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Modern foreign languages - Poetry in translation

Even beginners can appreciate simple, beautiful verse

Even beginners can appreciate simple, beautiful verse

Some wonderful poems use simple language in amazing ways. Learning a language is hard work, so the earlier you reward pupils' efforts with something marvellous to read the better.

Why wait until GCSE to give them great poems by Charles Baudelaire and Jacques Prevert (pictured below)? Children can appreciate profound thought and feeling in simple, beautiful words. They feel proud to be reading the real thing and not just a dumbed-down version. Choose the right poem or extract and you could fire their love of the language. Just learning one line can be satisfying, and it embeds key grammar and vocabulary in the memory, too. Poetry also provides an incentive for working on pronunciation. You have to get it right to hear the poem's music.

Paul Verlaine wrote poems of great power, often in short lines and with simple imagery. Chanson d'Automne describes an autumn day and how the speaker feels blown about just like "la feuille morte" (a dead leaf). This poem is a good way to teach reflexive verbs. Pupils can write their own poems in which they express feelings by comparing themselves to natural things. Verlaine's Le Ciel Est, Par-Dessus le Toit describes a lovely setting then delivers an emotional shock. Pupils can write their own two-part poems that describe a setting first and then the viewer's mood.

Poems can tell a story in simple words and images that distil deep emotion. Prevert's Dejeuner du Matin tells the story of the end of a love affair. A man makes a cup of coffee and drinks it - without saying a word to the woman he is leaving. Pupils will see that it is not long words that make poetry but compassion, observation, feeling and truth. This will encourage their own writing, too. Longer story poems can be given in stages, to build suspense over several lessons. Scare them with Goethe's frightening folk tale, Erlkonig. Then play them Schubert's menacing score of the same name.

Imagination can work magic with simple words. In La Mort des Pauvres, Baudelaire describes death as a source of hope and comfort to the very poor. He imagines death as a wonderful inn, where the poor may at last "manger, et dormir, et s'asseoir" (eat, sleep and sit). This poem helps pupils revise some basic verbs in a new context: one that makes them think afresh about something as everyday as sitting down. The image of the angel "who makes the bed for the poor and naked" stays in the mind: a domestic thing transformed by poetry into something miraculous.

Catherine Paver has taught French in England and English in Italy and South Africa.


Catherine Paver's MFL worksheets for the poems mentioned in this article and many more are available on the TES Resources website.

Inspire pupils to write their own foreign-language poems with ciara5's PowerPoint focusing on Jacques Prevert's work.

Or try rosered27's worksheet for a wintry introduction to German poetry.

Serve up some delicious French words with a poem by Robert Desnos, shared by es2010.


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