Vermont Reads: Poetry's Role In Learning To Read

May 7, 2013

Educators say that most children love rhymes. And they say that poetry can be helpful in many ways as children learn to read, write, listen and express themselves.

In her kindergarten class at Oak Grove School in Brattleboro, teacher Chelsea Dowd is reading a favorite story.

It’s Dr. Seuss’s ‘One Fish, Two Fish,” and the students are joining in.

Many of the children have the same book at home. But that’s not the only reason they’re able to shout out the final word in every line. It’s also because the rhyming pattern is predictable and easy to remember.

Dowd says rhyme helps children understand how words work.

“We use rhyme from the second the kids come into the kindergarten classroom  as a way to help them hear words, and start to understand that words are made up of bunches of little sounds that can be put together to make new words, or taken apart to spell words,” Dowd explains.  

Dowd says that ability to distinguish the sounds that make up a word is a crucial early step in getting children ready to read.

Linda Hecker is a reading specialist at the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. She says learning to see patterns is another key step for beginning readers.

“Patterned verse, whether it’s rhyme or rhythm, lets you build up an expectation of what’s coming next. And all of reading is based on pattern. So teaching kids from the very beginning to listen for patterns is incredibly useful.”

Poet Verandah Porche brings a sense of play to her residencies as a visiting poetry teacher in schools.

She recalls a class whose teacher loved to jump rope, “and I said, wouldn’t it be great if we had our own jump rope rhyme?”

The class considered everyone’s name and discussed which were easiest to rhyme. The name they chose to end the first line set the pattern.

“Here’s one of my favorites: 

Tara, Craig, Toby and Maura

Bought some milky ways at the store-a

Dropped them on the kitchen floor-a

Here comes Mama better run out the door-a!”

Porche says children respond naturally to rhythm and rhyme. But she uses other patterns too. She says any structure can provide a user-friendly framework that helps kids write more fluently.

Recently she helped some second graders write  about a local swimming spot called Sweet Pond. She handed out a list of prepositions -- under, over, next to, above -- and asked the kids to use them to begin each line.

She says many of the results were beautiful.

“Above the shivering Sweet Pond of my heart fly the dragon flies/

Next to the wooshing water of Sweet Pond of my heart, the pretty green grass is growing…” she reads.

In many cases Porche acts as a scribe, writing down the children’s words so they’re free to focus on the poem.

Poet Ann Gengarelly does that too. She’s been writing poetry with children for 25 years, in schools and in her poetry studio in Marlboro.

Gengarelly’s focus isn’t so much on patterns or rhyme as it is on self expression. She tries to help each child find words that have real meaning and importance to that child.

She says it takes slowing down and listening intently to help each student connect with his or her ‘authentic voice.’ “There was a boy recently who wrote a poem about how much he didn’t like school. And he felt so empowered to be able to express his negative feeling about school.”

Gengarelly says children who struggle in school often write wonderful poetry. That success can help them feel more comfortable and invested in written language.

Jack McKiernan, a special education teacher at Brattleboro’s Oak Grove School, has been bringing Gengarelly into his classes for 20 years.

“Especially for my students, any experience that enables them to make better sense of their feelings, to be able to convey those feelings in words to others and to express themselves more accurately is an important life skill,” he says.

McKiernan often helps out as a scribe during Gengarelly’s sessions.  Sometimes, after he reads a child’s words back, he’ll look up and find a young poet, beaming with pleasure.

Jody Gladding

Billy Collin’s collection, Poetry 180, includes several works by Vermonters, including Blue Willow, a poem by Jody Gladding of East Calais.

Blue Willow
A pond will deepen toward the center like a plate
we traced its shallow rim my mother steering
my inner tube past the rushes where I looked
for Moses we said it was a trip around the world
in China we wove through curtains of willow
that tickled our necks let’s do that again
and we’d double back idle there lifting
our heads to the green rain
swallows met over us later I dreamed
of flying with them we had all the time
in the world we had the world
how could those trees be weeping?”

Gladding teaches poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her most recent book is called Rooms and Their Airs. She says reading poetry is its own reward, and says there isn’t anything inherently good or good for you about it.

“I think that it can be hard to experience that way because we all use language all the time everyday and in poems language operates differently so that can throw us off,” Gladding said.

“To me, poetry is where we experience language at the moment of inception, and what I mean by that is it seems to me it’s where linguistic energy first takes on form. And words rise out of silence, and so it’s alive and it’s different from the other language that we hear around us all the time,” Gladding said.  

Gladding cites a few instances of poetry in every day life, seeing a poem on a subway train or hearing a poem on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac.

“You get to hear the silence that gives rise to language. You get to inhabit that resonance space where language happens and there you are. And then you re-enter the day’s chatter, but you had that experience and what could be better?” Gladding asks.

Vermont Reads: Poetry 180,” continues tomorrow with a look at reading poetry in high schools.