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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

A Writing Lesson Using Korean Poetry: Sijo

Michael Free holds Masters’ degrees in TEFL (University of Birmingham) and Arts (McMaster University). His professional interests include educational leadership, Content-based Language Teaching and English as a lingua franca. He is very active in professional development, currently serving in several positions in Korea TESOL ( KOTESOL): Chair of the 2020 International Conference Envisioning With Your Students, Chair of the Teacher of the Year Award committee, and Treasurer of the Gangwon Chapter. He is a Visiting Professor at Kangwon National University in Chuncheon, South Korea. Email:



Sijo (sometimes spelled shijo, and pronounced /she-joe/ is one of the oldest forms of Korean poetry). It is similar, at least on the surface, to Japanese haiku, which are possibly better-known. Originally, they were not meant to be read, but sung. There are a few reasons why sijo can be very effective as a basis for a writing lesson: First, they’re short. This brevity allows a near-certainty that students will be able to produce one in a single lesson. Second, writers have to pay close attention to the number of syllables in each line, and in each of the four divisions of each line. This is particularly important to me when I’m teaching Korean students, as syllable structure in Korean is very different from that of English and frequently causes students trouble. However, even if your students don’t find syllables problematic, the constraints of the structure provide something of a challenge that will need to be overcome. Finally, sijo require creative thinking, especially when it comes to the last line. I’ve found that the technical challenge of the syllabic constraints is, as I’ve said elsewhere, “subsumed into the creative process” (Free and White, 2016: 16).

You may wonder: Do you need to become an expert in sijo in order to have an engaging and informative lesson on this wonderful genre? Not at all! You will need to acquaint yourself with at least the basics, however. In addition to the information given here, there’s also the obvious choice of Wikipedia. I would also suggest looking over The Sejong Cultural Society’s materials. If you fall in love, which you may, consider getting a copy of Kevin O’Rourke’s The Book of Korean Shijo from your library (or buy your own copy!). Those, and other resources, are listed at the conclusion of this article.


General structure

A typical sijo is three lines long. It has the writer introduce the topic (line 1) and subsequently develop it in what’s called “the turn” (line 2). The third line begins with “the twist,” where the reader is taken in an unexpected direction. The final part of the line concludes the poem. Here’s an English example, from a grade 1 middle school class I worked with. The forward slashes indicate subdivisions and the bold words show “the twist”:


Couple rings. / Couple necklace. / Couple shirts. / Happy darling!

Honeymoon. / Make twin babies. / OMG! / That’s ok, lady!

UGLY BABIES!! / We’ll get a divorce. / Bye-bye babies. / I’m so sad.

— Grade 1, Moongok Middle School



The following details the number of syllables allowed in each part of each line. For each division (ku), the standard number is followed in parentheses by the minimum and maximum allowed. Cho Yunche provides a detailed outline of the syllabic structure (in O’Rourke, 2002: 3):

  Chang (line)    1 ku (division)     2 ku                  3 ku               4 ku

1st                  3 (2-4)           4 (4-6)          4, 3 (2-5)        4 (4-6)

2nd                 3 (1-4)           4 (3-6)          4, 3 (2-5)        4 (4-6)

3rd                  3 (3)              5 (5-9)          4 (4-5)            3 (3-4)

In the example from the grade 1 class, the problem of syllables was solved (or perhaps avoided) by having short sentences. Is this ok? I think so, even if it means my death and resurrection, such as in the work of the grade 3 class:

“The Death of Michael Free”

I’m so sad. / My teacher died. / I miss him. / Michael Free’s dead.

I loved him. / Come back to me. / I miss you. / I need you, Free.

HE CAME BACK!! / He’s a zombie now. / He will kill me. / I will die.

