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Teaching Tips

Using Poetry Writing to Deepen Reading Comprehension

May 2, 2023

by: Lily Howard Scott

4 mins

 

When I taught third grade, I remember the crestfallen expressions on students’ faces when I assigned a reading response prompt one too many times: “create a character web listing personality traits” or, “stop-and-jot your thoughts.” Then I discovered poetry-writing as a way for students to respond. It is a breath of fresh air. Poetry—with its economy of language and endless possibilities—injects joy and agency into the process of writing about reading. 

Conveying Comprehension–with Creativity

First, the learning benefits:

  • Writing about big ideas within picture books, chapter books and nonfiction texts can feel daunting for students. But the sheer brevity of poetry frees up cognitive energy for shaping and conveying understanding. Children can write poems about their mind movies, their impressions of characters, their wonderings about the text, or their syntheses of pivotal moments (to name just a few options).
  • These poems are valuable formative assessments, providing information to teachers about children’s unique strengths and areas for growth as readers. Because the prompts are open-ended, students may surprise teachers with insights and connections that aren’t given room to breathe in more traditional reading response formats (e.g.,“write a summary about this chapter”).
  • Writing poetry about reading can yield wonderfully diverse results from readers. This variety helps soften students’ preoccupation with “correct” and “incorrect” interpretations of literature and illuminates the truth that reading is a deeply personal interaction between themselves and the text. No two readers will ever experience a book precisely the same way. 

 

Capturing Characters with List Poems

A list poem is a simple type of verse, which makes it easy for students as young as kindergarten to jump into. It’s a list of images and attributes that capture a person or an object, and a “things to do if you are [a character]” poem empowers students to quickly and unselfconsciously explore the heart of a character.

Guidelines for introducing this reading response:

  1. Read aloud and display a few examples of list poems (consider Elaine Magliaro’s “Things to Do if You Are a Pencil” and Bobby Katz’s “Things to Do if You Are a Subway”). Ask students to select a character everyone is familiar with from a class read-aloud.
  2. On an anchor chart or smartboard, write: “things to do if you are [this character].” Ask your students, “When you think about this character, what quirks, strengths, struggles, and habits come to mind?” Jot down the students’ contributions to create a shared list poem. Here’s an example inspired by Who Was Alexander Hamilton?, a biography for elementary schoolers by Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso:
    Things to do if are Alexander Hamilton poem
  3. Guide older students to write list poems about characters in their independent reading books; younger students can verbally contribute to shared list poems if they aren’t ready to write on their own. 

 

Sharpening Mind Movies with “Zoom into the Moment” Poems

This poetic structure inspires students to visualize a pivotal moment within the text. 

Guidelines for introducing this reading response:

  1. Choose a significant moment from a classroom read-aloud and display the “zoom into the moment” planning page (see below). Record students’ responses to the four prompts. Then, transpose their notes (in any order) onto an anchor chart, and as a class, you may choose to edit a few words. Poof! A poem emerges. In the example below, you’ll see how I “zoom” into Jessica Love’s Julián is a Mermaid. I chose the moment when Julián and Abuela first arrive at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade: 
    Zoom into the moment: When Julian arrives at the parade poem
    Poem: When Julian Arrives at the Parade
  2. Students can continue to use this planning template (individually or as a class) to as they write “zoom into the moment” poems about their reading. 

 

Analyzing Key Details with So Much Depends Upon…Poems

William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” is the perfect mentor text to inspire poetry about seemingly insignificant objects and character choices, and about how these “little things” can trigger tectonic shifts within the world of the story.

Guidelines for introducing this reading response:

  1. Read aloud “The Red Wheelbarrow.” A wheelbarrow may seem like no big deal, but to William Carlos Williams, so much depended upon it. Ask your students to consider: what object or character choice within a classroom read-aloud is cloaked in ordinariness but is actually deeply influential? As a class, create a shared “so much depends upon…” poem. Here is an example inspired by Selina Alko and Sean Quall’s picture book The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage. Mildred Loving’s decision to write a letter to US Attorney General Robert Kennedy ignited the proceedings that legalized interracial marriage across the United States:
    The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams
  2. Students can write (or verbally improvise) “so much depends…” poetry inspired by their independent reading or classroom read-alouds.

 

Letting Students Run with These Ideas

When children write poetry, they bring their own brilliant ideas and variations to the exercises we suggest. Let them lead the way. If a student wants to use the “zoom into the moment” planning page to explore the setting of a book instead of a particular moment, great! If a child wants to take a stab at a “thing to do if you are the [author of this book]” poem about author craft, wonderful. Best of all, if a student is inspired to write their own unprompted, unguided poetry in response to reading, then, to borrow a phrase from Elaine Magliaro’s “Things to Do If You Are a Pencil,” let their pencil “dance a poem across the page.”

A Few of My Favorite Books of Poems for Children

Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems edited by Georgia Heard
All the small poems and fourteen more by Valerie Worth, illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 
Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Eric Beddows

 

About the author

Lily Howard Scott is a social and emotional learning (SEL) coach and literacy consultant. She teaches in the Continuing Professional Studies department at Bank Street College of Education and provides professional development to teachers and school leaders around the country. Her work is centered on helping children navigate their inner lives, connect with each other, and imagine varied perspectives. 

Lily presents regularly at national conferences and her writing about the importance of a child-centered, holistic approach to teaching and learning has been published in Edutopia and The Washington Post. For nearly ten years, Lily taught elementary school in both public and independent settings.

 

 

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