Poems entice readers to read and revisit them, again and again. In this way poetry is like music, children (and adults) often return to the same pieces, recognising and appreciating something about them that speaks and satisfies.
I wonder though, as educators, especially in the junior years, do we tend to profile the complexity of poetry first, studying such texts at the relative expense of developing children’s pleasure in the sounds, patterns and meanings of words at play? Perhaps we could build in more space for pleasure, play and repetition?
In a rich literacy curriculum, the teaching of and playful engagement with poetry are interrelated. But if we really value poetry, then surely we can allow ourselves to trust the form more? Surely we can allow its brevity and diversity to involve and affectively engage the young? Maybe we can achieve a better balance by offering a rich range, and invoking repetition and revisitation as key principles, especially in class readings and performances? There are parallels again here with music; we revisit many songs in assemblies and children experience the security of the known, sing along with pleasure and develop a positive attitude to song.
Children’s earliest encounters with poetry often include repetition (and song), parents re-visit the recurring rhythms of nursery rhymes almost ad infinitum whilst bathing and playing with their youngsters. Later poetry in books, such as Mike Rosen’s A Great Big Cuddle, and in rhyming picture books such as those by Jeanne Willis, Trish Cooke and Julia Donaldson, also demand repetition. Through repeated readings of these early ‘poems in common’, children learn how the poem/narrative verse ‘goes’, they join in physically, taste the sounds on their tongues and feel the rhythm in their bones. In the process they find pleasure in word play and develop favourites. By repeating and re-voicing nursery rhymes, two ball games, jokes, playground chants and faith songs for instance, as well as poetry introduced in the curriculum, young people develop an early awareness of rhyme, alliteration and assonance.
Repetition matters in later experiences of poetry too. In many school contexts in which we work to build positive attitudes and interest in poetry, repetition has potential. Older readers need rich opportunities to revoice for themselves the sounds of poetic texts that tempt, and to hear and participate in poetry as experience, for its own sake, without being expected to offer a response that ‘explains’ the meaning.
Many poems only take a minute or two to read, so surely as teachers we can enable the young to savour the flavours on repeat. Some teachers read the same poem each day and only discuss it on Fridays, others let themselves be led by the children’s choices, and then read and re-read the top three for instance. Still others invite groups to select poems to illustrate, put to music and/or perform, as this too nudges multiple re-readings. Working playfully together children will revisit the text many times, and, in the process, meanings will surface through their artistic engagement and collaborative interpretations. Class poetry performances operate in the same way too, especially if there is volition and choice around which poems are used and how to re-create them.
Perhaps poetry doesn’t always need as much professional direction and assistance as we feel the need to give it?
Why not try and make more space for poetry, for pleasure, for play and repetition.
Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at The Open University. An advocate of developing teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa researches teachers’ and children’s literate identities and practices. Her recent books include Teaching English Creatively (2023); Reading Teachers: Nurturing reading for pleasure (2022) and Reading for pleasure in the digital age (2020).
Teresa is passionate about developing readers for life and leads a Research and Practice Coalition focused on reading for pleasure. The work involves supporting over 100 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups annually, 60 + OU Reading Schools to develop rich reading cultures and 36 HEI partnerships in order to enable the development of children’s (and teachers’) reading for pleasure. https://ourfp.org/
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