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A Review on the Teaching of Poetry in Secondary Schools

Wissenschaftliche Studie 1990 20 Seiten

Didaktik - Englisch - Pädagogik, Didaktik, Sprachwissenschaft




An Examination of Methods Used in the Teaching of Poetry in Secondary Schools

Suggestions for New Approaches to Improve the Status of Poetry in Schools

The Importance of Reading and Writing Poetry in the Classroom




Holbrook (1967, p.63) defines poetry as “language used for its deepest and most exact purposes.” He goes on to propose that there is no other medium through which language can be used as richly and accurately to explore experience as poetry (p. 69).

Indeed, poetry is one of the most creative forms of expression. It is language at its most meaningful, language carefully shaped and crafted into its most perfect form. Poetry encompasses all forms of human experience, from the simplest to the most intimate and complex. It speaks at once to the intellectual and the “ordinary” man, the adult and the child. To imagine that poetry deals only with great experiences and great people is to greatly undervalue poetry.

The Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1965) p. 159) states that “poetry should matter and be felt to matter, in the community” and that its social function is no less important than its other functions. Nevertheless, critics of poetry seem to be united in the opinion that poetry is unpopular among adults as well as high school students worldwide. It is a fact that the majority of high school students are either indifferent or hostile to poetry. Dias and Hayhoe (1988 p.4) quote Greeves (1988) as saying that “Poetry has become so rare in schools that it ought to be put on the endangered list.”

This review, therefore, attempts to examine closely some of the methods that have been used in the teaching of poetry in secondary schools up to recent times and the suggestions that have been made to improve the status of poetry in schools and to help students to enjoy poetry.

An Examination of Methods Used in the Teaching of Poetry in Secondary Schools

Strong (1964 pp. 1-16) observes that while the majority of young children respond very positively to poetry, adults and secondary school students incline towards varying degrees of indifference. He lays the blame squarely at the door of schools; more specifically on the incompetence of teachers and incorrect teaching methods. Strong contends that poetry has, for a long time, been mishandled and poorly taught by teachers who have no understanding of poetry and therefore see it as an unpleasant aspect of teaching or by those who, while they may have some degree of appreciation for poetry, are unable to communicate this appreciation to others. He identifies some basic errors in the teaching of poetry and their possible effects: Teaching poetry as comprehension, paraphrasing, learning by heart, and prescribing tastes.

Teaching poetry as comprehension – one method which has been used in the teaching of poetry is the introduction - explanation - question format. This method gives the teacher the role of “keeper of the poem”. He has all the answers and he asks all the questions. The students are not given the privilege of becoming involved in the poem or in the class, for that matter. This method offers no motivation to them and fails to elicit any response from them. At most they may consider poetry lessons to be dull and uninspiring. They are forced to discover answers to questions on a complex form of writing which has nothing to do with them and which they do not understand.

Paraphrasing – Certain public examinations require that students paraphrase pieces of poetry. Paraphrasing can have only negative effects. The form of a poem is important to its meaning and so the paraphrase robs the poem of an integral aspect of its being. With its rhythm, rhyme, imagery and metre taken away the poem becomes empty; a destroyed work of art, “nobody’s words” and can no longer be of real value to anyone. But even worse, is the fact that the pupils are given the impression that poetry is only a complex way of saying something simple; that the poet is deliberately mystifying them with strange concepts that could be very easily expressed in prose. The result could be strong aversion to poetry on the part of pupils.

Learning by heart – Nothing can have a more disastrous effect on students than forcing them to memorize a poem before they have reached the stage at which they can appreciate it. Learning by heart is something that comes naturally if the right poem is selected. The teacher who introduces his class of eleven year olds to Milton by forcing them to memorize the sonnet “On this Blindness” runs the risk of turning them off Milton and perhaps all poetry for life.

Prescribing tastes – Many teachers try to force on their pupils tastes and values that have been handed down to them from generations back. They do not have the courage to develop their own aesthetic values and seek to stifle the pupils’ natural inclinations towards their own tastes and values. The skilled teacher should expose students to poems that lie within their range and (for a start, at least) poems they are likely to enjoy and allow them to acquire their individual tastes.

