April 14, 2015

What’s in a Rhyme: Using Poetry to Support Literacy

By Caitrin Blake, Contributing Writer | Literacy Resources Updated April 20, 2017 How Poetry Supports Literacy

Poetry can be intimidating for teachers and students alike. Many see it as inaccessible or unnecessarily complicated. Poetry does a lot with very little; each word, punctuation mark, rhyme (or lack thereof) and structural decision is ripe with meaning and intention.

Many students avoid poetry because they’re afraid they will misinterpret or misunderstand it. However, reading and writing poems is actually a great strategy for supporting literacy instruction.

Poetry for young students boosts language acquisition, develops writing skills

While not all poetry rhymes, the poems that do are great for helping students to develop early language skills. Rhyming enhances awareness of phonemes, which are essentially the sounds that make up words.

Poems can also help students to develop an awareness of spelling and phonics. Hearing poetry read aloud — the literal sounds of the words — helps students understand their meanings. Understanding language as both an oral and written expression enables students to more fully grasp language in general. The focus on individual words in poetry provides students with the opportunities to refine their oral and written language skills, which is a marker of higher academic achievement in the future.

Because poetry pays particular attention to punctuation, students learn how to carefully consider  sentence construction. Using punctuation to achieve an effect also gives it more meaning than a set of rules that must be followed. When this happens, students start to consider grammar as a rhetorical choice, which ultimately helps them to apply the rules of language effectively and stylistically.

Poets of all ages: writing poems as a mode of expression using multimodal composition

Studying poetry enables students to engage with it as a mode of expression, giving them new opportunities to illustrate their knowledge. Students can write poems in an attempt to demonstrate their comprehension of a subject, thereby drawing new and unique connections.

Digital projects based around poetry have many possibilities. For instance, students might create a digital representation of a poem they wrote or a poem they have read, adding pictures or music to enhance meaning. Students could also use hypertext with certain keywords that readers can click through to achieve deeper or enhanced meaning for the work. Students might also perform an original poem live or on video.

Using poetry helps students to engage in literacy standards that ask students to draft, create, and finalize their projects. However, students can also engage in digital literacy, simultaneously showcasing their content knowledge and ability to work in a digital medium.

While poetry is often thought of as something that is only studied within English classrooms, other subjects, for instance, history, could allow students to read or write poetry in order to develop a better understanding of events or to showcase their unique understanding as well.

Studying poetry supports critical thinking and genre cross-connections

Poetry is more than just the words on the page; the genre itself invites multiple interpretations. To understand a poem, students must engage in critical thinking and draw connections to other genres. Studying a poem connected to a specific time or place can help students see historical situations or cultural events through a new lens.

Poetry is often viewed as complex and difficult to understand, and in some ways this is true; each reader walks away with a different experience. While this can be tricky for teachers and students, teaching and writing poetry gives students a powerful tool to understand language, develop their speaking and writing skills, and connect to cultural or historical events.

Caitrin Blake has a B.A. in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.

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