As we launch our new Primary English initiative #PoetryCounts, we take a look at ten reasons why we teach poetry.
If you conducted a quick book audit of what was in the school bags of your class, I would hazard a guess that poetry would be in the minority. You may find the odd collection of funny rhymes but on the whole there would be a feast of fiction, some nuggets of non-fiction but a paucity of poetry. We all value recommendations and also have a tendency to read what is familiar to us. Therefore as teachers when we use poetry with children we are modelling how to read it, building familiarity with it, and widening children’s reading horizons.
It’s a great context for learning to choose words for effect
Poetry is the distillation of language into its purest form. Each word is chosen with care and placed in the poem with pristine precision. Learning to recognise how a poet chooses words for effect opens children’s eyes to language as something more than a list of ‘wow’ words. Poetry is a place for learning technical terms such as similes, metaphor, onomatopoeia, alliteration, personification but significantly for coming to appreciate how each of these creates imagery and effect.
It encourages playfulness with language
Poets don’t just make exquisite choices at the word level. They also craft sentences with the beauty and precision of the mediaeval stone-masons. Like those masons they know that beauty is not all about ornate décor but about the foundations, trusses, buttresses and joints that hold the structure of the poem together. This means poets use sentence structure and grammar with precision. Learning about poetry at the grammatical level, learning to move clauses and phrases for impact, and to punctuate for effect are valuable lessons that can be learned through poetry.
Poetry for poetry’s sake is a wonderful and enriching thing. Teaching children to appreciate, and to write poetry, opens their eyes to the beauty of language well-formed. It is also a wonderful context in which to teach them techniques to improve their prose writing. Poetry writing is therefore a transferrable skill which is essential for good writing.
It’s a great context for learning to draft, edit and improve
When learning to choose language for effect, to move words and phrases and to consider alternative punctuation we are engaging children in the processes of drafting, editing and improving their work. This is particularly important when writing poetry with syllable rules such as Haiku, Cinquain, and Tanka. Children generally enjoy these forms and can replicate their patterns readily. By teaching them to consider effectiveness at the word and sentence level we can then support them to improve their writing. Like other aspects of poetry teaching; this is a transferrable skill.
It enables link making with spoken language
Poetry enables us to unite the reading and spoken language strands of the national curriculum. By performing poetry aloud children are given opportunities to, “speak audibly and fluently…participate in …performances…select and use appropriate registers…” (National Curriculum p.17). More importantly though, performing poetry aloud brings it alive and helps children to hear the patterns and cadences of the language choices made by poets.
With the exception of some of the longer narrative poems, most poetry is concise. This makes it perfect for those children who are daunted by, or lack the stamina for reading longer examples of prose.
It encourages links with our literary heritage
Classic poems, whether short, narrative, for reading aloud or in the head are a great way to ensure that children are exposed to the cannon of literature from our heritage. Studying classic poetry is a particularly supportive way to ensure this aspect of the curriculum is covered. It is also a strategy for providing depth and enrichment for pupils mastering reading skills’ particularly at the top of Key Stage 2.
It promotes higher order thinking skills
The way that readers respond to poetry varies: rich imagery triggers different connotations for different readers. Consequently there are often no ‘right answers’ when discussing poetry. So long as children can support their thoughts about poetry by referring to the text then they can offer a breadth of responses – frequently at the higher levels of thinking. Poetry is therefore supportive of encouraging children to think beyond the literal and into the abstract.
Whether it’s because the national curriculum tells us that pupils should ‘establish an appreciation and love of reading’ (National Curriculum p 14) or because we already believe that children should enjoy the act of reading, poetry is a part of the reading diet. Therefore just as a plate of meat and potatoes would be incomplete without a helping of vegetables; so a reading diet of fiction and facts would be incomplete without a nutritious portion of poetry.
Rachel Clarke, Director – Primary English
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