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English - In the spotlight

Poetry emerges from the mist of the Dales

When Josie Whitehead retired from teaching Pitman shorthand five years ago, she turned her attention to something that had become a growing passion: phonics learning and the power it has to help improve children's language skills.

She decided to volunteer at her local primary school near Bradford, spending an hour a week helping weaker pupils with their reading. What she hadn't anticipated was that this would prove so successful it would lead to her writing poems that now inspire children around the world.

"I learned that, like me, these children had a preference for classic narrative poems made up of rhyme," she says. "So as a challenge I began to write short poems I hoped would inspire, excite and help their literacy skills.

"That led to setting up a poetry website so I could share the work with others. Now I have a collection of nearly 900 poems which encourage learners to identify patterns of poetry and also to really look at the world around them."

Feedback from teachers and educational psychologists suggests that her poems' rhyming structure is particularly useful for phonological development - so central to the literacy curriculum.

Ms Whitehead's poems not only support literacy skills, but cover a range of subjects, making them useful resources for a range of creative curriculum topics. The website includes a section on health and well-being, alongside science-focused poems.

Far from our Coral Home explores the issues of humans removing fish from their habitats, and Well Hello Mr Lobster describes a lobster's nervous system. Both are designed to stimulate class discussion.

Twinkle Twinkle explains the science of stars, while Lessons from the Past offers a personal insight into life as a British child during the Second World War. Though mainly aimed at primary children, there are numerous higher level texts available.

Some of her poems have been illustrated by the rich visual works of young art graduates from Anglia Ruskin University and Ms Whitehead (pictured left) frequently engages in Skype readings and question and answer sessions with classes, in the UK and abroad. Now she is looking for a performing arts teacher who can organise performance workshops using her prose.

For Ms Whitehead, the most important thing is that she writes poetry "for the children". The delightful comments she receives from them motivate her to get more and more poems out to as many classrooms as possible.

What else?

Planning for World Poetry Day on 21 March? Why not contact Ms Whitehead for a Skype reading? Or read an overview of Usha Goswami's revolutionary research on reading: a reason for rhyme. Have a taste for poetry? Try HarrisSchool's Fabulous Food lesson.

For all links and resources visit

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