ERIC Identifier: ED307609
Publication Date: 1989-04-00
Author: Frankenbach, Charlie
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Bloomington IN.
Teaching Poetry: Generating Genuine, Meaningful Responses. ERIC
Charles R. Duke (1984) has noted, "English teachers have given some attention
to aesthetic reading, usually terming it the development of literary
appreciation, but many of the classroom practices used to foster that
appreciation have been counter-productive." Instruction on comprehending and
appreciating poetry has especially been regarded as ineffective. Either because
of a lack of appreciation for their students' abilities to study poetry or
because of well-intentioned enthusiasm to show students the wonders of the form,
many teachers have force-fed "meanings" to puzzled students or have taught
poetry by way of dissecting poetic techniques--here is a symbol, here is a
metaphor, and so on.
The literature in the ERIC database, however, offers many ideas on useful,
more productive approaches to the study of poetry as the several samples
discussed here illustrate.
LETTING POETRY SERVE EACH READER
In an article focused on
all literature, not just poetry, Bryant Fillion (1981) argues that a teaching
approach that promotes student inquiry is one way to sharpen the three abilities
he sees as essential to a student's "capacity to read and derive benefit from
literature." These abilities are aesthetic reading (when attention is focused on
what happens during the reading rather than on what remains afterwards),
reflecting, and problem finding (p.40).
Fillion urges that students be provided with opportunities to identify a
poem's relevance to their lives. He suggests encouraging the student to generate
his or her own questions about the text and points out how this supports an
inquiry approach in the classroom.
For instance, Fillion suggests that English courses or units of study could
be organized around particular kinds of inquiry instead of around a literary
genre or the themes of particular pieces. He would encourage young readers to
develop a literal comprehension of a poem by asking, "What does this say?" With
selections likely to provoke varied student interpretations, students should ask
"What does this mean?" The question "What does it matter?" is appropriate in
studying selections that deal with concerns apt to be of keen interest to
adolescents (p.44). Such questions, Fillion asserts, allows students "to examine
and develop strategies" while pursuing these and other central questions, such
as "How should this be read?" and "What is there to say about the character
development in this piece?" (p.44)
ENCOURAGING POETRY READING AS INQUIRY
Duke (1984) also
discusses the need for an inquiry approach to reading, enjoying, and
understanding poetry and echoes Fillion's emphasis on encouraging
problem-solving and reflection. Duke stresses the danger of teachers championing
the beauty and fruitfulness of a poetic reading experience while relying on a
teacher-centered question and answer period: "...if we do not also provide equal
time for students to enjoy, contemplate, and relive the experience of reading a
text, we may be sending a contradictory message about what the purpose of
literature study is." (p.3)
It is interesting to weigh this perspective when examining sources in the
ERIC database related to the teaching of poetry writing (Morgan, 1989).
Frequently an emphasis on form or other techniques that have become
counterproductive in teaching the reading of poetry provide successful
frameworks for teaching the writing of poetry.
The strength of Duke's article is a detailed description of an exercise with
Robert Frost's "Storm Fear" that puts the inquiry approach into action. The
first steps emphasize reflection, as students recall their own experiences in
storms and express their recollections in class periods dedicated to free
writing. Then, as vividly as they can, students condense the description of a
storm into two sentences, which also must indicate their reaction s to it. Next
students compare and contrast their sentences with the first two sentences of
Frost's poem and write summaries of the similarities and differences between
their lives and Frost's in terms of emotions, descriptive detail, voice, and
This first immersion in the poem is followed by group discussions which allow
the students to question each other's summaries and, later, to continue
analyzing the poem itself. A final writing project re-emphasizes reflection by
allowing students to write on another subject.
USING POETRY TO DEVELOP CRITICAL READERS
The usefulness of
poetry in teaching elementary and secondary school children to deal with
propaganda is proposed by Fehl L. Shirley (1983). In contrast to both Fillion
and Duke, Shirley, who offers only general teaching suggestions, places little
emphasis on the life-enriching quality of poetry. Rather Shirley sees the study
of poetry as one stage of the process of sharpening thinking skills that are
important in responding to various types of advertising. Poetry, Shirley
asserts, helps students recognize the function of connotation, denotation,
symbolism, and imagery. Knowledge of these techniques, Shirley argues, is
integrally related to critical thinking, and students can use this knowledge
effectively in confronting the "language of commercial and political
Francis Kazemek's work on the usefulness of studying poetry balances an
intense appreciation for poetry with an in-formative, practical outlook both on
how to present poetry in the classroom and on how such study can benefit
students. In one of his papers on poetry and adult literacy (1985), Kazemek
argues convincingly that adult literacy training should begin with the reading
of poetry and other more expressive text. This argument is founded on Kazemek's
contention that 1) literacy is not a process that can develop over a short
period of time, and 2) such an assumption sets adult students up for
disappointment. Thus Kazemek questions a traditional approach to adult literacy
training that reduces reading comprehension and instruction to a focus on
certain types of surface language conventions in a very restricted range of
situations. The resulting "survival" literacy training (p.333), he argues, is
The ambiguity of much poetry invites adult students to explore language "in a
non-threatening manner," Kazemek argues, because it invites unique explications
rather than finding a right answer. After immersion in the "compressed and
symbolic world inside lyric poems," students "have been better able to move out
from poetry to other functions of reading and writing." (pp.334-335) Like
Fillion and Duke, Kazemek underscores the necessity of promoting group
discussion and questioning and reflecting by students.
