Thursday, September 7, 2017

Teaching poetry to children...

Poetry is my favorite subject to teach. It is a salve for my soul when the day is rushed and busy and all I want to do is sit quietly with some tea and no voices, big or little, chiming at me. I find myself both alert and at peace and ready to jump into the lessons. I love to teach rhythm, rhyme, meter, and the different styles of poetry. I have a four-inch binder with years of poems memorized by all eleven of my children, a section of my own, and finally a section of samples. In my sample section are lovely examples of different styles and even a compare and contrast portion where I use trite poems paired with high caliber ones of the same theme and topic. I think it is important to read the poor quality ones and then compare them with the best to be found in the English language in order to teach children what true quality is.

I think that memorizing poetry is lost art and skill and I refuse to let my children grow up without being able to do so. I have often found myself speaking to other parents about just how to go about this and it is probably because the available advice out there is just awful. It usually revolves around copying something again and again. This is ridiculous. Our spoken language is primary, it precedes the written word, and it is not how ancient peoples remembered their sagas and histories. The most effective way is really the most basic and happens incrementally and easily. Let me explain.

Starting Memorization

I start when my children are about two years old. It is nothing formal, just organic and natural. We start by reciting little poems based on the things that they see and hear and do in their ordinary lives. The very first poem I have taught all of my children is now recited by them all every time they see the moon.

I see the moon,
And the moon sees me.
God bless the moon,
And God bless me!

Finding small opportunities for similar things helps children develop the skill of making associations and memorizing text. These small poems pave the way for very long ones later. By the time my kids are in their early teens, they memorize poems with hundreds of lines, as many as three or four hundred.

Teaching Memorization

I copy or print out a public domain version of a poem to mark up. Next to the poem, I can make notes about the poem, the time period, or pronunciation things that might be important to know. The first day, we simply read the poem through completely and then we talk about the generalities of the poem such as how it makes us feel or what kinds of images it evokes. Then we go line by line and explain idioms, phrases, and meaning. Then we memorize the name of both the poet and the poem. I put a small check next to each. Every day we will review what we learned the day before and then learn a new section. If a line is very long (as happens is Wordsworth and Tennyson), then I draw a slash mark in the middle and we learn half at a time. We start memorization in full the next day.

I read the line to them and then ask them to repeat it, we do this five times in a row. For older children or teens who can and should memorize two or more lines at a time, we add in the second line. I will read the first line, ask them to repeat it fives times in a row. Then I read the second, and ask them to repeat this one, also five times. After this I read the first, they repeat it, then I read the second, and they repeat this. We do this a few times until they can do both lines together. In the end, they need to be able to recite all the new text by themselves with no prompts. Once we have learned the new lines, I check off the lines and they recite the name of the poem, the poet, and all the text they know up to that point. If during the recitation, you notice that there is a word that is they might be tripping over, underline it in pencil and perhaps drop a hint when they come to it. When they know it, erase the line.

When the child has memorized the entire poem, we have them recite it for everyone at dinner. Some poems have special rewards attached to them, like "The Cow" by Robert Lewis Stevenson. When my children have learned this, they can help me make an apple tart with puff pastry and we serve it with freshly whipped cream. An important part of this is to use real whipped cream that we whip since I want to tie in the importance of the role that dairy cows play in our lives. Here on the farm, we even separate the cream ourselves but that is admittedly something very few families would be able to do.

That said, if you are in the neighborhood and your child can recite that poem for me, I will let them separate cream and help them make their own apple tart!


Once a poem is memorized, they need to recite it every day. We start out each lesson by reciting all the poems they have learned. I will say the name of the poem and they will repeat it, tell me the name of the poet, and then they will recite the poem. Then we memorize the current poem's new lines. While this might sound overwhelming, this really only takes 5-6 minutes per child. The older children have far fewer poems though they are longer and the youngest children learn such short ones that it takes only a minute or two to recite what they know. If you are spending longer than that, you are trying to memorize too much or a too complicated text.

Once a child knows five poems, I start a rotation with each of the four oldest poems said each on one day each week for review and only the most recently memorized poem is still said daily. Then we work on the new poem. This becomes more common with little children who can easily memorize ten or so poems from Robert Louis Stevenson a year. I don't want to cover more than ten poems a year so if a child is learning them that quickly, say more than one a month, we will start to look for longer poems.


When my children are in middle school, they begin to memorize ballads such as "The Lady of Shalott" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which my oldest daughter memorized completely when she was twelve. In this case, it is best to treat each section as a poem on its own. I would have the child recite the sections as if they were separate poems. Then each morning they recite a previous section as well as the one immediately learned, then learn the new lines within the context of the current section. In this case, have the child recite the poem in its entirety weekly. It might be best for them to not learn new lines on this day. My daughter's poem listed above is nineteen stanzas, each nine lines long, for a total of one hundred and seventy one lines learned in just ten months. My second oldest son memorized "Lepanto" by G.K. Chesterton, and he told me that by the end he knew it so well, he felt as if he was sitting back and listening to it each time he recited it. There is a lot of pride in memorizing this long of a text. It is well worth making the effort.

On a practical note, now my children can memorize all kinds of text immediately. Phone numbers, WiFi passkeys, addresses, and all kinds of information just click into place since their minds are used to assimilating information.

Two Caveats

I mean this word literally, there are two limitations.

Poetry Journals

Don't. If your child likes to journal and wants to create a poetry journal with copies of their poems, perhaps coupled with art or personal reflections, they will do it without you asking. If you force it, you will find many children begin to dread poetry. In the most ancient expressions of poetry, they were recited, not written out and doodled on. Keep this part alive and allow a child who has other creative interests explore them if they desire.

Selecting Poems

Allow your children to choose their own poems with limited guidance. They might need to be encouraged to try something longer or shorter but generally let them find something that interests them. That said, give them excellent choices and do not permit them to use popular song lyrics, trite or silly greeting card style poetry or humor pieces. These things have their place and it is not at the feast table that is poetry recitation. One of the things that are most important is to teach children what is the highest standard for human expression. We might sometimes laugh over a silly little poem, particularly one written for children, but our children need to see this as a childish expression and not fully actualized.

I will be putting together a downloadable form for keeping track of each child's poetry work and I will show photos of our actual poetry book. Until then, start looking for some good poetry to share with your children.