Poetry is one of the most important branches of literature. We’re introduced to language and reading through the rhyme we hear and join in with as children and our poetry journey begins there. How well we travel along the road depends on how well exposed we are along the way to the joys and potential poetry offers to us as readers and writers.
So how do you become a good teacher of poetry? You read it, you respond to it, you even have a go at writing it. But to want to do this, you have to find the poetry that speaks to you, that excites you, that inspires you, and then you do the same for your children.
CLiPPA 2018. Photograph © 2018 Ellie Kurttz.
So to celebrate poetry and all its power and diversity in your classroom, what are the things you need to do?
Choose collections that inspire pupils and show them what poetry is and could be
Look for and make available collections and anthologies that open children’s eyes to what poetry is and what it can do. This is something that previous winners of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) Poetry Award, the CLiPPA, do particularly well.
Take two of the previous winning collections, Stars With Flaming Tails by Valerie Bloom and Werewolf Club Rules by Joseph Coelho. These collections have within them humorous poems, lyrical poems that follow rich rhythms, emotive poetry written from personal experience and poems that offer windows into the writer’s fascinations and direct, real-life experience. Make sure that poetry is available to children, and that the poetry on offer shows that it is a multi-dimensional and exciting form. Not sure what to choose? Use our poetry booklists which share recommendations from poets, and a breadth and range of poetry.
Read poetry aloud, see it performed and give children opportunities to perform themselves
Read poetry aloud often. Drop it into every moment of the school day, with no preconceived agenda. Give children the opportunity to hear and see a wide range of poets reading and performing their poetry. Children need to see the universality of poetry and that poetry is for them. Seeing poems performed by the poets who wrote them opens up children’s perceptions about poetry. New forms that directly speak to children’s own interests in the musicality and rhythms of language, such as the hip-hop lyricism of Karl Nova in his award-winning collection Rhythm and Poetry can entice children not only to perform but also to write from their own experience in ways that directly appeal to them. It is important to make sure that children have access to the work of a wide range of poets, and to the work of poets that reflect the realities of children in our schools because only then will children really grasp that poetry is a space for them. The poet videos on the CLPE website contain a wide range of poets performing a wide range of poetry and are added to each year, or look at the Children’s Poetry Archive for a rich and varied bank of audio recordings.
Children need to feel the joy in reading poetry aloud themselves, joining in, dramatising and performing poems. If poetry is not given a voice, if it just stays on the page as a printed object, then it is not going to come alive for most children.
Allow time and space for children to respond authentically to what they have read
Children need time to read, reread and respond to poetry. However, we must make sure that we don’t jump into trying to dissect the poem before giving the children the opportunity to internalise and respond to it at a personal level. A technique like ‘poetry papering’ works really well. Select a number of different poems, illustrating different poets, styles and forms. Photocopy the poems and pin them up around the classroom or another space for the children to find and explore at their leisure. They can read, pass over, move on and then select one they’d like to talk about with someone else. This encourages the children to enjoy the experience of simply reading a poem, to relish the uncertainties of meanings and the nature of the knowledge and emotional responses that poems invoke in them as readers. Let them look for connections, ask questions, explore what they like about poems and the use of language. You can use this as an opportunity to introduce children to the names of specific forms or devices. You might introduce this by way of what Michael Rosen calls ‘secret strings’ (What is Poetry? Walker 2016). He talks about the importance of discovering how the poet might have used assonance, alliteration, imagery, rhythm and sound. There are many ideas for using poetry in your classroom within our teaching sequences and Michael Rosen has also written a series of very informative blog posts on teaching poetry in primary schools.
Draw on the expertise of practising poets
Seeing a poet bring their own work to life and beginning to understand what that means in terms of the creation of poetry helps children to see themselves as writers. Teachers also benefit from working alongside poets. On the Big Amazing Poetry project, teachers involved worked alongside poets Valerie Bloom and Matt Goodfellow. They found their teaching was improved by understanding the creative process real writers go through. Listen to poets talk about their writing process; what inspires them, how they work, how they draft, edit and redraft – all this yields a wealth of information to consider the freedoms and support we give children in their own writing. You can see and hear many poets do this in the poet interviews available on CLPE’s Poetryline website or the wide range of interviews on The Poetry Zone website.
Support children in writing poetry for themselves
In order to write poetry, children need to experience different kinds of poem so that they can see how different forms work: sing-song rhythms of chants, rhymes and refrains, the joy of humorous and nonsense verse and poems that explore different forms, such as rhyme, free verse, haiku and sonnets. Children then have a context to discover the rich history of poetry, exploring where these forms came from and how they work as well as showing them what they can do in their own writing. Giving children personal writing journals that they have control over sharing allows them to collect and try out personal ideas before sharing with a wider audience. Some forms may have ‘rules’ but poetry allows you to break rules, with layout, with punctuation, with style. The Poetry section of CLPE’s website has a specific subject knowledge section which supports teachers in learning more about specific poetic forms and devices so that they can feel confident in sharing these with children. The BBC Teach Series, Joseph Coelho: Understanding Poetry and Joseph Coelho’s Poetry Prompts, with accompanying resources by CLPE, provide a wealth of ideas for supporting the writing process that can be easily used in the classroom.
Through writing poetry children are encouraged to reflect on their experience, to recreate it, shape it, and make sense of it. In a poem it is possible to give form and significance to a particular event or feeling and to communicate this to the reader or to the listener.
You can find yourself in poetry. Poetry is powerful. Poetry can give you power.
Bloom, Valerie (2021) (illus. Ken Wilson-Max) Stars With Flaming Tails. Burley Gate, Herefordshire: Otter-Barry Books.
Coelho, Joseph (2015) Werewolf Club Rules. London: Frances Lincoln.
Nova, Karl (2017) (illus. Joseph Witchall) Rhythm and Poetry. Bradford: Caboodle Books.
Charlotte Hacking is Interim Executive Director, Learning and Programmes, The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE). She is an experienced teacher and senior leader who has taught across the primary-school age range. Before joining CLPE, she held several leadership posts including Assistant Headteacher, Literacy, Early Years Foundation Stage, more able pupils and KS2. Her special interests lie in Early Years, early reading development, the development of writing, and the use of picture books and poetry to raise children’s engagement and attainment. She developed and led the CLPE’s Power of Poetry research project, and the Big Amazing Poetry Project, in part with Macmillan Children’s Books, and is a judge for the CLPE poetry award, CLiPPA.