With the increasing focus placed on informational and narrative texts, the teaching of reading poetry often becomes something like a month-long spring fling. We feel the relegation of poetry to second-tier status is most unfortunate and denies teachers and students unique opportunities for joyous and productive reading. This post describes five student-centered and practical ways to give poetry a more central role in your curriculum all year long.
Poetry Builds Foundational Reading Skills
The Common Core State Standards identify word recognition and reading fluency as foundational literacy competencies essential for close reading. Poetry is well suited for teaching both word recognition and fluency.
A powerful way to teach word recognition is through word families or rhymes. A word family is the part of a syllable that shares a vowel and following consonants. For example, the words back, track, and stack contain the word family –ack; the words sight, bright, and fright contain the word family –ight. Word families are a more efficient and consistent way to decode words because the set of letters in a word family is processed as one unit. Word families can help readers decode a multitude of words. Most poems for children rhyme, which means the texts can provide students with authenticity for reading selected word families (e.g., Star light, star bright…).
Repeated readings of short texts are an effective way to develop two key components of fluency: automaticity in word recognition and expression in oral reading. Poems and songs are meant to be performed and rehearsed orally, often for an audience. Rehearsal is an authentic form of repeated reading where students practice a text several times, not to read it fast, but to read it with meaningful expression. The textual patterns, rhythm, rhyme, and often the melody of poems and songs make them quite easy to remember. How many of us recall the words to a poem or song we learned decades ago? The growth of a strong sight-word vocabulary is another foundational reading competency that immersing children in poetry develops.
1. Poetry Notebooks. Invite students to keep a poetry notebook all year long. Teach one or two poems per week. Enjoy rereading using echo reading, reading in funny voices, or assigning stanzas to groups. Students return to their poetry notebooks all year long!
2. Word Catchers. Invite students to select words from the poetry to act out, add to the word wall, or study as a class.
Poetry Builds Deep Comprehension Competencies
Poetry helps students engage in the deep or close reading that CCSS indicates is essential to proficient reading comprehension. Close reading requires students to read a text more than once, but for different purposes.
Poetry is rich with interesting and unusual words, figurative language, imagery, simile, metaphor, and more. Students can reread a poem multiple times, focusing on a particular feature of the poem or purpose for reading. Each reading becomes a new reading experience leading students to deeper understandings of—and appreciation for—the poem. We have found poetry is particularly well suited for implementing the reciprocal teaching strategies of predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing. The brevity of most poems permits students to employ the strategy with each new reading.
3. Reciprocal Teaching/Close Reading. Employ reciprocal teaching as you reread poems. First, skim the poem to predict. Read once through to enjoy. Then invite students to reread to mark the text to clarify words or phrases and to question the author. Finally, summarize the poem.
Above all, poetry and other rhythmical texts are fun to read. Both of us have wonderful memories of reading and reciting poetry and songs, individually and with classmates, in our elementary classrooms. Children find the textual patterns, rhythm, rhyme, melody, and alliteration as well as the whimsy and humor often embedded in poetry so appealing. We enjoy watching the delight children take in reading and performing poetry and songs as we see their heads, and their bodies, bob, sway, and weave to the rhythm in language. The brevity and rhythmical nature of poems make them easy to learn. Even the child who struggles mightily in reading informational texts can find pleasure and success in reading poetry.
4. Lucky Listeners. Provide a copy of a poem to take home to read to at least three “lucky listeners,” who might include the dog, a baby sibling, or a grandparent over the phone.
5. Poetry Break. Surprise your students by giving them a “poetry break.” Stephen Layne suggests announcing poetry break! while passing out poetry books (and maybe snacks) so students can enjoy 10 minutes of poetry reading.
As Lee Bennett Hopkins once mused, “Poetry is so many things to so many people.” When you make poetry an essential part of your reading curriculum, children thrive!
Lori D. Oczkus is a literacy coach, author, and popular speaker across the United States. Lori has extensive experience as a bilingual elementary teacher, intervention specialist working with struggling readers, and staff developer and literacy coach. Her most recent book with IRA is Just the Facts! Close Reading and Comprehension of Informational Text. Timothy Rasinski, a literacy education professor at Kent State University, is a prolific researcher who has authored more than 150 articles. His research interests include reading fluency and word study. He is a former coeditor of The Reading Teacher and is currently coeditor of the Journal of Literacy Research.