Poems give lessons rhyme and reason

12th January 2007 at 00:00

Poetry can inspire even the most reluctant adult basic skills student to learn, explains Gill Moore

THE FIRST time I decided to present poetry to a basic skills class, was to people from the Job Centre, who were supposed to be working on their skills to improve their chances of getting a job.

They were unlikely to find themselves writing advertising jingles or messages in greetings cards, so how could I justify teaching them poetry? There were many learning targets they could hit, but my bigger challenge was to engage a mixed age group of men and women, some of whom had an attitude problem to being sent back to college.

They were getting bored with worksheet exercises, so I decided to tackle The Charge of the Light Brigade and was pleasantly surprised by how well it was received. Tennyson's poem is very accessible and there are plenty of speaking and listening targets to hit.

You can see how language was used to create special effects, such as the pounding of the horses' hooves, and rhymes are a good underpinning for spelling.

You can think about the author's purpose (useful up to level 2, GCSE equivalent). Why did Tennyson write it? Is this just a piece of Victorian spin?

If this poem, written in 1854, portrays the glory of war, then Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est, written in 1917, shows the horror of it. Henry Reed's 1946 poem Lessons of the War: 1. Naming of Parts provides another contrast, this time the boredom when soldiers are not in action.

On a short, intensive basic skills programme, we had no time to compare poetic styles. Instead, we followed up with research on the Crimean War which enabled the students to hit more targets for reading, researching and planning writing, as well as developing information technology skills.

The topic allows most people to research something which interests them.

Students could find out about Tennyson and his place in Victorian society, or the conduct of the war itself. Some of my students liked the maps in an atlas of history. Others were interested in the medals: the first Victoria Crosses were struck from the metal of the captured Russian guns.

The war saw the first use of the telegraph system, allowing almost live reporting by The Times reporter W. H. Russell, the first use of photography on a European battlefield and the first strategic use of a railway.

Soldiers saw their Turkish counterparts rolling tobacco and brought back roll-your-own cigarettes to England.

Florence Nightingale was in the Crimea, and her experiences brought about major reforms of hospitals and the training of nurses. The authorities refused to send out Mary Seacole, a Jamaican nurse, but she went anyway, raising her own funds and winning the respect and affection of the men she treated with her knowledge of tropical medicine and herbal remedies.

Encouraged by my first foray into teaching poetry, I have used it often since, including with students with severe learning difficulties at pre-entry level.

Many poems are built up from lists, which gives an easy way in. We took the Victorian poet Thomas Hood's No!

No shade, no shine,

No butterflies, no bees,

No fruits, no flowers,

No leaves, no birds


as the basis for constructing a group poem about winter, and reinforcing sight vocabulary for no and yes.

A poem with a simple structure which can be recreated easily always works well, if you provide scaffolding appropriate to the students' needs. (There is nothing more daunting than a blank sheet of paper and being told to write.) Another successful poem using a list is Kit Wright's The Magic Box, published in 1987. You need a suitable group of students for this poem; I wouldn't have used it with my Job Centre group, but it went down well with an all-female class.

The poem may have been written for children - the concept of a magic box certainly suggests that - but the language is very rich and the ideas are quite sophisticated. My students rose splendidly to the challenge of recreating it and had plenty of ideas about what to put into their box, what the box would look like and how they would use it to transport them somewhere special.

The format enables you to accommodate responses at different levels, from those who contribute only a few words to those who can create a stunning image.

The poem is suggested on the website www.poetryclass.net and it gives more ideas which could be adapted for use with adults.

If you are more ambitious, take a look at the Write Where You Are publication brought out by Niace, the adult learning body, with Learn Direct and the Get On campaign, or the www.writewhereyouare.org website.

There is some powerful writing there, by adult learners, but don't feel daunted.

You don't have to be knowledgeable about poetry yourself to use it as a teaching aid; just find some poetry that you like, preferably with an obvious structure, present it to your students, and let them take it on.

There is plenty to choose from. Perhaps start by looking at The Nation's Favourite Poems, compiled by the BBC.

My students wrote their own version of The Magic Box for National Poetry Day in October, but why wait for an excuse?

Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer and TES columnist

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