Held every year on 21 March, World Poetry Day celebrates one of humanity’s most treasured forms of cultural and linguistic expression and identity. It’s a day to rejoice in language and poetic expression. What is Poetry? Defined as literature that evokes an imaginative awareness of experience, Poetry prompts an emotional response through language arranged around imagery, sound, and rhythm. The simplest of poems can serve as powerful catalysts for dialogue and peace because they connect us to our humanity and our common values (UNESCO).
Poetry is an invaluable resource in any young learner’s literacy journey. Not only is it a thoughtful way for children to explore everyday environments, it also provides them with a vehicle to experiment and internalise both the joys and sorrows happening in their lives. Poetry evokes powerful feelings and triggers imagination, creativity, and expression.
The Benefits of Exploring Poetry in the Early & Primary Years
A salient feature of children’s poetry is the playfulness that it carries, so it’s no surprise that young children are naturally drawn to it. Fun as it might be, exploring Poetry also adds to the holistic development of young learners since:
- It encourages a love of language,
- It creates the building blocks for literacy skills and language development,
- It expands the vocabulary,
- It nurtures imagination and creativity,
- It improves memory,
- It fosters the development of emotional intelligence,
- It boosts concentration and listening skills,
- It strengthens the development of social skills.
There’s no doubt that Poetry is a great addition to our ESL classes.
Where to Begin the Journey with Young Learners?
Over the years in my teaching practice, I came across colleagues who were simply paralysed at the idea of teaching Poetry to very young learners. The reasons behind their uncertainties were mainly related to struggling with adding poems to the ESL curricula since they had too tight a timetable, or they found themselves at a crossroads with poems. Yet, the biggest concern was having no answer to the question: how to teach Poetry in easy, meaningful, and accessible ways.
As a teacher, I think the key to starting with poetry is by asking yourselves whether we want our learners to receive and/or produce poetry. Then, our answer will lead us to focus on what I came to call: the receptive poetry stage and the productive poetry stage. Both stages focus on the learner and as they are not mutually exclusive, you can try both simultaneously! I packed the two stages with activities that will help you feel more comfortable and confident using poetry as a delightful means to an educational end in your classroom.
The Receptive Poetry Stage
I guess the title of the stage is pretty telling. Your task is to find poems to amuse your ESL class. It’s the time for lifting poems off the page. This great collection of hilarious poems will delight you and your learners. Most importantly, when it comes to the types of activities the possibilities are endless. The next bunch were taken and adapted from the website First Discoverers. Give them a try!
You choose a poem, and you propose a matching game. The game involves pairing up words that rhyme (e.g., ball and wall). If you teach very young learners, you can assist them with picture cards of things that rhyme.
An alternative is ‘pass the beanbag’, in which a circle of children builds up chains of words that rhyme.
Beat Out the Rhythm
Give your students various instruments (drums, shakers, bells) so they can beat out the rhythm while you read or recite some favourite poems or nursery rhymes.
Poems with Art
Do some extension activities with those poems you love. While you read one of them, your learners may dance or do some artwork or play any musical instrument. Poetry is art, so it flows easily with any artistic expression.
Poems with Actions
Children love poems and nursery rhymes that incorporate actions (such as ‘Nut Tree’ and ‘If You’re Happy and You Know it’), and this is a great way to channel their energy and enthusiasm.
The Productive Poetry Stage
Now, your goal is to discover the poet in your young learners. Let’s take a plunge into Poetic language so that your learners come up with surprising, vivid, complex, and inspiring poems. For starters, we will concentrate on ‘similes’ since a single blog won’t do justice to all the poetic devices. Similes make an effective tool to ignite the poet in your learner. In Quick Poetry Activities Jacqueline Sweeney explains how to approach ‘similes’ and teach poems in easy, accessible, and effective ways. Here are some, which I’m sure will get you going with Poetry!
Any physical location can become the ideal terrain to explore the concept of ‘simile’. The classroom, the school’s library, or playground offer potential to look at the familiar worlds of everyday concrete objects.
