40. At the advanced level of language proficiency, or at any level, can you suggest ideas on students reading and writing poetry?

Reading and writing poetry requires a series of skills different from those required to read and write prose. In addition, reading and writing poetry requires a great deal of knowledge, broad background knowledge, cultural knowledge, knowledge about the meaning of code words, the symbols represented by certain key words, a great deal of knowledge about historical figures or events, or symbols. And it also requires knowledge about rhymes, meters, syllables, word stress and stress patterns in sentences, oral expression, oral fluency, intonation patterns, etc. Above all, reading and writing poetry requires, in my opinion, an innate capability for perception, feelings, emotions, sentiment, and for mastering words, their literal meanings and their potential meanings.

Poets, great poets are gifted individuals. Recognizing the gift of poetry in some students is very important. Nurturing that gift is essential. Asking ALL students to read great poetry, to memorize great poetry, to recite and present great poems for an audience is an outstanding educational goal that is very seldom implemented, let alone achieved, within the educational system of this country. In other countries students learn many, many poems, and their poets are well known and revered as national heroes. Also, in other countries reading or reciting poetry is part of family gatherings, social events, weekly school activities, television programs, and national holidays. Not in our country. Learning a poem, memorizing a poem and reciting poetry are neither valued nor appreciated educational endeavors.

Because truly great poetry WRITING requires enormous amounts of knowledge and experience, it is my opinion that poetry writing should be taught in the upper grades, by the 11th or 12th grade. In the lower grades students can experiment with rhyming, which in many cases is NOT really poetry. But great poetry READING and memorization and reciting can, should, and must become a daily reading goal in ALL classes in the United States.

It is very sad to note that most American students have NEVER read a poem, NEVER memorized one, and NEVER enjoyed reading and reciting poetry. Reading poetry and reciting poems is NEVER a part of school affairs like Open House or celebrations of holidays or patriotic holidays. However, poetry reading and reciting help students develop very sophisticated vocabulary and language use.

Thus, listening to, reciting and memorizing short poems fully connected to the realities young children experience MUST become part of the daily Language Arts Program in all Pre-K, K and elementary or primary classrooms in this country. As students grow and mature, at the middle school and high school levels, longer and more abstract poems need to be introduced, read, recited, and memorized. Equal opportunities for poetry reading and reciting must be offered to English Learners (Limited English Proficient students/LEP’s).

How to teach poetry, at any grade level? The key ideas have already been discussed in my answers to other questions involving the teaching of reading, but I will present them here again. What are the GOALS for teaching poetry? They are very similar to the GOALS for teaching a reading selection:

(1) To understand what the poem expresses THE FIRST TIME IT IS READ.

(2) To develop vocabulary, master new words, expressions, terminology, sayings, new language usage, etc. To develop oral fluency in reading and reciting poetry.

(3) To develop high level critical thinking skills: to compare and contrast the new poem with other poems already known, to reach conclusions, to form opinions and judgments, to evaluate the poem read.

(4) To create new ideas and new understandings, to imagine and design new formulations of reality. To discover, to explore the unknown. To write poetry.

The first step in teaching poetry, like the first step in teaching reading, is to provide experiential, hands-on instructional activities with lots of realia or real objects, pictures, drawings, etc., that allow students to perceive, listen, speak, and use in meaningful utterances the words they will read in the poem and the reality each word names. For example, in my second grade class I wanted the students --ALL OF THEM ENGLISH LEARNERS-- to master the extraordinary beautiful poems about colors that appear in the book "Hailstones and Halibut Bones." To provide hands-on experiences through pictures that allowed students to understand the meaning of the words in each of the poems and opportunities to use the words BEFORE reading each poem, I provided for my students lots of colorful magazines, catalogs, flower catalogs, newspaper pictures, etc. (My neighbors collected for me all discarded magazines from friends and relatives). We began with the poem for the color "PURPLE." As homework I asked my students to cut and bring for me ALL pictures they could find with the color purple in it. They took home all the magazines and catalogs, and all newspaper colorful pictures. And the next day . . .

