Teaching Rap in Secondary I School

A practical approach to make poetry interesting for teenagers

Term Paper, 2019

24 Pages, Grade: 11









1 Introduction

Poetry is an exciting and powerful form of expression for young adults. Nevertheless, young adults do not necessarily perceive poetry as such (Bond 344). Poetry is constructed of various linguistic devices that are stretching and breaking the norms of language that are taught to students in foreign English language classrooms since elementary school (Jeffries 129). The language students are used to speak and write has a different structure. Due to the linguistic creativity and the strength of words used in poems, poetry seems to be complex to students because language in this context is experienced as something unfamiliar. Notwithstanding that poetry is perceived to be challenging, the involvement with poems enlarges and enriches the understanding for the power of words. The variety of language used in poems refines the feel for the language (Malay and Moulding 134). Therefore poetry has to be situated by teachers as a relevant and useful issue to be taught. However, keeping students motivated and interested in poetry lessons can be challenging for teachers. For this reason it is important that teachers choose poems which relate to common areas of experiences young adults may have made, such as love or loneliness, and further relate to topics that affect the lives of young adults, such as identity or conflicts within a relationship. Beyond that teachers can capture students’ interests for poetry by introducing them to non-classical forms of poetry such as rap poems since “poetry as a literary form has experienced a renaissance in the last decades” (Thaler 116). Rap as a non-classical form of poetry mixes poetic devices with an informal speech style which students perceive as more familiar than poems written in formal speech.

The following term paper deals with rap as a form of poetry to be taught in a foreign English language classroom with the focus on a 10th grade of the Secondary I School. The second chapter of this term paper analyzes the literary genre of poetry since it is fundamental for the comprehension of poems in general. The third chapter deals with rap as a form of poetry which provides a lifeworld reference for students. In order to understand the message behind rap poems it is necessary that students acquire knowledge about the development of rap. In addition students should learn to apprehend rap as a form of poetry, which might initially not be obvious due to the informal speech style. The fourth chapter of this term paper explains the importance of teaching poetry in a foreign English language classroom with the focus on rap as a form of poetry. For this purpose the rap poems “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” and “Liberty Needs Glasses” of Tupac Shakur are taken into consideration for teaching a 10th grade of a Secondary I School in rap.

2 The Definition of the literary genre of Poetry

Poetry as a form of literature has no clear definition, because poetry means different things to different people. While “William Wordsworth defined poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, (…) Emily Dickinson said 'If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry’” (Flanagan “What Is Poetry? An Introduction. Form and Function.”). All those personal definitions have in common that poetry is a means of expression of emotions, inner feelings and thoughts. Nevertheless, it is not possible to define poetry as only one particular literary writing that comprises specific features. Poetry consists of different variations of poems, which ensue different structural patterns and linguistic devices. However, one cannot simply assign a writing to the genre of poetry because it may comprise distinctive formal characteristics that are used in poems (Fabb 1).

The most essential characteristic of poetry is the use of language which is emphasized by the implementation of stylistic devices. These stylistic devices are declared to be poetic because the constellation of stylistic devices used in poetry differ from those that are used in other literary genres. “[P]oetic devices can be found on the levels of structure, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics” (Thaler 129).

The structural level of a poem is constituted of an external and an internal structure. The external structure is predicated on the stanzaic form of a poem. This means that poems structurally are divided into segments defined as stanzas. Each stanza in turn is divided in lines of verses. The internal structure, however, is set by the thematic and formal relations of the verses and the stanzas (Thaler 130). Beyond that verses of poems are constituted of a poetic device named metre. The metre is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables used to measure the audible features of a poem (“Glossary. Term: Metre”). A metric pattern provides a poem with rhythm. Other poetic devices like “alliteration (the repetition of consonants), assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds), and the repetition of words” (Bond 350) and even whole verses emphasize the rhythm of a poem. Rhythm as a poetic device expresses the musicality of language, and additionally, underlines the pleasure and meaning of a poem (Bond 349). Apart from that, the rhythm of a poem is also created with rhymes. Referring to that the phonological level defines the poetic device of rhyme as the most important feature in poetry. Rhymes can be formed by words with the same last stressed or unstressed vowel. The arrangement of rhymes within a poem is defined as a rhyme scheme. Poetry contains a variation of rhyme schemes that can be achieved by different rhyming structures and phonological figures (alliteration, assonance, consonance). The rhyme scheme as well as the phonological figures are used to structure a poem, to “emphasize relationships and contrasts, and [further to] support thematic aspects” (Thaler 131) (Appendix 6.1). The level of morphology (word formation) and syntax (sentence structure) form a separate unit in poetry and are defined as the morpho-syntactical level. It deals with the implementation of rhetorical figures that form and effect a poem on the morphological and the syntactic level. The interaction of the poetic devices described in the structural, phonological and morpho-syntactical level “contribute a lot to the coherence of a poem. (…) [Furthermore, they underline] certain elements of the content [in order to] establish relations of correspondence and opposition]” (Thaler 132) (Appendix 6.2). Likewise the morpho- syntactical level and also the semantic level of poetry deal with rhetorical figures. In contrast to the rhetorical figures used on the morpho-syntactical level, the rhetorical figures on the semantic level visualize the meaning of words by conveying a figurative meaning (Thaler 133). Furthermore the use of rhetorical figures on the level of semantics provide words or phrases with a variety in meaning (Bond 351). (Appendix 6.3). For this reason a poem can also embody ambiguity. Ambiguity means that a word, phrase or statement can have two or more possible meanings. “[A]mbiguity is built into the nature of poetry (…) because (…) poems do not come (…) equipped with material contexts to help delimit their possibilities of meaning” (Eagleton 124). Coupled with the semantic level the use of rhetorical figures in poetry intensifies its ambiguity (Eagleton 124f.).

