ranked hierarchically in order of their importance: 1) suitability of content, 2) accessibility of language, and 3) adaptability of text. These criteria relate to schematic knowledge of the world, of the language and of the genre of poetry respectively.

The first criterion is suitability of content. In order for a text to be selected it has to represent experiences that learners can identify with and accept. Before students can respond to a text and make individual readings into it, they should first of all be willing to accept it. Acceptance comes even before identification, but it is a stage very often glossed over. Arab scholars who have considered the issue of text selection for Arab undergraduate students however have different views of suitability. While some such as Obeidat (1997) recommend that instructors try to avoid religious, moral and cultural barriers, others such as Al Maleh (2005) choose not to eclipse “controversial” texts from the eyes of the students but to encourage an amoral stance towards them. Al Maleh is skeptical about teaching “only what has immediate relevance and bears reference to Arab and Moslem experiences” and is eager not to “cut students’ minds from the reservoir of Western, particularly English literature and culture in the name of compatibility of values” (p. 272). Al Maleh would therefore select for use in her classes texts such as To his Coy Mistress, which she describes as making a “licentious” invitation to the pleasures of love. What she suggests is that students be encouraged to read such texts “amorally” in order to perceive merit in the text without having to agree with its moral codes. What she fails to accept, however, is that students do not “accept” texts that present “alien” moral values, and this rules out any meaningful encounter with them in the classroom.             

The second criterion is accessibility of language. Suitability of content is a necessary but not sufficient condition. A text that appeals to the students but which is linguistically “too difficult” can hardly be enjoyed or appreciated. Linguistic difficulty, however, is not a unidimensional problem. It has at least four dimensions to it, namely, density of unfamiliar or culturally loaded vocabulary, complexity of syntactic structures, organization of discourse structure, and length of the text. This should not imply that in order for a text to be selected it has to be linguistically “easy”. A text should present some challenge to the students and should also offer them some learning. In other words, the selected text should be at the right level of difficulty for the students. It should be one that the students can manage to “log into” and make “some” sense of on their own; it should be linguistically accessible.

Last, but not the least, is adaptability of text. In order for a text to qualify for selection, it should be “adaptable” to the teaching objectives of the instructor. A text that is adaptable is not one that exemplifies those linguistic patterns that instructors want their students to learn, although the likelihood of such a coincidence is not ruled out, but one where learning facilitates encounter with other poetic texts. A text that is adaptable, in other words, is one that can be used or exploited to design tasks that serve to facilitate the learning of some skill of interpretation.

A Bank of Titles

The following is a bank of titles selected in line with the arguments made in this paper. This list is not sacrosanct; it may be modified, enriched or rejected. The author welcomes feedback from teachers and researchers on the list.

Title of the Poem



Indian Women

Shiv K. Kumar (1921)



Adrienne Rich (1929)


I am not That Woman

Kishwar Naheed (1940)



Louise Bogan (1897-1970)


Death of a Whale

John Blight (1913-1995)


World War II

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)


Inscription for a War

A. D. Hope (1907-2000)


What I Will

Suheir Hammad (1973)



One Question From a Bullet

John Agard (1949)


The Collar

George Herbert (1593-1633)



Christina Rossetti (1830-1886)


An Elegy on the Death of a mad dog

Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774)


Telephone Conversation

Wole Soyinka (1934)


I am the Only Being

Emily Brontë (1818-1848)


Nothing’s Changed

Tatakhulu Afrika (1920-2002)

South Africa

I sit and Look out

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)


No More Boomerang

Oodgeroo of the tribe Noonuccal (1920-1993)


The Road not Taken

Robert Frost (1874-1963)


I, too, Sing America

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)


An old Woman

Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004)


Not Waving but Drowning

Stevie Smith (1903-1971)


Parable of the old men and the Young

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)


Keeping Things Whole

Mark Strand (1934)



Philip Larkin (1925-1985)



P. B. Shelley (1792-1822)


Someone Else’s Song

Kamala Das (1934)


Death the Leveller

James Shirley (1596-1666)


The Tyger

William Blake (1757-1827)


The Eagle

A. L. Tennyson (1809-1892)


Night of the Scorpion

Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004)


Break, Break, Break

A. L. Tennyson (1809-1892)


Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)


Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s day?

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)


When in Disgrace With Fortune and Men’s Eyes

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)


Back Again

Louisa Lawson (1848-1920)


Lucy Poems

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)


It is not Growing Like a Tree

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)


I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain

Emily Dickinson (1830-1894)


Footsteps of Angels

H. W. Longfellow (1807-1882)


Because she Would ask me why I Loved her

Christopher Brennan (1870-1932)



W. T. Goodge (1862-1909)



Joyce Kilmer. (1886–1918)


Borrowed Tongue

Khaled Mattawa    (1964)

Arab-American (Libyan)



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Gibreel Sadeq Alaghbary is Assistant Professor of Stylistics at Taiz University, Yemen.  A Fulbright post-doctoral fellow, he is currently working for Qassim University, KSA.