The role of poetry
Poetry should have a special place in children's language experience. The heightened and often compressed expression of thought and feeling and the music, rhythm and rhyme in the language can often provide unique and striking glimpses into aspects of human experience. Children's sense of beauty and their enjoyment of language can be fostered through poetry, and their aesthetic response awakened. It is important, then, that they experience and enjoy a rich and varied repertoire of poetry appropriate to their age and stage of development throughout their years in the primary school.
Children's engagement with poetry should be governed by the 'pleasure principle'. Hearing and reading poetry should be an intrinsic element of their language experience and one that is a source of joy and fulfilment. The key to this lies in the variety of poetry they encounter and the ways they are encouraged to respond to it.
The repertoire of poetry
In the early years the emphasis will be on rhymes, riddles, nursery rhymes and jingles. This introduction to poetry is important and should convey the notion that poetry, more than any other form of language, has to do with a very special use of words, their meanings and connotations. The strong rhythmic and rhyming character of this sort of verse makes it very attractive to young children and makes it eminently suitable for class and group recitation. Very often there is an element of repetition and this appeals to them as well.
As they grow older they should become familiar with a wider range of poetry -- humourous, narrative (including traditional ballads, modern ballads and folk-songs) and lyric. The content of poems they encounter should not only touch on every area of children's experience but engage their imaginations as well.
The poems chosen should range widely in terms of cultural and historical origin but in senior classes, at any rate, there should be a particular emphasis on 20th-century Irish writing appropriate to their age. Many suitable poems can be found in the work of Irish writers and these should be supplemented with others from the main body of literature in English. They should also experience the work of some of the large number of contemporary writers who write mainly for children. Much of this is lighthearted in tone and gives an opportunity to introduce children to the fun that is to be had from poetry.
The classroom library should contain a wide selection of poetry collections and anthologies. These, coupled with the teacher's knowledge of what is available from the vast field of what might be appropriate to the children's stage of development, will form the basis for choosing poems. Children should, of course, be encouraged to read poems themselves and suggest poems to be read and discussed by the class but the
teacher will be the principal influence in the choice of poetry for whole-class
or group use.
The choice of poems can be influenced by many factors:
- time of year
- children's preoccupations and interests
- other areas of the curriculum
- a concern for broadening and deepening children's tastes
- events in the world at large.
However, the selection of poetry should be governed by one overriding concern. The repertoire of poetry the children experience should be of the highest quality. Although poetry can be a difficult medium it would be a mistake to underestimate the potential of children's response to it by choosing a selection that is less than challenging. It is important to remember that the child's experience of a poem, or of any work of art indeed, may be much more than he/she can express about it. In a very important sense, part of the experience is not expressible at all since each poem is a unique statement that cannot be paraphrased.
The poems that are chosen and the variety of ways in which children are encouraged to respond to them should help develop their sense of taste and discrimination and foster a conviction that poetry is a great source of pleasure.
Poetry also lends itself to integration with many areas of the curriculum, for example with visual arts (as already mentioned), history, geography, mathematics, PE. It is important to remember, however, that even if a poem does arise from activity in some other area of the curriculum it should be treated as a poem and not as a mere appendage to or illustration of another piece of learning.
Developing children's responses
Approaching a poem
Children can approach a poem in a number of ways:
- They can read it silently.
- They can listen to another pupil reading it.
- The teacher can read it aloud.
- They can listen to a professional reading of it on a recording.
- They can listen to the teacher reading it aloud while they look at the text.
This last can be very effective as they receive the poem through two of the senses at once. It is important, however, that the teacher's reading does justice to the poem because a good reading can often elucidate many of the difficulties of poetic expression. The suggestions outlined for telling a story have a similar relevance here.
How children should be encouraged to respond to a poem depends very much on the poem itself, the reason it was chosen and the circumstances in which it is read. Sometimes it is better to read a poem to the children without any comment or discussion. Indeed it is a good practice to present a poem in this way frequently. This may lead to spontaneous discussion and if this happens so much the better.
One of the most effective ways in which children can respond to a poem is through discussion. The teacher has an important role in initiating this activity and in encouraging, guiding and prompting children to
- look for the thrust of the poem
- distinguish the deeper meaning under the surface meaning (for example in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening)
- appreciate how words are used to achieve particular effects
- appreciate the effects of rhythm and rhyme
- examine the function of repetition
- recognise the effects of simile and metaphor
- examine the effects of alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance, imagery.
It is useful, sometimes, to compare two or more poems on a similar subject; for example 'Mid-term Break' by Seamus Heaney and 'The Night before Patricia's Funeral' by Michael Hartnett, where children can experience two poets' wholly different approaches to similar subjects.
Other important modes of response would include:
- making anthologies of favourite poems: they can be made by the class, a group or individual pupils
- art work: many poems, particularly in the imagery they contain, lend themselves to pictorial representation
- dance: this is particularly appropriate in junior classes
- memorisation: children should be encouraged to memorise short poems that they like and stanzas from longer poems
- recitation: this can be done individually and through choral verse-speaking.
It is important, too, that the child gets the opportunity to write poetry and verse. It is one of the genres that should form part of his/her writing experience. Although the child ought to be aware, particularly by the senior classes, of the functions of rhyme and rhythm in poetry, he/she should be encouraged to perceive accuracy and sincerity of expression as the most important requirements in a poem. An overpreoccupation with rhyme can lead to mere doggerel at the expense of any real self-expression.
EXEMPLAR 6 - An approach to Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost / Presenting two related poems to children