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What Is the Role of Poetry in Literacy Learning?

The following post was written by Mary Lee Hahn and Janet Wong who will host an #NCTEchat this Sunday April 19 at 8pm ET. 

Anyone who works in schools knows teachers need more “short exercises” that can fill gaps with a minimum amount of preparation. We would like to suggest that poetry is the most adaptive genre for a busy teacher; it can be

  • integrated with other subject areas such as math, science, social studies, the arts, PE/sports, and character education;
  • shared as accessible, easy-to-understand texts that are still high-level in content;
  • used as short texts to teach all kinds of language arts standards (summarization, comparison/contrast, theme, etc.); and
  • included as “short-cycle writing” with each of the three CCSS units: narrative, information, opinion.

Integrate Poetry with Other Subject Areas

At last November’s NCTE Annual Convention, the Children’s Literature Assembly (CLA) master class focused on the topic of poetry across the curriculum. The current issue of the Journal of Children’s Literature contains an article summarizing the session; you can also print the session handouts here. In the handouts, you will find ready-to-share exemplar poems about math, science, social studies, the arts, and PE and sports.

Poems can also address the need for character education. Eileen Spinelli’s poem “Poem for a Bully” from The Poetry Friday Anthology, for instance, delivers an anti-bullying message while putting the emphasis on the positive action of kindness.

spinelli bully jpeg
Follow that poem with “Compliment Chain” by Mary Lee Hahn to create a culture of positive and affirming behavior.

hahn compliment jpegUsing poetry to introduce a science or math lesson is an especially effective technique; introducing unfamiliar vocabulary and concepts in a poem gives students added confidence when they encounter the same vocabulary and concepts later. Play this video of “Gear” by former engineer Michael Salinger, and you will give your students a head start in science discussions of force and motion as well as math discussions of ratios.

Poems Can Offer High Content in an Accessible Package

As Sylvia Vardell has noted:

The readability level of poems varies greatly since poetry doesn’t easily fit the use of Lexiles and levels. Simple poems can have very sophisticated vocabulary and long poems can use simple language. Determining Lexile levels is based on a variety of factors, such as how long the sentences are and how unusual the words are, as well as on the use of basic punctuation. The nursery rhyme “Little Jack Horner,” for example, is written at the same eighth grade level as Robert Frost’s classic poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

PFAMS CC front cover jpegThe opposite is true, too: you can find many poems, like the Spinelli, Hahn, and Salinger poems above, that present high-level content that will be readable and engaging at all grade levels. One favorite with middle school students is Linda Kulp Trout’s “Silence” from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, an NCTE Notable Poetry Book.

kulp silence jpeg (2)

Poetry Can Be Used as Short Texts to Teach Language Arts Standards

Poems are the perfect small packages of text to use when introducing or practicing such skills in the CCSS as summarizing, comparing/contrasting, and identifying theme. By choosing poems of varying complexity, instruction is automatically differentiated for different students. Because the books in The Poetry Friday Anthology series (K–5 and Middle School) are organized by topic across grade levels, they are valuable resources for choosing poems.

Eileen Spinelli’s “Poem for a Bully” (mentioned above), when paired with Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s poem “The Bully” and Jacqueline Jules’s “Embarrassed,” can provide rich classroom conversations on the point of view of the speakers, the use of figurative language, and comparison and contrast on the theme of bullying.

mccall bully jpeg

jules embarrassed jpeg

Poetry Is Perfect for Short-Cycle Writing

In each of the three CCSS writing units—narrative, informational, and opinion—students can be invited to write poetry along with longer pieces. Mentor texts for narrative poetry can be found in Ralph Fletcher’s Marshfield Dreams. Poetry that is informed by facts about the natural world can be found in the books of Joyce Sidman (her newest is Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold), and opinion poems can be found in any poem that professes to tell about the best or worst of anything!

Join Us in Our #nctechat on Twitter this Sunday, April 19th

If this discussion of poetry has set your mind in motion, we hope you’ll join us and share your thoughts this Sunday, April 19, at 8 p.m. ET during our #nctechat on Twitter. We’ll have lots more examples of exemplar poems to share and, if you’ll post a comment with your questions, rants, raves, and brilliant ideas, we can customize this Twitterchat to fit your classroom needs. Hope to see you on Sunday!

@MaryLeeHahn (maryleehahn.com) is a fifth-grade language arts teacher in Dublin, Ohio.

@JanetWongAuthor (janetwong.com) is the author of 30 books for young people, including The Poetry Friday Anthology series (created with @SylviaVardell).