5-point checklist for teaching poetry in primary

Want to get the most out of poetry lessons? Andrew Percival has some tips

Andrew Percival

teaching poetry

Poetry is an oft-neglected aspect of the English curriculum in primary schools, as teachers commonly report feeling less confident about teaching this elusive art form compared to a more straightforward novel or non-fiction text. 

In response, a number of schools have introduced poetry recital performances as a way of meeting the national curriculum requirement related to learning poetry by heart. 

Quick read: Professor Barbara Oakley on why working memory is the Rosetta Stone of teaching

Quick listen: What every teacher needs to know about memory

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There are many positive benefits of memorising poetry. Susan Wise Bauer argues in The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, that memorisation “builds into children’s minds an ability to use complex English syntax”.

Through internalising the rhythmic patterns of the English language these patterns then become part of the store of language for each student.

There may also be a less tangible justification, as Jeremy Paxman puts it, “Learn a poem in childhood and you’ve a friend for life.”

With this in mind, here are five ways to ensure that poetry recital performances have the most impact.

1. Plan your poetry recital curriculum carefully

Plan a sequence of poems to be learned across school in a coherent way that builds children’s knowledge of poetry and its varied forms. 

Make links with learning in other areas if these are relevant, but don’t be shackled by these.

Pick carefully to ensure that poems are rich in vocabulary, varied in theme and offer development of cultural capital. 

Consider poems that might develop character such as the stoicism of Rudyard Kipling’s If or William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, which inspired Nelson Mandela while imprisoned. 

2. Immerse students in the poems being learned

Study the poems in class beforehand, identify and teach challenging vocabulary in the context of the poem and identify themes to help ensure that the students’ performance matches the content well. 

You wouldn’t want a performance of RL Stevenson’s From a Railway Carriage to be devoid of the chugging rhythm of the train driving the poem onwards.  

As Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction suggests, introduce new material in small steps – learning a line at a time works well, slowly building recall verse by verse.

You don’t need to set aside huge amounts of time for rehearsal – little and often is the key. Practise in every spare minute available and try to find a recording of the poet reading their own work or listen to a professional actor’s reading to ensure correct intonation and rhythm. 

3. The more the merrier

The more students that can learn the poems to be presented to parents the better. Teach the whole class or year group the same poems to give those poems much-needed volume and gusto.  

There may be times when a single clear voice can be very impactful but nothing beats a throng in unison belting out a poem. 

Why not go one better and teach the whole school the same poem?

4. Revisit previously learned poems 

With each consecutive performance, why not revisit one of the previously learned poems as a way of strengthening recall and building a repertoire of poetry that all children have at their fingertips.  

We know that retrieval practice has great benefits for strengthening memory so take advantage of this and plan in opportunities to revisit poems learned earlier in the year, or be braver still and bring back a poem learned in a previous year group.

5. Learn it with them

If you don’t already know the poem by heart yourself, use this opportunity to learn it alongside your class. Making this a shared endeavour can be a useful way to model effective learning strategies. 

Talk about any "tricks" you might have for remembering each line or the sequence of the poem, such as creating a visual journey of the poem’s content. Consider discussing how difficult that learning by heart can be alongside how rewarding it is when you achieve success. 

This is a great way to model the resilience and determination we hope to develop in our pupils and is arguably more effective than sticking a few growth mindset posters up in the classroom. This is metacognition in action.

Model good study habits by beginning to study the poem well in advance of the performance. Show children that a well-planned sequence of revision is far better for long-term learning than last minute cramming, which rarely helps learning to stick.

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Andrew Percival

Andrew Percival is deputy headteacher at Stanley Road Primary School in Oldham

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