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Use Poetry To Help Children Learn Literacy Skills

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Reading poetry to young children

Reading poetry to young children

Poetry and Children's Learning

I've seen at first hand the wonder in the faces of children who are introduced to good rhythmical poetry at an early age. When a teacher or educator truly engages with the class and gets the music in a good poem to come out, children love it.

The rhythms take over and those who might be a little wary of the label poetry soon find themselves nodding their heads, tapping their feet, clapping their hands. It's infectious!

From nursery rhymes to serious verse, from old classics to modern and contemporary, poems can open up new worlds for children and bring lifelong benefits.

Many adults claim that all the creative and the wondrous is being drained out of today's educational systems - there's too much bureaucracy and ticking of boxes - as if the kids have to fit into the system and become robots.

  • In this article you'll find tips and handy advice for teachers as well as parents and anyone involved with group work. I'll give examples of excellent poems you can use in the classroom or at home and give links to books, videos and other sources of information.

I start with the very young - children up to 6 years of age and go on to older children aged 7 - 11 years old.

Children's Literacy - Skills

Using poetry can help improve your students' literacy skills through:

  • reading, repetition and memory recall
  • writing and annotating
  • the sharing of ideas
  • discovery of new words
  • enunciation
  • patterns in speech
  • the construction of a poem or line
  • encouraging creative thinking and writing
  • spelling and punctuation
  • use of vowel sounds
  • searching for poetical devices such as rhyme, enjambment and alliteration
Encourage your children to read poems.

Encourage your children to read poems.

Nursery Rhymes to Begin Your Class

Once you have your aims and objectives sorted you can start introducing your children to the poetry. A good way to get the class interested is through the use of nursery rhymes that have animals in them.

Nursery rhymes have rhythm, great words and a natural musical flow.

Younger Children Up To 6 Years Old

For countless years nursery rhymes have enthralled and puzzled children! I can remember being taught dozens as a child and even though I didn't understand many of them at the time, I loved the rhythms and sounds they contained.

Who could not be impressed by:

  • Hey diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle

The cow jumped over the moon?

The little dog laughed to see such fun

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And the dish ran away with the spoon.

  • Hickory dickory dock

the mouse ran up the clock!

  • Incey Wincey spider

Climbing up the spout,

Down came the rain

And washed the spider out.

Children under about 6 years old can join in by clapping on the beats and stresses, using musical instruments like drums and tambourines, performing movements,actions and dance to the rhythms of the words.

At this stage children usually don't need to write down the words but if you encourage them with large posters pinned up around the classroom then perhaps they can attempt a written version of their own.

Nursery rhymes are an excellent source for poetical rhythms.

The Rhythms of Tea, Coffee and Chocolate

You can introduce these simple words to your students then get them to say each one out loud. Alternate with the group so that everyone gets a chance to say all three words. Tea has one syllable, coffee two and chocolate three.

So you could have some students saying tea, others saying coffee and a third group saying chocolate, like in a musical round. Get them used to the rhythms of the syllables then you might think about developing these words and forming a sentence:

Tea with sugar, coffee with milk, chocolate on my tongue.

You can vary the rhythms and beats by making up your lines.

Ann loves apples, Max likes melons, Barbara adores bananas.

Teaching Example Poem - Hey Diddle Diddle

Nursery rhymes are a fun and easy way to introduce poetry to your class. An illustrated book can help children focus on the words.

  • Start by reading the nursery rhyme yourself.
  • Encourage your class to read with you.
  • If possible, use a simple melody with the words.

With the nursery rhyme Hey diddle diddle it's possible to split the group or class into two or three and attempt the poem by creating a round.

For example, group one could start out by repeating Hey diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle, Hey diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle and keeping this beneath the main nursery rhyme which is spoken by group two.

Or group one could repeat Hey diddle diddle, group two the cat and fiddle and group three say the whole nursery rhyme.

All groups would finish at the same time! This is a fun and useful way to get all the children involved. Include some musical instruments to enhance the performance.

  • Ask the class if they can come up with words that rhyme with moon and spoon.
  • Be creative. Instead of a cow jumping over the moon, what might take its place?