Indeed they did bring almost one hundred pictures where the color purple appeared! And AMONG THE PICTURES THEY BROUGHT, THERE WERE PICTORIAL REPRESENTATIONS OF ALL WORDS IN THE POEM.

My first task was to organize the pictures into categories. My students helped by separating purple ‘objects’ from purple ‘flowers,’ ’things in nature’ like the skies, clouds, mountains, etc., purple ‘parts of the body,’ ’foods,’ ‘animals,‘ ‘clothing," ‘accessories,‘ and many other MEANING CATEGORIES. As we separated pictures into categories I provided opportunities to name the pictures, and then I wrote the names onto flashcards. With all pictures we made the PURPLE collage!!! Students, for a few days before listening to the "PURPLE" poem FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME, practiced matching the names on the flashcards to the pictures on the collage.

GOAL (1): Then, I told the students I would read them a poem. The students were to listen to it and watch the pictures on the collage as I read the poem. If they would hear a word in the poem that matched the name of a picture in the collage, they were to tell me AT THE END of my reading. As I began slowly reading the poem, all eyes were on the collage, jumping from category to category, and finding the pictures I was naming as I read the poem. At the end of my reading students gave me evidence of listening with complete understanding the VERY FIRST TIME they heard the poem.

Now, they could read the poem themselves with complete and full understanding, at the INDEPENDENT LEVEL. I read the poem first as they followed along silently reading the poem. Then I read the poem again, but this time I stopped randomly while reading, and the students read only ONE word after the word I stopped on. I repeated my stops throughout the poem. The students gave me evidence they were reading right along with me. Finally students read the poem aloud with me. Because intonation patterns are very important in reading poetry, ALL students, but English Learners in particular, need lots of help in reading aloud with appropriate intonation, rhythm, pauses, and with feelings.

GOAL (2): Students practiced reading the poem to each other many times. While one student read, the other student would point to the named pictures on the collage. The WORDS in the poem were POSTED by MEANING CATEGORIES, and students were to notice ALL ’purple’ objects they would see or notice and use the adjective + noun pattern in naming all purple things. We also noticed the words that rhymed, the different spelling patterns of words, and other grammatical features that appeared in the poem (capitalization, punctuation, etc.)

GOAL (3): We named many other ’purple’ things; students brought other pictures or pointed out pictures in books with the color purple, and we began POSTING in the class the FAVORITE ’purple’ things students preferred. A big chart listed the names of the students, their favorite ’purple’ object, and reasons why they liked their choice.

We repeated the activities described above for other color poems. Each color poem would take at least two to three weeks to study. Students began memorizing the poems about their favorite color. I chose the color poems to match the season or the holiday we were celebrating. Color poems were compared and contrasted in terms of the meaning categories they included.

By the end of the school year we had read at least half of the color poems in the book "Hailstones and Halibut Bones." We did not explore GOAL (4). But my students had developed an incredible amount of vocabulary, and each student had memorized at least one complete poem which was recited with feelings and full understanding. Many students could silently verbalize parts and segments of the other poems. And all students understood what all poems meant.

Teaching poetry in English and in other languages in foreign language classes or in dual language bilingual programs must become the important educational goal it really is.




For more in-depth information, classroom demonstrations, and "coaching" of new and/or experienced teachers, Dr. CARMEN SANCHEZ SADEK offers:

1. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
2. Cross Cultural Diversity - Multicultural Strategies
3. Effective Instruction for English Learners (L.E.P. students) Parts 1, 2, 3, 4
4. Promoting Academic Success in Language Minority Students
5. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
6. Oral Language / Literacy Skills / Higher Order Thinking Skills
7. 50/50 Dual Language Programs: design, planning and implementation
8. The Structure of English / The Structure of Spanish
9. Transition: Introduction to English Reading

Web Site Programs for Teachers: Numbers 1, 5, 7, 8, and 9.
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Identifying / Responding to Students' Language Needs
Phonemic Awareness: Teaching English phonics to L.E.P. students
Relationship Between Reading, Writing and Spelling
Improving Reading Performance -- Building Oral Language Skills)

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