Brainstorming techniques with involvement of poetry to prepare students for writing academic essays

Written by: Nina Raud, Assistant Lecturer of English Language and Literature
Viktoria Sokolova, Teacher Trainer and Language Instructor
Tartu University Narva College

Download: Appendix 1÷4

Nowadays there is a constantly growing interest in language learning. Therefore, to meet the learner’s needs, teachers of foreign languages try to integrate various authentic materials including literature to develop language skills. One of the examples of such integration can be the use of poetry to help student’s master writing skills. In this article we will attempt to demonstrate how the language teacher may use a poem as a way to brainstorm ideas for creating a coherent and meaningful outline of the planned essay.

To begin with, let us define what academic writing is. According to Oshima and Hogue (1999:2) academic writing is the kind of writing required to be done in college or university; it differs from other kinds of writing by its special audience, tone and purpose. It is mainly formal, impersonal and objective. One genre of academic writing is an academic essay, which appears to be the most popular genre introduced at school and university. An essay is a short piece of writing that discusses, describes or analyses one topic. The academic essay usually presents central claim(s) and supports claim(s) using arguments based on evidence and cautious language. The central idea is usually developed through such methods of organisation as chronological order or comparison and contrast. Essay writing is a complex process, which requires the knowledge and the skill. As claimed by Hogue and Oshima (1999) writing of the essay mainly consists of two stages pre-writing and writing, where the emphasis is made on preliminary work done.

Preliminary work done by a student consists of the following steps (Oshima and Hogue, 1999; Barnet, 2000)

  • annotating (choosing and narrowing a topic from general topic to very specific one)
  • brainstorming (listing, free writing, clustering)
  • grouping (determining subdivisions and grouping ideas around the key subtopics)
  • outlining (making a plan of an essay)

Each of these steps contributes to the formation of an essay outline and cannot be omitted.

Thus, to quote Robert Frost (as cited in Barnet, 2000:25): “All there is to writing is having ideas. To learn to write is to learn to have ideas.” Therefore, let us start with reading in order to find ideas. But the question is what to read to initiate the process of thinking and generating ideas to write. The choice of reading texts can be various: prose, drama and poetry. We recommend poetry to start with as it differs at the level of expressive means employed. In other forms of literature such as prose and drama we want to know what happens next. However, poetry insists that we read not only to get to the end of the work, but also to enjoy the trip by taking pleasure in the words, rhythms and sounds as well as in the statements made. Poetry often says complex things with a minimum of words because its language calls attention to itself. Perhaps, the most important feature of poetry is its compression (Biddle and Fulwiler, 1989:48). A poem is so compressed that, if everyone considers what can be considered, he will never run out of things to write about.  Poems are typically compact; each word carries a heavy burden. It leaves much for readers to infer and conclude; it sets us free to feel and think.

To see how a poem can be turned into a source of ideas for future writing let us look at one famous poem written in the 19th century by Lord Alfred Tennyson – ‘Flower in the Crannied Wall’. The recommended procedure of working with the poem (based on the literature classes conducted by the authors in Narva College of Tartu University) could be the following. First, the teacher shows the title of the poem in order to draw students’ attention to the poem and asks about students’ associations regarding the key words of the title: FLOWER< CRANNIED< WALL.  The suggestions should be written on the blackboard. Some typical answers received from Narva students were beauty, love, ruins, broken, solid, power, weakness etc. Jotting down of students’ associations is done in order to trigger predictions of the content of the poem (annotating). In addition, the teacher may also ask students questions such as: “Why do you think that Tennyson chose these words, as opposed to other words he might have chosen? How would the effect of the opening line be different if, for example, Tennyson had written “Flower in the cracked wall” or “Flower in the broken wall?” in order to involve students to a fuller extent before reading the poem.

Flower in the Crannied Wall
by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower – but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

(Clare, 1980)

The teacher reads the poem aloud first and then allocates some time for silent reading before initiating a discussion with students. He/she should point out that every poem appeals to one of our senses and feelings (Biddle and Fulwiler, 1989:52); therefore, poets try to make us see, hear, smell, taste and feel what they are describing. This characteristic feature of poetry is called imagery. Hence, the teacher may ask students what picture this poem suggests. For instance: We can see a crannied wall maybe somewhere in a garden, and a man standing by the wall. He sees a beautiful flower in the crack of the wall, plucks it out and holding it in his hand thinks about eternal things such as God and Man and Nature. And then students should try to answer the main question of what the meaning of this poem is and what is implied by the picture imagined. The suggestion may be elucidated in groups and later given to the teacher to be written on the board. Thus, the students try to analyse the poem and at the same time they brainstorm ideas for future writing.

