Brian Moses: Writing with Second Language Children

One of the benefits of being a writer who visits schools is that sometimes you get invited abroad to work in International Schools. I was fortunate in making many such trips and on three occasions I worked with Spanish children in Madrid and Cordoba encouraging them to write poetry in English.

As someone who struggled with schoolboy French, being bilingual has always seemed to me to be a kind of linguistic wealth. One boy I met in Cordoba had been born in Turkey, learnt Spanish when he moved to Madrid and was now writing poetry in English.  It was all part of a day’s work to him.

I took a few ideas with me from the American poet and educationalist Kenneth Koch. He wrote a seminal book in the early seventies about getting children to write poetry – Wishes, Lies and Dreams.

In one section, he was trying to show children how knowing more than one language could be an advantage, as they would have special insights into language, rhythm, imagination and experience, being the product of two cultures.

An idea of Koch’s that I used was where we first thought of words connected with Christmas. (Fortunately this was November and the idea seemed relevant.)

I wrote the words on the board in English and then asked for their Spanish equivalents to write alongside them… star (estrella), dove (paloma) etc.

The children were then asked to invent a new holiday and write a poem about it. The holiday should have new customs, new ceremonies, new characters (like Santa Claus) and be in a new place. These new ideas could be in Spanish.

Unfortunately I’ve mislaid the examples I had but I’d like to offer one of Kenneth Koch’s:

Christmas on my planet

On my planeta named Carambona La Paloma

We have a fiesta called Luna Estrella.

A funny looking hombre comes to our homes.

He has four heads: a leon head, an oso head, a mono head

    and a culebra head.

We do a baile names Mar of Nieve.

On this fiesta we eat platos.

That’s how we celebrate Christmas on my planet.


With the youngest groups there are often a number of translation questions – How do you say this in English? Moving up the age ranges, such questions are fewer as the older children stop thinking in Spanish and then translating, and begin to think in English.

With bilingual children though I really wanted to focus on their peculiar experiences, the moving around, the going from country to country, school to school that many of them would have had.

And so another trigger could be houses.

When you left your house, what did you miss?

I tell them my experiences when I left my house by the sea and then ask for theirs.

When I left my house

I missed the sixth stair that creaked so loudly

when we trod on it at night.

I missed the family of ducks

that appeared in the lane each Spring.

I missed…

A structure like this also promotes rhythm through repetition of ….I missed, and works with anything you leave behind… street, town, school etc

I tried reversing this too, with children thinking about the fresh insights they have gained from moving to a new country.

Before I moved here

I had never seen…

I had never tasted…

I had never smelt…

One final idea that I used with the very young ones:

Brian Moses

Brian Moses writes poetry and picture books for children. His new poetry book Selfies With Komodos has just been published by Otter-Barry Books and a new collection, On Poetry Street will be available from Scallywag Press in February 2024. His website is and he blogs about children’s writing at Follow on twitter for daily poetry prompts @moses_brian