How should a poem be taught?

Traditional practice in teaching poetry has been to give learners background information about the poet’s life, age, society etc. Nobody bothered to ask if the background information was all that important.

The teacher could direct learners to the library where he would find many books on the poet’s life. There seems to be no reason why students should know the birth/death dates of poets, the titles of their works, and so on. What is important for students (at any level) is their familiarity with some examples of good literature that would influence their style and think.

Another practice in the past has been (and it is still going on in many situations) to explain the poem word by word and/or line by line, or by paraphrasing it. If the teacher does all this, what does he keep for students? Why should they read the poem at all, if every piece of information comes from the teacher? A good teacher will always leave something for students to do so that they develop their critical faculty.

He would allow sufficient time for learners to go deep into the poem and share the experiences expressed by the poet. Not all learners understand poetry in the same manner or at the same speed. Individual differences in earners should always be kept in mind. They must be given sufficient time to go through a poem on their own so that they appreciate it fully.

The best way to introduce a poem is to read it aloud. It is the responsibility of the teacher to guide the language learning process by:

  • modelling pronunciation, intonation, stress, rhythm, and oral expression
  • facilitating comprehension of vocabulary, idioms, cultural aspects, and plot 
  • stimulating interest and conversation, and interacting with the students
  • creating a student-participatory language learning experience.

A good teacher should be familiar with the rhythm, pitch and intonation pattern of English. Students must feel the music that words carry with them. If possible, the teacher must use recordings now available of poems by actors and by the poets themselves, or he might ask a colleague who he feels, can read a poem appropriately, to read the poem in the class so that students fuliy appreciate the poem. But enjoyment cannot come without understanding. The teacher may ask simple questions to check whether or not his students understand the poem.

If the poem can be enacted, the teacher should not miss the opportunity of involving his students in dramatizing the poem. Classical ballads like ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter’ can easily be dramatized because they contain a lot of conversation between the characters. In such a situation, the students dramatize the poem (under the guidance of their teacher) by selecting character roles and discussing scenery, props, lighting, and costumes.

Students rehearse the dramatization of the poem and then do an improvisation based on the poem. After experimenting with character interactions and dialogues, the class discusses the improvisation.

Visual aids like pictures, drawings etc can be used to help learners comprehend the poem. Many poems (for instance, Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan) are rich in graphic imagery. Simple drawings on the board could enhance the interest of students and help them understand a poem better.

Different activities individual, pair or group must be designed to involve learners in a poem’s theme. For instance, before a poem is read or listened to, a warm-up activity (also called brainstorming) must be given to arouse learners’ curiosity. A warm-UP activity could be a nursery rhyme, a song from English or the learner’s mother tongue which the learners are asked to sing for identifying similarities/differences in the various rhymes, or the teacher can ask simple questions like ‘What do you think the poem is about?’ ‘Can you guess how the following words will be used in the poem?’ etc. Questions like these increase learners’ curiosity and help them in developing one of the important sub-skills in reading, prediction/guessing/anticipating.