The reason for rhyme

8th August 2014 at 01:00

I read a worrying article last week suggesting that poetry was disappearing from the primary curriculum.

Had I not been enthused about poetry at primary school, I wouldn't be reading it now. My teacher started by telling us: "You won't understand everything about the poems I read to you, but listen to the sound of the sentences in this one about daffodils, the rise and fall of the words, how they make you feel."

If I met that teacher now, I could thank her for the pleasure I've had in revisiting many of the wonderful poems she read to us. And tell her that spending a week in the Lake District made me understand exactly how Wordsworth must have felt.

Which is why, as a headteacher, I organised a poetry week at the end of every spring term. Gradually, the event became a highlight of our school year. For 45 minutes a day, the children came together to celebrate the joy of verse. Each class dressed up to perform a poem of their choice to the rest of the school - and often added props and effects. Individual children also recited poems, many of them self-penned. Other readings were given by teachers, visiting governors, parents and support staff. By the end of the week, children aged 3 to 11 would have listened to more than 60 poems, varying enormously in scope, style and content.

I was always astonished by the speed at which even very small children could absorb lengthy poems once their imagination was fired. Parents often told me how their child recited the poem they were learning for poetry week ad nauseum, and then performed it to anyone who would listen.

The students invariably asked their parents to buy them books of verse, too, and they pored over the poetry in their class libraries.

Over the years our poetry weeks had many memorable moments: infants performing Michael Rosen's wonderful We're Going On a Bear Hunt with astonishing dexterity, their voices rising and falling in unison, their bodies lithely reflecting the actions in the words; a Year 6 performance of Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman, cleverly set to music by the teacher and dramatised so imaginatively that it held the rapt attention of even the youngest children; an extremely funny performance by three boys depicting the horrors of getting lost in a supermarket; an ethereal rendering of The Spider and the Fly by a Year 3 class, faces painted in ghostly black and white as they invited each other to "walk into my parlour"; a heartbreaking performance of Benjamin Zephaniah's Danny the Cat by a Year 6 teacher; and a meditation on the pleasures of looking at the world from a different perspective performed by three teachers hanging upside-down from gymnastics equipment.

But perhaps the most poignant moment came when a governor read a favourite poem about childhood, and tears dropped on to his cheek. The children watched fascinated, listening silently but not understanding why a grown-up could be so moved by some words on a piece of paper.

One day, provided we keep reading them poetry, they will.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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