On teaching poetry

sylvia plath

“If a poem is concentrated, a closed fist, then a novel is relaxed and expansive, an open hand: it has roads, detours, destinations; a heart line, a head line; morals and money come into it. Where the fist excludes and stuns, the open hand can touch and encompass a great deal in its travels.”

Sylvia Plath

I love teaching poetry. It can be a problematic form because it ‘excludes and stuns’ but the concentration and depth is what makes it so compelling. I love the journey of taking students from that feeling of confusion to grasping what the poem is about and exploring how it has been put together. I remember those journeys myself: looking at a poem for the first time with furrowed brow and feeling totally at sea before my teacher pulled us closer and closer to shore. It was what inspired me to become a teacher – I wanted to be that person guiding students to understanding.

I think the key to unlocking students’ understanding of poetry is teaching them how to ask good questions. This is an especially important skill to develop for when they have to approach analysing unseen poetry. I regularly model the process of looking at a poem and asking a lot of questions (and not worrying immediately about the answers) e.g.

Why has the poet used this word? What’s the effect? Why isn’t there punctuation at the end of this line? What’s the effect? Why aren’t the stanzas all the same length? What’s the effect? What does this word even mean? Why is it written in first person? What’s the effect?

I’ll then model attempting to answer some of these questions and explore different interpretations. I encourage students to offer differing ideas to me or challenge my interpretation; as long as their ideas are firmly rooted in what’s there they don’t have to agree with me (mine is just one interpretation of the poem and I don’t have all the answers). It’s the questions which spark these discussions.

Of course when students start asking questions independently they can get waylaid by questions that aren’t going to lead them to insight (what do the numbers down the left mean?) but by evaluating which questions have led to the most interesting ideas, or the best understanding, students develop their questioning ability. I’m regularly amazed by some of the questions students come up with – questions which genuinely make me see things in a way I hadn’t before. That’s the magic of questions; you don’t have to be a poetry expert to ask something which unlocks new meaning.

So I thought I might share some of the approaches I’ve used over the years to get students asking questions about poems.

What I know. What I want to know.

Once upon a time I had a big enough classroom and 100 minute long lessons to play with which was brilliant for this because it allowed me time to get students to rearrange the room so that I had an inside circle of students facing out and an outside circle of students facing in. All they needed was a copy of a poem and a pen. I have found it trickier with less space and time but still fun.

Students face their partner and make a statement about the poem – something that they know. This might be that it’s written in first person or that they’ve found a metaphor which creates a humorous tone. They should annotate the poem with something they know and then work together to come up with a question for something they want to know e.g. what is the effect of the enjambment?

Because I often did this activity when we came to Armitage’s ‘Kid’ I would label the inside circle as Batmen and the outside circle as Robins. I’d then play the theme tune at which point one of the circles had to move around until the music stopped and they were sat opposite a new partner. As this point pairs need to try and answer each other’s questions (to build on what they know) and come up with a new question. I’d then play the music again but this time the other circle would rotate. We’d repeat this several times.

Group analysis

This works particularly well with poems that are broken up into broadly equal stanzas e.g. Blake’s ‘London’ or Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. With shorter poems (e.g. 4 stanzas) it might we worth splitting the class in half and having two separate groups for each stanza.

  1. Give each group a copy of the poem (ideally on A3 with lots of room to annotate). Then give each group a responsibility for a stanza for which they must come up with 5 questions. These questions should address how the poem is written as well as what it is about.
  2. The poem is then passed on so that each group is given somebody else’s. With the new sheet in front of them they must select the 3 best questions the other group asked about their own stanza. The sheets are then passed on again.
  3. This time groups need to try and answer the 3 questions given to them about a stanza. If a group started off with stanza 1 in the first stage, they will now be answering questions on stanza 3.
  4. Form new groups with one person from each original group and get them to work together to produce a commentary of the entire poem (with a framework). I often use ILSP grids for this (a sheet split in four for Interpretation, Language, Structure and Personal Response).


This involves giving students a tiny fragment of a poem before they’ve read it. For example, from Armitage’s ‘Hitcher’, you might give pairs a post-it note with the words: – and didn’t even swerve. Model how to deal with a fragment of your own and then get them to come up with 3 or more questions about their fragment before trying to answer them.

Follow this by reading through the poem and analysing it as a group. When you reach one of the fragments, give those students responsibility for leading the discussion.

Class Question Challenge

This involves displaying a poem on the board and challenging students to ask as many questions as they can (I usually do this after we’ve read it through together and understood what’s happening). You can adapt this by setting them a target to aim for, say 20, and when they reach it push them for 5 or 10 more. Don’t censor the questions at this point – they key is pushing them to exhaust the questions they can come up with.

Next you start to eliminate questions. Get students to evaluate which are the best questions and which you can do away with. Wipe away the questions which don’t meet the cut until you are left with a few questions which are brilliant because they’ll lead to the most interesting answers. You might at this point task different groups of students to tackle one of the questions each and feedback or you could explore them together.




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