Volume IV - 1997

Pattern Poems: Creative Writing for Language Acquisition
  by Margaret R. Moulton and Vicki L. Holmes

         Dr. Margaret R. Moulton is a lecturer in both the English Language Center and the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
         Dr. Vicki L. Holmes is Director of the English Language Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She has taught ESL for over 14 years, having served abroad in both Panama and Spain.

         One of the most important conditions for learning a foreign language (or in developing confidence in one's own language, for that matter) is the opportunity to play with it, to pull it this way and that, to test its elasticity, to test and explore its limits. Poetry is par excellence the medium in which this can be done.
- (Maley & Duff, 1989, p. 9)

         Poetry has a universal appeal to students because all languages have it. The target language may be new to learners, but most concepts of poetry are familiar to them. By writing poetry, second language (L2) students inductively learn a wide range of language skills, such as vocabulary, parts of speech, and syntax, while using familiar poetic concepts of visualization, rhythm, and cadence. The grammar and syntax of poetry provide leeway for experimentation that prose often does not. "In one sense, the writing of poetry is an ideal task for language learners because of its tolerance of 'error"' (Widdowson, cited in Maley & Duff, 1989, p. 9). Furthermore, poems offer a complete context for writing in a compact form so that even students with the most rudimentary of language skills can produce them, providing visual testimony to their growing proficiency in another language.

         Johnson (1990) points out that poems either follow "designated or fixed" patterns, what he calls "closed forms," or create their own patterns as "a reflection of the content," i.e., "open forms" (p. 26). We have found that short, simple closed forms, which we call pattern poems, are especially useful and motivational. Having set formats, which we do not insist our students always follow dogmatically, patterns not only provide guidelines for teachers but also allow students the freedom to concentrate on expressing their ideas without having to worry much about form. "Form poetry gives [students] a sense of support and allows them to complete a poem fairly fast" (Kazemek & Rigg, 1995, p. 26). Patterns can be selected to teach specific concepts such as conditional tense, present participles, summarizing, and contrast, and they lend themselves to working in large groups, in small groups, and as individuals. They are more challenging and satisfying to students than worksheets, and they offer a chance for students to share their work in a noncompetitive manner. Many patterns can be used with all levels and ages of learners. Even those who cannot yet write can dictate poems as a language experience (see Davidson & Wheat, 1989; Townsend, 1982).

New Wine in Old Bottles

         Most of the patterns we have selected to share have been used by teachers and passed on through the years by word of mouth so that we have found it impossible to acknowledge the origins of many of these patterns. And while we describe some of the ways in which we have used them, other teachers may find other uses that fit their needs and their students' more effectively. We are merely offering these patterns as a means of encouraging creativity in teaching and learning language.

1st Form: The Catalog Poem

         The simplest pattern, the catalogue poem (see Figure 1), is essentially a vocabulary lesson that works well with beginning L2 students because it requires no knowledge of syntax. It focuses on action words--present participles-- associated with a particular noun that is not revealed until the last line. For the poem's reader, it becomes a discovery process of what the noun will be and can even be made into a game by covering up the last line of each student's poem. For the poem's author, it requires reverse and visual thinking in that the student must begin with the last line--the main idea--and, through visualization, imagine actions that, together, describe that idea alone.

Figure 1. Catalogue pattern and student samples.

Catalogue Patterns
Sample Poem #1
Sample Poem #2
One present
per line,
with each one
the nouns
in the last line of the poem.
Noun, noun, noun.
Throwing toys in the air
Catching a ball
Waving a tail
Dogs, dogs, dogs.
Kindergarten (dictated)
Cars, cars,cars!
Second Grade student

2nd Form: The Cinquain

         The cinquain also emphasizes vocabulary development and introduces the concept of a phrase. Its five-line format (see Figure 2a) teaches economy of expression as well as parts of speech while focusing on creative communication of a single idea. The cinquain lends itself to both collaborative and individual writing. As a collaborative effort, we have found that students negotiate the nuances of vocabulary when they brainstorm possible words to use in each line. They also assist each others' understanding of parts of speech as they discard and select their vocabulary choices according to the format of the poem. While the cinquain can begin with any noun citing a person, place, or thing (see Figure 2b), we have also found that as an individualized activity, it makes an interesting icebreaker when the noun is the students' own names (see Figure 2c). It can also be used to summarize a story's theme or main character (see Figure 2d) or a concept in math, science, or other content areas.