                                               — Grade 3, Moongok Middle School


Notes on the lesson plan

A tabular, quick-reference version of the lesson plan is downloadable as a PDF. The following notes will fill it out, so that teachers wanting to use it can know if, and where, they’ll need to make adjustments.  The plan should work, with minor adaptations, for classes of middle or high school. It’s possible to use sijo to teach YLs, but that would require some rethinking of this particular plan. For adults and university students as well, the lesson would again have to be reworked, though, as ever, it depends on your specific teaching situation. Furthermore, some sections can be removed depending on your goals. Overall, I think sijo can be used effectively at most levels. I’ve set the theoretical class time at 60 minutes, but you may need to expand it. As ever, feel free to do as your context demands.


Warm-up: Introducing Sijo (5 minutes)

When I’ve taught writing using sijo, I haven’t had really had to introduce it, as it’s Korean and so the students don’t (usually) need a general introduction. For non-Koreans, a short video will do the trick. I would suggest either Cheongsanri or the shorter Moonlight Pear Blossoms. The purpose here is generate some interest, and give them something of a preview of the topic.


2 Famous examples: Teacher-led / Individual work / video (5 minutes)

My Korean students, even in middle school, have usually studied sijo, if only briefly. So, with them I can ask them which poems they know. With non-Koreans, chances are slim that students know about sijo at all, let alone being able to name or recite one. This, then, would be the place to give students a brief explanation of what they are (in addition to the lesson objectives). I would suggest showing students either one of these two poems, or both (if you have time). My inclination would be to use Cheongsanri as both the warm-up and the example, but it’s up to you. The author of both the sijo below is the famous Hwang Jin-I, who was the subject of both a feature film (2007) and TV series (2006). Whatever the case, you can have the students see the 3-line structure clearly in the Korean version and get the content from the English translation.

청산리 벽계수야  (Cheongsanri - The Blue Waters)

청산리 벽계수야 수이 감을 자랑마라

일도 창해하면 다시 오기 어려웨라

명월이 만공산하니 쉬어간들 어떠리.


Green water, do not boast of your rapid flow from the blue mountain.

It is hard to return when you’ve reached the blue sea.

A full moon graces these peaceful hills. Won't you rest awhile?


동지달 기나긴 밤을  (A Winter Night)

동지달 기나긴 밤을 한 허리를 버혀 내여

춘풍 이불 아래 서리허리 넣었다가

어른 님 오신 날 밤이여드란 구부구비 펴리라


I will break the back of this long, midwinter night,

Folding it double, cold beneath my spring quilt,

That I may draw out the night, should my love return.



Themes: Class discussion (5 minutes)

If you’d like, you can spend a few minutes discussing the themes of these two poems, or poetry in general with your students, to find out their degree of background knowledge and initial opinions. If not, you can head straight into the structure.

Structure (10 minutes)

Any description of sijo’s structure must answer three questions:

1. How many lines?

2. How many divisions in each line?

3. How many syllables in each division?

As I’m in Korea, teaching Koreans, students can deduce the structure for themselves. They are given a standard-form, authentic sijo (in Korean) and asked to answer the above three questions. They are usually quick and consistent in answering the first. With the second, there is typically a range of answers (some students see bigger chunks of language, others go straight to syllables), which later get consolidated. The third question is as easy as the first, though there are more numbers.

If you’re teaching non-Korean speakers, matters are more difficult. The answer to the first question is still easy. The second question though, is impossible, unless you speak Korean. English translations have different syllable counts than the original. Contemporary English-language sijo (you can see some examples here), don’t always follow the original syllabic restrictions. The third question, therefore, is also impossible. In the interests of getting to the writing, simply present Cho’s table and explain how it works to the students. This is less engaging in my view, but it can be done quickly, and so open up more time for writing.


Writing:  All — Some — 1  (<15 students) / 3-2-1 (15+ students) / [30 minutes]

The introduction to the writing stage involves returning to the idea of the theme of the poem, then describing the general purpose of each line: introduction, development, twist, and conclusion. I usually do a walk-through with the whole class. With small classes, you can begin together:



1. Pick a theme.

2. Make up as many sentences as possible.

3. Select sentences that can be used for lines 1 and 2. Ask: Does it introduce or develop?

4. Make the twist! Tell them: Do something unexpected!

5. End. Ask them: What happens after the twist? How does it end?

6. Review: Check that the parts and syllables are within the limits.


Some. Then, I break the class into groups (3-4 students). They work together, repeating the process with the teacher acting as facilitator and resource.

