How to get your class to perform a poem

Performing poetry? Isn’t that a bit elitist? A teacher once said to me how performing poetry was very “public school”. How much farther from the truth could you get?
There is no better way to get children animated and excited about a poem than performing it. Here are a few tips:
1. Divide the poem into verses. Ask pairs or groups of children to perform (not read) their couple of lines.
2. Ask children to decide how to perform the lines. You could put these questions on the board:
Loud or quiet?
Fast or slow?
Serious or funny?
Silly voices or normal voices?
One voice at a time or everyone together?
Should you add actions or drama?
Do you need sound effects?
Which words should you exaggerate?
3. Move towards a smooth and powerful class performance. Film it, or edit parts together. Or create a sound picture of the poem by recording the audio with special effects.
4. Film it and put it on the school website.
5. Perform it for a parents’ assembly or in front of the rest of the school. If there’s a repeated chorus, get the whole school to join in.

There is an excellent website, called Perform-a-Poem, organised by Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, giving many tips on getting children to perform poetry. Do check it out! Here is a super example from the Perform-a-Poem website on how a poem can be performed.

Here are some CBBC stars performing poems:

Here is Michael Rosen performing Chocolate Cake:

Here are some children performing poetry. Your class could watch these and suggest how the performance could be improved.


A Chance in France by Pie Corbett

A Chance in France

corbettI really like this poem by Pie Corbett, a great educationalist who is passionate about writing fiction and prose. This poem uses wordplay to stretch the imagination of children – and is pretty handy, too, in finding out how much they know about the world and its cities and countries.

Following the recommendation from mum to ‘stay at home’, the poet seeks to be more ambitious and courageous by heading first for France, neatly rhymed internally with France. From then on, we have a destination partnered with a rhyme – day/St Tropex, did/Madrid, tussels/Brussels. Here is how the poem begins:

‘Stay at home,’
Mum said,
But I took a chance in France,
turned grey for the day in St Tropez,
forgot what I did in Madrid,
had some tussels in Brussels
with a trio from Rio,
lost my way in Bombay,
nothing wrong in Hong Kong,
felt calmer in Palma,
and quite nice in Nice,
yes, felt finer in China,…

You can read the whole text of the poem here:

Here is a video of Pie Corbett talking about writing poetry. It does not relate specifically to the task above, but gives you an idea of the man and his passion for writing.

Suggested activities
1. Begin with a class reading or performance. For advice on how to do this most effectively, follow this link.
2. Then break the poem up and give pairs one line to analyse each. Give out atlases or use the internet to research the place mentioned. Where is it? How do they speak there? What is it famous for? How long would it take to get there? What might it feel like to live there?
3. Then ask children to add more lines, perhaps using places they have been on holiday or would like to visit. Add these lines on and shuffle them about to get the best effect. Move towards a new version of the poem, all written by the children.
4. Make a class performance of the new poem and entertain the rest of the school with it at assembly. Perhaps you could do a wall display with pictures of all the places mentioned.

How to organise a poetry competition in a primary school

cropped-books.jpgAn English teacher once said to me that she didn’t have poetry reading competitions because they were “too public school”. She might do well to reflect on the words of Maya Angelou who said:

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”

Reading a poem is a wonderful thing and can bring it to life. But reciting a poem from heart is so much more powerful.

This is how I organised a very simple poetry reading competition in a primary school Year 5 classroom. I think it filled about a 45-minute slot over a period of three or four weeks.

Lesson 1

Announce the competition. This will be a poetry performance contest. Children must learn a poem by heart and perform it. The rest of the class will be the judges, scoring the performance on clarity and meaning. There will be prizes for the winners! Invite a guest judge such as the headteacher or teaching assistant.

Raid your school library for as many poetry books as possible. Provide a huge range for your children to choose from. Include silly language play poems, limericks, fun verses: but also feature serious poems about the environment, war, historic events and other social issues. If you school does not have a supply of poetry books, then shame on them.

Divide the children into pairs, or let them choose partners if you are comfortable with that. Then allow everyone to browse through the books and select one that appeals to them. Give them 15 minutes or so to choose a poem which they are going to have to learn by heart and perform in front of the class. Share the choices. Allow the pairs time to get familiar with reading the words and working out how they will perform it.