Figure 2. Cinquain pattern (a) and student poems showing standard cinquain (b), autobiographical cinquain (c), and characterization from Return of the Native (d).

Cinquain Pattern (a)

Line 1: One word, both title and subject of the poem (noun)
Line 2: Two words that describe the subject (adjectives)
Line 3: Three words that express an action by the subject (participles ending in -ing)
Line 4: Four words that tell a feeling the writer has about the subject (verb phrase)
Line 5: One word that is a synonym for the subject or restates or sums it up (noun)

Sample Cinquain 2b
Sample Cinquain 2c
Sample Cinquain 2d
1. Flea
Eustacia Vye
2. Small, fierce.
Curious, intelligent.
Beautiful, self-centered.
3. Hopping, biting, hinding.
Listening, analyzing, evaluation.
Dreaming, scheming, seething.
4. Makes my dog itch.
Lerning to speak English
Wishing for more, committed.
5. Pest
-Junior High Student
-Adult Student
-High School Student

3rd Form: The Diamante

         The diamante is closely related to the cinquain, for its format, in terms of grammar, uses the same parts of speech almost in the same sequence. The difference, however, lies in the diamante's antithetical focus (see Figure 3). While the traditional cinquain begins and ends with synonyms, the diamante begins and ends with antonyms, encouraging students to expand their vocabulary. We have found that the easiest way for students to write diamantes is to move both forward and backward at the same time; that is, they begin with the first and last lines and work their way toward the middle. This is sometimes a new and, we believe, creative and useful concept for students who often think that authors start at the beginning and work their way through to a "perfect" piece of writing by the end. Like the cinquain, the diamante's lack of syntactical structure makes it easy for beginning/intermediate L2 students.

Figure 3. Diamante pattern and student samples.


         To begin, think of two opposite nouns. Put one on line 1 and the other on line 7.

Line 1: One noun.
Line 2: Two adjectives related to first noun.
Line 3: Three participles (-ing, -ed) related to first noun.
Line 4: Four nouns, two related to first noun and two related to second
Line 5: Three participles (-ing, Ed) related to second noun.
Line 6: Two adjectives related to second noun.
Line 7: One noun.

Sample Diamate #1
Sample Diamante #2
Hot, fierce.
Polite, kind.
Burning, blazing, lighting.

Helping, thinking, hearing.

Yellow, blue--blue, white.
Intelligence, idea--action, food.
Freezing, drifting, snowing.
Fighting, eating, hunting.
Cold, heartless.
Angry, dangerous.
-Junior High Student
-Adult Student

4th Form: Poetic Form


         Several other patterns based on thesis-antithesis like the diamante lend themselves to use with beginning language learners. These poetic form sentences (see Figure 4) can even be used with preliterate L2 students since they are essentially close structures. They are useful for introducing the concept of a simple sentence without the students having to create the entire sentence themselves. The four patterns resemble each other closely by moving from one concept to its opposite and can be written in large or small groups or by individuals.

Figure 4. Patterns for poetic form sentences.

Patterm #1
Pattern #2
Pattern #3
What I Like
What a _____is
Hello and Goodbye
I like _______.
A _____is _______.
Goodbye to _________.
I like ________.
A _____is _______.
Hello to __________.
I like ________.
A _____is _______.
Goodbye to _________.
But I don't like ________.
But a _____isn't _______.
It's (season, season, season).

Pattern #4: In Contrast
(This pattern is more easily demonstrated than defined via teacher-written samples.)

Over and Under
The Red Hen
The sky is over my head.
The birds are over my head.
The clouds are over my head.
The earth is under my feet.
The red hen planted the grain.
The red hen harvested the crop.
The red hen baked the bread.
The dog, goose, and cat didn't help.