USING POETRY WITH ADULT READERS
In a later paper, Kazemek
and Rigg (1986) suggest prerequisites for using poetry in teaching adult
learners and recommend four specific poets whose works can be effectively used
in such instruction: Carl Sandburg, Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, and
William Carlos Williams. Kazemek and Rigg feel that these poets provide adult
literacy teachers with a wealth of useful material because many of their poems
are brief, are relevant to adult life, and are written in recognizable
language--often in the vernacular.
Kazemek and Rigg strongly recommend reading poetry aloud, rereading it, and
discussing it. These activities, they note, give life to the poetry, reveal the
many worlds within a poem, and allow students to judge their own interpretations
against those of other students. Such poetry study, Kazemek and Rigg found,
provides students with a smooth, rewarding entrance into the world of reading
and it is simply "more fun" than the materials usually used in adult classes
In still another article, Kazemek (1987) continues his argument regarding the
need for learners to have more purposeful encounters with literature. In this
spirited paper, he deftly criticizes educational practice that belittles the
role of imagination by concentrating on the development of quantifiable skills.
Kazemek takes successful swipes at "arid," "archaic" English instruction that
"flies in the face of decades of research" by directing "language and literature
learning through formulated phrases, pinned and wriggling on the classroom
walls." (p.22) He peppers his paper with snatches of Williams' poetry and warns
that the contemporary view that imagination is superfluous will eventually
retard the human ability to imagine "the possibilities of transforming, of
recreating, social realities." (p.23).
USING POETRY TO TRAIN LAW STUDENTS
Gopen (1984) argues that
the study of poetry is the most suitable preparation for the study of law. His
intriguing stance hinges on four central points: 1) No other discipline so
closely replicates the central question asked in the study of legal thinking: "Here is the text; in how many ways can it have meaning?" 2) No other discipline
communicates as well that words are not often fungible--a legal term that
suggests here that words are often irreplaceable or at least cannot be replaced
by synonyms without changing the shade of meaning. 3) No other discipline
concentrates as much on the effects of the ambiguity of individual words and
phrases. 4) No other discipline concentrates as much on a concept that might be
called "textuality"--a focus that leads to very close, careful reading that
considers writer/author intent. (p.334)
The study of poetry, Gopen believes, "free[s] the mind to accept the approach
of reasoning that law schools try to teach." (p.334) Law students must know how
"to analyze language, to recognize ambiguity, and to develop consistency in
interpretation" (p.337); and, Gopen points out, the study of poetry can help
students sharpen these types of skills: "To understand the law is to understand
the possibilities of texts, and that is precisely the province of the study of
Gopen presents a convincing case, drawing on his extensive knowledge of both
poetry and the law; he intertwines comments in Keats, Blake, and Shakespeare
with legal case histories. In addition to its novel approach, this article is
also a helpful resource for exercises to be used with Shakespeare's well-known
Sonnet 73 and Blake's "London"--exercises that in their investigation of
ambiguity and context resemble the inquiry approach favored by Fillion and Duke.
And as Shirley does, Gopen--for all the obvious delight he takes in
poetry--de-emphasizes the personally enriching quality of the poetic experience
in his quest to defend more practical reasons for studying poetry.
In varying degrees, these articles all promote instruction that places
responses to poetry within the control of students, who are apt to shy further
away from poetry under teachers who lecture, quiz, and dictate a poem's meaning
Another consistent feature of these articles is the lack of substantial
evidence of the effectiveness of poetry in sharpening reading and thinking
skills. Authors such as Duke, Fillion, Kazemek, and Gopen report some success
with their approaches. But as Fillion points out, "...although [these skills]
may be observed indirectly, in their use these abilities are not quantifiable.
We can assess their development, but we cannot measure them with precision."
(p.40) Indeed, what these articles call for is a "leap of faith," if you will,
on the part of teachers willing to try, observe, and judge for themselves the
possible effectiveness of such approaches.
Duke, Charles R. "The role of reflection, problem-solving and discussion in the teaching of literature." Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English Spring Conference, 1984. 10pp. [ED 243 142]
Fillion, Bryant. "Reading as
inquiry: An approach to literature learning," English Journal, 70 (1), January 1981, pp. 39-45.
Gopen, George D. "Rhyme and reason: Why the study of poetry is the best preparation for the study of law," College English, 46 (4), April 1984, pp. 333-347.
Kazemek, Francis E. "Functional literacy is not
enough: Adult literacy as a developmental process," Journal of Reading, 28 (4), January 1985, pp. 332-335.
Kazemek, Francis E. "William Carlos Williams,
literacy, and imagination,"English Journal, 76 (7), November 1987, pp. 22-28.
Francis E., and Rigg, Pat. "Four poets: Modern poetry in the adult literacy classroom,"Journal of Reading, 30 (3), December 1986, pp. 218-225.
Morgan, Mary. "Poetry-Writing Instruction." FAST
Bib No. 13. Bloomington, Indiana: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, 1989. 2pp. [Watch forthcoming issues of RIE for ED number, or write RCS for a copy at no cost + $1.50 handling of up to 10 items.)
Fehl L. "Critical reading that makes a difference." Paper presented at the 50th Annual Meeting of the Claremont Reading Conference, 1983. 21pp. [ED 225 139]