What is haiku?

Haiku is a Japanese poetry form. Traditional haiku has a number of rules relating to both form and content.

Each poem consists of three lines, made up of five, seven and five syllables. The entire poem is seventeen syllables long, and can be recited in a single breath.
The first line should end in a ‘cutting’ word.
Every poem contains at least one proscribed seasonal word. These connect the poem to the natural world.
Haiku should relate personal experience and conjure up a visual image. Emotions and moods should be invoked rather than directly stated.

In modern Japanese haiku, and English language haiku, these rules may be ignored or adapted to serve the poet and his / her poetry. For example, urban haiku may not allude to nature at all. International poets may select different words to indicate the seasons.

Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.

(Richard Wright, 1998)

Translations of Japanese haiku into English often capture the mood better if the translator is not required to stick to the syllable structure too rigidly. You may agree that the second translation here is more elegant, even though it breaks the syllable rule. The writer should leave some room for the reader to develop his or her own interpretation.

furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

(Matsuo Bashô, 1686)

an ancient green pond
a frog leaps in from above
splash! the sound of water

an old pond
a frog jumps
the sound of water

Haiku for Accuracy

There are a greater variety of possible syllable patterns in English than in some other languages, including Japanese and Nepali.

Syllable Formation-2

In English, a syllable can be fronted by as many as three opening consonants.


onset – nucleus
ccc – v

Many English syllables also include a coda.


onset – nucleus – coda
c – v – c

Japanese does not allow this, and in fact almost all Japanese syllables consist of a consonant onset and a vowel nucleus. This leads Japanese speakers to add extra vowel sounds between consonants. Thus tree becomes to-ree. Speakers of languages which lack consonant clusters can benefit from the tight focus on phonology required for English haiku writing.

This tight focus can also be beneficial for both teachers and learners when working on grammatical accuracy. In a long form essay, the extent and variety of error correction is often overwhelming for students – receiving two pages of written work covered in red pen is demotivating, and most of the feedback is unlikely to lead to greater accuracy in subsequent work. Working on three line / seventeen syllable poem, however, learners can focus on prepositions, articles and auxiliary verbs within a very tight framework.

Haiku for Creativity

Traditional haiku writers may use a saijiki – a seasonal lexicon. Creating a saijiki in English is a useful activity for learners to review and recycle the English they already know before they create their own poems. Of course, teachers can ask their haiku writers to stick to a particular theme or to utilise vocabulary from a particular lexical set.

One traditional form of haiku is the haibun, a narrative broken up with haiku. Iida (2010) outlines a process from reading and interpreting the haiku of others to writing one’s own which takes a narrative / free-writing to haiku direction. Learners are asked to write freely about a moment they remember (perhaps on a particular day, to help them focus). They use these notes to create their haiku.

In haiga, poets illustrate their haiku. Either the illustration or the haiku can come first. In the classroom you may ask learners to write haiku for one another’s illustrations, or to bring a photograph from home to use as a prompt for a poem. There are many other ways in which a creative teacher can exploit the rich mental images conjured up by haiku.

Conclusions and Advice

You can choose which rules to follow and which ones to disregard, it all depends on your goal. If you want to work on pronunciation, focusing on syllable patterns seems more important. If you are more interested in working on vocabulary, then it may be better to allow more freedom.

Not every student can write an essay or a short story in English, but a three line poem is certainly achievable. What is surprising is how expressive such short poems can be.

Further Reading

Donegan, P. (2003). Haiku. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.

Higginson, W. J., & Harter, P. (1985). The haiku handbook: How to write, share, and teach haiku. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hunke, M. (2014). Spoken language in motion: Acquiring German basic rhythm and dynamic stress through haiku and tanka. ことばの世界: 愛知県立大学高等言語教育研究所年報, (6), 111-120.

Iida, A. (2008). Poetry writing as expressive pedagogy in an EFL context: Identifying possible assessment tools for haiku poetry in EFL freshman college writing. Assessing Writing 13, 171-179.

Iida, A. (2010). Developing voice by composing haiku: A social-expressivist approach for teaching haiku writing in EFL contexts. English Teaching Forum, 48(1), 28-34.

Iida, A. (2012). Writing haiku in a second language: Perceptions, attitude, and emotions of second language learners. SINO-US English Teaching 9, 1472-1485.

Lee, B. Y. (2011). The Practice of Haiku Writing in Second Language Classrooms. Komaba Journal of English Education, 2, 23-44.

Yasuda, K. (1973). The Japanese haiku: lts essential nature, history, and possibilities in English with selected examples. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.

I spoke to Dr. Folse at the 2013 JALT conference shortly after a very engaging plenary. We discussed writing and vocabulary, teacher development, and his extensive experience of both teaching and learning languages around the world. You can read more about Dr. Folse and his work at his own website. This interview is audio only.


There are more interviews to follow, and if you like this please visit the archive for more. You can subscribe via iTunes, and I would appreciate reviews there if you have time. You can also find us on Facebook and twitter.

Day three. Get up and go to pub.
Day four. By now, people in the pub should be continually getting on your nerves. Write things about them on the backs of beer mats.
Day five. Go to pub… by now guilt, drunkeness, the people in the pub and the fact you are one of them should combine to enable you to write out of sheer vexation.
Day six. If possible, stay home and write. If not, go to pub.

In a way, this is how I write. Without the drunkeness these days, but with a lot of time spent thinking, the odd scribble on the back of an envelope, and then a flurry of activity during which I bash out the entire piece on a keyboard with two fingers. That, usually, is pretty much my first and final paper draft. The other drafts are done in my head. Jack Kerouac, apparently, used to use huge rolls of newsprint which he hooked up to his modified typewriter so he could keep going until the amphetamines wore off.

I think it’s important to allow students a similar opportunity (minus the drugs and alcohol). I usually spend the first part of a writing class on ‘free writing’. There are a number of ways to approach this, but I think the key points are the following.

  1. Writers must not stop writing, use an eraser, or use a dictionary.
  2. Whatever is written is not shown to the teacher, or to any other student.
  3. Writers should not pay any attention to grammar, punctuation, handwriting, neatness, style or cohesion.

I usually give the students a few discussion questions to get them warmed up, then give them ten minutes to write about the topics they have discussed. True free writing should be about whatever the writer feels like writing about, but I like to give a loose theme to help them get started. Afterwards, the students get together to talk about what they have written. Some of them choose to read their work aloud, others give a precis, or talk about ideas which occurred to them as they were writing, but it is important that they know they are under no pressure to reveal what they actually wrote. It is essentially private. The whole process takes less than half an hour, with about ten minutes of that is the writing itself. The only thing I see is the word count they give me at the end of the semester, to show how many words they wrote each week. Of course, this increases. And after we have finished our free writing, we take out our writing homework, swap it around and start pulling it apart!

How do you write? And how do you balance fluency and accuracy work when teaching writing classes?

(If you are not familiar with Mark E. Smith, he has been the lead vocalist and only constant member of ‘The Fall‘ for more than thirty years. People often say ‘You either love them or hate them’ about bands, but I think this truly applies to ‘The Fall’… they inspire almost unmatched devotion but to many will sound like a drunk man mumbling through a megaphone while a bath full of copper piping is tipped down a staircase onto a synthesizer. Which to be fair is basically what they are.)