Poetry Research

Poetry Research in Primary Schools by Chris Dillon

Poetry is an aspect of English overshadowed by other areas such as: reading, writing, and phonics (OFSTED 2007). Although this is widely accepted and observable in schools, it is important to explore the reasoning. Through reading literature I have gained a significant insight to the suggestions and justifications as to why poetry, receives the label of `mixed status` within schools (Wilson 2005a).

From the offset educational theorist and poet Brian Cox (DES 1989 and Cox 1991) expresses his view on poetry by suggesting it is not likely to ever be found in writing attainment tasks nor key stage 2 national tests. This viewpoint of Cox was not expressed without a rationale. He argues that poetry cannot be given consistent and accurate marks and consequently levels, potentially due to its vastness in craft and complexity (Repo 1998, Thomas 2007). One could critique Cox`s argument by potentially highlighting an explanation to his accusation. Poetry cannot be given accurate and consistent marks, possibly because teachers do not have the proficiency within this subject area (OFSTED 2007, Beard et al 2008). This lack of knowledge undoubtedly renders the marking and progression of poetry very difficult, although if teacher’s skills were developed in poetry would this change its status within schools?

The previous question is one which cannot be answered conclusively. Going back to my previous question, If there is an insignificant amount of research carried out on poetry, it is not a foremost aspect of English nor is it assessed, then why would the government/ LEAs/ Head teachers wish to train their staff on it?  In an era of “teaching to the test” perhaps they feel it would benefit the children to a greater extent developing teacher expertise on current/tested subject areas i.e reading, phonics and writing. By no means am I saying this is right or wrong, as the introduction of phonics has proven to be very successful in schools, and passing tests appears to be one of the driving forces behind school. However, I view poetry in the same light as Ofsted (2007) in that more could be done to enhance the teaching of poetry and learning experiences of children in primary schools.


Research: Learner Attitudes to Poetry

Lockwood (2008) found that attitudes to reading poetry are increasingly negative the further up the primary school. Attitudes differ however in KS1 whereby the learners enjoy and active approach incorporating: poetic rhymes and songs (Lockwood 2008). The findings of Ofsted (2007) however note that pupils attitude in primary schools is enthusiastic, when completing poetry, concluding that teacher knowledge of poetry, and imitation where the inhibitory factors in the teaching of poetry in schools. One learner highlights an insightful perspective on poetry, they express; “You are controlling the pen. You can make up your own rules… poetry’s not like normal writing” (OFSTED 2007 pg 7). This suggests ‘normal writing’ somewhat intimidates learners which may be the reason in instances for their reluctance to participate. Poetry is a world where there is no right or wrong answers, which is a key philosophy towards finding your own voice as a writer (Lynn 2007).

Research: Experience with Poetry in Schools

Ofsted (2007) argue that poetry is too focused on imitation in primary schools, although failing to specify the concept. Imitation is somewhat of a woolly concept, in that it can be been deemed unavoidable in writing as the writer is always imitating something from experience (Lynn 2007). However, woolly the statement Ofsted have presented, it could be suggested that they refer to a concept of direct imitation (Gray and Mitford 1816), whereby learners simply imitate the poetic structure, form, syllables, and provide somewhat similar ideas as the original.


Why Study Poetry?

Creativity and Poetry

Tobin (2004) argues that poets are ideal for the study of ‘creativity’, the reason for this being the tap into unexplored portions of the mind more than most people.

Furthermore Carter, D (1998) and Carter, J (1999, 2002) suggests the mind of a learner has infinite possibilities, which should fulfil their creative learning potential. It is argued the dynamic interaction between humans and their ‘inquiry’ secondary perception of those experiences are what causes humans to be natural poets (Styles 1992 and Ginsberg cited in Magill 1999) and creative thinkers (Frisina 2002).It is this creative thinking that promotes learners to explore their personal expressive voice within writing, which allows them to be creative writers (Sternberg and Lubart 1996). It is argued that the teaching of writing is obsessed on transactional prose (Carter, D 1998) (Carter, J 1999; 2002) which can be deemed somewhat suppressive in the creative writing process (Evans 1982). Poetry on the other hand apposes the nature of transactional prose, in that poets when writing often do not know where they are going to end up, due to the hybrid of conscious and subconscious input (Tobin 2004).

Poetry and Lateral Thinking

Stories enable the children to portray feelings, thoughts, character understanding and predict story endings, which within children’s literature is a vertical thinking process (De Bono 1993). However poetry on the other hand strives beyond vertical thinking to lateral thinking (Perry 2004), with each sentence being subjective to secondary experience or ‘inquiry’ which promotes creative thinking, interpretation and response (Dewey, 1933; Carter 1998). Schools today are focusing inflexibly on the concept of vertical thinking, which creates informatively intelligent individuals rather than creatively intelligent individuals (Long 2000). This understanding proposes a rationale for the statement; “Although students are able to pass the examinations, they are not able to apply their knowledge independently to new contexts” Ofsted (2006 p. 1).

Emotional Literacy and Poetry.

