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Teaching poetry

In a short 6-week module like the one I teach at Harvard Ed School, time is the enemy. My quixotic goal for this too-short class is to expose students to all aspects of children’s literature, in breadth and in depth. Of course, every year and there is something I wish we had discussed in more depth. To help amend this, I will begin creating posts on some of those topics that always seem to get short shrift.

First on my list is Poetry.

Most teachers already know how engaging humorous rhyming poetry by Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky can be for students. But I want teachers to keep in mind all the benefits of serious poetry, too. When children write poetry themselves, free verse with a serious subject matter can be more rewarding than attempting to get the meter and rhyme just right. Too often, young poets add more and more words in order to arrive at the next rhyme. Good poets use fewer words, paring down language until they find exactly the right words. It takes a lot of practice and great facility with language to write a rhyming, metered poem that doesn’t use lots of extra words.

For our next class on November 16, we’re reading two books of poetry and also Susan Lempke’s article, “Purposeful Poetry” from the May/June 2005 Horn Book Magazine. While I applaud teachers who read a poem to their class every day — one that fits the day’s lesson — I agree with Lempke that this sometimes leads to problems. While you may be tempted to share a mediocre poem that reiterates your lesson to T, it would be better to read an excellent poem that is loosely connected to your subject. In fact, working with your class to comb out the meaning and determine how it applies to your lesson would be a great way to model different ways of analyzing poetry.

In her article, Lempke warns against all those poets who write with a specific educational purpose. But bear in mind that there are also some excellent poetry picture books that cover a single topic, for example those by Douglas Florian and Joyce Sidman.

•   •   •

Why read poetry written for children?

While nearly everyone agrees that poetry is an art form all children should be aware of, sometimes teachers need to defend their choice to share contemporary poems written for children when they could be sharing classic poems by Shakespeare, Dickinson, and others. I think a mix of classic and new poems is ideal, but if your principal is breathing down your neck, here are some responses you might give. (This list is partially adapted from past student projects.)

  • Fluency
    • Students can read short passages aloud, either individually or in chorus.
    • Poetry increases fluency, especially when the focus is on reading aloud and not just on analysis and interpretation.
    • Many poems are short and have lots of white space, making them less intimidating to struggling readers.
  • Phonemic Awareness
    • The International Reading Association recommends using nursery rhymes for developing phonemic awareness – i.e., how words are made up of sounds.
    • Children can anticipate rhyming words.
  • Comprehension
    • Short poems can be used to teach comprehension more economically than long prose passages.
    • A child can read a short poem aloud, then discuss meaning, literary elements, and the poem’s intent.
    • Poetry is great for visualization exercises. The Developmental Studies Center has a printable exercise for this here.

•   •   •

Finally, we want to share some online resources that are especially teacher-friendly.

In the US, the Poetry Foundation selects a new Young People’s Poet Laureate every 2 years — currently Jacqueline Woodson. According to their website, the goal of the Poet Laureate is “to raise awareness that young people have a natural receptivity to poetry and are its most appreciative audience, especially when poems are written specifically for them.” Their website also includes the full text of 400 poems for children including famous classic poems and more recent poems written specifically for children. That list starts here.

Scholastic, Inc., one of the larger publishers of trade books for children, has an especially good website with resources for teachers who want to share poetry with their students.

John Ciardi is a poet and also writes about poetry. Debra introduced me to his essay, “How Does a Poem Mean” which is available here:


Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Stone Dawson says:

    In reading for this week’s class, I especially enjoyed “A Kick in the Head.” While the poems are in and of themselves entertaining, the book’s usefulness as a tool for young students learning about poetry I think cannot be overstated. The poems are all fantastic examples of the various types of poetry being discussed, and the additional descriptions give the reader all of the important details without overcomplicating the forms. The colorful illustrations are interesting without being distracting, and the longer explanations of the various forms in the back of the book are excellent for students who are possibly studying or writing their first poems. Put simply, I think this book is the perfect response for teachers to give to those students who don’t enjoy a poem because “It doesn’t even rhyme.”

  2. Stone Dawson says:

    I’ve also just realized this is not the discussion board for our class this week. But, if anyone reading is interested, “A Kick in the Head” is still a great resource!

  3. One thing I did when I was teaching second grade was to buy multiple copies of paperback poetry books to use in reading groups. I’d share a few poems from each of several single-author poetry collections, leave the books out on the back table for a few days for the kids to peruse, and then let them select the poetry book they wanted to read and then discuss with other students in reading groups. My kids also kept journals where they responded to the poetry they read, copied out favorite lines, wrote their own poems, jotted down questions for me. I followed the same procedure a few months later with poetry anthologies. It was an enjoyable experience for both me and my students.

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