How to Read a Poem
Reading strategies that will help students enjoy sophisticated and subtle writing of all kinds
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
Reading poetry can be very frustrating if you don't know what it means. So many poems are perplexing, paradoxical, and just plain hard to understand. And yet it is often the poems that are the most difficult to crack open that can offer us the richest reading experiences — if we know how to read them and what to expect from them. With this activity, you can offer your students reading strategies that will allow them to enjoy sophisticated and subtle writing of all kinds.
Begin by explaining to your students that poems don't have answers. Instead, they have possibilities. They point toward feelings, capture contradictions, awaken our understandings. Sometimes they leave us with questions and no answers at all. One day we notice something new about a poem, another day something else. The good news is you can't get a poem right or wrong. A good poem has many, many possible meanings.
Offer your students the following strategies for reading a poem. A poem with rich layers of possible meanings that students might enjoy talking about is Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."
- Tell them first that they shouldn't try to explain the poem or figure out its message or "point." They should begin by just noticing the poem:
I notice that the poet repeats the last line of the poem. I notice he only "thinks" he knows whose woods these are; he's not certain.
- They should ask questions of the poem:
Why does he repeat the last line? Why is he so tired?
- They should let the poem remind them of things in their own lives:
This reminds me of when I am so tired at the end of the day and the bus ride seems to be taking forever and I just want to go home.
- Remind students that they are under no obligation to "understand" the poem. They just have to be able to notice things, ask questions, and make connections.
- Have students read and respond to the poem on their own and then talk about it as a class. Be careful that they don't try to arrive at a single interpretation of the poem but explore all the possible meanings it might have.
- When students feel that they don't have to understand everything about a poem right away, you may notice them reading more and more difficult pieces! Encourage them to read and respond to all kinds of poems in their journals.