Will they read it all together? Alternate lines? Think about loud, soft, mysterious voices. Will there be movement or drama? Will they need props (they almost always do!)? Encourage a varied performance that will capture people’s attention.

Provide copies of the poems for children to take home and learn. Suggest that they annotate the poems in coloured pens.

Lesson Two

Rehearsal time. Reinforce the rules of the competition and give the children time to run through their performances again. The poems do not need to be long – a limerick might suffice – but the performances do need to be word perfect. There may be time in this lesson to begin the performances. You will probably have about 15 poems in all. Invite volunteers for who would like to start. They must introduce the poem with the title and the name of the poet.

Lesson Three

The competition continues. Ensure children are reflecting on both the clarity of the performance and how well the performers convey the meaning of the poem. Give everyone a chance to tall up their marks at the end and then collect the voting papers. You might wish to show some poetry performances (such as John Agard’s Poetry Jump Up) to inspire the children or to fill time whilst you count the ballot papers. Announce the results and award the prizes! Why not get some of the winners to perform their poems in assembly or for parents at a half-term assembly.

Everyone in the class has been involved in this competition. It is not elitist. It is not “public school”. Poetry is for everyone and can be enjoyed by everyone!

Website support

There is an excellent website, called Perform-a-Poem, organised by Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, giving many tips on getting children to perform poetry. Do check it out! Here is a super example from the Perform-a-Poem website on how a poem can be performed.

Challenge your class to write a poem containing five devices

I wanted to revise poetic devices with my class, so I challenged them to write a poem about their favourite place. It had to contain:

a simile
a metaphor
– an idiom

I asked them to label them in different colours and be prepared to share them with the rest of the class. This was rather a false situation and was unlikely to produce great poetry, but I just wanted them to think about different devices and varying their approach to writing.

To get the class going, I showed them a picture of my lounge, along with this poem, written by me. Not great, but containing everything I wished to highlight:

My favourite place

I am going to the place
Where I feel safe,
Rows of books like teeth in a big smile,
The red sofas a huge hug waiting for me,
Crazy cushions cover every corner,
The coffee table complains under the
Weight of paper, pens, toys and cups;
A place of peace, a window on the world.
When I’ve got the blues I return to
My favourite room.

How to write your first poem

I learned this technique at university. It is fairly straightforward, and any child can attempt it. The process can also produce a wide variety of poetry on many different levpoetry-events-for-kidsels. This is a good way to begin a series of lessons in which children will be writing poetry. They will probably think writing poetry is difficult (and has to rhyme!). This should show them it is fairly easy. See what you think.

The activity

1. Give each child a blank piece of A4 paper and a pencil. Ask them to write their name in the centre of the piece of paper and draw a circle around it.

2. Now ask children to write down around their name, and branching out from it, any different roles they play in their lives. For instance, they could write son, sister, cousin, gymnast, swimmer, guide, friend, Lego modeller, skateboarder, puzzler, grand-daughter etc. Ask them to write about eight to ten words. If they struggle, model it yourself on the board. (Inevitably you will get the ‘footballer’ description, but remember this will be one of ten). Share some of the results, giving children who have only written a few time to add extra ideas.

3. Now the teacher must model turning each of those descriptions into a line in a poem. For instance, if they have written ‘brother’, the line could be:

I am the brother who cleans out the hamster

Each line will be in the pattern of:

I am the xxxxx who xxxxxxxxxxxx

Here are some more examples:

I am the daughter who cares for her granny,

I am the swimmer who jumps from the diving board,

I am the chess player who checkmates my dad

4. I suggest you model a few lines in a poem about yourself, taking each of the headings in turn. The last line of the poem simply will refer to the child themselves: I am John. Please avoid rhyming as this can lead to some terribly forced vocabulary. There is a time and place for rhyming, but this isn’t it!

The results

You should end up with poems of eight to ten lines, each starting I am. When I have tried this in classrooms, the result has been a wide variety of poems, some silly, some very basic, but others quite moving.

The lesson could conclude with children performing their poems to their partner, as a rehearsal, and then to the whole class. Tell the children that they have begun to discover their own poetic voices.

Please, no colouring

What is it about poetry that seems to end up with every poem written by children being decorated? We don’t decorate essays or comprehension! Allow the words to speak for themselves. They don’t need pretty pictures round them!

