Worlds behind Words: Poetry in the Classroom

Here’s a little test for you. One of these two aliens is a ‘kiki’, and the other one is a ‘bouba’. Which is which?

buba & kiki

Have you picked ‘kiki’ for the left alien and ‘bouba’ for the right one?

No, I’m not the next Colin Cloud, though he most certainly does use some linguistic tricks in his mind reading shows. In fact, the same response was given by 95% of participants who were asked to assign ‘kiki’ and ‘bouba’ names to similar ‘aliens’ in the study by VS Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard. This suggests that a) you’re not alone; and b) mapping sounds onto objects is not that random (in this case, the shapes of the aliens – round or spiky – mimic lip and tongue movements when we say the corresponding words – either ‘sharp’ or more ‘rounded’).

My today’s activity is based on the beautiful poem Walking Through Words by Shane Koyczan. It is designed to peek inside the creative mind and think about words in new ways. This exercise in changing the perspective we look at meanings of words opens up creative possibilities and helps develop our students’ creative thinking in and through English.

Step 1.


Pair up or split students into small teams and ask them to think and come up with as many ideas as to what may be described in the following stanza as they can:

It’s just the _________.

Until you are pulling your dinner out of it.

Until you see first-hand everything that lives in it.

Until you feel the push and pull of a thing so vast…

It is untameable.

Discuss their ideas and underlying reasons.

Use this exercise to work on words and word chunks, e.g. to see first-hand (to know/learn first-hand about smth; to gain first-hand experience), vast and untameable.

Repeat the exercise.

It’s just a _________.

Until you see someone release the art trapped inside it.

Until you need shade from the sun or reprieve from the rain.

Until the night steals the warmth in your blood and a cedar

sacrifices its own flesh to give you fire.

Discuss ideas.

Repeat the exercise.

It’s just a _________.

Until you are standing at the bottom of it. Face to face with it.

Until you take your first step to the top of it.

Until you reach the summit and stand eye level

with the setting sun

Discuss ideas.

Repeat the exercise.

It’s just a _________.

Until the stars poke holes in the darkness.

Until the wind pushes its howl through the open air with a wildness so blatant.

It sounds like a song you must dance to.

And it all looks…

So tame.

Step 2.

Ask your students to watch the video and compare their ideas with the words described.

Discuss the following questions:

  • Why do you think the poem is called Walking through the Words?
  • What’s the poem’s message?
  • How does it make you feel? 

Step 3.

Ask your students to think of objects around them and what they mean for them.

It’s just a _________.

Until __________________________________________.

Until __________________________________________.

Until __________________________________________.

Happy teaching!

Image: Rich Mason,, Creative Commons.


  1. It is beautiful, and the way you structured the lesson steps is wonderful (gradually increasing the level of interest and motivation to keep going) Question: what level of students have you tried it with? Imagine quite a few words to pre-teach, at the same time would not want to adapt anything in the poem. B1/B2-ish? Thank you for this inspiring post!

    • Hi Zhenya, thank you for stopping by:) This activity is for B1+ teenage students. I would certainly not recommend any vocabulary pre-teaching here. As such, it’s a guessing game, and students should cope with the task without knowing all the words in the poem; this would actually help raise their interest, and they’ll be more focussed on the words they are not familiar with when you discuss answers with them. What works great, though, is to let them use Google Image Search for particular words/word chunks they don’t know/have doubts about.

  2. One of the best post ever, Svetlana. Thank you so much for bringing this beautiful moving poem!

  3. Thank you for sharing this inspirational lesson, Svetlana. It seems cheeky to bother you when you’ve already shared so much, but I have a question: have you tried it with private students, particularly online ones? I’m just wondering whether this would raise the level of challenge to B2+/C1, just because of the pressure on the learner working alone (yes, I can join in but I already know some of the answers and I don’t want to stifle their creativity – I’m not sure how to perform the balancing act). Thanks again. Rebecca

    • Hi Rebecca, glad you find this lesson interesting! I designed it as a collaborative activity, with a group of teens/young adults in mind. I quite agree with you that using it with just one student might increase the level of difficulty in terms of language and ideas. I’d probably change the task a bit to transform group brainstorming into something more appropriate for a one2one class, e.g. play the word association game. Pick the key word from the first stanza “ocean” and ask your student to think of words off the top of their head that are connected with it. Depending on your student’s level, you may introduce categories – 2 nouns, 2 verbs, 2 adjectives, etc., and discuss why they linked some words to the key word. Then compare the associations your student has come up with and those in the poem. This could be a nice exercise to get your student thinking, making links (which is good for memory), and will give them an experience of having fun with words. Hope this helps:)

  4. […] TextFX is a suite of Google AI/LLM-powered tools that came to life through a collaboration with Lupe Fiasco, the Grammy Award-winning rapper (read How it’s Made to learn more about fine-tuning the language model and the prompts used). Even though I’m far from being a rap enthusiast – the only rapper I’ve been following to this day is Jason R. Levine aka Fluency MC (Irregular Verbs Rap Song), the tools could be precisely what we require for language-related task. They are based on a form of linguistic ‘tinkering’ – breaking down language and then creatively reassembling it in fresh and inventive ways. This is often what we do in the classroom, and they can certainly help add a creative spark to our tried and tested repertoire of vocabulary activities and foster our learners’ creative thinking through English (see CREATIVE THINKING: WALKING THROUGH WORDS).  […]

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