5th Form: Five Senses Poems

         While most poetry is based on sensory images and feelings, two patterns make both reader and writer consciously focus on those images. Weekday Senses (see Figure 5a) is the simpler of the two since it uses sentence stems containing a day of the week and a particular sense in each of the lines. It can be used with all levels of L2 students. While the images do not need to be related to each other, the form evokes a more poetic effect when the images are associated with a single theme.

Figure 5. Five senses poems.

Weekday Senses Pattern (a)
On Monday I saw____.
On Tuesday I touched____.
On Wednesday I heard___.
On Thursday I tasted___.
On Friday I smelled___.
On Monday I saw the sailboats.
On Tuesday I touched sand.
On Wednesday I heard waves.
On Thursday I tasted hotdogs.
On Friday I smelled the refreshment stand.
-Second Grade Student

Five Senses Pattern 5b

Line 1: What color an emotion or idea is.
Line 2: What the emotion tastes like.
Line 3: What the emotion sounds like
Line 4: What the emotion smells like.
Line 5: What the emotion looks like.
Line 6: What the emotion makes you feel like

Fall is red and yellow.
It takes like chicken soup.
It sounds like wind through the trees.
And smells like warm wood smoke.
It looks like what you see.
When you get your new glasses.
It makes you feel energetic.
-Junior High Student

         The Five Senses Poem (see Figure 5b) is more difficult because of its use of metaphors and similes. It thus works best with higher level language learners. While the Weekday Senses poem looks inward to the poet for its inspiration, the Five Senses poem looks outward to describe a single concept which is established in the first line of the poem. The former must be written by an individual, but the latter, because of its outward look, can be written by small groups, large groups,and even jigsaw groups with one line assigned to each group, thereby encouraging oral interaction.

6th Form Poem: The Hero Poem

         The hero poem (Hero Poems, 1991) is similar to the cinquain when the latter describes a person or character (see Figure ld). The hero poem focuses on describing someone the poet admires by defining who, what, when, and where, but its format can also be used to teach parts of speech, such as adjectives and present participles, and parts of sentences, such as appositives and prepositional phrases (see Figure 6). History lessons, current events, biographies, pop culture figures, and even literature can be sources of inspiration for hero poems. As students write about the figures they have selected, they personalize their understanding and expand their conceptual frameworks of the person's life. Reviewing text_from history books to popular magazines_with the idea of writing a hero poem forces students to focus on main ideas and events in a different manner than for a test or essay. In addition to becoming familiar with factual information, students are called upon to evoke mental images of the person about whom they wish to write. By selecting their own heroes, students' choices often provide insight into their own interests and aspirations. By sharing these heroes, often from their native cultures, students provide opportunities for intercultural learning and understanding (Kovacs, 1994).

Figure 6. Pattern for hero poem and student samples.

Hero Pattern

Line 1: A person you admire
Line 2: Three words to describe the person
Line 3: Place, group, or activity identified with the person
Line 4: Three action words (-ing words) for the person
Line 5: When or where the actions take place
Line 6: Thoughts or feelings about the person

Dith Pran
Powerful, smart survivor.
War zone reporter.
Cambodian struggle.
He tried to get out of the killing field_to be free.
-Junior High Student
Miguel Hidalgo
Loving, helpful, proud.
"Father of Independence."
Working, trying, running.
In old Mexico.
Thanks to him we are all free.
-Junior High Student

The 7th Form Poem: The "I Am" Poem

         A very personal poem, the "I Am" poem (see Figure 7) can also provide insight to students' interests, aspirations, concerns, and cultures, which can be used for further lesson planning and more personalized instruction. It does, however, require more knowledge of English syntax since each line is a complete sentence. Moreover, it requires a larger, more sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary of a particular interest. Because of the verbs provided in the pattern, students begin to discriminate between closely related ideas such as hope and dream. The "I Am" poem is therefore more appropriate for intermediate/advanced L2 students.

Figure 7. Pattern for "I Am" poem and student samples.