An example lesson of getting pupils to write poems

This is another extract from my dissertation. It describes just one poetry lesson, based on a wonderful poem, Alone in the Grange, by Gregory Harrison which can be found in Pyott, L (ed), (1985), The Possum Tree: 161 poems for children. London: A&C Black. 

7.1 On my final year placement, I managed to negotiate a lesson to try to put into practice some of the approaches I had learnt about during my dissertation. I was teaching a mixed Year 5/6 class. In the end, I was left with one lesson for poetry so I decided to use one of my favourite poems, ‘Alone in the Grange’ by Gregory Harrison, about a mysterious old man who lives in an old shuttered house. It has a distinctive pattern beginning:

Is the little old man
Who lives in the Grange.
And they say that he keeps
A box full of gold.

I began by asking the children simply to read it through. I then invited four children to the front to read a verse each. I wanted the children to become familiar with the text before they started to discuss its meaning, so I continued by asking them to come up with different ways of saying the key words such as strange, old and soft. I encouraged them to use different voices and emphases.

7.2 I then asked children to work in pairs to consider: If the poet were to walk in the room now, what would you ask him? The responses were written on post-it notes and I read these out to the whole class. Many children wanted to know whether the old man was real, who it was based on, and whether he was really a magician. Others wished to know why he was lonely. I collected the notes together and stuck them on the board – and later referred to them as possible answers to the questions emerged from the lesson. I then asked children to work in groups to come up with a description of the old man using their own words. This produced some interesting and imaginative answers. One group thought the man looked like Gollum from ‘Lord of the Rings’, and another said he was more like Yoda from the ‘Star Wars’ films, so I asked one of the Year 6 pupils to find pictures on the internet and display them on the whiteboard.

7.3 We discussed the different ideas and I made a spidergram on the board of vocabulary to describe the old man. In literacy, I like to use children’s suggestions to make a visible wordbank. This particularly helps children of lower ability to get started, and I make a point of saying I do not mind anyone ‘stealing’ words from the board. I then modelled an opening to my poem, staying close to the structure used by Gregory Harrison. I wrote my own first verse, explaining my thought processes and making alterations and improvements as I progressed. I then asked the class to offer comments or suggestions to make it better, and made further changes. I wished to emphasise the importance of writing a first draft and then changing and improving it.

7.4 I then asked children to use their rough books to construct their own opening verses. Given the short time limit for the lesson, I suggested they keep to Harrison’s structure: in a longer series of lessons, I would have given children more freedom. I also made it clear I did not expect the poem to rhyme, although some still insisted on trying.

7.5 I was very impressed by many of the contributions. A very low ability girl, after a short one-to-one discussion with me, came up with:

Is the worthless old man
Who lives in the grey empty school house.

One of the most pleasing pieces of work was from a lower ability Year 5 boy who began his poem:

Is the manky man
In the mysterious house.

His poem went on to talk about the man’s grumpy dog, and his mad wife ‘who he killed with a knife’. This boy rarely completes work in literacy, but he had finished four verses of his poem and gone on to illustrate the work.

A higher ability Year 6 came up began with some fairly deep characterisation which posed plenty of questions for the reader:

Is the troubled man
Who never stops to say hello.

One of my favourite poems came from a lower ability Year 5 boy who often struggled with writing but was often able to come up with unusual ideas and images. He called his poem ‘The Curse’:

Is the man
Who eats marshmallows.
Blood red,
Blood red,
Is the colour of his burning eyes.
Is his glare which haunts his victims.
Is his curse that comes when the moon is full.
Is his dark fur which is stained with blood.
Is what he’s been looking for, ever since it happened.

7.6 Considering there was only an hour for this topic, I was very impressed with the overall quality of the poems written. I was particularly pleased that many of the most interesting images came from lower ability children, not known for the quality of their writing, or for completing tasks in normal lesson time. I could have improved the lesson by giving more time to immersing children in poetry – perhaps sharing with them several poems on the same theme, before moving on to Harrison’s. I could also have begun the lesson with an arresting image of a strange old man and asked children to brainstorm ideas before introducing the poem. I did manage to find time later in the week for children to make final copies of their poems. By this stage, I had been able to give written feedback to them on their first drafts. The final versions were free from crossings out and would have been suitable to put into a class anthology.