At this point the teacher should explain that the process of generating ideas, in other words, brainstorming, is of utter importance in the process of writing.  According to Barnet S. (2000:27) brainstorming asks students to “jot down at length whatever comes to mind, without inhibition”. It is important to emphasise that in the brainstorming process the student should not worry about spelling or writing in complete sentences but concentrate on connection between ideas. And later he can review his jottings by omitting the irrelevant ones and connecting the meaningful points.

The next step after brainstorming is grouping the generated suggestions, which imply similar ideas. This could be done through group work. It is important that the teacher should also explain that usually there is the central idea, which is supported by several subtopics, usually not more than three (Oshima and Hogue, 1999). Why do we need three subtopics? Because three subtopics with supporting points and details (Oshima and Hogue, 1999) can shape the preliminary paragraphs of the planned essay (see appendix 1). Hence, the task of students is to elucidate the three leading ideas among the suggestions they have come up with and find the other suggestions that support the same idea.

To continue with Flower in the Crannied Wall we may ask: What could be the central topic of the poem? In our classes students proposed the philosophy of life as the key meaning of this poem. As for the subtopics LOVE is BEAUITY, LOVE is STRUGGLE and WHAT GOD AND MAN IS were suggested (see appendices1 and 2).  Those subtopics became the central ideas of the three paragraphs of the main body (see appendix 2). Taking into account our narrowed essay topic the philosophy of life we may hypothesise that life can be understood through BEAUTY, STRUGGLE and the relationship between GOD and MAN. So these are going to be the subtopics of the essay with a title The philosophy of life.

The last step in preliminary writing stage is outlining the essay. Normally, the essay contains five paragraphs (Oshima and Hogue, 1999): the introductory paragraph, main body paragraphs and the concluding paragraph. The main body paragraph is considered in detail. Any paragraph should start with a topic sentence, which represents a subtopic of the essay and must have supporting points and details (see appendix 1). Thus, the teacher explains to students that some ideas in each subdivision can be of more importance, therefore, they are named supporting points, as they can unite several others, namely supporting details.

The way how Narva College students outlined the first paragraph of the main body is presented below:


Subdivision 1 Life is beauty

Topic sentence Life is based on beauty

1.1.   Supporting point                          1.1 Beauty of life
1.1.1.      Supporting detail                          1.1.1. beauty is power
1.1.2.      Supporting detail                          1.1.2. eternity of beauty
1.2    Supporting point                           1.2 Beauty can be destroyed
1.2.1.      Supporting detail                          1.2.1. beauty is fragile-easy to damage
1.2.2.      Supporting detail                          1.2.2. God creates beauty but man kills it

Similarly students can outline the other two paragraphs (see appendix 4). Once the outline of the main body is prepared the student may proceed with writing the first draft. As to the number of drafts one should write there is a saying that writing is a process, which is never complete.

In conclusion, the use of the unique features of poetry such as imagery and compression prepares students for writing one of the most challenging genres of academic writing – the essay. Successful essay writing is predetermined by thorough preliminary work based on reading for generating ideas. Thus, reading poetry may help students brainstorm a number of ideas, which later can be grouped to build a clear and logical structure of the essay. This article shows how the poem Flower in the Crannied Wall by Lord Alfred Tennyson can be used as a source of ideas to prepare students for writing an essay on the topic connected with the meaning of life. Likewise, any other poems could be turned into a resourceful mine for essay writing on any topic of canadian casinos.


  1. Barnet, S., Berman, M. Burto, W.& W. Cain. 2000. An Introduction to Literature. Fiction. Poetry. Drama. New York: Longman
  2. Biddle, A.& T. Fulwiler. 1989. Reading, Writing and the Study of Literature. New York: Random House
  3. Clare, T. 1980. A Book of Poetry New York: Macmillan
  4. Oshima, A.& A. Hogue. 1999. Academic English.(3rd ed.). New York: Longman

Download: Appendix 1÷4

Tags: , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.