Saturday, April 25, 2015

Poetry's Power

Language is such a beautiful way to communicate. Unfortunately, many children who have reading problems also have language problems. They have difficulty with comprehension, hearing or predicting rhymes, remembering vocabulary, and playing with sounds and words. Since poetry requires all those skills I would start every reading class with a poem. Our daily poem was a chance for everyone to read: individually, in small groups, or as a class.

The year would begin with a simply repeating poem usually There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.  The children would giggle in expectation at chanting poems such as In a Dark, Dark Woods. Learning about simple rhymes might include the traditional poem What the Animals Said.

And then there was Shel Silverstein with his delightful drawings and magical children's poems. The class would explore the poetry in the book A Light in the Attic followed by Where the Sidewalk Ends. Children who had poor comprehension suddenly suddenly found themselves reading and laughing at the Messy Room, or The Homework Machine. They saw the humor of a baby bat afraid of the light in Batty.  In the past many of these children stopped reading when they came upon an unfamiliar word, but now words such as beau and gloom made sense when reading Almost Perfect. My poor readers, the children who  never volunteered to read, clamored to be the first to read True Story or One Inch Tall. accompanied by their own drawings.  Children who didn't care about vocabulary or history asked "What is a chicken pox? or "Who is Paul Bunyan?" Students started to realize a word might not be real, but if one line ended with hippopotamus that strange word in the next line might be bottomus. Children who had merely tolerated going to the library suddenly wanted help finding a book by Mr. Silverstein.

Next, they were told they were old enough for adult poetry. There was no deep interpretation for Robert Frost  Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening although the 1978 beautiful picture book fascinated the students. We plowed through Longfellow's Paul Revere's Ride as each child selected four lines and drew a picture to describe them. Suddenly everyone could visualize a belfry arch and learned the history behind  "One if by land, and two if sea."  The poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae gave the students a glimpse of World War I and an understanding of an old tradition of selling poppies in memory of fallen soldiers.

The class then moved on to  Love that Dog, a book about poetry written in free verse. This book introduced the students to the idea that poems didn't have to rhyme.  This concept was difficult for many of the 4th graders, but by now they understood the beauty of words and the visual pictures words could paint. They imagined the sound of Street Music by Arnold Adoff and tried their hand at writing their own poems.

Finally, we ended the year with Mirror Mirror by Marilyn Singer, a book of reversible verse about fairy tales. Of course, this is not the complete curriculum of the poems they read. And poetry was only a small part of the reading class. I think, however, this was the part of the class that had the most influence on the children's reading fluency and understanding. As years passed I had many former students mention the poems we read in class.

Poetry helps children with dyslexia. It improves children's understanding of language. Reading and discussing poems helps reading fluency and comprehension. Parents can open the door to poetry with their child, and should encourage schools to make it an integral part of the reading curriculum.

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