Carl Sandburg - Flux

'Poetry is the capture of a picture, a song, or a flair, in a deliberate prism of words' wrote Carl Sandburg, the American poet and collector of folk songs. This little poem certainly captures a picture.

Sand of the sea runs red

Where the sunset reaches and quivers.

Sand of the sea runs yellow

Where the moon slants and wavers.

Stimulate the Whole Brain!

Auditory Learners - by choosing a variety of poems you can appeal to the auditory learners in your group or class. They will hear and imitate the rhymes, rhythms and vowel sounds and will enjoy the devices used in many poems, such as assonance and alliteration.

Visual learners - using pictures, symbols and cards will appeal to the visual learners who may find sounds alone a challenge. Easily recognised, clear images can help timing and involvement.

Kinaesthetic learners - everyone will enjoy movement, using an instrument, touching an object and having a hands-on experience. If you have reluctant pupils in your group they may respond more positively if they are actively involved!

Reading Poetry To Young Children

Small groups mean everyone gets a chance to listen!

Small groups mean everyone gets a chance to listen!

Yellow Butter

This excellent rhythmic poem is simple yet has interesting changes in each line. It can be chanted, spoken, even sung!! It might also increase your children's appetites!

Yellow butter purple jelly red jam black bread

Spread it thick

Say it quick.

Yellow butter purple jelly red jam black bread

Spread it thicker

Say it quicker

Yellow butter purple jelly red jam black bread

Now repeat it

While you eat it

Yellow butter purple jelly red jam black bread

Don't talk

With your mouth full!

Mary Ann Hoberman, Viking Books, 1981

What are the Benefits of Poetry Reading for Children?

Children from a very early age take in all they see and hear. The more they're exposed to positive rhythmical language the better chances they have of developing their creative potential and of using the imagination.

Perhaps more importantly, children begin to learn just how powerful and life enhancing language can be. Listening to beautiful lines of poetry eventually encourages more complex thinking patterns.

Plus, the whole poetical experience can be a fun way to experience rhythms, timing and rhyme.

In short the benefits include:

  • empathy - a child learns to step into the shoes of another person, another life, and so can become sympathetic to those from different cultures and religions. A shared experience can help a child grow and reflect.
  • physical well being - a child can listen to rhythms and learn about movement, sound and patterns.
  • intellectual stimulation - a child will begin to see how the imagination works, how language opens new doors into new worlds.
  • emotional and social stimulation - a child can sense fun, happiness and togetherness within a group, as well as experience the highs and lows within a particular poem's meaning.

For older children, poetry stimulates the brain and encourages alternative ways of thinking. Reciting poetry can help speech and concentration and memory. Writing poetry and creating new poems is an excellent way to express what's within and learning from poems already studied. It links directly to drama, song, music, dance, english and academic writing.

Children need the music of poetry in their lives. It brings beauty, passion, truth and vision to the world.

Nursery Rhyme Video For Very Young Children

Poetry For Children Aged 7 - 11 Years old

As children grow and progress they need more challenging material to help stimulate their imaginations. You can still use the nursery rhymes as warm-ups but you should also consider poems with more complicated structure and syntax.

Rhythm and pattern are still vital, as is musicality, but now you can advance into the world of performance and project. Children can start to develop writing and comprehension skills. You can also introduce them to the different sounds within lines and stanzas and encourage them to memorise the poetry.

  • Language development can really get going with this age group. More complex thinking patterns become apparent and the poems you choose should reflect this - and more. Issues that may be important to your children can be introduced and integrated within the poetry theme.

Children love to make progress with writing skills, listening ability, discovering how rhythm, rhyme and structure relate. The power of the poems can be emphasised, the potency of words within. It's highly likely that your children will be able to have a go at creating their own poems.

Teaching Example - Poem for 7 - 11 year old Children

Theodore Roethke's poem below is perfect for all learners. It contains some wonderful lines and words, has strong images and encourages movement. These lines are part of a much longer poem The Lost Son which is also well worth exploring.

Again, you can use small groups. Group one can recite the poem, group two could act out the movements as the text progresses.

