The importance of poetry
This is an extract from my dissertation: Which is the best way to teach poetry?
2.1 Poetry is ‘not the new rock’n’roll, it was the first rock’n’roll’ (Wilson, 1998, p.3). It helps us understand ourselves and others better, to grow as people, and teaches us how to live (Dunn, Styles and Warburton, 1987, p.134). Poetry ‘lends shape and meaning to our experiences’, (DfES, 1987 cited in Ofsted, 2007, p.6). It gives children an opportunity to move from everyday, familiar language to ‘an engagement with compressed ideas, connotation and ambiguity’, and demands that children draw on their wider knowledge and experience. (Catt, cited in Fisher and Williams, 2000, p.29). This will develop their skills in the four language modes of reading, writing, speaking and listening.
2.2 All poetry is magic; it is a ‘spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance and barbarism (Causley, 1990, cited in Phinn, 2000, p.92). Poetry is uniquely placed to allow children to say what they really want to say in the way they want to say it. Wilson (1998. p.4), describes a scenario when there is six minutes to go before lunch and the teacher opens a book the children haven’t seen before and begins reading: ‘By the end of the poem, the class is completely silent’ (p.3). Similarly, teacher Fred Sedgwick explains how he clapped his hands and magically changed the classroom into a silent study where 30 poets were writing (2003, p.52).
2.3 Poetry is an entitlement (Phinn, 2000, p.77), embedded in the National Curriculum. From the very earliest age, children should be able to hear and study a range of rich and varied material which is ‘funny, exciting, spooky, vigorous, fresh, playful and reflective’.
2.4 There are many benefits to poetry. It can enhance all forms of writing. Corbett (Appendix vii) says children need it so they can ‘understand themselves and their world’ – to have sufficient language at their fingertips to craft their talk and their writing. It is not always the most able children who write the best poetry (Brownjohn (1994, p.5). Any child is potentially able to produce poetry, provided there is ‘inspired teaching’ (Mole, cited in Wilson (ed), 1998, p.49).
2.5 Those who benefit include children with English as an additional language. Horner and Ryf (2007, p.194) say poetry is ‘particularly suitable’ for children at different stages of learning English. It can also benefit boys who have been found to respond well to poetry, possibly because of the shorter form and immediacy of ideas (Maynard, 2002 in Horner and Ryf, 2007, p.194).
The current situation
2.6 Some writers are optimistic about the role of poetry in 21st century schools. Poet Valerie Bloom believes there is a changing perception. She says that when she first started, ‘you’d hear a big groan go up’ when poetry was mentioned. Nowadays, she says, the children actually say ‘Yes!’ (Hoyles and Hoyles, 2002, p.84) However, for many people, poetry is still seen as ‘elitist’ and irrelevant to their daily lives (Horner and Ryf, 2007, p.187). Ofsted’s 2007 report (p.6) found that poetry teaching is weaker than other aspects of English inspected and ‘underdeveloped’ in many schools, though still good in two-thirds of primary schools. Its success depends on teachers using active approaches (p.3). This is supported by Corbett (Appendix vii) who says if the teacher loves poetry, the children will love poetry.
2.7 Poetry is a ‘core experience’ for children (Ofsted, 2007, p.4), and most enjoy it. However, poetry features less in the English curriculum in Year 6 because too many teachers focus on preparing pupils for SATS. The test for 11-year-olds rarely includes poetry-related questions, and then usually on the reading paper. In some primary classrooms, the result has been ‘catastrophic’; poetry has ‘disappeared from the curriculum altogether’ (Wilson, 2010, p.54). He says this is a direct result of pressure on teachers in Year 6. Consequently, teachers have lost confidence in teaching poetry when measuring standards is to the fore. Rosen (Appendix vi) describes this as ‘a tragic example of how teachers, under pressure from the testing regime, turn their backs on something that is important in education’.
2.8 Many teachers also do not know enough poetry. This was reflected in worksheets which listed dull questions such as ‘which lines rhyme’ and ‘how many syllables are there in each line’. (Ofsted, 2007, p.8). The same few poems are studied across most schools. Children have limited experience of classic poems and poems from other cultures and traditions. The reason for this is provided by a survey in 2007 which showed that over half the teachers questioned could name only two, or fewer, poets (UKLA, 2007, cited in Ofsted, 2007, p.13). The effect of this is that teachers rely on the same few poems they were taught at school – humorous poems, strong story poems, or those easy to imitate – but neglect good quality classic poems and those from different cultures. The result is that too few poems are chosen which are genuinely challenging.