While Strong’s observations may be valid one must observe that the weaknesses that he identifies can only be regarded as such when they are taken to extremes. Questioning, paraphrasing, memorizing and prescribing are all strategies which the skilled teacher can incorporate into his lessons very effectively, provided that he recognizes the pitfalls to which they can lead if they are employed in the wrong contexts. In more recent times, these techniques have been utilized to great effect, in conjunction with others, in the teaching of poetry.

More recently, Dias and Hayhoe (1988 pp. 4-15) have also recognized the causes for the unpopularity of poetry that Strong has identified, but they are of the view that such practices are now largely in the past. They are of the opinion that although there are many factors contributing to the unpopularity of poetry in secondary schools, the critical theory implicit in the teaching of poetry in most schools is a prime cause. They classify the literary criticism that affects the teaching of poetry in three major trends: New Criticism, Structuralism and Post-structuralism.

New Criticism - This approach is based on the concept of the poem as an autonomous unit requiring careful analysis. Its emphasis is on interpretation. The main objective is to train pupils to read poetry by closely examining the internal structure of the poem for every aspect that would shed light on its meaning. Meaning is believed to be contained entirely within the text. The teacher is concerned with neither the author’s intentions and context nor the responses that the poem may have evoked in the reader. As a matter of fact, subjective reading of poetry is discouraged totally. The teacher assumes the role of guardian of the poem’s meaning and the students, through her questioning, are guided towards their destination – the one correct meaning of the poem. Students are therefore barred from exploring the poem intuitively.

This method completely withholds from students the opportunity to develop as readers of poetry since it forbids them to react from their own responses to the text.

Structuralism – This approach is no more acceptable today than the New Criticism approach. It is more scientific in that it requires an understanding of the structures that render meaning to literary works. It posits that a poem is not a self-contained unit, but part of an interrelated system of other works. Emphasis is placed on explicit, analytical reading with the aim of understanding the systems that lend meaning to literary works.

This approach also places the teacher in a dominant role because the students feel unsure of their capacity to approach a literary work without prior knowledge and understanding of the basic “codes” and “structures” that are fundamental to structuralism. Clearly, it falls far short of present objectives in the teaching of poetry; teaching students to develop response to poetry.

Post-structuralism – While the former approaches have inclined towards the idea of one correct meaning, this approach promotes the idea that different readings can lead to widely differing interpretations and that meaning is indeterminate and unstable. In fact, Post-structuralism postulates that any literary work will yield multiple interpretations subject to the experiences it evokes in readers.

This recognition of the possibilities of varied interpretations through differing responses is important if students are to be allowed to realize their full potential as readers. Of the three approaches, Post-structuralism seems to come closest to some of the objectives of present day teaching of poetry.

Suggestions for New Approaches to Improve the Status of Poetry in Schools

The teaching of poetry calls for total involvement on the part of the teacher and students alike; the teacher has his role to play and so do the students. The teacher’s main objective should be to teach students to enjoy poetry. This calls for a certain amount of skill and a great deal of preparation on his part.

Mordecai (1981 p.1) outlines certain essentials for a good poetry class:

- “The teacher MUST have a good working relationship with the class.
- The teacher must understand and respond to the poem.
- The poem must be such that the students are able to respond to it.
- The focus of the class must be on the poem – not on questions about it or information related to it (or its author), but on the poem itself.
- The teacher must, at all costs, stop the class or arrange it so that the class ends while the students are still enjoying the poem and before they become bored with it.”

In order to cover these essentials and to fulfill his objectives the teacher of poetry must plan every step with the greatest of care. Probably the most important aspect of planning is selection. What type of poems are children more likely to respond to? Certainly, children relate more easily to situations that are familiar; they respond more readily to works of their own time. As Johnson (1989) p.6) so aptly puts it: “Choose poems that help children to understand and describe their world.” Of course, the skilled teacher should be able to determine at what stage he should move on to more universal poems.

The selection done, the next step is to decide on a procedure to follow. Moody (1971 pp.30-32) prescribes a very workable procedure:

Preliminary Assessment – A preliminary study enables the teacher to get a good grasp of the poem, to check out facts that may require explanation and to identify aspects which may require special attention.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
441 KB
Institution / Hochschule
University of the West Indies – School of Education
Teaching Poetry Secondary Schools Review




Titel: A Review on the Teaching of Poetry in Secondary Schools