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Using poetry to support literacy and language development

Julie Cigman, early years consultant, describes the joys of discovering poetry with young children

Author details

Julie is available to contact by email. For further information please visit her website.

‘Poetry is a bridge that connects children to the relevance of writing, reading, learning, honesty and community. Passage on this bridge is open to all children and successful crossings are guaranteed… because poetry writing relies on the senses, emotions and history of each child.’
Shelley Tucker, 2004

Poetry supports children’s language and literacy acquisition and it is never too early to introduce babies and children to verse, in the form of poetry and song, and to stories with a strong natural rhythm. 

It is never too early to introduce babies and children to verse, in the form of poetry and song

Young children are constantly learning about all aspects of language: receptive and expressive. They are learning vocabulary and grammar, intonation and cadence. They are learning the kinds of language that they should use in different situations. They are learning to express emotions and ideas. They learn these immensely complex skills from adults and older children around them, who provide models and, ideally, give them time and encouragement to become articulate and confident communicators themselves.

When children have extensive exposure to well-written stories and poetry from birth, the pattern of language expressed in the best of children’s literature will embed itself into children’s developing language. It can then emerge: orally at first, and later in writing, when they learn the technical skills that allow them to record their thoughts and ideas.

Poetry in practice

Eva and Steffie (both three-years-old) sat at the kitchen table waiting for Eva’s mum to give them beans on toast after their morning at pre-school.

Eva shouted: ‘Lolly, polly, molly, wolly womble…’ and burst out laughing.
Steffie echoed Eva’s words and carried on: ‘Wolly womble, nolly nomble, bolly bomble…’ and the two girls nearly fell off their chairs, as they giggled uncontrollably.
Eva’s mother looked over and said: ‘Come on girls, sit nicely.’
Eva echoed: ‘Sit nicely, micely, twicely, ricely, slicely, nicely, nicely, nicely girls...

Steffie and Eva have absorbed an element of poetry – the musicality and the way that words sound in relation to each other – from the stories and poems that they have heard. They took sheer joy from the sounds that they created, and enjoyed the humour of playing with nonsense words. But they were also developing metalinguistic awareness – an understanding of how language works. They were playing with the rhythm of language, with rhyme and alliteration, and they were also beginning to understand that language can have a literal and an implied meaning, which is necessary before children can use poetic language such as similes and metaphors. As well, they were using language socially, creating a kind of conversation between the two girls and between Eva and her mum. But they weren’t creating poetry - yet.

What is poetry?

Poetry has been defined as:

‘…an arrangement of words containing meaning and musicality. Another hallmark of a poem is its brevity, or ability to say much in few words.’
What Is a Poem?1

Poetry has both form – a rhythm, a shape and structure – and content – an expression of ideas, thoughts and feelings.

When young children hear poetry read aloud and discover poetic forms they can learn to express their ideas, thoughts, and feelings. But an overemphasis on form can lock children into structure, so their ideas have to adapt to the form.

Why should children listen to and create poetry?

‘Poetry writing and sharing pave the way for greater social development and academic success.’ Shelley Tucker, 2004

Poetry can express an entire range of emotions and can be humorous, imaginative or thought-provoking.  It can help children to:

Listening to poetry helps children to become fluent readers and creative writers, while writing poetry helps children learn to revise their ideas and develop a precision with language

  • develop understandings and perceptions about the world
  • find unusual connections between things
  • develop creative expression and frame thoughts, feelings, and ideas
  • learn to listen and appreciate the ideas of others
  • learn to share their ideas and hear feedback
  • perform alone or in a group
  • develop a wide vocabulary.

Listening to poetry helps children to become fluent readers and creative writers, while writing poetry helps children learn to revise their ideas and develop a precision with language.
Learning a repertoire of poems gives children and adults shared memories, a shared heritage, and shared understandings.

Links to the EYFS

Communication and language development involves giving children opportunities to experience a rich language environment; to develop their confidence and skills in expressing themselves

  • Children can create poems alone and in groups, with an adult who helps them express themselves and extend their language skills, and who scribes their work.
  • Children can recite poems in groups: reciting whole poems, joining in with a few words, or joining in with some actions.
  • Less confident children or children learning EAL can join in actions and some words.

Personal, social and emotional development involves helping children to develop a positive sense of themselves, and others; to form positive relationships and develop respect for others; and to have confidence in their own abilities

  • Poetry writing is very personal, and sharing poetry builds trust and respect between children

Literacy

  • Children must be given access to a wide range of reading materials (books, poems…) to ignite their interest.

Expressive arts and design involves providing opportunities for sharing their thoughts, ideas and feelings through a variety of activities.

  • Children can act out poems and they can use a variety of media to respond to poetry

Understanding the world

  • Science – writing poetry encourages observation and detailed description

How can we help children to become poets?

The Barbican website Can I Have a Word?2 suggests three stages in becoming a poet – listen, stimulate, and create.

Stage 1: Listen

Read books and poems which are strong in musicality, such as Jabberwocky, The Quangle Wangle’s Hat or Pass the Jam, Jim. As children hear poetry and stories, they learn to control language by rehearsing and imitating it in their play. This is especially valuable for children with speech and language difficulties and children learning English as an additional language (EAL), as children can echo, sing and chant words that they don’t understand yet – although not always accurately!