Five simple rules for writing a poem

These are five simple rules for writing a poem. You could give these to children before they put pen to paper. I am indebted to Dunn, Styles and Warburton (1987, p.32) for these ideas.

1. It doesn’t have to rhyme

2. Start a new line when you pause

3. Say something fresh

4. Ordinary things make good poetry

5. Every word must count.


I might add the following:

Tell the children that their poem must NOT rhyme today! Tell them to ignore every rule they have been taught about writing prose (forget punctuation, capital letters, the need for full sentences). Write from the heart. Write about what matters to you. Be angry or funny or mysterious. Make up words if you wish to!

As a teacher you could then follow this pattern:

The first draft is then discussed in pairs.

Some poems are read out.

The teacher gives spoken feedback to each child.

The class talks about how to improve their poems.

Pupils have a chance to write a second draft.

Reference: Dunn, J., Styles, M., Warburton, N., (1987) In tune with yourself: children writing poetry – a handbook for teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

How to teach personification

  1. Read a variety of poems to the class. Some will include personification but do not draw the pupils’ attention to this.
  2. Choose a poem that includes personification. Split it into parts. Divide the children into groups and give each a verse which they must learn, rehearse and perform to the class with actions and sound effects. Put all these together into a class performance.
  3. Discuss the poem using open-ended questions, such as those suggested by Michael Rosen.
  4. Then allow the children to choose a favourite poem and read it to their partners. Then combine pairs into fours and have them read out their poems again, discussing why they chose them. Some could also read them out to the whole class.
  5. Read out some short personification poems, asking the children to guess what they describe.
  6. Challenge the children to write personification poems in pairs and to perform them to the rest of the class who must say what they are about.
  1. Show the children a dramatic picture of, for instance, the sea, such as Turner’s Snow Storm – Steamboat off a harbour’s mouth, or show them a video clip of an angry sea, such as from the film The Perfect Storm or Titanic. Play them some sea sound effects or music inspired by the sea. Ask them to brainstorm how the sea is feeling, and then how a lone ship might be feeling. Make a list of key vocabulary.
  2. The teacher models the writing of the first verse of a poem about the angry sea. This includes reading, correcting and improving. He/ she then acts as scribe to create a second verse through shared writing.
  3. Children then move to independent writing of poetry. The teacher tells the children they will write a first draft today. Writing frames should be avoided except, perhaps, for lower ability children or those with special needs. The teacher could mention the five simple rules for writing a poem, suggested by Dunn, Styles and Warburton (1987, p.32) – it doesn’t have to rhyme, start a new line when you pause, say something fresh, ordinary things make good poetry, and every word must count. The first draft is then discussed in pairs. Some are read out. The teacher gives written feedback to each child. The class talks about how to improve their poems and pupils have a chance to write a second draft.
  4. After further feedback, the children use ICT to type up a final version of their poems, locating dramatic sea pictures on the internet. The completed poems are placed in either a class poetry anthology or on a school website for parents to read. A selection of the poems is read out at assembly.

25 things to do with a poem

Things to do with a poem

  1. Start with a prose version.
  2. Turn the poem into dialogue and act it out.
  3. Turn written ballads into songs.
  4. Watch videos of poet performing it or listen to a recording.
  5. Add sound effects and instruments, movement or dance.
  6. Turn it into a class performance – create a powerful, dramatic reading.
  7. Find out if pop songs make good poetry. Try When I Was A Youngster by Rizzle Kicks.
  8. Record a group reading of a poem.
  9. Turn it into animation or create some art.
  10. Make cross curricular links – such as history, science or ICT.
  11. Research the poet’s life with ICT and present in groups.
  12. Start with pictures or photos rather than the poem itself, eg a powerful picture of The Charge of the Light Brigade.
  13. Get children to annotate a big copy of the poem.
  14. Read it aloud to the children with their eyes shut.
  15. Read it once a day for a week, but only discuss it on Friday.
  16. Imagine a photograph or film of the poem.
  17. Cut it up and get the children to re-arrange it in order. Or cut three poems up, on a similar theme, and ask the children to find others in the class with parts of their poem.
  18. Create illustrations – then add words to the pictures.
  19. Start with a line drawing then create a calligram.
  20. Give children lots of words and ask children to put them in a drawing.
  21. Read it aloud – in pairs, in groups, with actions, with freezeframes or video stills where the film can move forward or back.
  22. Write a class poem – with teacher as scribe. Use dictionaries and a thesaurus.
  23. Continue the poem in the same style.
  24. Tackle the punctuation by only stopping reading when punctuation is reached.
  25. The teacher could start reading the poem in a whisper and invite children to join in with parts.