Teacher and poet, Heard (1999) profoundly argues the importance of reading and writing poetry within schools in reference to ‘Emotional literacy’. It is argued that poetry is the key to help learners acknowledge, express, understand and furthermore manage their feelings, developing their emotional intelligence. The writing of poetry ensures the writing is meaningful to the learners, by drawing on experience, thoughts and feelings which develops their skills as a poet and subsequently a writer (Sloan 2003). Furthermore Sloan (2003) argues that there is somewhat of a detachment within schools between writing and subjectivity. With a focus on recounts, the work is rendered somewhat meaningless, un-interesting and consequently unimaginative for the learners. Poetry provides somewhat of a hybrid between imaginative writing and personal recounts (Chamberlain and Crane 2009), which is arguably the platform for emotional intelligence development (Heard 1999).

Building Independent Writers

The desirable for teachers in terms of writing is to develop learners as independent proficient writers (Blackburn 2008). McCormack (200) suggests when developing writers from the offset it is important to ensure their sentences are develop using content, however in their quest to become independent writers they express ideas and experience within their writing (McCormack 2008). Theoretically the progression should unfold however, what is the strategy when the learner has no experience of World War One and is expected to devise experienced sentences? That is the beauty of poetry the learners can understand poetic style and consequently will subjectively adapt it to produce a poem based upon the craft of lets say A-B couplets, yet is an independent piece of work. Unfortunately the findings of OFSTED (2007) conclude that when it comes to writing poetry children had insufficient opportunities to write independently, which hinders their practical poetry progression.

Poetry and Popular Culture

According to Gullan (1937) music is poetry, which opens the spectrum to infinite possibilities, to teaching, reading and writing poetry.  Dating as far back as the ancient Greeks, poetry has been weaved into popular culture and continues to do so today (Burke 2009). From nursery rhymes to songs, raps, greeting cards, even football chants have an element of rhyming couplets. In understanding the use of poetry in popular society could bring a way of connecting the barrier between school, personal life and popular culture, to enhance the learning experience in a way meaningful to the learners (Kincheloe 2005).

Reinforcing the Curriculum

Poetry and Phonics – In schools nowadays the teaching of ‘Phonics’ is a crucial element in the English programme (Lewis and Ellis 2006). Research and experience in education argues that repeated experience with words resulting in phonemic recognition help us improve our reading (Hajdusiewicz 1998). Phonics provides a perfect platform for teaching poetry (Stanley 2004), for example appendices A highlights a spelling list for a year two class, as an extension activity the learners could be asked to place the words into a simple rhyming A-A couplet.

How is Poetry Taught in Schools?

Poetry in schools focuses on rhythm and rhyme particularly in key stage one, as the delight in these poetic forms are deemed delightful for children (Norton and Nortan 2007) which appendices B supports.. Alternatively Tucker (1997) argues that regular meter and end rhymes are somewhat unnatural as learners do not come into contact with rhyming in daily language, so therefore the teaching focus of poetry should be free verse. In key stage two poetry is absent under the ‘Speaking and Listening’ strand of English in the National Curriculum, with a magnitude of forms presented under the Strand ‘Writing’, which is detrimental to the teaching and learning of poetry in KS2 (Horner and Ryf  2007). It is argued that this rigid focus on form is key stage two somewhat dismisses the fundamental nature of poetry with regards to personal experience, expression and creativity (Carter 1998).

Teaching for Progress in Poetry

It is suggested that when teaching for progression in poetry, teachers should be looking for and praising ‘small improvements’ or ‘flashes of the genuine’ (Dunn 2001 pg 143) as opposed to critiquing the whole poem. Furthermore Sharples (1999) develops this theory in suggesting teachers should not only pay attention to the improvements as suggested by Dunn (2001) but also the things they do differently within their writing of poetry.

Scaffolding – Guided Fantasy and Untutored Modelling

The deficiency of research relating to the progression of poetry within schools could possibly correlate to the lack of teachers understanding in this area and its mixed status within schools (Dymoke, 2001,2003: Wilson, 2005a, Beard et al 2008). Therefore it is important to explore ways in which poetry can be taught for progression.

‘Guided fantasy’ is a poetry progression technique whereby the learner embarks on a personal journey which is guided by the teacher through a series of questions (Wilson cited in Beard et al 2008). At the end of the guided fantasy exercise, the learners will have built a platform or frame for a piece of creative writing which has been constructed through their ‘inquiry’ experience (Dewey 1933). Alternatively there is an untutored model of scaffolding whereby the learners, use their knowledge and interaction with poems to write their own. However this model proves problematic in terms of learners progressing from the original model (Wilson 2007) potentially due to their extended flexibility.

The Future of Poetry

Often in schools teachers reinforce the importance of personal interaction with work; add your own twist to the story, add a new character or a new scene, the possibilities are endless. As an evolving education system we need to steer away from regurgitating a storyline, towards personal interaction, independent writing, and expression through our writing. Poetry as discussed provides an excellent platform for: creativity, imagination, expression, independence, and progression in writing, in a way which ultimately will ensure learners are interacting, driving and developing their own learning using an individualised platform.




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