  • Samir, age three, wrote a letter (scribed by an adult) inviting his teacher to lunch, to have: ‘…orange porridge lolly and polly lolly’.
  • Nadia, age four, was learning English as an additional language. She picked up a copy of ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’, which the teacher had read earlier that day. As she turned the pages, she chanted: ‘Going on a hare bunt, going on a hare bunt’ mimicking the intonation with which her teacher had read the book earlier.
  • Jaspar, age three, was playing builders in the garden of his day nursery. 'I’m checking we’ve got everything we need. I’m just checking we got all the things we need to make a big tower. We need pixes and mixes and willins and billins.’
  • Rose explained to the nursery teacher that she had an earache: ‘I’ve got a dire ear’.

Stage 2: Stimulate

The EYFS promotes active learning through playing and exploring (p. 7) and we know that children are most creative in their play. So we can use visual and sensory stimuli to fire children’s imagination and develop their ideas and vocabulary while they play.

Dylan and Sophia made ‘potions’ from powders, shampoos, spices and oils. They made:

  • Magic fairy dust
  • Red poisonous hairy worms
  • Princess’s perfume from the King
  • Mermaid’s tears
  • Dragon wee
  • Pirates’ bogies
  • Smelling poo germs
  • Spiders’ and chickens’ toe nails
  • Red Riding Hood’s blood
  • Leaves from the elves’ tree

Stage 3: Create

Poetry is a way of encapsulating an experience concisely, and enabling the reader to see the world differently by sharing the perceptions of the poet  so learning to craft poetry will take many years. Glyn Maxwell recounts the story of a young boy who told W. H. Auden that he wanted to be a poet because he had a lot to say. Auden said he’d rather the boy just loved ‘playing with words.’ Maxwell said that he just ‘played with words’ ‘…for about twenty years… so that by the time I had some things to say I had a pretty good idea how to’.

Most poetry in the early years will be oral, but we can also use poetry to help children to make the connection between oral and written language

Playing with words

Here are some practical ideas to help children play with words as soon as they are able to make their first sounds. Most poetry in the early years will be oral, but we can also use poetry to help children to make the connection between oral and written language. First and foremost, we must remember to value each child’s individual way of expressing themselves. We can also help them to become more precise and reflective about their use of expressive language.

Stage 1: Listen (Theme: Rainy days)

  • Enjoy some of the many poems and songs you can find about the rain, for example at the MotherGooseCaboose website.
  • Watch a short video of children around the world enjoying the rain, with music on YouTube

Stage 2: Stimulate (Theme: Rainy days)

  • Go for walks in the rain, stand under trees and bus shelters or in shop doorways, look out of the window and watch how people and animals behave in the rain. Make a video on a rainy day, and use the video as a backdrop to the children’s play indoors. Above all, play in the rain!
  • Vocabulary: Brainstorm words that describe the look and sound of rain – showers and downpours, rain when you’re inside, rain when you’re outside, rain in puddles, rain landing on a metal bucket, rain when it’s windy, rain when it’s hot. Read Raindrops by Helen H. Moore
  • Sound patterns: Use some musical instruments and parts of the body to make different rain-like sounds. Try using hands, fingers, feet and tongues, patting, clapping, flicking or rubbing. Think of words that describe the sounds you make.
  • Perspective: Think about how it might feel if you were a bird in a nest in the rain; a leaf in a puddle; an umbrella; a pair of wellies; a rainbow. Read Who Likes The Rain? by Clara Doty Bates

Other ideas to use as starting points:

  • Possibilities – what if?
  • Dreams - of a slug, a pet, porridge, the family car
  • Inventions
  • Bugs
  • Journeys

Stage 3: Create

Will, age five, was playing under a tree in the Reception class garden with some windfall apples and autumn leaves. Listen to the rhythm of his language:

‘This is my secret recipe. First do some mixing. Put some sticks in. That shoved in, and that shoved in. Mix it up, mix it up, mix it up, mix it up.
Our recipe’s done now.’

If we change the shape of his words, we can see that Will has effectively, written a poem.

‘This is my secret recipe.
First do some mixing.
Put some sticks in.
That shoved in, and that shoved in.
Mix it up, mix it up, mix it up, mix it up.
Our recipe’s done now.’

Poetry in the early years is all about discovering and playing with the interconnectedness between language, music, movement and art

The change comes in the way we record Will’s words: the poetic form that we use. Most young children don’t need to edit and refine their language in the way that an older poet will do.  Poetry in the early years is all about discovering and playing with the interconnectedness between language, music, movement and art. But when children are exposed to all of these creative forms, their poetry will become more sophisticated, even at a very young age:

‘Wax of candle
Bark of tree
Leg of frog
Sting of bee
Put it in a big black pot and mix for 13 seconds’
Rachel, age five

‘Hats and shoes, hats and shoes TO BUY,
You put your hats on heads and shoes on your feet,
We sometimes do
We sometimes do
We sometimes do throw them at we chuther.
When we throw them at we chuther we feel terrible, we get red and angry.’
Simon age four

Creating a poetry corner or poetry shelf

  • Give every child a writer’s notebook. Scribe for children or encourage independent writing and drawing about subjects and themes that excite and fascinate them.
  • Make books in different shapes and sizes to stimulate the imagination, as well as scrolls, posters, signs, postcards.
  • Display children’s own creations alongside commercially produced books and laminated versions of favourite songs and rhymes.
  • Make class books, where children can explore and share ideas and experiment with ways to express them.

Resources

Further reading

  • Glyn Maxwell On Poetry Oberon Masters (2012)
  • Linda Pound and Chris Harrison Supporting Musical Development in the Early Years Open University Press (2002)
  • Shelley Tucker Painting the Sky: Writing Poetry with Children Good Year Books (2004)
Last Updated: 
20 Oct 2014