Poetry is a powerful vehicle to teach children to learn and love language, reading, and writing. In some ways, using poetry to teach reading is analogous to sneaking highly nutritious (and occasionally child-repellent) vegetables into otherwise kid-friendly dishes. By making use of creative devices like rhythm, rhyme and choral reading, educators can help students learn about phonemes, morphemes, grammar, and other language-based skills, all while having a great time with poetry.
Many poems written for children have some sort of meter, or basic rhythmic structure, that is catchy and relatively easy for kids to copy orally. This provides a great opportunity for classroom teachers (particularly at the primary-grade level) to go line by line through a poem and focus on the number of syllables (or "beats") in a given word, and demonstrate how each sound and word plays a part in maintaining the meter of the poem. Asking students to swap out one of the words in a highly rhythmic poem for an appropriate new word (which has the same number of beats and a similar sound as the original) is a fun activity that exercises phoneme awareness, vocabulary, and creative writing skills. Haiku and its established structural confines, which require detailed syllable counting on the part of students, is a favorite for students of all ages to read and write.
Rhyming poems are ripe with abundant classroom activities. Students can examine the sounds in each rhyming line, identifying the rhyming sounds and coming up with alternate rhyming words that could work in the poem. As an oral activity, creating "silly" substitute rhymes that have the correct matching sound but make absolutely no sense within the poem can also be a lot of fun for students of all ages, while flexing their phoneme awareness and vocabulary skills.
Choral reading of a poem (reading aloud in unison with a group of students or whole class) gets students to use their voices, collaborate with their classmates, gain an understanding of the potential dramatic power of the written word, and strengthen their understanding of punctuation. Leading students through a choral reading session can include a significant emphasis on punctuation and how it affects oral reading (pausing when there's a period, inflecting upwards in pitch when there's a question mark, etc.) and affords opportunity to work on enunciation skills as well. Breaking up a choral reading poem so all students have a chance to read a line or phrase on their own can also get the whole class to participate and feel positive about their relationship to the written word.
Using poetry to teach reading is a fun way to inspire students of all skill levels to engage with the subtle beauty and nuances of a language, encourage expression and creativity, and become excited about words, reading, and writing. The possibilities for using poetry in the classroom to teach valuable concepts and skills are almost as boundless as the potential combinations of words in a poem.
*I am the author of the haiku in this post. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my second grade teachers, Tina McCarter and Sharon Kamimoto, helped kick-start a lifelong love of words...for which I am grateful.
About the author: PC Muñoz is a San Francisco-based writer, recording artist, and educator. Information on his past and future projects can be found at http://www.pcmunoz.com