More in depth work could follow. Your children could:

  • note the syllables and stresses
  • locate the rhymes
  • write down unusual words and research meanings
  • note down poetic devices such as alliteration
  • learn to enunciate certain words
  • create a new poem

'Running lightly over spongy ground' (from The Lost Son)

Running lightly over spongy ground,
Past the pasture of flat stones,
The three elms,
The sheep strewn on a field,
Over a rickety bridge
Toward the quick-water, wrinkling and rippling.

Hunting along the river,
Down among the rubbish, the bug-riddled foliage,
By the muddy pond-edge, by the bog-holes,
By the shrunken lake, hunting, in the heat of summer.

The shape of a rat?
It's bigger than that.
It's less than a leg
And more than a nose,
Just under the water
It usually goes.

Is it soft like a mouse?
Can it wrinkle his nose?
Could it come in the house
On the tips of its toes?

Take the skin of a cat
And the back of an eel,
Then roll them in grease,–
That's the way it would feel.

It's sleek as an otter
With wide webby toes
Just under the water
It usually goes.

Theodore Roethke, The Lost Son, 1948

Richard Wilbur - An Opposite Poem

This short poem by Richard Wilbur would be great for a warm up. You could get the group to really have fun with these lines which encourage creativity and drama!!

The opposite of making faces

Is not indulging in grimaces,

Wrinkling your nose, with tongue stuck out,

And rolling both your eyes about,

But letting eyes, and mouth, and nose

Remain entirely in repose.

It's true, however, that a very

Fixed expression can be scary.

Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems, 1943-2004

A Poem To Test Enunciation and Vocabulary

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) invented his own form of metre which he termed sprung rhythm, involving alliteration and unusual beats within a line. You can read more about this and other poetic devices in this link.

This following poem is a wonderful example of his work and could be a great challenge for the language experts in your class! Read it aloud and try to find the music within. I'm sure you will be successful if you persist!


This darksome burn, horseback brown,

His rollrock highroad roaring down,

In coop and comb the fleece of his foam

Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth

Turns and twindles over the broth

Of a pool so pitchblack, fell frowning,

It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew

Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,

Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,

And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft

Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Following On

With older children it's possible to go that much further into poetry. You may want to expand into such topics as:

  • song lyrics - ask for favourite song lyrics to be brought in. Go through them, pick out the best lines from a poetic point of view.
  • personal issues - older children may be aware of emotional and other things going on life that could benefit from discussion and eventual creating of poetry.
  • global ideas - current affairs, politics and the environment can all be explored through poetry.

Teaching Poetry To Children


Collected Poems of Richard Wilbur, Waywiser, 2004

The Rattle Bag, faber and faber, 1982

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2013 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on April 27, 2015:

Thanks for the visit, much appreciated.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on April 25, 2015:

true, poems can help kids to use and generate more words

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on December 24, 2013:

This is such a wonderful hub!

I completely agree with you about this fun way of teaching poetry with music. I clearly remember my teaching days, how the kids enjoyed learning in this way and this lasts in memory as well.

A very well written hub! Voted up as useful and shared!

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on December 24, 2013:

I really appreciate your comment, many thanks. Poetry can help children explore the world in a unique and beautiful way...but it's never too late to catch up!!

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on December 23, 2013:

I agree with Ann. This is an excellent way to teach poetry to children. I wish it had been available to me as a child. Thank you...Well done indeed...

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on December 23, 2013:

Too right Ann. Keep the children fresh and intuitive!

Ann Carr from SW England on December 23, 2013:

That's certainly the best way to teach; they think they're just having fun!

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on December 23, 2013:

Thank you Ann, I'm grateful for your visit and comment. Yes, children love to listen to the magic of poetry and learn without even knowing sometimes!!

Ann Carr from SW England on December 23, 2013:

This is sooooo... good and I have to go back and read it all again. It's a subject close to my heart and something I've done with my dyslexic students. You've highlighted multi-sensory teaching, you've spoken about the music of verse and you've mentioned all the benefits of using this fun way to approach language and to learn what words are made of. It's an excellent hub. Up, up and away and shared. All teachers, parents and everyone else should read this! Well done! Ann

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