Inspiring Young Readers
The Power of Poetry
Poetry is an undervalued and, consequently, an underused tool for developing literacy in children, especially those who find reading and writing more challenging. Okay, as a professional poet/author for the last 15 years who is in schools virtually every term-time day, I might be bias, but I might have a point.
Probably for most of us the earliest form of literature that we are exposed to is the nursery rhyme. Children tune-in to its simplicity, brevity, rhythm and rhyme and sometimes repetition is an extra ‘hook’ to hold them.
Of course poetry doesn’t have to rhyme and, although most of my poems do, when in schools I ask children to avoid doing so as the vast majority will write nonsense as the ‘forced' rhymes overtake the the quality of their words used and the poem's meaning. However, when reading or listening to poems rhyming is extremely powerful and enhances the enjoyment of poetry for many of us.
Back to nursery rhymes: Despite my comments above most schools, sadly driven by the tick-box curriculum, attempt to develop writing and reading through more story-based work. But stories are generally far longer than poems, structurally much more complex and do not easily lend themselves to fun performances which can cement learning through memorising. (How many poems or nursery rhymes do you remember from your childhood? Quite a few I'd guess.) With poetry celebrated in most schools only during e.g. National or World Poetry Day or maybe a poetry week for some, while we focus on stories we are teaching children to run before they can walk.
Poetry is a simpler and better way to develop literacy. In just a few words even the less able writer can produce something valid. I will make something up here as I write!
Yummy, yummy, yummy
Puff, puff, puff
Featuring interesting adjectives, repetition, onomatopoeia, a similar original piece could easily be written by a young writer, performed with actions, learnt by his/her class then presented in assembly.
Taking this further I teach similes through simile poems, metaphors through metaphor poems, and personification, alliteration, onomatopoeia, synonyms etc also through appropriate verse forms. It’s great fun and much more exciting than just using plain sentences in the way I was taught in school.
Fortunately when I was a young boy I always enjoyed reading and was encouraged to do so by my parents who read to me each night and took me fortnightly to my local library to borrow books. But when I reached about seven I found whole pages of story book text far too dense and daunting for my patience so switched to reading poems (and Marvel comics - although that’s another article!). I could read one in a relatively short period of time but it still taught me new words, writing techniques and styles, fired my imagination and many stayed in my head for years.
Of course I am not knocking story books or children writing their own stories. I love them and encourage all children to read and write them but feel poetry is a more natural early and vital step in literacy development that is often missed out completely or not fully utilised if studied.
And I am not being critical of teachers as I know most would agree and, with more funding for poet school visits and a more flexible curriculum, would jump at the chance of implementing some of my suggestions.
At the end of each day after my school visit I nearly always hold a playground book sale and signing. The most satisfying comments I hear from parents who buy books go something like, “I could never get my child interested in reading, but they love your poetry books”. And I know it’s not just my poetry that has this effect - there is power in poetry!