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My question is, “Why do some teachers talk so little about the importance of cultural identity in the classroom?”
For years I have been an advocate for greater use of poetry (and song) in our reading curricula. Still, it is not unusual for me to hear from teachers who are told that reading poetry is “fluff” and to minimize their use of poetry with their students. In this short article, I’d like to expand on several reasons why poetry should be at the heart of instruction for younger and struggling readers.
1. As Percival expresses at the beginning of this article, poetry is joyous reading! Have you ever watched how joyful children are when reading and reciting poetry (or singing a song)? It is a delight for me to watch their heads bob and bodies move to the rhythm of the words in poems or songs. School is supposed to fun. Poetry helps to bring back fun to the classroom.
2. Louise Rosenblatt wrote about the importance of what she termed aesthetic reading – reading that touches the heart. In this time where informational reading seems to hold sway in our classrooms, poetry provides teachers and students opportunities to read from the heart. Everyone one of us has a poem or a song (or perhaps even a speech from American history such as the Gettysburg Address) that would bring us to tears or send a chill down our spines. How many of us adults get misty-eyed hearing a favorite song such as You Are My Sunshine that our parents sang to us or that we sang to our children when they were young. Students need to have these sorts of aesthetic experiences in their reading. Poetry and song allow for aesthetic reading.
3. Poems are easy to learn to read. The brevity of poems and songs, along with their inherent rhythm and rhyme structure makes it easy for children to learn to read poems. Success breeds success and failure yields to frustration and avoidance. We want our children to enjoy success as they read, not have to stumble over every third or fourth word they encounter when reading.
4. Poems can easily be memorized. Because poems are easy to learn, they are easy to put to memory. How many of us can recall poems and songs that we first learned years ago? Those memorized lines in poems can evolve into memorized words. And memorized words, by sight and sound, are sight words. Poetry is a great way to build sight vocabulary!
5. Poems rhyme (rime). Most poems for children have a rhyming structure (e.g. Rain rain go away, come again another day.…). Most rhyming words are made up of rimes (phonograms), a fundamental building block of phonics instruction. So when children learn the Rain Rain poem, they learn and practice the –ay rime that not only shows up in the rhyming words in the poem itself, but also in many other words that contain the rime such as gay, hay, may, pay, pray, say, ray, and way.
6. Poems are meant to be rehearsed and performed for an audience. Rehearsal for an oral reading performance is an authentic form of repeated reading, a proven method for improving reading fluency. Because the rehearsal for a poetry performance is aimed at an expressive oral reading, this form of repeated reading improves both word recognition automaticity and reading prosody, both critical components of fluency.
7. Reciting poetry to an audience builds confidence in students’ oral expression. Students learn that a satisfying performance of a poem requires standing straight and tall and reading with good volume (When in doubt, shout!) and expression. This confidence in one’s ability to communicate is an important skill that will definitely be useful throughout life.
8. Performing poetry and songs can be a community experience. Although poems are often performed by one person, it is not difficult for two, three or more students to perform a poem. The choral and communal nature of poetry and song provides a natural context for assistive reading (where one reader provides support to another), another proven way to develop reading fluency.
9. Although poems are generally short, they usually contain meaningful content. Poetry and song allow for children to gain and discuss meaning in condensed texts. Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain My Captain” allows students to explore the metaphor that Whitman created to describe Abraham Lincoln, while Robert Service’s “Cremation of Sam McGee” provides a glimpse of what life was like living in the days of Yukon gold rush.
Not only is poetry and song a good idea for use in the classroom, but there is also a growing body of evidence that providing regular opportunities for students to read and recite poetry can make a real difference in their reading development. In a recently completed study, Mackenzie Eikenberry employed the regular use of poetry in her third and fourth-grade dual language classroom. Each day