"I Am" Pattern
First Stanza
I am (two special characteristics you have)
I wonder (something you are curious about)
I see (an imaginary sight)
I want (an actual desire)
I am (the first line of the poem repeated)
A Carefree Girl
I am a carefree girl who loves horses.
I wonder if there is a horse that can fly.
I hear the stomping of a hundred mustangs on the desert in arabia.
I see a horse with golden wings soaring into the sunset.
I want to ride swiftly over a green meadow.
I am a carefree girl who loves horses.

Second Stanza
I pretend (something you pretend to do)
I feel (a feeling about something imaginary)
I worry (something that really bothers you)
I cry (something that makes you very sad)
I am (the first line of the poem repeated)
I pretend to be an Olympic jumper.
I feel the sky pressing down on me as I ride along a sandy shore.
I worry that I'll fall off and become paralyzed.
I cry when a colt dies.
I am a carefree girl who loves horses.
Third Stanza
I understand (something you know is true)
I dream (something you really dream about)
I try (something you make an effort about
I hope (something you actually hope for)
I am (the first line of the poem repeated)
I understand I will not be able to ride every day of my life.
I say let all horses roam free.
I dream about the day I have a horse of my own.
I try to be the best rider in the world..
I hope to ride all my life.
I am a carefree girl who loves horses.


A Stranger Who Leaves
I am a stranger who leaves myself.
I wonder if there is a place I can fit.
I hear the scream of my mind.
I see an ocean in red.
I want to cry.
I am a stranger who leaves myself.

I pretend to be a prayer.
I feel the illusion of air.
I touch the integrity of my scrapbook.
I cry for all my lovers.
I worry that I'll fall into contradiction.
I am a stranger who leaves myself.

I understand that sensation isn't real.
I say the destruction makes production.
I dream about life in a primitive age.
I try to be nothing.
I hope to sleep in flowers.
I am a stranger who leaves myself.
-Adult student

An Imagining Girl
I am an imaginative and sensitive girl.
I wonder if Prince Charming really exists.
I hear my fairy godmother speaking to me.
I see the twinkle in the stars.
I want a pumpkin coach.
I am an imaginative and sensitive girl.

I pretend to be like Cinderella
I feel good about my dreams.
I touch my imaginary glass shoes.
I worry if Prince Charming will find me.
I cry that he won't.
I am an imaginative and sensitive girl.

I understand that Cinderella is a fairy tale.
I say that some dreams come true.
I dream that I am Cinderella.
I try to be like her.
I hope one day to meet Prince Charming.
I am an imaginative and sensitive girl.
-Adult student

The 8th Form Poem: The BioPoem

         The biopoem (Gere, 1985) is similar to the "I Am poem" in that its topic is usually a person, although it could be any other living thing (see Figure 8). In fact, Vacca and Vacca (1993) provide an example of a biopoem about the horseshoe crab. Biopoems can be reflective and autobiographical, allowing students to illustrate their feelings through words. Biopoems can also be empathic and biographical, encouraging students to identify with and express others' imagined feelings. They can even be inventive and anthropomorphic as when students write about animals or plants as though they have fears and hopes. In addition, the biopoem inductively introduces the concept of the relative clause in its repeated usage throughout the poem. Although biopoems can be modified by leaving out lines, they do require a higher level of language competency and thus lend themselves more to use with intermediate/advanced level L2 students.

Figure 8. Biopoem patttern and student sample.


Biopoem Pattern
Line 1: First name
Line 2: Four traits that describe character
Line 3: Relative (brother, sister, son, etc.)
Line 4: Lover of _______(list three things or people)
Line 5: Who feels _______ (three items)
Line 6: Who needs _______ (three items) roses, and evenings.
Line 7: Who fears _______ (three items)
Line 8: Who gives _______ (three items)
Line 9: Who would like to see _______ (three items)
Line 10: Resident of
Line 11: Last Name
-Adult student
Carefree, happy, crazy and lazy.
Sister of no one.
Lover of GUYS, dancing, summertime, and swimsuits.
Who feels happy when school is over, sad when she can't go to the movies and strange when she's being serious.
Who needs sunshine, roses, and evenings.
Who fears failing English, being lonely and
Giving a report in front of the whole class.
Who would like to see herself become RICH,
The Fly II, and Superman in person.
Resident of Sparks, Nevada
-Adult student

