The Power of Poems

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Word recognition and reading fluency are essential skills for reading competency and both of these factors influence comprehension.  Poetry is a writing form that is infrequently used in the teaching of reading and yet it is well suited for teaching word recognition, fluency and comprehension.

Many children, especially those who are struggling to learn to read, require numerous repetitions of a word in order to remember that word.  Poems and songs often contain repeated phrases or words which provide in built repetition.  In addition, a large number of children’s poems rhyme.  The rhyming words at the end of each line provide children not only with a cue as to how to decode the word but also provides repetition of a common letter string (e.g., ‘ight’ in light, bright, night).  Being able to quickly and accurately recognise a common letter string helps in both decoding and fluency.

Research shows that the repeated reading of a short text is an effective way to develop fluency.  Poems and songs, which are designed to be rehearsed, until a high level of automaticity is achieved so they can be  performed orally, inherently provide an authentic reason for repeated reading and in doing so provide multiple exposures to the vocabulary contained within the text.

Once you are very familiar with a piece of text you are able to change your focus from decoding to comprehending the text.  Once you have comprehension, you are able to read with expression.

Poems are bursting with interesting and unusual words, figurative language (such as similes and metaphors) and imagery.  Taking the time to discuss the meaning of these unusual words and the use of words to create a particular image helps your child learn about these concepts in an interesting way.  Every time the poem is re-read is an opportunity for your child to have a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the poem.  Help your child analyse a poem by first looking for rhyming words, then looking for adjectives, then for metaphors and similes, etc.

It is important to expose your child to different types of poems – Japanese haikus, ballads that tell a story, non-rhyming poems, limericks, nursery rhymes and tongue twisters – and poems that cover different topics.  We have a rich heritage of poetry and it is important we share this heritage with our children.

Ten ideas for using poetry to help develop reading skills:

  1. Personal Poetry Book: Read lots of poems to your child and together select ones that appeal to your child.  Make a collection of your child’s favourite poems which will be the ones that he or she will learn to read fluently.  Remember to also include poems that your child has written.
  2. Poetry Night: Have a poetry night where everyone in the family shares a poem that they have learned.
  3. Reading for a purpose: Before a new poem is read, ask your child to skim the poem to see if he or she can predict what the poem will be about. After the poem has been read, ask your child to identify the different techniques used or discuss these techniques and how they influence your comprehension of the poem.  Finally, identify the theme of the poem and help your child to summarise the poem in one sentence.
  4. Change a poem into a song: Encourage your child to make up a melody for a favourite poem and then to sing the poem. Alternatively, take a favourite song and speak the words of the song with the appropriate expression.
  5. Put the poem to a beat: Make up a clapping pattern or use percussion instruments (drums, cymbals, shakers) to accompany the poem.
  6. Record your child reading a poem: Video your child reading a poem. Replay the recording and discuss how the reading could be improved through different expressions or actions.  Practise and then video the next attempt.  Compare and contrast the two recordings.
  7. Clapping and skipping chants: Teach your child some clapping and skipping chants. Once the chant is remembered and can be completed while clapping or skipping, provide the printed copy for your child to read.  This is a particularly good strategy for beginning readers to ensure success.
  8. Choral and part reading: Look for poems that you can read together with your child or that has different parts so that each person has a part of the poem to read. Beginner readers might enjoy reading the chorus of a poem (or a repeating phrase) while you read the verses.
  9. Find a particular part of speech: After your child has learned about a particular part of speech, examples can be found in the poem – nouns, verbs, adjectives. You can also look for particular punctuation marks such as apostrophes and discuss their role (e.g., to indicate a contraction or possessive).
  10. Find synonyms or antonyms: Say a word and ask your child to search the poem for a synonym or antonym. For younger children you might need to suggest a particular stanza in which to search. An easier version of this activity is for your child just to find a particular word.  This is a great activity to help develop scanning.

References for list of poetry books for different ages

Skipping & clapping chants: or

Information for teachers: