The sizzle and fizzle of poetry

Breaking the rules of language can inspire children to write brilliant verse, says Eileen Hyder

Language is like a jigsaw puzzle. It can be fun to find the right bits, and thrilling when it all comes together. But sometimes it can be frustrating. Squash the wrong piece into a space and you can see that it looks wrong - you just can't find the right one.

Writing is often like this. You try to fit the words together as you've been taught and sometimes it's thrilling, sometimes frustrating.

One time you can get away with using "wrong pieces" is when you write poetry. Poetry doesn't have to conform to rules of language. It doesn't need correct punctuation; it doesn't need the capital letters to be in the right places; it doesn't need the correct use of grammar. Perhaps more than any other form, it allows children free expression.

After a poetry-reading session, my class has often looked at how "real poets" seemingly make mistakes with language. But we know they're not really mistakes - everything that poets do is done for effect. And this means we can make "mistakes" in our own poetry. I tell the class that poetry work is a treat because I can't mark their work wrong. It has delighted me how they can justify what would appear to be errors by claiming "special effects".

The Basic Skills Agency booklet Effective Practice in Writing at KS2 claims that schools which teach writing successfully do not allow word-level work to be studied discretely for its own sake. Poetry is a wonderful way of teaching word-level work by doing it.

In Year 5, we look at different types of poetry, including rap. This seemed a good opportunity for using onomatopoeia, and we had great fun with it. After looking at rap poems and identifying their features, I gave them the beginning of a poem:

Onomatopoeia is a lovely word

You know the meaning from what you heard

Sausages sizzling in a pan go pop,

Water drips from a tap - plip, plop,

Crash and bang and woof and baa,

Let's go back before we go too far.

We then discussed what onomatopoeia is and brainstormed lots of words. I made sure they understood exactly what form their verses had to take - a rhyming couplet, a line of sound words (ending with a word it is easy to rhyme with) and then a line that takes you back to the beginning, and they went off in groups to write their own verses. They were fantastic.

We didn't do any formal work on onomatopoeia but now, whenever the word is mentioned, they immediately chant: "Onomatopoeia is a lovely word, You know the meaning from what you heard." I don't think they will ever forget it.

We are told about the importance of kinaesthetic learning - the more they tapped out "Daa daa daa da da da daa daa daa", then substituted words, then added actions, the more they were learning in a way that pages of exercises on onomatopoeia would never achieve.

Anyone can write poetry because it doesn't have to be perfect. When telling my class that writing poetry was easy and you could write about anything, they challenged me to write about a football match taking place that night - Newcastle v Liverpool (knowing that, as a Geordie, I would be watching). They enjoyed the poem, even though it had some dreadful lines:

A shot from Anelka was going right in,

But the Magpies were saved by their goalie, Given.

We all groaned, but then I reminded them of reading "Matilda" a few weeks earlier. Was my rhyme really worse than:

It happened that a few weeks later,

Her aunt was off to the theatre?

Is there any better way to encourage children to experiment with language than through poetry? If I had been unable to get that line to rhyme, I could have said I wanted to show how fast the ball was going, or some other excuse. Why should we be nervous of poetry, when we are making the rules?

No one, teachers included, needs to feel uncomfortable about poetry writing. At its most basic, it is putting words down in a way that is pleasing to you and no one else. You can be enigmatic; let the reader worry about what you mean and enjoy the fun when they read into it what you didn't put there.

Let's stop worrying about the supposed "mystique" of poetry and just enjoy ourselves.

Can I write a poem?

I put the words down as they come into my head

I shuffle them around

Rearrange them

Ask myself - do i want punctuation

Or can I not be bothered today

I like the look of it so I leave it as it is

Is this a poem?

And if it is, can't anyone do this?

Eileen Hyder teaches at St Joseph's RC school, Newbury

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