Article

Teaching Struggling Readers With Poetry

By Maria P. Walther and Carol J. Fuhler

  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

Whatever the needs of your struggling students, poetry is a powerful ally in your quest for practical, research-based strategies to teach them in joyful and motivating ways. In an excerpt from their latest book, Maria P. Walther and Carol J. Fuhler, two veteran, award-winning teachers, lead the way with poetry-based mini-lessons designed to supplement core reading instruction or to use for small-group instruction.

 

Why Use Poetry to Teach Struggling Readers?

Why are we so enthusiastic about using poetry with struggling readers? You will quickly see how mastery of a short poem through lots of repetition and rhyme can build students’ self-confidence. Another reason is that poetry is perfect for choral reading, which lets the voices of hesitant readers blend with those that are more confident, protecting self-esteem. With additional practice, even those faltering voices will ring with confidence. Then, too, poetry enables you to teach word recognition strategies and to build vocabulary skills within its brief text. Building that base of stronger word knowledge in turn increases comprehension. Not to be overlooked is the fact that poems touch our emotions, perhaps promoting a little more self-understanding or understanding of others in the process.

Below we offer a few more compelling reasons to use poetry. No doubt you can add to this powerful list of reasons to teach through poetry based upon your own experiences.

It’s Short!

For struggling readers, poetry is ideal. They look at the brevity of poems, surrounded by lots of white space, and sigh with relief. Short poems are so much less intimidating than many stories found in basal anthologies or trade books. It is easy fare for repeated readings, and it is fun. While many children prefer poems that are humorous, children in general also favor poems about family life and animals, and those that tell a brief story.

It Plays With Language

Poems provide an ideal occasion to play with language. This oral language play is the foundation for developing and enhancing your students’ phonemic awareness. Well-chosen poems set the stage for fast-paced phonemic awareness activities. For example, children can listen for and identify rhyming words or repeat the alliterative phrases to isolate beginning sounds. When you’re looking for poems that feature particularly effective ways to play with language, consult the award-winning poets honored by the National Council of Teachers of English for their exceptional contributions.

It Features Well-Chosen Words

Sometimes grin-inducing, and other times simply a pleasure to read, the words in poems are carefully chosen. They may tickle the tongue and revolve around and around in your brain long after you’ve read or recited them. Poetry offers an authentic context for students to apply their developing phonics knowledge. You can build on the time and effort that poets have spent as they searched for exactly the right words to tell a bit of a story or to create an image. You might do so by identifying irresistible noisy words that illustrate onomatopoeia. Discuss these and other exceptional words or rhythmic phrases and have the children repeat them with you. Understanding how carefully their poetry partners use words will benefit your students as they read and appreciate other poems and when they write their own.

It Incorporates Rhythm and Rhyme

The rhythm, rhyme, and repetition of a poem serve as scaffolds for deciphering its meaning. In addition, the rhythmic language of poetry lends itself to choral reading, repeated oral reading, and Readers Theater—all of which are research-based fluency-boosting practices. See for yourself what happens when you read poetic picture books with rhythm and rhyme. If your students are like ours, they will be chiming in on the repetitive words and phrases and repeating the catchy rhythms throughout the day.

It Contains Rich Vocabulary

With its memorable language and engaging rhythms, poetry is just the ticket to provide word practice. Whether you are discovering the meaning of new vocabulary words or targeting words for young readers to recognize by sight, poems are ideal for highlighting and creating interest in words. Even without memorization, poetry stirs the senses of children and enriches their writing as well as their reading. Lessons that begin with a relevant poem provide students with another engaging opportunity to read and discuss interesting words.

It Boosts Comprehension

Poets paint pictures with words. Their use of sensory language helps children see, hear, taste, and touch the images their words create. Struggling readers are often spending so much time focusing on decoding the words they don’t pause to visualize the author’s message. We can use poetry to help them begin to savor the words, to think and read at the same time. In addition to helping students visualize, well-chosen poems will assist you as you teach students all of the comprehension strategies that proficient readers naturally employ as they read.

It Creates Interest in a Topic

For children who are not confident in their reading abilities, content area texts can be overwhelming (Cunningham & Allington, 2007; Fuhler & Walther, 2007). The vocabulary is a challenge, as is the layout of many books. As you deftly teach them to master this content, use poetry as one of your tools. For example, when the experts tell us, “There must be a concerted effort to foster academically and intellectually rigorous learning of subject matter [for English language learners] while they are developing their English-language abilities” (Valencia & Buly, 2004, pp. 529–530), we can meet such demands with a brief but engaging poem. To ease into content area topics or an upcoming nonfiction story on the changing seasons, you might try reading selections from NCTE award-winning poet Barbara Juster Esbensen’s book Swing Around the Sun (2003). When you open the doors to learning in such an inviting way, you not only raise curiosity but you will also have an opportunity to begin discussions that will build background knowledge, too.

It Sparks Enthusiasm for Writing

Students who find reading a challenge often don’t see themselves as writers. When you weave poetry into your literacy lessons, young learners benefit from being surrounded by the words of seasoned writers. They see and hear how poets use figurative language, creative conventions, rhythm, rhyme, and much more to express their thoughts and ideas. In fact, “children are more likely to become poets if they have plenty of time to sample, savor, and discover the joys of well-written poems” (Walther & Phillips, 2009, p. 127). Certainly, when you mix poetry into your literacy instruction, you will spark enthusiasm for the written word and create another avenue for struggling students to find success.

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