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Poetry is for life, not just for school

02 April 2014

Poetry is for life, not just for school

Schofield & Sims author Celia Warren explains why children should learn poetry by heart.

When my mother went to school in the 1930s, her timetable included ‘PT’. When I went to school in the 1960s, it had become ‘PE’ – and remains so today. Both PT and PE are 'physical', but 'training' is arguably more regimented than 'exercise'. At the end of the day, the desired result is the same: to exercise young bodies.

Much the same can be said of teaching methods across the curriculum, not least in the area of literacy. Names change, methods vary, but the desired outcome is universal literacy and to instil in children a love of books and reading for both information and life-enriching pleasure.

Compare the phrases 'learning by rote' and 'learning by heart'. The end result is the same: holding words in your head to call upon whenever you wish. But how much more motivating is the term 'by heart'. It has lifelong benefits that go far beyond simply exercising young minds. People in their nineties, who can't remember what they had for breakfast, can recite poems learned in childhood. Those precious words are seldom lost.

Is it right to make children learn poems off pat? As soon as something is laid down by law, it seems our natural reaction is to resent and resist the diktat – even if makes compulsory an activity that we already enjoy. If we are told we MUST eat chocolate, when we are already drooling over it, we're going to eat it in spite of being told we must, rather than because we have to. And we want that deliciousness to linger.

So it is with learning poetry. Young children are not afraid of it. They learn it by heart without even noticing, from nursery rhymes and playground ‘dips’ to rhyming stories and poems that are read to them. It is not a chore. It is a delight. Ask older children if they know the lyrics of their favourite songs. The answer is yes. Do children resent learning their lines to perform in the school play or Christmas pantomime? No. Where there is pleasure or purpose in learning, there is the will to do so.

When I perform in schools, I can present a poem that the children have never heard before and, within minutes, they are joining in as confidently as if they had the printed words in front of them. They have learned a poem by heart without any difficulty and with much fun.

The secret to encouraging children of any age to learn poetry lies with the adults who introduce the poems. If they are not confident in putting across a poem, they need to practise beforehand, so they know where the stresses lie, where to pause, where to change tempo or volume. To further ensure that poetry is delivered as originally intended, teachers may wish to invite poets to the school, to read and perform their work, or find recorded readings to share with classes.

A gift for life

Young people who learn poetry in their childhood or teens are more likely to continue to read and enjoy it in their adult life, rather than ignoring or feeling uncomfortable around it. Meanwhile, poetry offers many additional educational 'spin-offs'. Poetic devices, such as repetition, rhyme and alliteration, increase phonic awareness and reading fluency. Patterned language makes texts more predictable and increases readers' confidence, while shared recitations have a levelling effect, making any imposed differentiation less noticeable to the young performers. More confident children may perform solo lines, while less confident children speak a refrain together; poems for more than one voice offer distribution and sharing of lines to learn. Poetry is also a vehicle for channelling emotion, directly and indirectly: children may read others' poems and cathartically write their own, drawing on remembered poetic devices. It is a literary form that, because of its diversity,  dovetails into cross-curricular studies. At the same time it is broad enough to allow for universal multicultural enjoyment and purpose.

When it comes to learning poems by heart, the bottom line, you might argue, is 'Why bother?' My answer is that to encourage children to learn poems by heart is to offer them a gift for life. A virtual anthology in their heads is a personal resource of comfort, joy and entertainment that they have always with them to draw on at any time – when they are afraid, bored, sad, alone, hurt or simply wanting to share a happy moment or find words to articulate a feeling. Poetry is for life, not just for school.

Celia Warren is a well-known children’s poet and former teacher. Her most recent title for Schofield & Sims is the A Time to Speak and a Time to Listen poetry anthology and Teacher's Guide. Celia Warren is available for readings, performances and workshops in schools by arrangement. Please e-mail if you would like to organise a poetry event with Celia at your school.

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