Memorising poetry: 5 tips to help pupils

Poetry memorisation is a skill all pupils should be taught, and this is how to do it, says a head of drama

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Memorising poetry is a skill all children should possess, but it is something that becomes ever more key as the GCSEs approach; students are expected to know quotations from up to 18 poems for their final English exam.

We cannot simply expect primary schools to embed these skills in children – at secondary, we need to see it as our job, too, and to teach memorisation of poetry in the context of the secondary curriculum.

Of course, this should not come at the expense of analysing poetry, but remembering the words to a poem is a skill that needs attention.

So how should we go about it?

1. Emphasise the key words in each line of the poem

You can do this as a whole-class exercise first, talking through why that word is key and analysing the connotations. These are the words that stand out and that will serve as a memory platform for each line. If students can remember the key words in a line, the rest is like filling in the gaps.  

2. ‘Chunk’ the memorising process

We don't want to overload our pupils' short-term memory, so start with the first four lines – I tend to say the lines and have students repeat them back to me with no written prompts. Don't move on until most of the class can completely recite the lines without your prompting. Then take on the next four lines. After they have remembered each section, mix up whether you start them off again from the beginning of the poem or at other points.

3. Actions, movements and gestures

Yes, students will moan and groan. Yes, they'll be embarrassed. Yes, you will feel like you’re leading the Reception class nativity play. But adding relevant actions or gestures will help to prompt students and remind them of those key words or aid them in recalling the next line.

This is known as the "enactment effect", which is proven to help with retrieval.

I've found that once students have learnt the poem and you ask them to recite the poem a few lessons later with no practising, many of them fall back into using the gestures as a prompt.

4. Vocal expression

This can be used in a number of ways to make the context feel more relevant for students, therefore making it easier to remember. It is used best on those keys words or to characterise someone within the poem. For example, "I am Ozymandias, King of Kings" is much easier to remember when said in an overly deep and loud voice on those key words. Plus, it's much more fun to say.

5. Ensure independence

To start with you'll be at the front of the room, wildly acting out moves and shouting out lines, and most of your students will be consciously going along with you. Except for Alex, Charlie and Claire. They’re doing the actions, repeating the words, but all the while not actually taking in a word.

This is why, when you think the majority have got it, you need to remove yourself and allow students to chant along on their own. Those not getting it can then be easily spotted and you can target them for some personal support.

Maria Vogler is a head of drama, associate head of key stage 4 and an English teacher. She tweets @mariarosevogler

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