Picture the children in your class really immersed in something you are reading to them: laughing; crying (this did happen with a Year 4 class once, when we were looking at the lyrics for Robbie Williams ‘Song for my Nan’); sucking in their breath in disbelief; exclaiming loudly and groaning. Let’s then consider how to plan for this on a regular basis and, as we do, you may marvel at how the development of comprehension and fluency can be so much fun. Let’s rummage through some reading material that develops vocabulary in an accessible way for the whole class at once and revel in the benefits in terms of oracy. Hopefully, by now, you are hooked enough that I could possibly say the word ‘poetry’ without half of you running for the hills. It really can be the most ‘marmite’ element of English teaching that I’ve ever come across.
However, now you’ve made it to the second paragraph – keep going. I would like to lead you on a journey to some performance poetry that will delight children, parents, you and your colleagues. Along the way, we will consider the benefits, over and above it being fun, and find many other reasons to repeat this term after term.
Which poem, line of poetry, or rhymes from favourite childhood books can you still recite today? Take a moment to just say as many as you can aloud – with feeling. One of mine from my distant secondary school days was: Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I also loved the story behind the poem - that he never finished it because, after waking from a drug-induced dream, he frantically transcribed it only to be interrupted before he finished and then couldn’t remember the end. I’ve returned to learning poetry by heart as I grow older and more forgetful, spurred on by Giles Brandreth’s book ‘Dancing by the light of the moon – how poetry can transform your memory and change your life’. However, for the younger readers in primary schools, there are so many more benefits than exercising the memory. For real enjoyment of poetry let’s plan for the endpoint to be less learning poetry by heart and more reading and performing poetry from the heart.
Teaching poetry doesn’t always have to include writing a poem. It has a special place in reading lessons. Often this is less threatening for those who are yet to catch the reading bug. There are many ways of introducing your class to a poem. In the past, I’ve given them the poem cut-up into individual lines and they have to place the lines in the order they believe the poem has been written. The discussions resulting from this are insightful and sometimes their versions read better than the original.
Other times, I’ve given the children an alphabetical list of the individual words in the poem and, if for instance the word ‘light’ appears five times, I’ve listed it five times. As the children discuss the words in front of them, they very often begin to understand the feeling from the poem and when they read it in its original form, they understand it so much quicker. However, this time, I’m going to offer a suggestion which will help develop the children’s fluency and comprehension and result in a performance of the poem and perhaps even a competition.
I would advise you to choose a poem you truly enjoy as your enthusiasm will be communicated. You might begin with the marvellous children’s poet, Roger McGough. The short poem ‘The Power of Poets’ would give an upper KS2 class endless opportunities for philosophical discussion; ‘Easy Money’ will give you all a chance to delve into some mathematics, and ‘It Wasn’t Me, Miss’ resonates with many. You might want something a little less contemporary like ‘The Tyger’, by William Blake or “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon. As long as the content is age appropriate, don’t worry too much if you think it might be a little difficult for them. Bob Cox, in his Opening Doors series, shows how well children can be supported to understand poems full of archaic language.
Before the children see the poem in print, read it to them with ‘Convincing expressivness’ as the DfE would say, or, in other words, reading it like you mean it. Your modelling of fluent reading will lead them into the feeling and meaning of a poem. They will probably understand far more language in context than you might have thought (I have seen much evidence of this in the Herts for Learning Reading Fluency Project). Read it more than once. Ham it up. Give it your best audition performance - all of the time encouraging the children to join in where they can. After that, encourage the children to ‘echo’ your reading, copying your phrasing and intonation. Do this a few times until you can all read in unison without any one voice raising above the parapet. Then, find a variety of ways to get the children to read it aloud. Perhaps giving different groups of children different parts of the poem. Reading it in a round. The wonderful Joseph Coelho has a series of videos on the BBC KS1/KS2 website about reciting poetry. Take a moment here to see Joseph demonstrating how much energy and fun we can bring to poetry for children and I defy you not to smile while watching.
A performance of ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon at a poetry competition at Windhill21 in Bishop’s Stortford had me, and every other adult in the room in tears. The children from the host school ran away with the title that year. The organiser and leader for the Windhill21 team, Sarah Wood explained that following expressive reading, the children delved deep into the poems, asking questions like ‘Why this word and not that?... Why this word first and that one second?’ The deeper they delved, the more they created their understanding of the intended effect on the reader and this resulted in fabulous performances. Drama helps bring language to life, and sometimes it is a fleeting moment in a lesson where children enact verbs and adverbs. I would add here that I hesitate to tell a class that we are interpreting the author’s intentions; although poetry is generally precisely crafted, I wouldn’t presume to know what was in the poet’s head but we can presume to say how it made us feel and think. The children of Windhill21 took the feelings the poem evoked for them and decided how they would perform it in order to create the same feeling for their audience. They considered their expression and intonation, phrasing, fluidity, speed and body language. At this point, the children are free to move away from the initial way that you modelled the poem. As they repeatedly recite these poems in their practice, they come to love and inhabit them more and more. They too will have a poem they can still recite when they are 59 years old, and they won’t have to wait until secondary school to experience it.
If you are a lover of poetry in the classroom – spread the word. Spread your enthusiasm and show how much the children can enjoy performing a poem which becomes their own. If you’re not a lover, give it a go. I’ll bet you’ll be converted when you see all the benefits it brings.
On a final note, for some children, these performances can be the longest they have ever spoken aloud at any one time in a formal classroom setting. It is worth the perseverance. They may be ever so conscious of these unfamiliar words and phrases in their mouths, yet they come to love them, and will likely use some of them in future writing of their own. And the experience can be revelatory. Sometime ago I worked with the KS2 teachers at Trotts Hill Primary School in Stevenage. We had worked hard, but with shared enthusiasm, to develop some immersive poetry with the children as they explored the school grounds with new eyes. Essentially, this was to support them with their creation of metaphor. The resulting poems were a powerful read. Truly powerful. This power came through most clearly when one reluctant write from year 5 declared that he was now a poet. He was quite right. He most certainly was a poet. However, it wasn’t until we asked the children to film themselves performing those poems in the school grounds that the power of their own words truly came to life. The power had to be seen to be believed.