As a high school English teacher, I would be remiss in assuming that every student entering my classroom has mastered reading fluency. Those who haven’t are guaranteed to struggle with comprehension across academic disciplines. And, as their English teacher, I believe it is my responsibility to try and fill these gaps as quickly and painlessly as possible.
That said, teaching fluency can be difficult in a class of students with varying skill levels. How do I help develop basic reading skills without shining a light on students who struggle? Or without slowing the pace and reducing the challenge to a possibly boring degree for those who read well?
I believe that poetry offers the perfect platform to increase reading fluency and to challenge and strengthen comprehension. Better still, this area of English studies can and should be fun! As teachers and parents know well, engaged students are more likely to demonstrate measurable growth — not only on a report card, but also as individuals.
When I work with high school students, I guide them into the landscape of poetry from a familiar and engaging vantage point — namely, music. I begin a poetry unit by asking students to work in small groups, writing and sharing the lyrics to their favorite (school-appropriate!) songs. We then explore the question “What makes these lyrics poetic?” Students are typically quick to identify elements such as image, rhyme, meter, and metaphor.
The practice of examining a piece of writing line by line naturally slows the pace of reading, permitting students to read for basic comprehension at a more comfortable level. Understanding a text’s top layers of meaning typically involves beginning with the surface — the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the poem. For example, students identify whom the piece is about, what its main idea is, where it takes place, and so on. Those students who are already adept in fluency assume that we are using the line-by-line approach to search for deeper meaning, and they stretch these questions to ask, for example, who is the audience for this poem? And what evidence supports this? Without realizing it, they model ways of searching for more complex meaning for peers who may struggle with these skills.
Following our close reading of song lyrics, I then ask students to write a poem that mimics the structure of one of these musical pieces. This effort, coupled with sharing these creations in writing workshop, provides them with further opportunities to exercise their reading and comprehension skills.
Once we’ve explored lyrics from their playlists, I dive into the period of literature that we’re studying by examining poems that are thematically aligned with the era’s history. For example, before beginning “All Quiet on the Western Front,” we read World War I poetry by writers like Rupert Brooke and Amy Lowell. Likewise, if we will soon read “The Red Badge of Courage,” we might begin with related poems by Walt Whitman.
If you’re a parent or teacher seeking to support your student’s overall reading fluency or appreciation for a given subject, try exploring the Academy of American Poets or the Poetry Foundation, both of which have “poems of the day,” thematic browsing options, interviews, children’s poetry, and other resources.
The connection between reading fluency and poetry must be modeled for students so that they realize their poetry-reading skills can be applied to all kinds of texts. Many learners aren’t aware that they can — and in fact should — transfer these practices to other areas of their lives. I’m always mindful to tell students that I read directions for how to make a meal or solve a math problem in the same way I read lines of poetry.
At home, a good practice for parents is to print out a poem of the day and read it with their child around meal or nap time. Reading and discussing poetry can also become part of your routine on the way to school or afterschool activities. When my children were in the early grades, I used to have them practice their reading skills (without saying so!) by asking them to read Shel Silverstein poems aloud in the car. (Luckily, my kids don’t get carsick.) This practice doesn’t have to be a chore; in fact, between the reading and discussing, we spent 10 minutes, tops, on poetry.
Often, children become intimidated by poetry once adults begin formally naming techniques. It’s important to not, as former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins used to say, “beat the poem to death.” When kids tell me that poetry is hard, I remind them that poems consist of sentences that attend to the senses — but that they are sentences all the same.
You can ask a child of any age “What did you notice about the poem?” This question is open-ended enough to permit her to both interpret the meaning and identify literary elements, such as rhyme or imagery. Moreover, supporting your child’s reading skills can begin with poetry, but it doesn’t have to end there. Once she has developed a poetry-reading routine, try to extend the approach with her to other academic areas. Read other texts in their entirety, break them down into smaller components, and work with her to identify the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the author’s intent.
And just as with playing an instrument or sport, reading is a skill that improves with practice. When students begin to apply these abilities to any subject, their improvement will be measurable and their increased confidence will seem, well … poetic.