Performing poetry aloud

performing poetry aloudPerforming poetry aloud

When former secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, announced that it would be a requirement of the new curriculum for children to perform poetry aloud there appeared to be a large intake of breath from across the political spectrum aptly illustrated by the following two newspaper headlines:

Primary school children to be expected to learn and recite poetry 

Now Michael Gove wants pupils aged five to learn poetry

Three years on, and there seems to be a much calmer approach to this aspect of the national curriculum; and rightly so. Learning poetry by heart for sharing and performing is not outside the abilities of our children, and in my opinion is a positive addition to the English programme of study. To support colleagues with planning for poetry performances I have outlined the following steps for consideration:

Choose poems with strong rhythm and rhyme and where possible with repeated refrains.

When I think about teaching English with the youngest children in our school I think about texts such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Room on the Broom. Most young children are unable to read these texts for themselves but they are able to join in with them as they learn the rhythm, rhyme and pattern of the language. Whether you are choosing poems for the eldest or youngest members of the school to perform aloud think about repeated phrases, strong rhythms and supportive rhyme schemes. 

Encourage children to warm-up before performing poetry aloud

Athletes warm up before a race and actors prepare before stepping onto the stage. This means that when children are preparing an oral poetry performance they need to get their mouths, minds and bodies ready. Start by calming the children through encouraging deep breathing and by relaxing the muscles. Once they have achieved a state of calm then help them to get their mouths ready by reciting tongue twisters such as red lorry, yellow lorry.

Read the poem several times before beginning to commit it to memory

Start at the whole-class level by reading the poem together. Begin by reading the title and see if children can determine what the poem may be about. This may seem obvious but it often over-looked by adults and children alike; yet if the title is good it will be informative and the first step towards understanding the poem. Now read the poem several times with the children. Poetry is so rich that it is essential to re-read it several times to begin understanding the poet’s intentions. The first time should be for familiarisation or what I call, reading for reading. Then re-read the poem looking for unfamiliar words and phrases and begin to explore what they might mean. Next read the poem with your poetry magnifying glass and start looking for the poetic devices used by the poet.

Use a variety of oral skills to practise the words in the poem

The next stage is to begin learning the words. By this stage in the poetry-learning process you may want to move from whole-class teaching to children supporting each other by working in small groups. To do this children will need to re-read the poem several times. A technique used by actors and musicians is to repeat refrains but to change the rhythm, pitch, pace and tone of the delivery. Ways to do this with children is to ask them to read the poem quickly, then slowly, loudly, quietly… This way they come to learn the words but without the monotonous chanting that can happen when you ask them to commit something like times tables to memory.

Scaffold the learning with visual and kinaesthetic approaches to learning

Scaffolding the learning process is important for children learning poetry to perform aloud. Consider making a story map or set of visual cues to support them recall the order of events in a poem. In this way you create abstract associations between the words and images which reduces their reliance on the written words themselves. By this stage of the process you may well find that the children are able to perform poems with their visual cues and no words.

At this point you may also want to introduce some kinaesthetic actions to accompany their retellings. This is often more necessary with younger children but can also be useful to older children; and can also be used to enhance the performance by improving the children’s connection with their audience.

Consider whether you will ask children to perform solo or in groups

The children should now be ready to perform their poems. You may want to continue with a group performance or begin to encourage children to perform their poems alone. Depending on the length of poems you may want to allocate particular stanzas to individuals, pairs, groups or the whole class. It will depend on the amount of time they have been learning the poems, their confidence, and the effect that you are intending to create through the use of solo and unison voices.

Evaluate and improve the performance based on self and peer assessment

Key to their performance is self and peer evaluation. Children need to be able to assess the effectiveness of their performance, suggest amendments and act upon the advice given.

Learning poetry does not come quickly. The process described above is best tackled over a number of lessons and even a number of weeks. Little and often is definitely the most effective way for children to learn poetry for performance.

Rachel Clarke, Director – Primary English Education Consultancy Limited

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