To sum up, a poem is a writing that is divided into lines of verses. It is made of a language which does not ensue an ordinary linguistic structure and can be additionally emphasized by the use of rhetorical figures and rhyme schemes (Fabb 9). Nevertheless, besides the distinctive formal characteristics that are dedicated to the literary genre of poetry, there are also poems in which none of these described formal characteristics are used (Eagleton 25). Therefore a variety of poems do exist that consist of different rhyme schemes or even do not have any rhyme scheme, that are constructed of a structured verse pattern or even do not use any verse pattern through the implementation of free or nonsense verses and that further use different rhetorical figures. For instance the ballad, the sonnet, the elegy, the lyric poem or song lyrics are forms of poetry (Thaler 122ff.).

3 The Definition of Rap as a form of Poetry

Rap is a form of poetry that emerged in the neighborhoods of distinct cities of the United States of America such as the Bronx or the Compton but has its origins in the African American (Keyes 17). The manner of writing and performing rap is similar to the African bardic tradition. African societies have in their communities a person defined as the bard who is a storyteller-singer (Keyes 18f.). The bard uses narrative poems or songs in order to tell stories. “While performing [the story], a bard makes use of formulaic expressions, poetic abstractions, and rhythmic speech” (Keyes 20). The performance is accompanied by traditional African musical instruments. The “repetitive beat [of these instruments interlock] (…) with the bard’s voice” (Keyes 20). When people from African countries were deported to the United States of America to be used as slaves, they had to learn a new culture and language. The circumstances they were forced to live in and the process of assimilation gave rise to the development of black vernacular expressions – as a different form of American English. Enslaved Africans came up with linguistic methods to communicate about their conditions. In this way language “became (…) a personal device of presentation, verbal artistry, and commentary on life’s circumstances” (Keyes 22). The linguistic development of black vernacular derived locutions, phraseologies and musical forms and paved the way for the foundation of rap by the use of storytelling similar to the African bardic tradition. A structural model for rap was provided by the storytelling method named the toast. “The toast is a long narrative poem composed in rhyme couplets (…) [that uses an] exaggerated language [with] metaphor[s], expletives, boasting, repetition, formulaic expressions, and mimicry” (Keyes 24). Furthermore the toast contains verbal forms that are structurally integrated in its storytelling manner. One of those verbal forms is the dozens. It is a verbal form of a competitive interplay between people in front of a group. Another of those verbal forms is signifyin. It is a verbal form that is created of a wordplay, which occurs when an indirect statement is made about a situation or a person (Keyes 24). The poetic device of “rhyme is integral to several African American expressive traditions” which derived a stylistic and structural importance in rap (Keyes 25). After the African Americans migrated from the rural South to northern urban centers, the so far established cultural tradition of storytelling, especially the toast, was transformed in the new environment. New linguistic expressions of the black vernacular were established that reflected the urban life. Because of their socio-economic status, African American people had to live in poor districts of the urban centers which are defined as ghettos. These living conditions led to the development of a new speech style within the African American community (Keyes 28f.). This speech style was called jive talk. It is an exaggerated or teasing way of talking that was used “as a competitive [communication] tool [and] a way of establishing one’s (…) reputation” in the streets (Keyes 29). The competition that arose within a jive talk contributed to the emergence of rap as a form of lyrical expression as well as a form of lyrical performance (Keyes 32f.). Rap as a form of poetry has to be regarded from its process of socialization, that is influenced by the historical and cultural background of African American people, as well as the racial, economic and political contexts African American people were confronted with. Therefore Rap in its origins is a form of black cultural expression. African American people digest their experiences of marginalization by keeping to the cultural tradition of storytelling as a part of their identity (Morley 116). From history until nowadays rap as a form of poetry has established itself from the African American vernacular practice to an important literary medium of expression in newly re-localized cultural inflections for the underclass – no matter which race or cultural identity people belong to (Gold 67; Krims 2).

Rap uses complex rhyme schemes like cross-rhythms, polyrhythmic layering, couplet rhymes and linguistic devices that implicate syllabic stress or melodic-rhythmic contouring in order to emphasize the rhyme scheme (Keyes 126; Krims 54). Beyond that the rhyme schemes in rap are further emphasized by the use of poetic devices such as alliteration and repetition. The rhythm in rap performances is strengthened by the implementation of breath cadences (Keyes 34; Rose 47). Furthermore the poetic device of assonance is used in black speech style for word alteration. The use of assonance in rap is traced back to black speech style. This implies that a letter in a word is changed for rhyming purposes (Keyes 127). The rhyme schemes and the poetic devices used in rap poems as well as in other forms of poems, underline the musicality of language. Besides that also the semantical structure of African American vernacular determines an important lyrical competency of rap. The semantics used in rap “is broadly conceived to encompass the totality of idioms, terms, and expressions (…); it is highly metaphorical and imagistic” (Keyes 126). The language in rap poems is influenced by the African American vernacular and the street style speech. Therefore it is written in nonstandard English and often makes use of expletives. The topics issued in rap poems are constructed by lyrical dexterity and comical satire that comment on “sexually risqué stories (…), sociopolitical concerns such as police brutality (…), drug addiction, [and] feminist issues” (Keyes 139).

4 The importance of teaching poetry in a Foreign English Language Classroom

Teaching poetry in an English language classroom can be beneficial for students in many ways. Poetry is a good method to learn English language structures and widen the vocabulary of students. First of all, students learn to analyze a poem according to the structural, phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic complexity as already explained in chapter 2. Thereby they become acquainted with linguistic exploitability and the ambiguity of language, and further develop an interpretational openness. As a result the language awareness of students gets enhanced (Thaler 116). Beyond that the literary examination of poetry requires a closed and focused reading because of the density of subject matter that is comprised within the verses of a poem (Thaler 115). As a consequence thereof students acquire knowledge for the use of language and learn how it can rhetorically be used to express meaning. The identification of complex linguistic structures, adjectives and adverbs as well as poetic devices helps students to become familiar with the complexity of language and further “enriches [their] (…) appreciation for the power of words to capture the essence of things” (Bond 344). Furthermore, the process of understanding a poem from a contextual, linguistic and a figurative level widens the perception of students for different perspectives. Students learn to respect and understand different points of view. Poetry as a literary genre conveys emotions and gives perspectives to issues that might be more difficult to understand by science-based writings (Bond 344). As a consequence, the involvement with poems can encourage students to discuss issues that are literarily presented through poems. The discussions opened up by students can activate them to speak fluently and to choose accurate words to strengthen the own argumentation. For educational purposes it is important that students perceive and respect different perspectives. The increasing divisiveness, the ignorance towards specific political issues and the prejudices that arise within society due to the withdrawn mindset can be broken by teaching students to write, read and understand poetry (Simmons, “Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important”). The comprehension with poetic elements helps students to understand a poet’s insight and helps to develop the feeling of empathy (Simmons, “Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important”; Thaler 115).

Beyond the intensive textual examination, teachers can further activate students to participate in poetry lessons by giving them a variety of drama strategies for visualizing and performing their interpretation of a poem. Drama strategies are helpful to foster the comprehension of students for poetry by using a variety of communication skills, including speaking, listening and non-verbal communication. Furthermore, the use of drama strategies has a motivational effect on students, because they receive the possibility to “represent complex themes and symbolism through performance” (Ferguson 1). The following section illustrates important drama strategies for poetry performances that can be used in poetry lessons.


Excerpt out of 24 pages


Teaching Rap in Secondary I School
A practical approach to make poetry interesting for teenagers
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England und Amerikastudien Didaktik der englischen Sprache)
Performing Poetry
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Tupac, rap, poetry, perform, secondary I school, Teaching Rap, rhyme scheme, rhetorical figure, teaching poetry, foreign language teaching
Quote paper
Filiz Malci (Author), 2019, Teaching Rap in Secondary I School, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/465739


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