Poetry can be a fantastic learning tool and a powerful vehicle of expression. Some of us have had good experiences with poetry; others have been put off by bad experiences (a few of you will already be having flashbacks of fifth-form English teachers cramming obscure poems down your throat!). Even when I was at University doing an English degree, many of the English students admitted that they were intimidated by poetry studies. I believe poetry is often under-utilised because of the many preconceptions surrounding it.
But if we embrace the slight mystery of poetry, the fact that its creation and meaning cannot be whittled down to a formula, the fact that poets love experimenting with language and form, we can then appreciate poetry more and use it as an incredible medium for children (and teenagers, and adults!) to enjoy reading and writing. Over the years I've seen so many students, in schools and home education, connecting with poetry in dynamic ways, even if they have been reluctant writers or readers.
Here are the reasons why I'm such a big fan of using poetry in education (and in general):
1. Poetry can suit any learning style
If your child or student isn't a sit-at-a-desk kind of learner, poetry could be the ideal way to get them engaged. Poems are great for kinaesthetic learners because children can create poems by cutting out shapes on card and writing in the middle (a shape poem). Poems generally don't take up much space, so children could be encouraged to do artwork on the page surrounding their poems (drawing, colouring, collage, etc). For those who learn best by listening and speaking, fun exercises can include memorising and reciting a favourite rhyming poem (maybe even get children to 'tag-team' reciting lines of the poem with actions, puppets or dress-up to accompany it). Putting on a family or class show could be a way to engage auditory learners. If a poem rhymes, the sound can also help young children to understand the phonetics of English; how sounds are similar and different. Reciting a poem out loud together, knowing when a rhyming word is coming, can help children to feel included and more confident in reading or speaking out loud in front of others even if they aren't fluent readers yet. Poetry is, of course, also a great thing to read quietly from a book on a rainy day; it can be as quiet or loud as you want!
2. It's a non-threatening activity for reluctant readers and writers
Poetry is generally easier to read than prose (sentences, paragraphs). The words don't go right across the page, there are less words in a poem than in a story (generally) and there are often visuals that go along with poems in books. This means poetry can be an ideal entry-point for children who are reluctant to read or write, or who have had negative experiences in these areas due to learning disabilities. In terms of writing, poems don't have to rhyme and the simplest poem may just have one word on each line - a list. Children can also connect their everyday experiences with poetry, so writing can be seen as a way of expressing their excitement as they explore the world rather than a chore to be done (see point 4 for more details). Poetry gives children permission to embrace their silly side (making up words, using phrases in ways that they wouldn't usually be used, etc - check out the 'slithy toves' and 'borograves' of Jaberwocky by Lewis Carroll, a classic). Diving into poetry is a great way to take the focus off the 'rules' of writing and enter into the fun of it!
3. Poetry encourages quality word choice and a wider vocabulary
Sometimes children get the idea that the more they write, the better, and they'll pat themselves on the back for writing a 'long' story rather than a short one. If they can write a five page story, that's great, but it's also great to step back and sometimes do exercises that promote quality rather than just quantity. Poetry allows us to focus on quality word choice. When reading poems, it's helpful to talk about any new or unusual words that are noticed and perhaps add these new words to a 'word bank' (a vocab list) that children can keep somewhere visible. You may want to even create extension activities around these new words so that the child can remember them long-term and perhaps use them in their own writing. When a child is creating his or her own poem, it's often a good idea to brainstorm ideas first. This will allow the child to make more thoughtful and effective word choices, and perhaps focus on a particular word group - for example, you may want to make a poem out of a list of adjectives, encouraging the child to pick only the 'best' adjectives that they feel will describe the subject of their poem.
4. Flexibility: connection with our daily lives, learning through play, and unique interests
Poetry is such a flexible genre in terms of structure and content. Poems can be written about literally anything. If children are inexperienced with writing, they can begin to learn that writing connects directly with their own day-to-day lives. Poems don't have to be about flowers and rainbows. I've taught poetry lessons where students have written about anything from cows to dinosaurs to spiders to places they love to visit. Poems can be imaginary, so children who love creating fiction will be able to invent or envision their own scenes, animals, etc. Alternatively, poetry can be based on observation and experiences. Most children love to go outside, taking a clipboard or tablet with them, writing down ideas about objects or things they notice in the world around them (or dictating to a parent or teacher). They can then come inside and 'construct' their poem based on the brainstormed ideas.
I hope this article has been helpful - I've been facilitating workshops and tutorials in Creative Writing for over ten years, and I'm always amazed at just how excited kids get about gathering ideas and writing poems! So even if poetry is not your 'thing', be encouraged to give it a go!
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