Reciting Poetry is One Thing, Loving it Another

There is no doubt that rhythm and rhyme are valuable tools in terms of developing vocabulary. Michael Gove has just announced that, from Year 1, five-year-old children will be read poems by their teacher as well as ‘starting to learn simple poems by heart and practise recitals’. For Year 2 pupils should continue to ‘build up a repertoire of poems learnt by heart and recite some of these with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear’. I am sure many teachers recognise this already but it is hoped that the directive will also highlight the broader agenda – not only where poetry can take the reader but the essential aspect of learning by enjoyable and creative ways means.

It has long been recognised that poetry is a valuable device for introducing new words in isolation – such as ‘contrary’ in ‘Mary Mary’ but it is the ‘garden of silver bells and cockle shells’ that will fire the creative imagination and inspired teachers no doubt take the form further by looking at the enthralling stories borne out of the religious and social context from which many such rhymes originated.

Poetry for this age group should be fun and accessible and provide an opportunity for cross curricula work. Issuing directives such as “expected to learn and recite poetry by heart” is a risky process. No size fits all and it is hoped that the consultation process has borne this in mind. It would be heartening to find, for instance, that funds are to be made available to enable schools to bring in performance poets who understand the diverse needs of the audience.

Poets such as Ian Macmillan – adored by schools – not least for his trademark performance of ‘Dinner Ladies’ in which his animated audience are encouraged to take part by chanting “we’re in charge” while waving an imaginary fork. Why not look at the chemistry of baking and the value of nutrition by bringing in one of the best performance poets around. Michael Rosen with his much-loved poem about chocolate cake, not to mention maths as the cake is cut up in to sixteenths and more!

Then what better way to embrace multiculture and diversity than through the poetry of James Berry OBE, whose touching poems recreate everyday life in Jamaica as they describe the music of the village, the indigenous sounds, the sounds of birds and farmyard animals, the wind and rain of tropical storms the warmth and laughter of family and community life?

It is encouraging to read that the learning of simple poems first has been highlighted for there is a danger of imposing adult attitudes and tastes on children – their minds are developing and their emotions evolving. For them to learn to love Keats they need the building blocks of nursery rhymes, for them to grow to appreciate Mozart they invariably benefit from the building blocks of simple tunes and for them to grow to love books they need the the talents of writers such as Debi Gliori before they even begin to approach Shakespeare and how many later became fascinated by Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a result of Allan Ahlberg’s Funnybones and dressing up for Hallowe’en?

Then there is always the indirect approach. For a time my daughter was perplexed as to why she needed to learn about William of Orange but then developed an interest in history when her teacher told them why the local pub was called the Original Oak. Subversive methods also work – through word/picture recognition Mixed Up Fairy Tales not only helps children learn to read but encourages sentence construction and story patterns in a fun and accessible way.

For me, a love of Emily Bronte’s poems came not from being spoon fed them as a child, but from the thundering impact of discovering that her dog, Keeper, accompanied her funeral cortege to the church and then thereafter, slept outside her bedroom door.

Learning simple rhymes is one thing – but it’s how they are introduced, how they are then taught and the context in which they are borne which is quite another.

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