1. Finally, if time allows, students can write their own individual sijo. They repeat the process  individually. The teacher again acts as facilitator and resource.


This variation, useful with more advanced classes, has them repeat the above process 3 times, with 1 student removed each time. Depending on the level, you can replace the ‘3’ with ‘All’.



Post-writing you can have students look at each other’s poems, and perhaps even have a discussion of the themes or issues that they raise. A grade 2 class, for instance, had a very interesting twist:


“The Breakup”

I met him.  / He’s a kind man. / He was handsome. / We fell in love.

We went to mountains. / We went to oceans. / We kissed each other. / We dreamt of the future.

He is transgender! / I’ll not send her away. / I will marry her. / Still, we love.

Grade 2, Moongok Middle School


This led us into an interesting conversation about love and gender (which was kept PC, of course). Depending on your specific context and goals, such a twist can open the door to important topics that would otherwise not be addressed.


Presenting student work

Last, but not least — don’t forget to let everyone see the students’ work! Post it on the classroom wall, hallway, school website, teacher blog, or wherever you can find the space!


The lesson plan


*Students will learn about a traditional Korean poetic form, sijo, with respect to both its cultural background and structure.

*They will compare sijo to forms of poetry with which they are familiar via a group discussion.

*They will develop demonstrate and develop their sense of how words are structured at the syllabic level.

*They will make use of the above, plus their creative faculties, to write a sijo of their own.


60-minute Lesson Plan: Sijo

Lesson Stage




Resources / notes



Get Ss engaged with a performance of sijo

Watch video (whole class)

Watch Ss

Moonlight Pear Blossoms” , Cheongsanri

Introduction to sijo


Provide general information on sijo + lesson objectives

Listen (whole class)

Presents general information

“General Info” and / or other material from resources.


Famous sijo


Provide two more examples, which can serve as reference points

Select students read examples aloud ; all students read both poems

Select students

Hwang Jini

Display for entire lesson if possible

Poetic Themes


Discuss typical themes of poetry

Draw on their own background knowledge / experience with poetry ;

Facilitates discussion ; elicits typical poetic themes (love, nature, etc.)




Describe the syllabic structure of sijo. Critical elements: syllables + twist

Students listen.

Presents the structure to the students.

May need more time.



Write a sijo!

*Choose theme

*Outline ‘story’

*Write sentences (syllables!)

*Create a ‘twist’

Students work in small groups, pairs, or individually (as teacher prefers)

Facilitates ; helps where necessary

Can be its own lesson, or done as homework.


Examine products ; discuss

Look at other students’ work; discuss if desired

Facilitates ; leads discussion




Finch, A. E. (2003). Using poems to teach English. Retrieved from

Free, M. and Yuri Angie White. Creating writing with Sijo. The English Connection, Spring 2016, Vol. 20/1,16-19.

Lee, H. (2014). Inquiry-based teaching in second and foreign language pedagogy. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 5(6), 1236-1244. doi:10.4304/jltr.5.6.1236-1244.

McCann, D. R. (1976). The structure of the Korean sijo. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 36, 114-134.

O'Rourke, K. (2006). The book of Korean poetry: Songs of Shilla and Koryŏ. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.

O'Rourke, Kevin. (2002). The book of Korean shijo. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.

Villamil, O., & de Guerrero, M. (1996). Peer revision in the L2 classroom: Socio-cognitive activities, mediating strategies, and aspects of social behavior. Journal of Second Language  Writing, 5, 51-75.

Widdowson, H. (1975). Stylistics and the teaching of literature (1st ed.). London, UK: Longman.


Web Resources on Sijo


Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the CLIL for Secondary course at Pilgrims website

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