Poetry in decline, says leader of literacy trust

17th October 2008 at 01:00
Lack of attention to verse has knock-on effect for children's publishers

The teaching of poetry is being undermined by the free market, Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, has warned.

He said the decline in the children's poetry market could no longer be ignored and said only one major publisher, Macmillan, now publishes new poetry for children.

As fewer primary teachers appreciate verse, the diversity of the form is not being taught, so demand for new books has dwindled, he said.

"I would argue over whether the market knows best in this instance," he said. "There are ways booksellers could discover and promote poetry more proactively.

"The best advocates are poets themselves. While reading is seen as an individual activity, poetry is a social activity. There also needs to be a demystification of poetry. There is an assumption that poetry is difficult, not just among booksellers but among teachers."

He called for more support for teachers in gaining children's interest in poetry, and for poets' status to be raised through a high-profile Man Booker-type prize.

"People probably know and love poetry already - through lyrics, rhymes or the text of children's picture books," he said. "Adults see it as a niche thing and project that on to children, but children don't have those hang- ups.

"If children are not turned on to poetry, they will lose the opportunity to engage with literacy in a way that enriches them, and in the long term there is a danger for the entire poetry infrastructure because we are not growing a new generation who like poetry and who want to read and write poems.

"Poetry has sat at the heart of British experience for thousands of years. It would be very sad if it shifted from that position."

Next week, Teachers as Readers, an initiative run by the UK Literacy Association (UKLA), will announce the results of its two-year project to boost reading for pleasure in schools.

An initial survey for 1,200 teachers last year found that most primary teachers could not name more than three poets for children, while more than a fifth failed to name one.

But Teresa Cremin, president of UKLA and professor of education (literacy) at the Open University, said there were rare examples that bucked the trend. She said its project in Medway, Kent, had focused on poets and poetry.

"In Medway, it is true to acknowledge that many found reading outside their comfort zone and reading poetry a challenge," she said.

"But by the end of the year, many of these teachers were enthusiastic readers of poetry. I believe this arose really because the project encouraged the teachers to talk about and share the poets whose work they were reading, and to focus in school on poets rather than poems with their class."

An Ofsted report on poetry in schools last year found that it was the worst taught part of the English curriculum.

But it also found that pupils were generally positive about poetry - a finding that went against the common perception of many teachers in secondary schools.


More than 200 children at Hall Road primary in Hull are looking forward to becoming published poets this year.

Kerry Brown, the school's literacy co-ordinator, invited poet Dave Webb into school to work with pupils in Year 1 to Year 6 during their "rhythm and rhyme" week. The poems the children have created since the visit are to be published in a 90-page book. The school is paying for the books, but will sell them to parents at the break-even price of Pounds 5.

Mrs Brown said: "It's not that poetry is overlooked, but the pressure of Sats means it is not something that is emphasised as much. I am passionate about poetry and it is a powerful medium that works with all ages and abilities. It stimulates children's imagination and allows them to be free writers."

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