Haiku, Tanka, and Studying English

old pond / frog leaps in / water’s sound
 (Photo by Ghost Presenter on Unsplash)

So, yes, I’m not normally a big fan of poetry, either reading or writing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize their usefulness. While originally Japanese,  haiku and tanka have become something of a new tradition in English poetry and are nonetheless useful for learning English.

For a quick refresher: haiku are the short, three-line poems with a strict syllabic pattern (5-7-5). Tanka are a slightly longer form (5-7-5-7-7). There are other rules and traditions about “cutting words” and referring to the seasons, but that’s some next-level haiku-ing. In teaching, I focus exclusively on syllable count.

Forcing students to count syllables in words has a couple of effects. More than anything else, it makes them slow down, and as a result they pay closer attention to the word: how it’s spelled, how it’s pronounced, how it sounds. This can be especially useful with students who struggle with spelling; seeing how multiple letters can combine into just one sound can help cement some of the trickier English graphemes in their memory. It can also help build morpheme awareness, since students will be focusing on each individual part of the word.

Reading and writing haiku or tanka is also a great moment to talk about stress and emphasis. Even if stress isn’t important in haiku itself, a natural follow-up question to something like “How many syllables are in ‘refreshing’?” is “Where is the emphasis?”.

Moving to a higher level of language instruction, the short nature of haiku and tanka, and the puzzle-like aspect of fitting words together to fit the prescribed length, make them great writing exercises for students who are less inherently verbal or who normally struggle with what to say. If you go a step further towards a “genuine” haiku and require a student to use a term from the saijiki, the prescribed word list that references a particular time of year (link is an Archive.org link to an English translation), then you can even provide a jumping-off point to get them started. Not to mention using the saijiki is a creative way for novice students to reinforce new vocabulary related to the natural world: seasons, plants, animals, the weather, etc.

And no matter what the language level, the arbitrary syllable count restrictions force students to search for different words and different ways to express things than what just initially comes to mind. If they want a 5-syllable line to read “beautiful summer day,” that won’t work, but can they think of any synonyms for “beautiful” that are only two syllables long? If they really want to keep “beautiful,” then they’ll have to compromise on “summer”  or even “day,” depending on what the rest of the poem is. How can they do it?

Finally, because they’re so short, writing tanka and haiku is just fun. It’s rewarding to be able to sit down and, a few minutes later, have a complete poem! It’s the perfect activity for when students (and teachers 😉 ) need encouragement or a bit of instant gratification.

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