Spoken word

Poets Who Know It: Spoken Word Poetry in the ELA Classroom

By Anna Murphy, Rubicon International

Maybe it is the sweet changing of seasons punctuated by Emerson’s “Returned this day the south-wind searches / And finds young pines and budding birches,” or the approaching end of the school year that reminds me of Silverstein’s “screech, scream holler and yell / Buzz a buzzer, clang a bell,” or that April is poetry month making Neruda’s words particularly poignant, “And it was at that age…Poetry arrived / in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where,” but poetry is filling the air.

It may only be me, but I am tempted to jump on my desk and declare “O Captain! my Captain!” or visit a garden and recite “Nature’s first green is gold.”


Poetry is a powerful literary tool and an art form. It allows us to travel through time and into the depths of others’ minds. In its brevity, it imbues words with meaning and intensity and exudes an entire spectrum of emotions. It is cross-cultural and cross-lingual. Poetry expresses the feelings of its writers and stirs emotions in its audience. It is cherished, written, and interpreted by many, introduced to students, analyzed, critiqued, recited, and performed.

In class, my teachers showed me great works of poetry like Poe’s:

But it was outside the classroom that I learned poetry filled my life in ways I never realized. It infused the music I listened to, the cultures I experienced, and the videos of poetry slams my friends shared on social media. All of these forms of poetry fall under the category ‘spoken word.’

Spoken Word

Spoken word is an under-studied genre of poetry, but it is, arguably, a more accessible way for our students to meaningfully grapple with poetry. Different from written poetry, spoken word is written and designed for performance rather than as text to be read on paper.

Spoken word is a burgeoning artistic form that has a rich history and it deserves focus within the classroom. With roots in modern pop culture, it connects students to poetry in a way that Shakespeare’s sonnets cannot.

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”via @rubiconatlas “]To help in incorporating spoken word into ELA curriculum, we gathered a list of resources to share[/inlinetweet]. These can help in developing a unit devoted entirely to spoken word or adding a spoken word section within an existing poetry unit.

1. For introducing spoken word poetry:

In this video, the speaker, Sarah Kay, helps make spoken word accessible to students. She offers an easy way to begin writing and conceptualizing spoken word.

2. For instilling the importance of spoken word:

This video chronicles Sonia Sanchez, who gained prominence in the 1960s during the Black Arts Movement, which punctuated the Civil Rights Movement. The video teaches that spoken word is a part of U.S. history and holds a special place within the diverse American culture.

3. For understanding multiple approaches to spoken word:

Check out this library of different poets and their performances.

4. For introducing spoken word’s cross-cultural relevance:

As a follow-up, PBS provides lesson plans that explore oral traditions in various cultures. For example, this lesson plan studies oral tradition in Native American culture, while this one focuses on Hawaiian cultures.

5. For understanding why studying spoken word is important:

This article urges introducing hip hop into the ELA classroom and embracing hip hop as a genre of literature. Hip hop, the author argues, provides relevance to English as it appears in students’ lives.

Spoken word is a powerful manifestation of poetry, deeply rooted in history, while simultaneously an aspect of modern life. It transcends culture, language, age, and experience, and it is likely a defining part of students’ lives—whether or not they know it.

As a facet of language—both written and spoken—poetry is not meant to only be read. Poetry is an art form created with words. With that, let us leave you with:

Are you incorporating spoken word poetry into your classroom? Share your unit with us at pd@rubicon.com!


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