2.9 Ofsted also found it was common for pupils to write poetry in imitation of specific genres, but there were insufficient opportunities for children to find their own voices. Used this way, poetry becomes a teaching tool for language development rather than a medium for exploring experience. There is often a reliance on verse which is ‘immediately accessible’ but which offers few opportunities for reflection and discussion (Catt, cited in Fisher and Williams, 2000, p.28).
2.10 Marking is often of poor quality, offering inadequate feedback to children, because of the teacher’s lack of knowledge. Ofsted (2007, p.12) found comments such as ‘lovely poem’ and ‘I like the rhyme’ were common, offering little guidance how to improve. Too many first drafts become final drafts, with potentially outstanding writing undeveloped. Teachers have particular difficulty responding to free verse; as a result, many pupils cannot write poems unless they rhyme.
Examples of good practice
2.11 One inspector found (Ofsted, 2007, p.17), poetry was ‘threaded through the culture of the school’ from assemblies to publications to plasma screens throughout the building. Poetry is considered by teachers no matter what they are teaching. It can be incorporated into every day, with teachers using poetry in spare moments such as when children are waiting to go into the dining hall (Horner and Ryf, 2007, p.194). A study at Roehampton University saw every English seminar for student teachers begin with a poem – a policy recommended for use in schools, (Kelly and Collins, 2009, p.28). They recommend that student teachers be conversant with imaginative, active strategies to bring poems to life.
2.12 Effective subject leaders are crucial. As poet Benjamin Zephaniah said: ‘We want more teachers who are passionate about poetry, not just teachers who do poetry as an add-on to English’ (1992, cited in Hoyles and Hoyles, 2002). Teachers should be widely read in poetry themselves (Horner and Ryf, 2007, p.254), and use a range of strategies including mini-whiteboards for ideas, discussion with partners, drama and role play, sequencing, deconstructing poems, setting poems to music, and finding images to match poems.
2.13 Teachers need to make a shift towards an increasing variety of more demanding verse which promotes exploratory talk. Catt (cited in Fisher and Williams, 2000, p.29) says the response and enjoyment can be ‘sometimes limitless’. Children should be encouraged to choose and read poems during independent reading. Teachers should routinely read poems with pupils (Ofsted, 2007, p.9). The most effective schools offer a ‘wider and richer’ selection of poems.
2.14 Schools should also ensure there is a wide range of poetry books available. Poems can be learned by heart and performed. By-heart learning is not rote learning according to Sedgwick, (cited in Wilson, 1998, p.23), who says it means learning with joy and emotional involvement. Poems such as ‘O what is that sound’ by W H Auden can be turned into dialogue and acted out. One school found the best way to encourage children to use them was a poetry speaking competition where children learn a poem by heart and perform it, an idea dismissed as ‘very public school’ by a teacher at my observation school, (Appendix iii). The starting point for helping children to become enthusiastic about poetry is for teachers to read to them – frequently. Collins (cited in Graham and Kelly, 1998, p.55) says teachers should read ‘a great deal’ of poetry to children and let the poems and poets do the work for them. Cope (cited in Wilson, 1998, p.17) suggests forming a poetry club. Children should be encouraged to respond to poetry, not just to interpret poetic devices, according to Horner and Ryf, (2007, p.193), who say: ‘It is about personal response… not about spotting metaphors or naming of parts’. They say the enjoyment must come first.
2.15 Rosen (1989, p.43) says better poetry is produced if children write from their own experiences and use actual words that people speak, their own responses and feelings. This is using knowledge they already possess, he says. An accomplished literacy co-ordinator told Ofsted (2007, p.16): ‘I … believe it is vital to give children the freedom to make their own discoveries and compose their own poems from scratch.’ The co-ordinator incorporates poetry into every year group once a term, with specific pupil targets and a planned sequence of lessons to help teachers who are less confident with poetry. Children must be encouraged to find their ‘unique’ voice (Dunn, Styles, Warburton, 1987, p.32). Poor writing is often a second rate attempt to mimic the writing of others. They suggest using the ‘ordinary stuff of everyday life’ rather than fantasy or imagination to begin with.
2.16 Teachers should give feedback which helps children to re-draft and improve their poems, (Osted, 2007, p.12) Marking should not be a chore and carefully crafted comments can stimulate writing of higher quality. An example is: ‘You have tried hard to use interesting verbs like gleaming and chattering. To make the structure of the poem clearer, leave a space between verses.’
2.17 The most effective teaching of poetry is accomplished through often simple means within the grasp of most educators – but all too rarely used. There is good practice in many schools, often linked to an individual, inspirational teacher. If more schools took steps to immerse children in poetry, there could be improvements to many different types of writing.
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