You invite your learners to look at the objects in the classroom for a minute. Next, you ask them to pick one out. Then, on a piece of paper they write the name of the object (which will become the ‘title’ for the poem). They think about the object from a senses/colours/shapes/sizes perspective. (e.g.: What colour is it? Blue/red/yellow like …. What shape is it? Round like a … Can you smell/taste it? Soft like …) Next, they share their thoughts/comments. Then, they write their lines in the shape of a poem.
If you think your learners need more guidance, you could write these lines on the board:
|(Name of object) is (colour) (colour) like …………………. (shape/texture) like …………………. (size) like …………………….
You can smell/feel/see/taste/hear it. (object)smells/feels/looks/tastes/sounds like ……….
|The flowers in the vase are red. Red like apples. Soft like velvet. Tiny like ladybugs.
You can smell them. They smell like the most exquisite parfum.
An alternative to the “It’s Everywhere” poem is the “Mystery Box” poem. You collect random items and you put them inside your “mystery box”. You might decorate your box to make it more attractive to your learners. You invite your class to make a circle on the floor. As you play some music, the students pass the box. When the music stops, the student with the box takes an item and describes it briefly. Then, the item is returned into the box. Make sure that each learner has had their turn before you display all the contents in your mystery box. You carry on as with the “It’s Everywhere” poem.
The portrait poem
This is a great poem to celebrate diversity. It encourages learners to describe themselves using as many similes as they like. It’s a good idea to start the lesson by naming parts of the face. Next, you can give them a mirror (or if you have a large class, they can pass the mirror) to study the special and unique features of their faces. The title for this poem could be the “learner’s name” or “It’s Ok to be me” or simply “my portrait”.
|My (part of the face) is like …………………
My (part of the face) are like ………………
My (part of the face) is like …………………
There is no face the same as another.
My face is me!
My face is me!
If poems are versatile and offer multiple roads to explore with your learners. They work wonders whenever you need to fill a gap in your lesson as they are easily adaptable on the spot.
|If I were a/an (object/ animal/ toy/vehicle/ profession/etc)
I’d (action) ……………
I’d (action) …………… and
I’d (action) ……………
“My Hands” Poem
“My Hands” Poems are an invitation to work collaboratively. You ask your learners to look at their hands. They should concentrate on their shape, their fingers, their lines. Then, they paint their hands with water paint, and they stamp them on a big piece of construction paper.
If you don’t like the mess of paint, they can trace their hands on cardboard, cut them out and stick them on the construction paper. Next, you display their hands collage in the classroom. Finally, you can play some soft music to get them into the mood for poetry writing.
|My hands are (big/small/tiny/etc)
(big/small/tiny/etc) like …………
My fingers wiggle/dance/tap like ………….
My hands can (action) and (action)
I love my hands.
Shape or Concrete Poems
Shape poetry is a type of poetry that describes an object and is shaped the same as the object the poem is describing. The poem is formatted to the shape of their object. They can do this in two different ways:
- Draw a picture of their object, leaving enough room inside the picture to write their poem.
- Draw a picture of their object and write their poem around the outside of the picture.
Poetry is one of humanity’s most treasured forms of cultural expression and identity. It’s my wish that this collection of ideas and activities, which I personally tried and will continue to use, encourage you to journey into Poetry. You don’t have to start BIG, just take a step at a time and find a love for reading, writing and even performing Poetry with your young learners. Let’s celebrate World Poetry Day today and ever!
Sweeney, J. (1994). Quick Poetry Activities: You Can Really Do! Scholastic Professional Books, USA.
Editor, T. (2019, October 1). Activities for Teaching Poetry in the Early Years. First Discoverers. https://www.firstdiscoverers.co.uk/activities-teaching-poetry-early-years/
Kidspot, B. (2022, January 7). 20 Short & Funny Poems for Kids (In English). Bilingual Kidspot. https://bilingualkidspot.com/2022/01/07/short-funny-poems-for-kids/
World Poetry Day. (1965, June 4). World Poetry Day | UNESCO. https://www.unesco.org/en/days/poetry#:~:text=UNESCO%20first%20adopted%2021%20March,endangered%20languages%20to%20be%20heard.