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.


The importance of poetry

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.


Bell, J., (2005), Doing your Research Project: A guide for first-time researchers in education, health and social science. 4th edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

British Educational Research Association, Reference Guidelines, [accessed online, January 12, 2012], http://www.bera.ac.uk

Brownjohn, S., (1994) To Rhyme or not to Rhyme: Teaching Children to Write Poetry. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

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.

Causley, C. (1990), The Puffin Book of Magic Verse. London: Penguin Books, cited in Phinn, G. (2000), Young Readers and their Books. London: David Fulton.

Collins, F in Graham, J., and Kelly, A., (eds) (1998), Writing under control: Teaching writing in the primary school. London: David Fulton.

Corbett, P (2012), Poetry into writing. Unpublished.

Cope, W., Let the poems do the work in Wilson, A., (ed), 1998, The Poetry Book for Primary Schools. London: The Poetry Society.

Croll, P., (1986), Systematic Classroom Observation. Lewes: Falmer Press.

DfEE (1999), The National Curriculum. London: HMSO

DfES (1987), Teaching poetry in the secondary school: an HMI view. London: DfES.

DfES (2003) Primary National Strategy, [accessed online, April 12, 2012], http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110809101133/http://www.nsonline.org.uk/

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

Evans, J., (2001), The Writing Classroom: Aspects of Writing and the Primary Child 3-11. London: David Fulton.

Fisher, R., (1997), Poems for thinking. Buckingham: Nash Pollock Publishing.

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Gordon, J., (2008), True Soundings: The Findings of the 2007 Ofsted Report ‘Poetry in Schools’ and Pupils’ Response to Poetry They Hear. Changing English, Vol. 15, No. 2, June 2008. 223-233.

Horner, C., and Ryf, V, (2007), Creative Teaching: English in the early years and primary classroom. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hoyles, A., and Hoyles, M., (2002), Moving Voices: Black Performance Poetry. London: Hansib Publications.

Kelly, A., (2005), ‘Poetry? Of course we do it. It’s in the National Curriculum’: Primary children’s perceptions of poetry. Literacy. November 2005. 129-134.

Kelly, A., and Collins, F., (2009), A poem a day: Student teachers and Poetry. NATE Classroom. Autumn 2009. Issue 9, 28-29.

Maynard, T (2002), Boys and Literacy: Exploring the Issues. London: Routledge/ Falmer in Horner, C., and Ryf, V, (2007), Creative Teaching: English in the early years and primary classroom. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mole, J., (1998), Can Children Write Poetry? in Wilson, A., (ed), 1998, The Poetry Book for Primary Schools. London: The Poetry Society.

Morgan, M., (2001), How to teach poetry writing at Key Stage 2. London: David Fulton.

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Sedgwick, F, By-heart powers in Wilson, A., (ed), 1998, The Poetry Book for Primary Schools. London: The Poetry Society.

Sedgwick, F. (2003), Teaching Poetry. London: Continuum.

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?

Poetry in the new National Curriculum

As far as I can tell, these are the references to poetry in the new National Curriculum. Probably some analysis is needed on how this has changed, and may be you have some comments you could send me to start a discussion.

Year 2 – Reading

Pupils should be taught to:

  • develop pleasure in reading, motivation to read, vocabulary and understanding by:
  • listening to, discussing and expressing views about a wide range of contemporary and classic poetry, stories and non-fiction at a level beyond that at which they can read independently
  • recognising simple recurring literary language in stories and poetry
  • continuing to build up a repertoire of poems learnt by heart, appreciating these and reciting some, with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear
  • participate in discussion about books, poems and other works that are read to them and those that they can read for themselves, taking turns and listening to what others say
  • explain and discuss their understanding of books, poems and other material, both those that they listen to and those that they read for themselves.

Year 2 – Writing

Pupils should be taught to:

  • develop positive attitudes towards and stamina for writing by:
  • writing poetry
  • consider what they are going to write before beginning by
  • planning or saying out loud what they are going to write about
  • writing down ideas and/or key words, including new vocabulary
  • encapsulating what they want to say, sentence by sentence
  • make simple additions, revisions and corrections to their own writing by:
  • evaluating their writing with the teacher and other pupils
  • re-reading to check that their writing makes sense and that verbs to indicate time are used correctly and consistently, including verbs in the continuous form
  • proof-reading to check for errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation [for example, ends of sentences punctuated correctly]
  • read aloud what they have written with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear.

 Years 3 and 4 – Reading

Pupils should be taught to:

  • develop positive attitudes to reading and understanding of what they read by:
  • listening to and discussing a wide range of fiction, poetry, plays, non-fiction and reference books or textbooks
  • prepare poems and play scripts to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action
  • discussing words and phrases that capture the reader’s interest and imagination
  • recognising some different forms of poetry [for example, free verse, narrative poetry]

Pupils should be encouraged to use drama approaches to understand how to perform plays and poems to support their understanding of the meaning. These activities also provide them with an incentive to find out what expression is required, so feeding into comprehension.

 Years 3 and 4 – Writing

Children should plan their writing by:

  • discussing writing similar to that which they are planning to write in order to understand and learn from its structure, vocabulary and grammar
  • discussing and recording ideas
  • draft and write by:
  • composing and rehearsing sentences orally (including dialogue), progressively building a varied and rich vocabulary and an increasing range of sentence structures (English Appendix 2)
  • organising paragraphs around a theme
  • in narratives, creating settings, characters and plot
  • in non-narrative material, using simple organisational devices [for example, headings and sub-headings]
  • evaluate and edit by:
  • assessing the effectiveness of their own and others’ writing and suggesting improvements
  • proposing changes to grammar and vocabulary to improve consistency, including the accurate use of pronouns in sentences

 Years 5 and 6

By the beginning of year 5, pupils should be able to read aloud a wider range of poetry.

During years 5 and 6, teachers should continue to emphasise pupils’ enjoyment and understanding of language, especially vocabulary, to support their reading and writing. Pupils’ knowledge of language, gained from stories, plays, poetry, non-fiction and textbooks, will support their increasing fluency as readers, their facility as writers, and their comprehension.

In years 5 and 6, pupils’ confidence, enjoyment and mastery of language should be extended through public speaking, performance and debate.

Years 5 and 6 – Reading

Pupils should be taught to:

  • maintain positive attitudes to reading and understanding of what they read by:
  • continuing to read and discuss an increasingly wide range of fiction, poetry, plays, non-fiction and reference books or textbooks

learning a wider range of poetry by heart

  • preparing poems and plays to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone and volume so that the meaning is clear to an audience
  • discuss and evaluate how authors use language, including figurative language, considering the impact on the reader

Pupils should be taught the technical and other terms needed for discussing what they hear and read, such as metaphor, simile, analogy, imagery, style and effect.

 Year 6 – Writing

Pupils should be taught to:

  • plan their writing by:
  • identifying the audience for and purpose of the writing, selecting the appropriate form and using other similar writing as models for their own
  • perform their own compositions, using appropriate intonation, volume, and movement so that meaning is clear.