By Josie Whitehead



From very early in life children respond to poems.   Fair enough they may be called “nursery rhymes” but they love them.  They seem to realize that words written in this way are fun, and they’re keen to join in.  So when I first started writing poetry I was regularly meeting a class of six year olds who were keen to encourage me.  What was surprising was that the children themselves came to me with a request:  “Will you please put your poems onto a website so that we can read them at home.”  Children were requesting reading practice, and I think this was good, don’t you?  The next thing which children asked was if I could put voice recordings with my poems for the following reasons:  First of all the English language is difficult and what you see is not necessarily what you say, as you know.  Secondly one wanted to download the poems so that he could listen to them when he went to bed.  Thirdly one had a younger brother and sister who couldn’t yet read but liked hearing poetry read to them.  These then were children who were motivated by poetry.  


Poems are short.  At the end of the day in particular, children are tired.  Short poems may be just the thing they need.  The shortness of poems means that they can be read a few times and talked about.  Children using story poems hear the beginning, the middle and the end all at once.  Long stories are left until the next day.




Children need to hear poetry read to them in an interesting way.  Therefore I do put quite a lot of voice recordings with the poems on my website, and we hope very soon to have CDs made with good quality readings of the poems.  But then you must encourage your children to learn poetry and recite it, throwing their voices out to the classroom without shouting.  This will not only teach them these useful skills, but build up their confidence too as well as having fun.


Secondly, let the children turn to the poem you are doing in their book, so that they can now read the words.  Play the recording of the poem, or read it yourself, with them.  


Thirdly let the children listen again to the poem and clap to the metre.  Give them a simple explanation of the metre, eg:  This has been written in iambic feet, and each time you clap on a beat, it is one of the feet.  Let’s see how many there are per line.


Fourthly, if there is time, read the poem all together chorally.




ON THE FOLLOWING DAY – Read the poem together chorally once more.  To follow this, get the children to search out the rhyming words and discuss which words sound alike but are perhaps spelled differently.   You can perhaps do some more work on words, and I have often put ideas at the end of my poems.  For example, hand out a sheet to the children with words missing, but underneath  give them a choice of words.  Which words could be substituted for the ones which the poet has chosen and why.


If the children have understood how the rhythm of the poem has been made, then they will clearly see that some of the other words, although they would fit the sense of the poem, would not fit the rhythm and this is important in poetry.


Take a sentence and, having explained how many beats there were to the line, get the children to shadow the line with their own writing, eg:


Granny’s Parrot:  My Granny’s Parrot Charlie often calls out naughty words.




This was seven iambic feet spread over two lines, which is very common in English poetry.  Can the children think of simple sentences using this metre?


Eg:  My brother’s friend called Martin sometimes wears his boots to bed.

        My sister’s doll called Lucie is the smallest doll I’ve seen.

        My mother’s hair is frizzy and she wears the strangest hat.

Remember:  My  FATHer IS a DUSTman AND he WEARS a DUSTman's HAT?


There you are, a rhyming verse sticks in the mind doesn't it, and I won't mention gor blimey trousers or lives in a council flat, but they are there too, ha ha


In fact one sentence each is something they can prepare at home and they may well bring one of their favourite tv characters into their sentence, explaining something that he did on television.


This is not only a way to get children to link to poetry, but this is helping them to develop their writing and in an interesting way which can be used when they have to write simple poems themselves.  It is not difficult, but if you land “writing poetry” on them out of the blue, with no gentle build-up, then I would say it is impossible almost.





Perhaps once a term, you could have a little “concert” in which children can perform the poems they’ve learned.  Ask any grown up and they may have forgotten lots of things they learned at school, but poems they learned they don’t forget and even oldies like myself can quote lines of poetry that we love.


The children can also follow up poems by putting the poem in the centre of a display board in the classroom and then decorating around it with pictures, objects etc.  I have often spoken of this.  They can make puppets of the characters in the poems and make a puppet theatre.  Music can be added to some of the poems.  


I would be really interested to hear from any teachers who are using poems in various ways to create interest and stimulate children with literature etc.  




Move on to new poems and treat them in the same way.  Children will soon want to read the poetry themselves at home so please do tell them about this website.  I made it at the request of children..  Then occasionally ask them the spellings of words that sound alike but are spelled differently.  You’ll find that without even thinking, they’ll know them and will have learned them in a fun way.


I have written so many rhyming poems and these are the very best ones to use for literacy as you can see.  They help children develop phonemic awareness, a key ingredient in literacy, as I have said many times.  


Use poems as a centerpiece to another piece of learning.  I have written minibeast poems, animal poems, poems about the natural world and many science poems.  The children will remember the facts if the facts are linked to poetry.  


There are many of my poems which have dialogue parts and the one that springs to mind immediately is my Christmas poem “The Three Wise Men” and you will see from my guestbook that the children in Hungary had great fun learning English using this poem.  It was more than an exercise in an English book for them, and they enjoyed writing to tell me about their fun and also getting an email from me in return.  I only thought that all poets were dead poets when I was a child for many of my favourite poets were, but nowadays, quite simply, children can interact with the writer of the poem both using email and particularly with skype visits to their classrooms.  Use all of these things to bring your literacy lessons to life.







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