Some ideas taken from Morgan, M, (2001), How to teach poetry writing at Key Stage 2. London: David Fulton, Catt, R., (2000), ‘Jolly good I said’: using poetry with older children in Fisher, R and Williams, M (ed) (2000), Unlocking Literacy: A Guide for Teachers. London: David Fulton.

How to start a poetry lesson

I used to start my poetry lessons in exactly the same way. I used the poem Poetry Jump Up by the brilliant John Agard. I would show the video below (which can be found on YouTube). At first, the children enjoyed watching it, especially the funny moments. After a few weeks, they were joining in with it and anticipating the (slightly!) rude words towards the end. By the end of the term, they knew most of the poem by heart. If I tried to vary the beginning, I would get complaints that they didn’t have Poetry Jump Up. I found this video was suitable for anyone from Year 2 to Year 6. If you have different beginnings to poetry lessons, I would be interested to hear your suggestions. (You will need to double click on this link to watch it.)

Find out more about John Agard here, and listen to him reading another of his poems.

Question cards for poetry lessons

What could the title of this poem be?Why do you think that? Is there anything about this poem that reminds you of anything that has happened to you or anyone you know? Why? 
Is there anything about this poem that reminds you of anything you’ve ever read before or seen on tv or in a film? How? Why?  Are there any questions you would like to ask about this poem? What?
What if you could ask the writer of the poem some questions? What would they be?  What if you could ask anyone or anything in the poem some questions – what would they be?
If you were making a film of this poem, describe how the film would begin.  Which is your favourite line in this poem? Be ready to explain why.
Make a quick sketch of this poem. Draw in the characters and the setting. Be ready to explain your reasons.  Why did the poet bother to write this poem? What has he or she achieved?

Some poems I have tried with classes

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But here are a few of the poems which I have tried with various primary classes. Some are modern, some are classics, some rhyme – but many don’t. However, they are all interesting and thought-provoking. I would be interested in your own suggestions.

Alone in the Grange by Gregory Harrison
Don’t Call Alligator Long-Mouth till You crossed River by John Agard
The Adventures of Isabel by Ogden Nash
Everyone Sang by Siegfried Sassoon
Poetry Jump-Up by John Agard
Tiananmen by John Fenton
The Gresford Disaster by Anonymous
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
The Streets of London by Ralph McTell
According to My Mood by Benjamin Zephaniah
My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear by Charles Causley
The Theft by Carol Ann Duffy
The Busker by Benjamin Zephaniah
The Shoes by John Mole
In just spring by E E Cummings
De Rap Guy by Benjamin Zephaniah
What is Orange? by Mary O’Neill
F for Fox by Carol Ann Duffy
Peggy Guggenheim by Carol Ann Duffy
On Turning Ten by Billy Collins
I’m just going out by Michael Rosen
The Great Lover by Rupert Brooke
I believe by Benjamin Zephaniah
The Loch Ness Monster’s Song by Edwin Morgan
The Moon by Robert Louis Stevenson
Timothy Winters by Charles Causley

Questions you can ask about a poem

200px-Michael_Rosen.jpg (200×288)

The brilliant poet Michael Rosen, an inspiration to so many schoolchildren, has suggested the following questions which could be asked about any poem presented to a class. Why not give different groups one of these questions, printed on a card, to discuss with the poem:

1. Is there anything about this poem that reminds you of anything that has ever happened to you or anyone you know? How does it remind you? Why?

2. Is there anything about this poem that reminds you of anything you’ve ever read before or seen on TV or in a film? How? Why?

3. Are there any questions you would like to ask about this poem? What?

4. What if you could ask the writer of the poem some questions? What would they be?

5. What if you could ask anyone or anything in the poem some questions what would they be?