Tim Rasinski is a renowned professor of literacy education whose research on reading fluency and word study has made him a literacy hero to many. Below, he shares his thoughts on the importance of poetry instruction. 

“The world is full of poetry. The air is living with its spirit; and the waves dance to the music of its melodies, and sparkle in its brightness.” – James Gates Percival

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 that teachers are told that reading poetry is “fluff” and they should minimize poetry instruction. There are several reasons why this National Poetry Month, and every month, poetry should be at the heart of instruction for all readers, especially younger readers and those who are struggling.

  1. 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 the fun to the classroom.
  2. Poetry provides teachers and students opportunities to read from the heart. 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 and song allow for aesthetic reading. Every one of us has a poem or a song (or perhaps even a speech from American history such as the Gettysburg Address) that brings us to tears or sends a chill down our spines. Students need to have these sorts of aesthetic experiences in their reading.   
  3. Poems are easy to learn. The brevity of poems and songs, along with their inherent rhythm and rhyme structure, makes them easier for children to read. Success breeds success, and failure yields to frustration and avoidance. We want our children to enjoy success as they read, not stumble over every third or fourth word they encounter when reading.  
  4. Poems can easily be memorized. While poems are easy to learn, they are also easy to memorize. How many of us can recall poems and songs that we first learned years ago? Memorized stanzas involve 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, or symbols representing vocal sounds), a fundamental building block of phonics instruction. So when children learn the “Rain Rain Go Awaynursery rhyme, 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 students rehearse with the goal of giving an expressive oral performance, this form of repeated reading improves both word recognition automaticity and reading prosody, which are critical components of fluency.
  7. 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.     
  8. 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 Whitman’s metaphor describing Abraham Lincoln. Robert W. Service’sThe Cremation of Sam McGee” provides a glimpse of what life was like in the days of the Yukon gold rush.   

There is a growing body of evidence that providing regular opportunities for students to read and recite poetry and songs makes a real difference in their reading development.

In a recent study, elementary school teacher Mackenzie Eikenberry employed the regular use of poetry in her third and fourth grade dual language classrooms. Each day, students were asked to practice and then perform a new poem (or other short text) using the Fluency Development Lesson format (Rasinski, 2010). Each performance was followed by a brief exploration of the words in the poem, with direct instruction from the teacher if needed. After a two-month period (40 consecutive school days) implementing this poetry lesson plan, Ms. Eikenberry found that her third graders made over a year’s worth of growth in reading achievement as measured by the i-Ready reading comprehension standards, while her fourth grade students made more than three-quarters of a year’s growth.

Ms. Eikenberry‘s students ready to perform their poems for their class Poetry Slam.

The world is indeed full of poetry. Yet, poetry (and song) may be some of the most underutilized mediums in our reading classrooms today. Perhaps it’s time for reading educators to rethink the value and importance of these wonderful texts.   

For more poetry resources visit VocabularySpellingCity’s National Poetry Month resource page.

Rasinski, T. V. (2010).  The fluent reader:  Oral and silent reading strategies for building word recognition, fluency, and comprehension (2nd edition).  New York: Scholastic.

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Tim Rasinski is a professor of literacy education at Kent State University. His research on reading has been cited by the National Reading Panel and has been published in journals such as Reading Research QuarterlyThe Reading Teacher, Reading Psychology, and the Journal of Educational ResearchRead more about Rasinski here, or connect with him on Twitter @timrasinski1

For more from Tim Rasinski, continue to follow us for his exclusive VocabularySpellingCity blog series and be sure to watch a video recording of his webinar “Automaticity (Fluency) in Word Learning Improves Comprehension”

Rasinski’s research on word fluency is cited in the report, “Applying Best Practices For Effective Vocabulary Instruction,” written by VocabularySpellingCity in partnership with McREL International.

Why Poetry Month Should be Every Month

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