Is it worthwhile to teach authentic poetry without knowledge of vocabulary?

I’m teaching the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” to a large group of my Hebrew-speaking deaf and hard of hearing 10th and 11th graders. It’s in the curriculum.

I find it to be a puzzling situation. On one hand it seems absolutely insane to teach it to most of these kids. I’m not exaggerating when I say that most of them only know two to four words in the entire poem. Even a word that seems familiar to them such as “sorry” isn’t in the right context as they only know it to mean “please forgive me”.  Even though we did a pre-reading exercise which included translating the really difficult words (such as “undergrowth” “hence”) they didn’t know most of the other words either and couldn’t even begin to read any sentence of it on their own.

On the other hand, this poem is about dealing with dilemmas and making choices. We did a pre-reading activity on how they solve problems and many of them were interested in that. The vocabulary exercise I gave on those really hard words had them match the Hebrew translation to a simple definition in easy English, so there was reinforcement of vocabulary, just not of the vocabulary of the program. In addition they learned  a bit about metaphors, how to infer something and about the poet. Some of the pupils actually said they find the poem related to life!

However, to answer the low order reading comprehension questions (which were in English they could handle) they relied mainly on the translation of the poem. Since I foresaw that, I made sure they had to copy out lines of the text to prove their answers otherwise they wouldn’t have looked at the poem itself at all!

I wonder if I could have achieved the same effect by having all these nice activities and tasks in English, about a poem written in Hebrew?! So, is it worthwhile to teach authentic poetry without vocabulary?

3 thoughts on “Is it worthwhile to teach authentic poetry without knowledge of vocabulary?”

  1. Man! I wish I could help you answer this question. It is a hard one! I struggled as a learner and now as a teacher with this same quesetion. I always struggled with poetry in Spanish when I was learning the language because it was hard to think outside of the context if the vocabulary word didn’t use its literal meaning that I was just learning or adjusting too…
    But I do think it is worthwhile because after doing those sorts of activities, as a learner it brings you to a different level of “knowing” the language and understanding the meaning being the “meaning”. I don’t know if that makes sense…just thinking out loud in this comment…

  2. Oh, that does make sense! but I think it has a lot to do with the level of the pupils’ L1. With some of the pupils I am spending a lot of time explaining in Hebrew the unfamiliar concepts (what is a “wood”, the word “worn” a in “wanted wear”) etc. A word like “diverged” is unfamiliar but once they translate it its not a new concept. Even leaves turning black (because people step on them) was a puzzling idea for some kids. Like in the poem, only time will tell if I managed to get the greater picture across or did we get lost in the details…

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