I love poetry. It can be inviting to read, fun to write, and well…interesting to teach. It can especially be a challenge to students who already struggle with reading in general. So, how can a teacher help all students comprehend poetry, without losing her mind?
Helping Students Comprehend Poetry
Poetry can be confusing, especially for younger readers. Figurative language, rhythm, and subtle nuances can leave upper elementary students asking, “What did I just read?” Poetry is meant to be read multiple times to aid in comprehension and interpretation. As teachers, we should teach our kids how to comprehend poetry as a process.
Step One: Read for comprehension.
Read the poem aloud to your students the first time through. Demonstrate fluency (poetry is perfect for teaching about expression!) as they read. After reading, model “thinking aloud.” Ask questions about the poem, and have your students help you come up with the answers. What’s the subject? Who is the speaker? What words are confusing? Try to come up with a general idea of what the poem is about. Poetry is highly interpretative, so it may be that their general impression is not the same as yours. It may never be, and that’s okay.
Step Two: Read for figurative language.
You’ve probably talked about the different types of figurative language with your students. Similes (comparisons using “like” or “as”), metaphors (comparisons that do not use “like” or “as”), onomatopoeia (words whose sounds suggest their meaning), and personification (giving human qualities to nonhuman objects or ideas) are good types of figurative language to focus on in upper elementary. Talk about how those devices are used in the poem as you read the poem a second time. Students can read on their own and tag text, but it may be beneficial for you to read it aloud again. How do non-literal meanings impact the overall meaning of the poem that your students discussed during the first read?
Step Three: Read for form and structure.
We’re not asking fifth graders to explain iambic pentameter or sonnet structures here. Plain and simple, during the third read, ask your students to look at how the poem is structured on the page. Does the author use capital letters? Does he or she choose to use different punctuation marks for stylistic purposes? How many stanzas are there? How many lines per stanza? Does the poem rhyme? Is there a set rhythm? Talk about how the form and structure of the poem contribute to its overall meaning.
Step Four: Read for the message.
During the final read, ask what the overall message or theme of the poem is. What lesson was the author trying to communicate? How do you know? Poetry is a great way to practice text-dependent analysis. Ask your students to identify a theme and then give examples from the text to support the theme. Have your students look at all the ideas they generated from the first three reads to come up with their final analysis.
Poetry can be overwhelming for students, but by breaking down the process into simple close reads, students can learn how to comprehend poetry at any grade and reading level!