The 9th Form Poem: The Blotz Poem

         Rather than recreating a real person, the blotz poem conjures up an imaginary creature (see Figure 9). It also calls for extensive usage of the dictionary and thesaurus in an effort to find words that fit meaning and start with the appropriate alliterative sound. The blotz thus provides a purpose for either introducing or reinforcing dictionary/thesaurus skills, and the extensive use of alliteration is particularly appealing to students, according to Christison (1982). The blotz poem allows students to let their imaginations run wild, employing imagery which may or may not be consistent with reality. It lends itself to humorous and collaborative efforts between students as they help each other find appropriate words, but it also requires more advanced language learners.

Figure 9. Blotz pattern and student sample.

Blotz Pattern

1: Name your creature. (This is a . . . )
Line 2: Tell where your creature lives (using words_4 or more_that begin with the same beginning sound of the creature's name).
Line 3: Tell what your creature eats (using words_4 or more_that begin with the same beginning sound of the creature's name).
Line 4: Tell what your creature likes (using words_4 or more_that begin with the same beginning sound of the creature's name).
Line 5: Tell something about your creature (using words_3 or more_that begin with the same beginning sound of the creature's name).
Line 6: Tell something about what your creature did to you (using words_3 or more_that begin with the same beginning sound of the creature's name)


Line 1. This is a teacherian.
Line 2. Teacherians live in Turkish towers on top of telegraph transmitters in Tibet.
Line 3. Teacherians eat tortoise toes, tangy tarts, tender toast, and tuna.
Line 4. Teacherians throw temper tantrums; torment students, try on toupees, and twiddle their thumbs.
Line 5. Teacherians teach trigonometry; enjoy tapestry, and like tanning their temples.
Line 6. This teacherian told me to tape up my mouth. It tortured me and tore out my teeth.
- Junior High Student

Creative Beginnings, Not Endings

         The poems created through these patterns are not an end in themselves. While they can be the focal point of a lesson, they can also be "the starting point...of a useful and exciting exploration of language" (Maley & Duff, 1989, p. 16). While Kazemek and Rigg (1995) view the use of poetic forms as a disadvantage with Ll adult literacy students because the forms restrict students' use of grammatical structures, we view this restriction as an advantage for L2 students. Pattern poems can introduce the very grammatical structures L2 students need to learn and can do so in an enjoyable way. Writing poetry need not be an isolated experience but can be creatively and successfully integrated with other L2 acquisition strategies. In addition to the language skills learned through pattern poems, writing poetry in a second language creates self-confidence and "positive feelings about the language learning experience" (Christison, 1982, p. 17).


Christison, M.A. (1982). English through Poetry. Hayward, CA: Allemany Press.

Davidson, J.L., & Wheat, T.E. (1989). "Successful Literacy Experiences for Adult Illiterates. Journal of Reading, 32, 342-346.

Gere, A.R. (Ed.). (1985). Roots in the Sawdust: Writing to Learn across the Disciplines. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. "Hero poems." (1991). U.S. Express. 3 (7) 10-11.

Johnson, D.M. (1990) Word Weaving: A Creative Approach to Teaching and Writing Poetry. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Kazemek, F.E., & Rigg, P. (1995). Enriching Our Lives: Poetry Lessons for Adult Literacy Teachers and Tutors. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Kovacs, E. (1994). Writing across Cultures: A Handbook on Writing Poetry and Lyrical Prose. Hillsboro, OR: Blue Heron.

Maley, A., & Duff, A. (1989). The Inward Ear: Poetry in the Language Classroom.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Townsend, L. (1982). "Using LEA with Adult Beginning Readers." Journal of Reading, 25, 468-469.

Vacca, R.T., & Vacca, J.A.L. (1993). Content Area Reading (4th ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

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