From the heartbeat heard in the womb, the bedtime lullaby sung to soothe us and the nursery rhyme chanted to amuse and entertain, we are innately programmed to tune into the rhythms and cadences around us. And in doing so, we lay down solid foundations for both language and literacy development. Poetry is a form of verbal music, a song that is spoken. As such, amongst other attributes, it supports and strengthens this process.
In today’s busy, sensory-overloaded world, young children risk missing out on sustained exposure to the power and intensity of spoken word alone. All too often, the words that are familiar in their formative years will be incomplete, broken verbal instructions spoken in competition with the background noise of television, computer games and the like. Poetry, in its quieter but persuasive way, is all the more necessary these days to re address this balance. I haven’t visited a primary class yet that has failed to respond positively to a poetry performance, regardless of their prior exposure and experiences. They are naturally drawn to it. Though in order to go on to write well, a child needs first to learn to listen effectively to well chosen words and the meanings behind them.
And as a poet myself, when working on a poem, I’m continually reading the lines I’ve just written out loud to myself, listening for the musicality and flow of the words as part of my editing process. Being a literate and experienced adult, I can pick out the musicality of the words within my inner ear as I’m silently reading a poem off the page. And though the poem may also have a visual pattern, a certain layout, or an eye rhyme that might be particularly pleasing, I am often struck by what further secrets a poem can offer up when watching a live performance – particularly when it is read by the poet themselves. Tone of voice, emphasis on certain words, the speaker’s body language and facial expressions can all bring a poem to 3-D life and give you a deeper understanding of what the poem might be communicating. This will be even more so in the case of a child.
Children should have opportunities to see poetry performed and hear it being read, both by enthusiastic adults but also by their contemporaries. And be given a chance to hear their own voice as they speak it. Poetry is all about two-way communication: between the poet and the reader, the speaker and the audience. In my performances with The Children’s Bookshow I always involve the children and get them joining in with phrases, sign language or gesture, singing and sometimes even whole body actions. And I also like to share my creative process with them too; describing how I write my poems and the initial ideas that lead me to them. The sharing of all things poetry is integral to the process of understanding it.
Sarah Crossan’s 5 year old daughter’s written response to watching performed poetry at Clippa
Recently, I had the pleasure of being the Chair of the CLiPPA prize and hosting The Poetry Show prize-giving ceremony at the National Theatre. This annual event really puts poetry centre stage and it was a delight to witness over 2,000 children and adults focus on and celebrate the spoken word for a full hour together. The shortlisted poets each read one of their poems but for me, the real highlight was watching the pupils from the shadowing schools up on stage performing their own interpretations of them. Their energy and enthusiasm was infectious. I know of one child, (fellow judge Sarah Crossan’s barely 5-year-old daughter) who having being inspired by one school’s stage performance of Michael Rosen’s Finger Food, returned home and spontaneously wrote her own poem in an admirable piece of extended writing.
Of course, reading poetry out loud doesn’t need to happen on such a grand scale as the National Theatre. The regular reading of poetry with a class at the end of a school day, a poem at bedtime or recited on car journeys will work its magic in its own way, too.
This guest blog was provided by Rachel Rooney, Freelance Lecturer in literacy and children’s books. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.
Author photo credit Michael Thorn
Rachel Rooney is an award winning poet. Her poetry collections include The Language of Cat and My Life as a Goldfish. Rachel will be performing at King’s Hall Ilkely on 3rd October with The Children’s Bookshow in a lively and interactive event where she will also talk about what poetry is, how it makes us feel and where the ideas for poems come from.
For more information about Rachel see http://www.rachelrooneypoet.com on twitter @RooneyRachel